It's been an interesting year for me as a working photographer and blogger...

Is photography still cool?

 I guess I'm finally experiencing what normal people live with all the time. That there are limits to our time and attention spans. That we run out of enthusiasm for writing exactly what readers want to read all the time (mostly about gear while protesting that no one writes about actual photographs -- you are welcome to comment on any image I post here, honest). I read other blogs just like the rest of my photographer friends and lately I'm struck with just how much (un)nuanced duplication there is on all the photography sites and how little of it is relevant to anything other than the sale of new cameras. 

It's getting to the point where I'm even excited if MJ at TheOnlinePhotographer.com writes about playing pool or trimming his trees. Anything but another article about how much better Fuji's AF has gotten or how people almost are ready to like the color coming out of Sony cameras. Then there is the pervasive "Oh My God, Only One Slot" drama. And the "Is Every Format But Full Frame Doomed?" threads....

I'm guessing some of my current ennui for writing about photography is a result of life burnout. My mom passed away in late December last and I've been taking care of her estate, and my father, ever since. Couple that with the lingering expenses of my kid's last semester of college and I have to be honest, the first half of this year just sucked. It sucked a lot. If you are a reader of VSL I would ask that you cut me some slack and skip over some of the stuff you don't like. 

I'm not bitter but might become so if people keep telling me that something I write sounds bitter (it's probably just a bit of truthfulness that no one wants to hear). I've never yelled at kids to get off my lawn. I don't pine for the "golden days" of photography. I am not a Canon, Sony, Pentax, etc. hater. I am not a (fill in the brand blank) fan boy. I'm just a photographer trying to make a living in an ever changing market while using my off time to play around with photos and written material, and to share my observations on a blog. 

I'm not making money here and have nothing to sell besides the (very) occasional workshop or a (rare) link to a product I think is really cool, even if I didn't invent it. 

I like Chelsea and Tony Northrup's content even if I think their well done YouTube site is more like a shopping mall than a photo school. I like TheOnlinePhotography blog even when Michael Johnston goes way off subject and shares too much. I like Tom Hogan's byThom.com and Sansmirror.com sites because ---- well, he's smart, writes well and writes about things that interest me. I think most of DPReview is a messy waste of time driven largely by ill-informed poseurs and a greedy parent company. I am probably a lot (a lot!!!) more liberal than most of you thought, even though we don't discuss politics here. 

But the bottom line is that we're probably going to disagree about things like the usefulness of GPS from time to time, and I might be snarky about it but.....but you have to take into consideration that the snark that tweaks you is likely only in three or four blog posts out of 3,807 other posts. So, dial back the vituperative sense of umbrage and try to take my few and mostly minor rants in stride. Or just shove off and read something else. I'm sure there's someone out there who will write exactly what you want to hear all the time. But what fun would that be?

A side issue of shooting "street photos" in populous, downtown areas.

The inevitable interaction with the homeless. 

I walk around downtown in Austin frequently; mostly for visual exercise and to keep tabs on the constant changes a growing city endures. I've never felt the need to make images of homeless people because unlike people with homes and offices they have little choice about their privacy, and I feel like the only fair targets for my cynical brand of "street photography" are those people who always have the implicit choice not to come out onto the public streets looking like circus clowns or psycho killers but who waive the choice and come along anyway. 

But inevitably, in cities like Austin, San Francisco and NYC, which are more tolerant of homeless people, one is frequently accosted and asked for (or demanded of) money, spare change, etc. How do you handle this? If you gave a dollar to everyone who asked you on a given day's walk you'd soon be too poor to leave your house...

A lot of street people have a well rehearsed banter or scam. They're trying to get $xx dollars together to get a bus to XXXXX. Or some variation of that. Some are just plainly aggressive and will curse you and rant if you don't donate to their cause. But there are always some people who I feel are in serious physical or existential need. They are the ones who elicit feelings of .... for want of a better phrase ....  social responsibility in me. Occasionally I'll walk by someone who looks and acts like they are really trying to keep it all together and they'll ask for a dollar or two to get something to eat. 

I rarely (almost never) have cash with me just because everything I need to buy is easier to acquire with a credit card. Earlier this year I walked by the JW Marriott Hotel and on the corner of the building there was a guy in his mid forties who was neatly dressed, hovering over a worn and tattered backpack and looking.... defeated. He asked in a meek voice if I could spare some change. I said, "Sorry, I don't have any cash" and walked on. But there was something about his contenence that struck me. I paused in the next block and tried to put myself in his shoes. Vulnerable, hungry, exposed. I turned around and walked back.

The truth was that I didn't have a dime in my pocket. But my wallet was full of credit cards. I asked him what he needed the money for and he told me he hadn't eaten that day. I invited him to go with me to the burger concession on the street level of the hotel and order whatever he'd like. He ordered a chocolate milkshake, a burger and fries. I paid for it, walked with him to a table and made some empty small talk hedging toward the hope that things would get better. Then I walked away and let him enjoy his meal. But for the rest of the day his situation stuck with me. No privilege, no 401K, no local family, no network. How would I survive?

That was months ago but yesterday I walked through downtown and photographed at the Pecan Street Festival. On the way home I headed south down Congress Ave. and at some point, while walking in front of the CVS Pharmacy store, I was asked by a homeless person in a wheelchair for some cash. I gave him my knee jerk reply about not carrying cash. He responded, passionately, that he didn't need the money what he needed was some over the counter pain relievers. He was very specific. He wanted Alleve. He was in pain. 

I'm no medical professional but I can sure tell, after 62 years of observing people, when someone is in real pain and distress. He was almost frantic. I told him I'd be happy to get him some Alleve and went into the store to find it. Then I bought him a bottle of water because... who takes Alleve without having something to wash it down with? Then it occurred to me that he might need something in his stomach because all those pain pills can mess with your gastrointestinal system, so I bought him a couple of protein bars. 

I don't know and I don't care if it was some sort of scam because I saw a look of real appreciation and visceral relief on the young man's face. Partly because he would get physical relief but almost as importantly, because someone acknowledged and believed him.  I told him that I was sorry things sucked for him right now and that I hoped they'd get better. I don't know if I believed circumstances would improve for him or not. But $11.95 is a cheap and temporary fix, and a long term reminder that most of us have no idea how precarious day to day existence can be. I walked a bit faster to get home to see my family. 

We don't photograph street people, except when they ask for it, but going out into the streets, out of our cars, out of our safe neighborhoods, and secure zip codes reminds us that there's more to existence than how many channels we get on cable and how quickly we can get that desired lens to our house by using Amazon Prime. 

Maybe, after all, breaking down our privileged isolation is yet another benefit of making photographs out in the street. 

The idea I put in my brain when I head out to photograph: not everyone is running a scam. Some people are in need. Even if you feel you can't help financially a kind word, even a smile, might make the difference to someone. It must be painful to feel invisible.

If you are in a city with lots of homeless and you like taking photographs in the city center how do you handle these kinds of interactions? I'd be interested to hear what others have figured out...

I was supposed to buy the Panasonic GH5S as a video camera but several assignments.and some personal work say otherwise.

The Pecan Street Festival. Austin, Texas.

My intention in buying a Panasonic GH5S was to take advantage of its video capabilities to make my work in motion art easier and of greater quality. I have to be quick to acknowledge that it is a great little video camera. It make video files that are transcendent when compared to all the hybrid constructions of  photography cameras that also offer video features. Equal parts of its magic are its relatively unique sensor and the camera's color science (a phrase that gets bandied about a lot these days but to me means that the makers got the tonal rendition and the way the camera handles color just right). When I make video with the camera I am consistently amazed at how lifelike; or photographic, the video looks when  I edit it on a nice monitor. 

But I have found that the same image painting qualities that make it a superb (even subversively good) video camera also extend to its ability to make photographs that have their own unique look and feel. This in spite of the camera's general dismissal by the hordes, throngs and mobs of literal minded photographers who can't seem to get beyond the fact that the sensor captures a mere 10 megapixels of information and also bucks the crutchy trend of having image stabilization at the ready in all situations.

I spent my afternoon yesterday getting more acquainted with the camera as a street shooting device after having shot two different assignments at the theater, in which it's low resolution and conversely good high ISO noise performance made the output a near perfect blend. I've bent the rules of compulsory photographic reliance on in camera image stabilization by pairing the camera during low light photography with a fine lens that features its own image stabilization. This allows me to disregard the obsession with one feature among many in order to concentrate on the actual visual performance of the camera. In a word, it's wonderful. 

Many are quick to disregard the GH5S as a still imaging device because, in light of today's plethora of ever higher resolution models that compete with it, the GH5S is seen as being hampered by a "low" pixel count. I find this funny in an age where so much photographic work is only seen on the screens of telephones; and then only for the briefest moment. As a demographic photographers are hobbled by only seeming to appreciate specifications that have numbers and scales attached. The subjectivity of color and the lack of language effectively describing the ideas of tonality mean that useful things such as the holistic look and feel of an image are lost in the compulsion to measure and compare things that really do have much less of an effect on the success or failure of a photograph. 

I remember so vividly, growing up, when the sole measure of a car's worth was its horsepower specification; no matter that one car might have a few thousand pounds less weight to drag around or that some cars with less horsepower were engineered to be a much better and more exhilarating driving experience. I'm finding more and more often that cameras suffer the same myopic fixation with single measurement glorification. The thing that makes a camera like the Nikon D 850 a very good image maker has much less to do with its overall resolution than the perspective about color and tone that Nikon's engineers bring to the mix. But the making of digital cameras is really still in its toddler-hood so I guess we can't expect a more mature assessment just yet. When we look back in a decade I assume I'll experience a sense of deja vu similar to that which I experience now when I look back at the files I used to routinely get from a Kodak D760; that the quality of the images belied its meager specifications and instead depended upon the interconnection and the judicious blend of all its specifications. 

Just ask any Fuji or Olympus camera owner and they'll tell you the same truth...

So, here's what I like about the GH5S as a video camera: The image, especially when shot in 4K and edited as 1080p, is extremely good. Even wildly good. Its ability to nail white balance is easily as good as any camera I've seen, and the controls are straightforward and well laid out in the menus. Add to this a great battery life and a well thought out audio accessory and you've got a perfect video camera for a one person crew.

So, here's what I like about the GH5S as a photography camera: The color palette is canned automatic fin art. I don't mean that in a perjorative way it's just that most files that I pull out of the camera are beautiful as visual simulated objects. Just sweet and nicely natural. The camera can be slow to respond when I use it in the raw format and I suspect it's because the files are 14 bit and much larger than I expected them to be. But, on the other hand, the autofocus is faster and surer than I thought it would be, even more so since I'm not using it (typically) with DFD lenses. I also like to use it with manual focus, legacy lenses because the focus peaking feature has proven to be so accurate. 

I find myself using it more and more if I know the client's target is screen oriented. But even as I type that I have done several larger (12 by 18 inch) prints that have turned out well. 

I bought the camera to use as a video camera but am now pressing it into service for my personal work and many assignments. It's smaller Jpeg files are a boon to a super-fast workflow in events and newsy assignments. Finally, the camera is beautifully sized and constructed, making it feel just right in my hands. 

I must give credit to the Nikon D700 for showing me the light. The "light" being the realization that there is so much more to good images than the race for higher resolution. That, and the fact that lower resolution cameras with bigger pixels have a look all their own. A look that usually resonates well with my style of photographing. 

Yeah. I bought another light. I couldn't help it. The light was so cute.

Aputure F7 LED Panel. 

I'm an easy touch when it comes to small and inexpensive LED light panels so when I read about the Aputure F7 light panel I decided to risk $100 and give it a go. What is it? A: A small, lightweight bi-color LED panel that can fit in a hot shoe or be used as an off camera light source. What makes it good? A: Aputure's literature, and the reviews of people I trust, point to a very high TCLI or CRI which is a good measure of how accurate the color temperature of the unit is. They also spoke about the unit's relatively high output. But then again, a lot of small LEDs boast good specs so...what distinguishes the F7? Hmmm. I guess I'll go with this: Most bi-color LED units feature a color range from 3200K to about 5600K. If you are at either extreme you are only using half the bulbs. You get half the power. But the F7 has a range from 3200K to 9500K, if you set the light's color temperature to 5,600K (daylight) you will have both sets of bulbs (tungsten and daylight) illuminated at once so a daylight rendering also gives you the full power of the unit. 

Unlike other small, cheap units I've bought or played with in the past the makers of this one did not scrimp on the mounting hardware. The bullhead that screws into your choice of three sides is stout, easy to adjust and locks firmly in place. The light ships with two strengths of diffusion and the diffusion slots right into slits on either side of the tough, plastic front cover. 

The light uses a rotary dial with a push button feature to toggle between adjusting color temperature (read out on a display) and output levels (also on the display). Unlike most competitive products which generally are only adjustable from 10% power to 100% power the F7 can be dialed all the way down to 1%. 

I found the color quality of the light at 5600K to be very good. Another benefit for serious users is that the unit can be powered in three different ways. You can use Sony video batteries like the NP-9xx series which means I can use any one of about five different Sony video batteries I currently have scattered around the office. You can use a USB charger or USB connected battery pack for looooong shoots. Or, if you are a video pro who uses batteries that have a D-Tap for your pro cameras you can grab power off said batteries with a D-Tap connector. Fun to have options.

Short story? I like it. There is no long story. 

Color Temp (top figure) Power level (bottom figure) battery charge indicators (the green bars). 
I have a battery on the back that weighs more than the light itself. 
You can opt for smaller batteries.....

Side view. Big battery. The unit is well ventilated which means it will 
run longer and last longer. On the downside it means that it's not at all 
water resistant. 

One of two diffusers. Weak and Strong. 
(credit: hand model: Charlie Martini).