Thirty Happy Minutes Looking for My Own Art. A Midday Adventure with a Panasonic GH5 and an 8-18mm Lens.

Woman and child head to the Ellsworth Kelly Installation at the Blanton Museum.

As administrator for my father I do all kinds of things I'd rather not do; like talk on the telephone to probate attorneys and doctors, pay his bills, generate spreadsheets, keep tabs on his general welfare, buy him new shoes with Memory Foam(tm) soles... etc. All this stuff takes practice and patience. 

Another thing that's not high on my list is consulting with small businesses about advertising and marketing. My endless refrain: "It's not enough to have a great, kick-ass website with scrolling graphics--- you also have to have a strategy to get them TO the website!" Sometimes we get stuck because someone wants to pick the colors for the logos before we even select a graphic designer...
I'm jinxed because I did advertising in what was a small town (Austin) for nearly a decade before hitting photography mostly full time...the town has a long memory.

Then there was the copy for ad that was due today before noon to a specialty medical practice. I can write ad copy in my sleep but sometimes the ink leaks out the pen onto my pillow and makes a mess. I decided to do that today too (no, not leak ink; write the ad...). It seems that no matter how hard I try to be "just a photographer" someone is pulling me in one direction or another.

So, around noon today I shut down the computer machinery, reached over and smacked the iPhone with a large, iron mallet, grabbed a camera and lens and escaped from my office. I was dressed in artist/photo attire. A loosely hanging white, button down dress shirt (complete with wrinkles for that "This artist must sleep in his car" look), an ancient and weathered pair of khakis, with holes in the pockets, a cheap pair of fake leather sandals from Costco that I bought for $19,  and some sort of silly "Just in from hiking the prairies" straw hat. It was the perfect defensive haberdashery for a day with blast furnace breezes and enough moisture in the air to keep cigarettes from lighting. 

In hopes of saving the black vinyl dashboard of my car I've taken to tossing a white towel onto it when I leave the car parked in the sun. It also helps me ensure I've always got a towel, in some shape or another, for those early morning migrations to swim practice. 

Cut off from connected civilization and robo calls (the best cell phone is the one you NEVER take with you) and looking reliably scruffy I headed over to the Blanton Museum to see what was new and to take advantage of the free admission that's a Thursday perk. I parked long N. Congress Ave. at one of the metered parking spaces. I feel like I've been living in Vegas lately because I am purposefully playing the odds with parking. I conjecture that the meter readers can't be everywhere and would rather be positioned in the heart of downtown where parking infringement is more common than coffee. It's like shooting fat fish  in a skinny barrel with a big shot gun for them; lots of closely packed parked targets to prey upon. I might fly under the radar as I have on my last 6 visits to metered zones (nearly everywhere in Austin outside of my neighborhood). I mean, really, who wants to pay two bucks an hour for a metered space? 

Well, I truly messed up on my museum visitation schedule. The museum was open but the first floor gallery is currently closed for the installation of a big show of Modern Aboriginal Art from Australia. I am mostly convinced that they created the show just for the alliterative potential. 

That's okay with me. I have no issue cruising through the upstairs renaissance painting galleries, alternately looking up at the paintings and looking down on the boorish oafs chattering away on bulky cellphones as they waddle from gallery to gallery, making everyone around them miserable. "Let me tell you the details of my messy goiter surgery, Ethel."

But in those moments when I can subdue my piggish elitism I have a great time looking for shapes and colors that I think will look good in photographs. Like this stunning read sitting swash. I happily hit the galleries for a while and then headed over to see (again) the Ellsworth Kelly Installation adjacent to the main museum courtyard. Just over there on the UT Austin campus.

After my compulsively honest tirade about the horrible Olympus menus I thought I owed it to the m4.3rd's world to take up one of the pygmy sensor cameras I happen to own and to wring out as much fun as I could from it today. Of course I was happy with every shot that came tumbling out of the GH5 when I got back to the studio and resuscitated the computing machine/modern photo viewer.

I always feel like a genius when I use the Panasonic/Leica 8-18mm wide angle zoom. I shoot mostly in Jpeg and always have the lens distortion corrector turned on full blast. That way, when I look at my photos, all the lines are straight and none of them wiggle into mustache designs on the top and bottom edges of the frames. Plus, no matter what I do in terms of camera handling, the files always seem sharp and toasty (which means "perfectly baked and full of crunchy detail). 

I meant to make the visit a short one so I limited myself to 30 minutes of looking at stuff directly; without a camera velcro'd to my face, and then 30 minutes of just looking for images that would play nicely with my camera and lens combination. But once I finished at the museum and reacquired my car (yay!!! no ticket once again!) I felt irresistably drawn to Whole Foods on N. Lamar for a rectangular plate of sushi (defying the weather....) and a glass of Champagne. Wrecking my schedule entirely.

I have one more required task this afternoon. I'm meeting a client at a coffee shop. Not to have coffee but to scout the location for a photoshoot we're scheduled to do tomorrow afternoon. I'd have been happy to meet them after lunch but, hey, they decided that 5:15 p.m., right in the middle of a vicious rush hour, would be a much better logistical solution. Ah, clients. 

If I sound a little flippant today it's probably either the result of too much sustained responsibility or it's the strain of trying to research and then buy a new very wide angle lens for the Nikon system. I've been looking at stuff like the Nikon 14-24, the Sigma Art Series of the same focal lengths, some primes ( the Zeiss 21 and 18mm's) and, odd man out, the Tokina ATX 16-28mm lens which has a surprising number of really complementary reviews and is less than 1/2 the price of the other zooms. Or, in the case of the Nikon zoom, 1/3 the price. 

I'll be fine when I get the projects in hand wrapped up, stowed away and well billed. Till then I think I'll just go on doing whatever I feel like in the moments between scheduled drudgery. 


Those Damn menus. And what's with all the people who say, "Once you have them set up you never have to use your brain again....."

This is a small rant engendered by a series of comments on one of Michael Johnston's posts today. He was querying his readers about the virtues and detractions of various small sensor cameras with great image stabilization. The Olympus cameras came up repeatedly. The first verse from everyone was: (paraphrasing here): "Oh, they are great cameras except for the horrible, horrible, painful, brain searing menus..." Which would be reflexively followed by: "but once you take the hours, days, weeks, to get the cameras set up exactly the way you will always use them you rarely need to even enter the menu (hell) again!" As though that was a good and proper way of tackling a photographic tool.

What the hell?  I am sure there may be some who can dip into their camera menu and set all the dozens (hundreds?) of variable items, methodically, and then never have to touch the menu button again but I'm absolutely baffled about who those shooters might be and why they feel that it's rationale, sane, practical, etc. to use exactly the same camera settings over and over again.

I've owned several Olympus EM-5s and several EM-5II cameras and I readily admit that they are capable of taking great photographs, stabilize lenses better than anyone in the universe, and, in the case of the EM-5ii, make really, really good video. But I have to ask what professional or advanced amateur shoots exactly the same thing over and over again? And at exactly the same settings? If you shoot different kinds of images, or go back and forth between video and stills, you'll need to be diving into that swamp creature of a menu every day. Deep dives.

Going from theatrical work to video work to portraiture requires changing imaging profiles, metering modes, shadow and highlight distribution, focusing modes and so much more. Even after owning both sets of cameras and using them for months at time a few days off and the need to find a very specific menu driven control could be downright paralytic. Not to mention that some of the symbols Olympus uses for their menu items are not standard camera icons or abbreviations. And NO! I can't load everything I need onto a Super Control Panel.

I hate hearing that nonsense about setting the camera up once and never touching the "hidden" controls again. It's entirely disingenuous. The people who make this statement might be a rare breed of single subject shooters but the rest of us depend on the same system being able to handle all kinds of jobs and projects.

The ability to justify the Olympus menu system is becoming almost cultish. But the reality is that Olympus has some sort of misguided corporate death wish. Why else make using the product so damn hard? So frustrating.

I thought I might have been over reacting until I started shooting with the Panasonic cameras. The GH5 in particular. Its menus are well laid out. Logical. Easy to navigate.

When I picked up a Nikon D800e it took me about ten minutes to get back up to speed with their menus and they are not nearly as coherent as the Panasonic menus. And I had not handled a Nikon for two or three years before picking it back up.

If you like horsing around with complex spreadsheets, sudoku and the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle then I can respect your ..... affectations, but trying to normalize such a faulty disfunction in camera making is over the top.

Just imagine how great those cameras could be. Great color. Great I.S. Lovely finder. Good, multishot high res modes, better and better video....now imagine the camera was also easy to set up, change menu items, re-set parameters and understand. It would be amazing.

Just don't tell me I can preset a tiny handful of parameters and use them for everything I'll ever do with a camera ever again. That's nonsense.

Battle of the formats. Which one handles live theater photography better? Which is more fun to shoot?

Jill Blackwood at "Dot" in "Sundays in the Park with George".

Oh, we've been busy taking photographs again. I was doing a little informal test on Sunday and Tuesday. I photographed two different rehearsals of the Steven Sondheim play, "Sundays in the Park with George" with two different camera systems. On Sunday I shot with the Nikon D800 and several different lenses, last night I shot with the Panasonic GH5 and two different lenses. The results were interesting and the contrast between the working methodologies was even more interesting. 

It was an illuminating comparison because the lighting, costumes, actors and sets were identical and I could go back and compare results in the same scenes; one set shot with a full frame camera, set to raw, and the other shot with a micro four thirds camera set to fine Jpeg. While there are certainly aesthetic differences between the sets of files there were bigger differences in the way I took the photographs and the difference in efficiency between the mirror free camera and the mirror burdened camera....

This is in no way an exacting test of the two cameras because I was using an odd collection of mid-tier Nikon zooms (as well as a bonafide "antique" lens = the 70-210mm af-D) while I was taking advantage of my investment in great glass for the Panasonic cameras (Olympus Pro 40-150mm f2.8 and the amazing 12-100mm f4.0 zoom lenses), but there is more to imaging than format and glass.

I was restricted to using the Nikons to Sunday evening because of their loud shutter noise. The positive trade off was that since we didn't have an audience in the theatre for the technical rehearsal I could move around anywhere I wanted and get as close to the stage as I wanted. That helped give me a more dynamic set of images and I never had to worry about disturbing "clients." (audience).

That's a huge restriction! If I get serious about shooting theater again with the Nikon cameras I'm certain I'll quickly replace the two D800 variants with at least one D850 just because it has a much, much quieter shutter. I had toyed with buying a product called "The Camera Muzzle" but by the time it came onto my radar I'd missed the shipping window to be able to use it on Tues. Having it Sunday wasn't important (no audience to piss off) but spending $150 on something I may or may not use in the future is irrational, even for me. 

(The Camera Muzzle is a soft camera cover with lots of insulation. It fits over the camera body and lens but has enough room to get your hands inside in order to operate the shutter button and camera controls. Its whole reason for existence is to muffle the noise of mirrored cameras and make them acceptable (acoustically) when you are shooting in certain environments. As I understand, it's not nearly as good a dedicated hard blimp (starting at $1,000) but for $150 does a good job. Your sensitivity and tolerance may vary. Here's a link: CAMERA MUZZLE-FOR PEOPLE WHOSE CAMERAS MAKE TOO MUCH NOISE!!!  It might be perfect for some event spaces where noise can be an issue. But given the bulk, the tendency for your hands to get hot and sweaty, and the not 100% noise abatement, I'm thinking we'd all be better served to use cameras with silent shutters.....

UNLESS---- But "hold that thought." 

From a user point of view (and the owner and purchaser of both systems) I can say that the Nikons operated just as expected and, beyond the noise and the need to constantly chimp exposures, they did a good job making images under fast changing lighting and color temperatures. Had I used the latest and greatest lenses (and a D850) I would have to say that the system has the potential to make superior images for theater work. If I continue to use the big Nikons for live theater shooting I'd certainly want a fast 70-200mm zoom and an equally fast 24-70mm zoom. My current "theater photography wish list" if I want to shoot with the Nikon cameras reads something like this: 2 X Nikon D850's @$3300 each = $6600. 1 X Nikon 70-200mm VR e f2.8 zoom = $2,800. 1 X Nikon 24-70mm VR f2.8 = $2400. The revised system would set me back nearly $11,800. That's a tidy sum. 

And the major downside would be that after spending all that money I would not have an EVF, which I think is an amazing benefit for theater work, or work on any project where exposure and color temperature are constantly changing... Add to that the enormous weight of those fast lenses and even a buff young thing like me cringes at handholding the two cameras and their attendant lenses for hours on end. 

Are you still "holding the thought" I asked you to hold a two paragraphs before? Cool. So let's take a "brand break" and talk in general terms about camera noise. A worst case scenario for me is having to shoot images of a dress rehearsal in a theater just packed with people. Even worse, to have to shoot a performance with a packed house of paying customers in a scheduled show run. Many Fuji, Olympus, Sony and Panasonic mirrorless users will, no doubt, puff their collective chests out and stridently (and usually with a patronizing tone) let me know that THEIR SUPER DELUXE CAMERAS HAVE TOTALLY SILENT ELECTRONIC SHUTTERS as an option. 

Well, good for you. Going forward, in all but the oldest and least well equipped theaters (those still using tungsten lights), you will NOT want to use your "silent shutter" to shoot the action on the stage. Not going to work. Not going to make your client happy. Not going to create problems that can be easily solved in post production. Your silent shutter has just been shut down by LED theatrical fixtures!!! You'll read this, doubt me and then find out the hard and expensive way all on your own...

But here's the deal: While current, high quality LEDs designed for video and still photography use various electrical designs to keep them from flickering during short exposures (1/60th and shorter) the makers of light fixtures for live theater are much more concerned with output power, beam throw and automatic motion control than they are with quelling all the flicker that your cameras might see but which audiences will almost certainly NOT see. More power, more flicker and more cost savings on "un-needed" things like highly regulated power supplies. 

I used to rejoice that my new cameras (almost every mirrorless model and many new DSLRs) had silent shutters but now I ignore them unless I am shooting in a courtroom or need ultra fast (electronic) shutter speeds. The LED lights in Zach Theatre (and in many other venues in which I've worked) create flicker which manifests itself in each frame as a series of light and dark bands which are very, very visible....to everyone. 

Yes, some cameras have features that promise flicker reduction but it rarely works out perfectly in the flawed, artifact-y, real world. 

Hmmm. Last night I was sitting away about six feet away from the closest audience members. No one was behind me or beside me, it was the row six feet in front of me that I was concerned about. Last night was the dress rehearsal and we had an invited audience (family and friends)  so it wasn't a "life or death" but we still want our fans to have a great time so I wanted to be as audibly discreet as possible...

When it got quiet I switched over to the electronic "silent shutter" and immediately saw banding everywhere. The trade-off wasn't worth it. We needed the photos for marketing. I switched back to the mechanical version.

The GH5 has a fairly quiet and well damped shutter. Much, much quieter than the full frame Nikons. But they still make noise. In a raucous show like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or Tommy, the Rock Opera, or Priscilla Queen of the Desert the sound of a small camera shutter is well hidden by the music and bombast of the performances. But there are quite a few moments in a more cerebral play, like one about George Seurat, that are very quiet, just dialog with lots of dramatic pauses, and, yes, sometimes you can hear the proverbial pin drop. Or at least the shutter of modern camera. 

For most of the performance I tried to time my shots to the sound design on the stage. In all but the quietest moments the shutter was inaudible to the people in front of me. In truth, I could barely hear it in most parts of the play. If everything is equal and you are trying to decide on a good camera for this kind of work it certainly would behoove you to check out the mechanical shutter noise, and noise profile (sharp and tinny or low and mellow) before you toss down dollars...

So, what's my assessment in the battle of cameras in front of the stage? Here's where the Panasonic GH5 wins: 1. The EVF offers the most elegant way to constantly check color and exposure without missing shots because you had to chimp and then check what you have already shot. Pre-chimping through the finder is much more efficient and fluid. In this situation even the very best optical finder is a burden to fast and effective shooting. That big, clear window isn't going to buy you any better focusing or composition but will add a number of steps to your ability to constantly adapt to changing lighting and scene conditions --- second by second.  2. The Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 lens is bitingly sharp and can be used all day long at its widest aperture with no compromise to optical performance. None. The image stabilization in the lens is perfect for the lens. And the 12-100mm lens is in exactly the same rarified strata of lenses. A big win. Yes, I know that Nikon lenses are great as well but at more than twice the weight (not counting the weight of the cameras) they quickly become a burden for long periods of handheld shooting. Oh, and you lose two stops of depth of field with the bigger lens when used wide open. Not important in one person scenes but this can be critical if you are trying to spread focus deeper into the stage for group shots. 3. The sonic profile of the shutter in the GH5 is much lower and more pleasant than the sound of the older Nikon shutters. I do like the new D850 shutter but I haven't done a side by side comparison yet. The acoustic jury is still out.

When I tested the GH5 files against the Nikon D800e files in lower light situations I found that using the GH5 at ISO 1250 got me into the same noise ballpark as files from the Nikon taken at 3200. The noise in the GH5 files is more uniform and grain like and, at 100%, the Nikon starts to show tiny white specks which are not visible when downsampled to the same size as the Panasonic files. 

The pluses for the Nikon cameras are all about format size. The bigger sensor is better overall with noise at higher ISOs. The bigger sensor does give you a two stop advantage when you want to throw clutter in the backgrounds out of focus. The bigger sensor will give you more detail (if you nail focus and exposure correctly) in your images when you blow them up. 

After shooting about 1500 images in each system on the same set I'll give the nod to the Panasonic jpeg files which handled noise well, were every bit as good as the Nikon files at the sizes we'll use the images, and gave me a good, quiet shooting system that I could handhold for hours longer.

If you are currently shooting with one system or the other there is only one compelling reason to switch to or stay with m4:3 and that would be the utility of the EVF. The Nikon stuff really comes into its own for other kinds of shoots we do for the theatre. The bigger cameras are at their best when we do set up shots with big flashes for marketing and posters, with rehearsed moves and total control. In those situations the superior imaging quality of the sensors can be fully leveraged. 

No winners. No big losers. Just different ways of working in a specific kind of location. 

 Matthew Treviso as the boatman.
Paul Sanchez at Louis the baker. Jill Blackwood at Dot.

Amber Quick as "Nurse",  Brian Coughlin as Randolph and B. Mahstedt as Louise


24,000,000 Pageviews for the Visual Science Lab as of 1:44 p.m. today.

Leica M6+35mm Summicron. Tri-X. Family dinner at Asti.

Pure dogged determination and bad time management skills make for a long run on a niche blog. Did anyone like the last 3651 posts? Drop a comment into the mix and let me know. 

And if you are unsatisfied with the content I'll return your initiation fee AND your deposit. We don't charge here so we make it up with volume...

Weather Service Predicts Record Highs for Central Texas this Week. Time to break out the shorts and the lighter cameras...

Actor/Talent/Model and Friend, Noellia, and I spent a couple hours one Summer 
making photos on one of the hottest days of the year. 
That's the Barton Creek Spillway in the background.
We were using a Sony Next-7 and the 50mm f1.8 lens at the time. 
Lots of fun stuff to shoot when everyone is out playing in the water.

The national weather service is predicting that we're about to get socked with some record high temperatures near the end of this week and over the next weekend. There's a high pressure zone parked right over the top of the Austin and San Antonio area. You would think that Austinites would head indoors and find places like cold, dark movie theaters and chilly malls to lurk around in, and I'm sure some of our recent transplants will, but most of the city's core population will see it as an excuse to hit the local pools; natural and manmade.

I'm trying to be better about too much sun exposure so I've shifted to the 7:00 a.m. swim practice for the Summer months. The water is getting warmer but that didn't stop our masters swimmers from hitting the pool in force today. We had four and five people circling per lane and another group stepping in at 8:00 a.m. as we exited the early workout. As the water temp goes up our yardage tends to go down a bit. It's just as easy to get over heated in a warm pool as anywhere else.

So, what are the long practiced tips for surviving photo shoots in the outdoors in the Texas Summer?

Here are mine:

1. Start early in the day. Get to your locations at first light instead of waiting for the sun to warm everything up. If you start early you can finish early. While the sun might be at its peak around noon to one p.m. the heat continues to rise until about 5 p.m. Finishing by 2 or 3 pm is how the landscapers do it....

2. Don't wait until you feel thirsty to start drinking water! By the time you feel thirsty you are already getting dehydrated. Start with a big glass of water even before the first cup of coffee and then repeat all day long. And, actually, yes; coffee counts as part of your hydration, if you are an acclimated coffee drinker.

3. Just as oil companies transition from Winter gas to Summer gas formulations it may be time to leave the Nikon D5 or Canon 1DX and the big ass zooms back at the house and transition to "Summer" cameras. I'm back to packing the much smaller and lighter Panasonic GH5's and a smaller assortment of lenses. The heat makes for different priorities AND the light levels seem abundant. 

Less weight makes for less work which makes for less thermal build up in your own system.

4. I own a bunch of black camera bags but I also own a big Domke camera bag that is a very light beige color. All those black bags and cases do a great job absorbing heat. The beige one does a decent job reflecting it. I also take a FlexFill (circular collapsible reflector) along and use it as a bag cover when I have to stop and shoot in an area where there is no shade. I put my bag down, pop open the reflector and put it on top with the silver side facing up toward the sun. 

You may think that cameras are built to handle heat but anything over 104f (and a black camera can hit 140 in direct sun) causes increased noise and artifacting. If you are shooting video you'll find shooting in direct sun can also cause so much heat build up that your camera shuts down! I'm always trying to find ways to keep black cameras and lenses covered when I shoot in full sun. 

One more thing, if you are used to relying on hard stop infinity settings on your lenses be aware that the heat can cause metal lenses and glass to expand and will change marked focus accuracy!

5. Wear a freakin hat!!! You need to create your own shade and when the sun is brutal a good hat will make a big difference. Get one with some good front overhang so it can help keep sunlight off your viewfinder. 

6. Dress for coolness but be sure to cover up exposed skin or douse it regularly with sunscreen. I prefer to cover with loose, thinner clothing than to coat myself with chemicals. There are lots of technical shirts, even long sleeved ones, with high SPF ratings.

7. It may be a perfect shot that you are waiting for but if you feel too hot it's time to make for the shade, douse yourself from head to toe with water and stay still for a while, letting evaporative cooling do its work. If you feel ill effects then get into the air conditioning. Another shot will certainly be there tomorrow. Heat stroke takes all the fun out of photography...

8. If you plan on using a tripod you might want to get a nice light wooden one that won't transfer heat when you grab it to move to the next location. If you don't want to buy a new one then wrap some fabric around the thick, top legs and secure with gaffer's tape. At least when you grab the tripod legs you won't burn your hands. 

9. Don't leave your cameras in your enclosed car; especially if you are parking in full sun. Car interiors get super hot and while the circuitry in your camera may not fry you can imagine the damage cumulative heat does to rubber weather sealing, faux leather texturing and LCDs. Just take your camera in with you like we all used to do in the film days. We all knew that film didn't mix well with heat....

10. Instead of long expeditions think in smaller chunks of shooting interspersed with lots of stops for air conditioning and beverages. Topping off a day of shooting with a nice craft beer might be a good way to restore some lost electrolytes....

That's pretty much my list. We could get more detailed and talk about keeping a couple gallons of water in your car, making sure your tires aren't getting brittle, and a bunch about shoes, but I'm aiming the above advice toward urban shooters who aren't in remote areas. But, Heat is Heat.


An incidental shot from the tech rehearsal last night that.....

...makes me appreciate the nuanced eye of the the show's lighting designer and also adds to my appreciation of the optical qualities of the Nikon 70-210mm f4-5.6D Ai Zoom lens. An elegant rendering from the long end of a consumer zoom lens, used wide open...

From: Sundays in the park with George. Zach Theatre. Starts this week.

Old School. Shot at a fashion show in South Beach, on the beach. Old school film work with a Leica R8 and the venerable 90mm Summicron.

Two assignments in one city in one week. It was 2001. We were Shooting for a telecom company called, Broadwing Communications. We were shooting for a south American fashion show. We did digital for the corporate folks and color negative film for the fashion. Burning the candle at both ends; pounding the room service at the Delano South Beach Hotel. That's back when people really knew how to spend money....

A quick review of my 2nd copy of the Nikon 70-210mm f4-5.5 Ai Zoom. A cheap, battered copy I bought for $75.

I'm always a bit curious about older lenses. I'm a cynic. I think camera makers use new lens design tools not necessarily to make lenses that are distinctly better than their ancestors but to make the new lens designs easier to manufacture and cheaper to make. I'm sure new glass types are wonderful and some of the newest lenses can do amazing things, in the right hands, but I am equally sure that there is a general race on to make lenses more uniform; more consistently consistent, and if they get some optical improvements then that's considered a bonus...

To a degree I think lens design is driven by an uninformed and loud group of consumers who have different ideas about what is essential in a lens than the lens designers themselves did a decade or so ago. The emphasis now is on lightweight, fast apertures and (because of very poorly conceived lens test interpretations) sharpness across a flat field (to the detriment of potential sharpness in the center 2/3rds of the lens). 

I was shopping for a 70-200mm lens last week, knowing that I'd soon be shooting some theater productions with the newly acquired Nikon cameras. I was shocked to see the price of the current 70-200mm f2.8 Nikon lens was $2800. I was so miffed at the rampant inflation for this product category that I abandoned my search for a current product all together and decided to plumb the opposite end of the market. I had in my own inventory a Nikon 70-210mm f4.0-5.6 manual focusing zoom that I'd picked up cheap a while ago. I subsequently read that Nikon doubled the focusing speed on the "D" series version of the same lens and I searched out a copy of that version. The one I found is very functional but a bit beat up. That's okay since I spent only $75. 

I took it along with me last night to do technical scout of Zach Theatre's newest production in anticipation of the "official" shoot we'll be doing on Tuesday. I didn't have overly optimistic expectations that the old 70/210 would be anywhere near as good as a modern lens but I wanted to try it: under stage lighting (this play has a very contrasty lighting design...), handheld (no VR back when this lens was made and originally sold) and at it's wide open aperture (look, I figure I'd just be using this for the longer end and it's already f5.6 from about 105 onward).  Seems like a viciously unfair test for a lens that's decades old --- right?

Well, I'm not so sure. Below are three variations from the same digital frame. The older screw drive lens was able to nail focus quickly and well. The lens also resisted flaring. But the thing that I appreciated is that the image is nicely sharp. As sharp as I expected it could be on a Nikon D800 set to 3200 ISO. 

After seeing the results and comparing similar files shot with the 24-120mm f4.0 and the Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art lens I've called off my shopping and researching for a newer or faster telephoto zoom. While it may not check all the boxes for you this one delivers enough image quality for me. If I need a better lens I'll pull one of the Olympus Pro lenses out of the drawer and put it on a Panasonic GH5. Not a bad deal for a whopping $75. Sorry, no link. You'll have to find your own.

The full frame.

A tight crop.

Getting into the 100%, pixel peeping realm.

I'm as interested in cheap lenses as I am fascinated by lenses that purport to scrape the ceilings of possiblility.

A VSL blog reader, Stephen Kennedy, kindly sent me a lens. He seemed to understand my attraction to older, less expensive, more mainstream lenses from days gone by. The lens he sent along is a Nikon Series E, 36-72mm f3.5 Ais. It's manual focus only and a short zoom lens and it fits right into the genre of lenses I like to put on the front of my cameras when I head out in the midday sun for a bout of photographing. A terse zoom range, no frills and imbued with very decent performance- especially when used at f5.6 and beyond. 

There are some other Nikon Series E lenses, released in conjunction with the low cost Nikon EM SLR, that show up on the radar screens of old lens aficionados, the most popular being the 100mm f2.8 and the very, very well regarded 75-150mm f3.5. All of them were above average performers but never attained a huge following when new mostly because they represented a move away from Nikon's traditional heavy metal lens construction which always seemed to promise a certain indestructibility. 

I put a 52mm circular polarizer on the lens, attached it to the front of a Nikon D800 and set out to see just how good ( or bad ) this little jewel of a zoom lens could be...

Overall, I found it to be smooth, fairly sharp and well behaved. The one aspect that could be a deal killer for someone looking around for an inexpensive alternative to today's pricier lens fare would be the lens's close focus limitation of 4 feet. It makes casual portraits a bit dicey. 


OT: In case anyone is wondering Captcha has done a great job smashing the spam.

The torrent of spam I've been enduring has ground to a halt. None today. Two weeks ago there would have been dozens of invitations for hair regrowth, marriages to foreign super models and so much more. I should have added Captcha to the blog years ago. 

I love being asked if I am a robot. 

If I were to be a robot I'd hope to be eight feet tall, ripped like a Spartan and encased in a solid Vibranium shell. And I would go looking for people who spam. With my adamantium claws out.

F*&K Spam.

A mopey Saturday thinking about getting older in a what is purported to be a young person's field. Screw it. We're not done yet.

It's going to be another hot day in central Texas. My brain is working overtime these days and I have trouble sleeping in past 6 or 6:30 in the morning. I'm thinking about what comes next. What will the next set of wrinkles in my working life be? How will I move the business forward? Is photography really evaporating or is it my own personal engagement that seems threatened? 

With my only child having successfully graduated from college I no longer feel the tug of complete financial responsibility pulling at me. But that's been replaced by a new worry: Am I no longer relevant to the world of commercial photography? Have a I crossed some universal but invisible boundary that will progressively limit my connection to the business of taking photographs? Will age discrimination or disengagement finally thin out my selection of clients until I am left sitting next to the computer, a pile of gear next to me, waiting for someone --- anyone to reach out with an e-mail or text and invite me to the next engagement?

When I look in the mirror I seem old now. My hair has shifted from brown to gray to mostly white. I have age spots. The people selling tickets at the theaters no longer even ask before tendering my "senior" discount ticket. I have multiple pairs of bi-focal glasses; some in the house, a few in the studio and an extra set in the car. I like the glasses because they are sometimes effective in hiding some of the wrinkles around my eyes. 

These are all external cues but on the inside I can't shake the feeling that I'm an 18 year old trapped in the wrong container. I watch many people sink into that gloomy sense of adult resignation but I watch just as many of my friends fight the progression toward the trappings of being older with every breath. In fact, I've even come to believe that an egregious expenditure on a new toy is really the desire to affirm that there's more life left to live; that the purchase of the hot new camera or the amazing new car is really an unconscious act meant to convey that you believe you'll be around for a while to enjoy the fruits of the purchase. That you are continuing in the continuum. 

The house was quiet when I got up. The dog looked up at my from her bed, metaphorically shook her head and then, with a sigh, nestled back into the upholstery and dropped back into a nice, even sleep. I went into the kitchen and made myself a couple of multiple-grain toaster waffles and ate them while drinking a glass of water. I chided myself for a lack of courage --- my real 18 year old self would have eaten cold pizza just before the Saturday morning swim workout. He might have been going to the pool directly from a late date...

I felt slow and stuffy and tired on my way to the pool but when I finally hit the cool, fresh water it only took three or four laps to brighten up and get into my groove. I swam in a lane adjacent to one of my favorite swimmers. She's competitive and driven and at least 14 years younger than me but I matched her lap for lap as we pushed the intervals down and I hit the end of each set with my heart pounding and my lungs greedy for more air. I savored every flip turn that I executed well. I focused on the front end of my freestyle stroke trying to grip a hold on the water and move my body past that point. It's as much a mental practice as anything else. 

The sun came up fully on the pool, it was 8:30 and we'd done our 3200 yards for the morning and yanked ourselves out of the water. An unspoken belief among swimmers is that if you are in good enough shape to swim masters you never use a ladder to get out of a pool and you never put a knee down on the deck during your exit. You place your hands wide on the deck and pull yourself straight up high enough to toss your feet under you. Sure, if you are nursing a bum shoulder you are temporarily exempt but, a knee on the deck.....? 

But what does any of this have to do with photography? I'll conjecture that a large measure of the disquiet I feel right now is that I'm becoming aware that peoples' perspective about "who" photographers really are comes from the advertising created by the people who make products for photographers. Their ads mostly feature youth as practitioners of the modern photographic art.  There are some hoary holdovers who've continued to have media relevance well into their senior years. I just read Thom Hogan's article about the Sony junket last month. He was rubbing shoulders with venerable like Bob Krist and a few others but the event was dominated by the YouTube Youth Gangs like Kai and his cohorts,  and the (now aging) hipster crew from DP Review. Jordan and Chris, as of late from DP Review's newly revitalized video channel, and many other newly post adolescent photo/video/bloggers. 

The message in advertising, and video blogging on YouTube and elsewhere is that photographers are young, hip, innovative and aspirational. They spend their days snapping pix of their beautiful boyfriends and girlfriends and virtually sashaying around Instagram with an air of coolness that increases with every media post and its attendant "likes". I guess I see enough of the programming to have understood the message and taken it to heart: "this is a young person's game in a young person's universe." When you see the meme often enough it's hard not to internalize it and worry that you've become as obsolete as an old Canon Rebel. As worn as a film era Leica.

This messaging misrepresents reality. All around me the successful photographers I encounter are almost without exception past forty. They are comfortably established, they jumped and struggled up the waterfall, from film to digital, like successful salmon in the run. They are the ones with the credit lines that allow for impulse purchase follies like medium format cameras, European flash systems, and Billingham bags. But the marketers miss the mark with their messaging. They only have eyes for the millennials now, the one segment of the population swimming in student debt. The generation hit hardest, economically, by the giant recession of 2008-2009. The generation in full embrace of the iPhone as the camera of choice. A misguided read of marketing stats if I've ever seen one...

When I write this all out and think about it logically I suppose life has always been like this. Every generation grows and peaks and wanes. Advertising has always preferred the cute and the young. Understanding it makes me feel better. I love taking photographs and it's really not up to me to determine the relevance of my craft to our current culture. I don't have enough data points to ever really know. It's enough for now to still have good work and still have the desire to get out every day and visually interpret my world in my own way.  And with role models like Duane Michals and Elliott Erwitt how can we go wrong? Persist or perish. There are no other choices. 

But DAMN. Isn't photography a blast?!

In car selling circles the Toyota Avalon was smirkingly referred to 
as "the geezer pleaser" for it's soft ride, ample trunk and 
welcoming interior appointments. If there is a camera that 
I would call a "geezer pleaser" it's got to be something like
the Nikon D800 or D810. Lots of nostalgia, good performance
and middle of the road comfort. Some would say it's the Nikon DF but 
I think that's more like a vinyl topped, two tone Riviera...

In a flash of coherence this is sometimes the message I get from online discussions 
and advertising about photography.

I like the pool because I can't take my cameras in with me. 
It's just me and a couple thousand gallons of water and some people 
who want to swim faster than me. Whether or not they succeed is, in some
part, up to me.

Now it's time to change gears and go to lunch with the family. Later in the day it will be time for some fun photography. What Robin Wong would call, "Shutter Therapy."


Finally! A lens that will test your strength and endurance, giving you a workout as you shoot. The Sigma 105mm f1.4 ART. Taking things to uniquely ridiculous, but highly coveted, extremes.

Five of my friends who know that I'm a pushover for really cool lenses in the 100mm range sent me links to the press releases about this lens today. It's the splash resistant, dust resistant, fast focusing and incredibly big and heavy = Sigma 105mm f1.4 Art lens. If you go to the Sigma site and read all the stuff about it right here you'll come away highly conflicted; I know I did.

On one hand you have what might be the ultimate 100-105mm focal length prime lens. The MTF curves sure suggest it. It seems to be one of the ultimate "bokeh" optics of our time. Super sharp wide open and with a creamy out of focus character that borders on sinfully sensual. Of course you want one. But remember, this may the only 105mm prime in photo history that comes with its own tripod mount. It's got 105mm front filter ring and it's dense and heavy with important sounding glass elements.

At $1500+ it's pricy. At 1.4 it's fast. At "ART" lens it's bound to be sharp and well corrected. If you can avoid the inherent hernia potential almost promised by this product then this might be the ultimate portrait lens. My finger hovers over the "one click pre-order button" as I type this..... Maybe yes, maybe no....

Industrial Strength Imaging with an old, used Nikon D800 and a small selection of lenses. Mexico

A few weeks ago I found myself in a factory in Matamoros, Mexico that does all kinds of parts manufacturing for various industries.  My goal was to spend a day photographing and come away with a couple hundred usable photographs that would range from showing high tech circuit board and wire harness assembly to showing workers bending large sheets of metal that are used to make rack mount shelving for servers. The facility was well over 100,000 square feet and, like most heavy production facilities, required eye protection, ear protection and safety shoes. 

My main camera and lens combination was the Nikon D800 and the 24-120mm f4.0 VR zoom lens. The camera does low light well and I was able to handhold shots that didn't have subject movement at  shutter speeds down to 1/30th of a second with confidence. 

Working across the border is interesting. We had to check in with the Mexican immigration folks to get a work visa for me. A lot of people might skip this and rely on the "idea" that they can get away with being tourists but there are spot checks at the factories near the border and not having a valid work visa could cost serious time and money.

I don't speak much Spanish beyond what's on the menu at my local Mexican food restaurant even though I've been married to someone who is fluently bi-lingual for the last 30+ years. I'm used to working here in Austin and it was interesting to work with folks who didn't speak my language and vice versa. We did fine with equal amounts of limited Spanish and limited English and a bit of pantomime. 

My working methodology in the factory was to have all the gear I needed in the rolling case and to leave the rolling case in one of the front conference rooms, and just putting the camera and lens on a Gitzo tripod with a bullhead to walk around with. If I knew I might need a faster lens I stuck it in a tiny camera bag that lived on my shoulder. I kept an extra battery in my pocket and, with a 256 GB, UHS-II card in the SD slot, I rarely needed to revisit my gear depository. 

Most of the work I did was on the tripod. Some of the shots, like the person using a grinder (above) were shot handheld. The tripod allowed me to get depth of field when I wanted it and to plumb the depths of vibration reduction when needed. 

I also carried around a small, pop-up Lastolite gray/white color balancing target. I kept it clipped, with a carabiner, to one of my belt loops, and I would grab it and take a new reading as I moved from location to location. I was trying to get close with the dominant light source in any area knowing that, in RAW file mode, I'd be able to nail white balance exactly in post. If you start too far away it can be difficult to correct across the full spectrum. 

While I spent most of my time with the 24-120mm f4.0 VR on the camera I did get a fair amount of use out of the 85mm f1.8 and the manual focusing 28mm f2.8 lenses I brought along. There are times when the fast aperture of the 85mm makes more artsy looking images. Clients still like it when the background goes out of focus.... The 28mm was useful because it's so well corrected for distortion. Stuff just looked better in some instances when I shot with that lens. 

On several occasions I switched over to Jpeg from RAW so I could use the in-camera HDR feature. A three stop range (the most you can get in-camera with a D800) was sometimes very useful in wide shots when I could not control all the light.

I love assignments like this because it's fun to spend a day playing with photo toys and doing continual technical problem solving. Tossing in some light from an LED panel for one shot, a little bit of flash, bounced off a wall, for another series of shots.

What would I do differently if I could re-do this assignment? 1. I'd listen to a Berlitz CD  that teaches Spanish for the entire six hours I spent on the way down in the rental car. 2. I'd bid it as two shooting days instead of one because I kept seeing in my mind, after the fact, all the shots I missed or could have done better. A second day would allow for new thinking and a certain amount of "do overs" that might yield a bunch more keepers. But, 3, I'd stop being dumb and stop driving half way across Texas when I could have flown to Brownsville (the American side of the border) in 45 minutes on Southwest Airlines. But I guess I'd never get the opportunity to listen to the language CD, right?

I chose to use the Nikon D800 rather than the Panasonic GH5 because most of my shooting was done in marginal lighting and I really needed good looking files at ISO's like 3200-6400. I did, in fact, take the GH5 and the 12-100mm lens and used it for two different video interviews. The Panasonic system was perfect for that!

The real star, as far as I am concerned, was the 24-120mm lens. You could shoot just about anything with that and have it look good. Go get one. (Or the equivalent in the system you prefer). I already have an equivalent lens for the GH5; it's the Olympus 12-100mm f4.0, a remarkably sharp and stable lens for the smaller format camera. Primes? Sure, when you have an agency tagging along as a client and don't want to spoil them by moving too fast......

Paint Shop.

Parts curing.

The tripod comes in handy when you need to have a person in the frame and 
there's no one else around. 

From the light of an acetylene torch.....

I recently wrote that I resisted temptation at the camera store because a potential purchase didn't match my game plan. Readers were stunned to know I might have a game plan for camera and lens purchases.

Noellia helped me test medium format digital cameras a few years ago.

What!? Kirk has a "game plan" for camera purchases? We would never have guessed...

So, what is it?

Some people like consistency and routine; others don't. I have photographer colleagues who bring the same lights, the same cameras and the same lenses to the same kinds of jobs for years on end. They upgrade cameras only when there is a significant leap forward in the performance of new camera that comes from the same brand they've invested in. And for many of them it's tough to change even this one small part of their working routine. It's disruptive for them and means having to figure out where the maker moved the switch they used all the time on their previous camera from the same company. They decry having to learn slightly different adaptations to their working metholodogies in PhotoShop or Lightroom (and they absolutely hate it when things change around in the software...). 

These same photographers only replace lenses when they've succeeded in scraping every last photon's worth of value in the lens. You've probably seen these lenses sitting forlornly on used shelves looking as though someone had alternately, and repeatedly, pounded on the barrels with jagged hammers and then dragged them along through harsh mud. These users would laugh at you if you told them you were trading a lens you bought two years ago because a new one came out that was sharper in the corners and didn't focus breathe (as much). 

In the same way that they look at their gear (consistency, consistency, consistency) the also look to their work. The same softbox goes on the same stand which goes exactly this far from the subject. The camera is set at the tested parameters they decided they liked when they first used the camera.  Color, looks and style are consistent and the same. Overlaying the same structure to every kind of job. 

Yeah. I get it. It's efficient. It's cost effective. It's logical. And if I had to work this way I think I'd check out and never touch a camera again. 

Last year's game plan was to go all in on the Panasonic GH cameras. They are pretty remarkable and the available lenses (and the lenses I've bought for the system) are very, very good. As the guy behind ODL Designs often writes, there is very little you can't do with this format. I mostly agree.  

But there is something about the lure of bigger formats that drives me back each time into a full frame camera system. In the past I made the mistake of believing that one set of cameras (the holy grail) would be able to handle everything I could throw at them and I've searched high and low for that ultimate system. But, for me, I've come to a realization that it doesn't work like that. One company doesn't have the overarching magic sauce or brilliant feature mix that works for everything.

While the Panasonic GH5s are the best video cameras I can imagine (for the price) I have to say that compared to my older Nikon D810, and to the Sony A7Rii I also used for months and months, the smaller format can't compete with the lower noise of the recent full frame cameras. There is something addicting about the noise profile difference that gets me when I compare the cameras for certain uses. 

In the past I would struggle with whether or not to just sell the Panasonic cameras and go "all in" with a full frame system from Nikon, Sony or Canon. But now I'm just giving up taking responsibility entirely. I'm keeping my collection of Panasonic and Olympus m4:3 gear for all those times when I want more depth of field in a still life shot, want incredible video performance, want/need a smaller, lighter solution for day long shooting situations and fast breaking, hybrid jobs. 

But I do want a couple of full frame cameras with high megapixel counts for those times when I'm trying to deliver an "ultimate" file to a client or when I'll need to do a lot of post production and want to start with really big, 14 bit uncompressed raw files. 

I've lately been using the Nikon D800 series cameras and, over time, I'm learning the differences between what might be fun to own and what might be the most advantageous gear for the business. And where to draw the lines. 

With my kid out of college and my expenses much less "expense-y" than they have been for the last four years I am also interested in buying a quality level in the full frame system that I didn't need exactly for the business but want just for the hell of it. 

So, I'm sitting here with the Panasonic system and I'm making a stand against trading it for anything else. I'm also sitting here with three interesting Nikon cameras (D800, D800e and D700) as well as a hodgepodge of lenses; including two that recently died....

What's the plan? By the end of the year I want to winnow down cameras bodies and end up with two D850s. They seem to be on back order everywhere so I'm not in a hurry. The D800e and D800 vanilla are doing their jobs just fine. Mostly I am looking at moving up to get a much quieter shutter (even in the regular drive modes) better autofocusing and enough improvement in video to make each of them a viable "B" camera in situations where we need lots of coverage. 

The lens I use for so much fast moving work is one I'm pretty happy with. It's a 24-120mm f4.0 VR that is sharp, contrasty and wide ranging enough to be used for lots of applications. Most of the other lenses I have are less convenient or offer less performance. 

I'd like to end up with four lenses, in addition to the 24-120mm. These would include: The Sigma ART 24-35mm f2.0. I owned one three years ago when I was shooting with the D810 and I've regretted selling it ever since. If I need to go wider than 24mm I'll borrow or rent. But this lens is amazing within its limited focal length range. I currently have the Sigma ART 50mm f1.4 and it's perfect. No changes there. 

Next up would be the Sigma 85mm f1.4 ART lens for those times when I want skimpy, skimpy depth of field but want it coupled to high sharpness. I'll keep the Nikon 85mm f1.8D lens around for those times when I want more mobility....

Finally, I want to get a new copy of the Nikon 70-200mm f4.0 for all those times when I can't get closer to the stage in the theater but want to crop tightly. I found it to be a better lens than the previous generations of f2.8 Nikon zoom, as long as you don't need the extra stop (most of us don't...). 

This is not a lightweight package by any means. It's not cheap either but it represents the focal lengths and speeds I want to shoot with  coupled with a high definition camera. Most times when I work on annual reports and in industrial sites everything is in a Think Tank roller case and we're also dragging around a lot of grip and lighting gear. Seems like we'll be able to pull this off and change gears again. 

Anyway I look at it the two systems give me more options, more choices, more chances to screw up and learn more. At any rate, that's the plan (today). Always subject to change.