A random scene from the bar district on Sixth Street on a Saturday afternoon.

I love composing in the square format. Everything seems to fall in place for me. One thing I like about the cameras I've been using lately is the ease of using the 1:1 frame for my work. It just seems natural to me.

After testing lenses last week I was happy to walk around with a simple, 50mm (35mm equiv.) format lens on a square frame in black and white. It reduces the amount I have to think about to a minimum where technical settings are concerned and allows me to drop into the nice zone of just looking for stuff I'm interested in looking at once they become photographs.

The super long lenses can be fun, the super wide lenses make me feel as though I'm having to work too hard to make things fit correctly, but a nice, normal focal length is like a vacation for the eyes. That, and a good B&W profile in your camera.

From time to time, usually after reading a Robert Adams book about photography, I try shooting non-human subjects in black and white. I never know what to do with them when I finish the inevitable post processing....

A random planter at Spring Condominium. Flowers; succulents. 

Once you've decided that you want to show a scene how do you decide between all the permutations you end up shooting? Which one gets the nod?

There's a wall just off Congress Avenue, on Fifth Street, that has a long wall and an ever changing mural. It's always interesting but sometimes it's better than others. I was walking by, across the street from the mural yesterday when it caught my eye. I photographed it from the corner (an angled view) and also straight on as in these two examples. I photographed it with and without people. And I photographed it with and without cars. It sounds like a bunch of permutations but I think I shot the whole collection of 13 or 14 variations in the space of 3 or 4 minutes. 

When I'm out shooting around town I always tend to shoot multiple variation of interesting scenes, when time and the situation allows. But I always struggle in the editing because it's hard for me, sometimes, to declare one image to be better than all the rest. Each has something a bit different which catches my eye, otherwise I would not have continued to take photographs. 

Usually the difference has something to do with the composition but in this situation I think the choice between these two images is more down to gesture more than anything else. I'm curious to know how you make a choice when you have half a dozen or a dozen images from the same basic set up, all of which you find interesting for different reasons.

I was using a camera that I haven't paid enough attention to previously; it's the Fuji XE3. I wanted to walk around as unencumbered as possible and I wanted to carry an extra lens and battery in a Jacket pocket. Turns out the XE3 with it's small size and light weight was just what I wanted. I mostly kept the 35mm f2.0 lens on the front; it's very small, light and sharp (even at f2.0) but I carried the 50mm f2.0 in my left jacket pocket leaving room in the right pocket for a vegan lemon and hazelnut scone from Whole Foods. 

I shoot more than I ever end up using and I've learned to divide the take into: keepers, maybes and instant trash. The percentage varies but usually less than 5% of the photos from a two or three hour walk through the city are keepers. Another 5% are maybes and the rest never get ingested into Lightroom or stored anywhere. They just cease to exist the next time I format the memory card. This is a good discipline for me since I seem to be hesitant to pick favorites. 

If I saved every frame I shot I'd have millions of image cluttering up an endless array of hard drives. If I knew which keeper I wanted to distill down to I could save even more space. Some images you just have to live with before you really know if you want them. The rest are pretty obviously crappy. You do yourself a favor when you flush them out of the system....


The importance of testing gear instead of reading about gear on someone's blog or website.

From: A lens you probably don't need and don't want to carry around...

I like to think that all serious photographers share one thing: a unique vision. And bundled with that unique vision is a particular way of looking at things; at interpreting some fragment of conscious reality in order to share it in a different way than everyone else. After all, if everything is just a faithful copy; without inflection, why should anyone bother to look at it? And I think about this when I hear from my friends who are busy reading everything they can get their hands on when considering a new lens purchase.

When we go to a site and read a review of a lens I think most of us would like to see a short set of objective measures. These would include: How heavy is the lens? How easy is it to use? Is it sharp in a way that's usable? Does it have an annoying color cast we'll have to end up correcting? How much does it cost? Is there something out there that's as good or better which I might want to know about?

For information like this I like a couple of test sites which include a European site called: Lenstip.com (they do subjective evaluations and objective measurements). Another site that used to be called photo zone.de but is re-branded as now: Opticallimits.com. They also use some objective measures and then pepper in their opinions. I never take their opinions about value (price versus quality) too seriously because everyone is somewhere else on the economic spectrum and what is too expensive for one prospective purchaser might seem dirt cheap to a heavy-duty user of the same product.

The people whose lens tests I rarely take seriously are people who are not either full time lens testers with the instruments to do tests correctly, or full time working professional photographers with a reputation for doing good work, and an extensive portfolio of examples I can browse. Everyone else falls into the same bucket in my mind = newbies with a passion for having an opinion. In fact, I rarely trust my own lens reviews because they are limited to the way I use the products and they are additionally limited (contextually) by what my actual use is for the images in the moment. Or, in the project at hand. I may want something soft and moody or snappy and saturated, but I might also not really care about edge-to-edge sharpness while you may be completely obsessed with the need for ultra-high resolution at the furthest corners while the lens is at its widest aperture. You and I would need to be reading reviews skewed in different directions for both of us to be happy.

You may have noticed by now but something I mention in every article I write about gear, or in a follow up article, that my results are only as good as you can see them on the screen and that if you are seriously considering a lens you NEED to hold it in your own hands, put it on your own camera and shoot it in the way you know you will want to use the lens for YOUR work. I ask you to never depend on anecdotal reviews when deciding whether you should buy a new miracle lens or just put that money into a treasury fund (and right now my money would nearly always go into a fund....).

My favorite story about this comes from a time when I was shooting for money with the Olympus 4:3 system. We did events and one of the lenses that was critical to my success in photographing conferences in hotel ballrooms, and other interior venues, was the Olympus 35-100mm f2.0. It was the fastest long zoom available for any format at the time and it was very sharp at f2.0. This was all back in the days when photographers were reticent to go beyond ISO 800, even with their full frame cameras. Having this fast lens was the difference between getting a perfectly sharp "presenter" photograph, up on stage or not.

The trade off is that the lens must have weighed at least four pounds! I would come home after three days of handholding that lens (in my left hand, operating the camera with my right hand...) and my left bicep would be sore. But the bottom line for me was that the photographs were sharp and relatively noise free.

So, one of my friends who does photography as a hobby, asked my opinion about which telephoto zoom lens to get for his Olympus camera and I immediately suggested the 35-100mm f2.0. After a bit of research, my friend, who just wanted a nice zoom with which to walk around and snap fun stuff, decided that I was clinically insane and should be on a psychiatrist's couch somewhere looking at inkblots. My suggestion was a wildly inappropriate lens for anyone who didn't need the combination of features that I did need. It also cost $2300!

Much depends on how the lens will actually be used. I use my 50mm (equivalent) lenses for social events, when I use it for work. That means I'm generally using it in conjunction with a hot shoe flash and most often I'm shooting at f5.6 or f8.0. I'm generating social images for use on websites and to help clients continue filling up Facebook, etc.

For these uses any decent $50 normal lens would work fine. I'd conjecture that, at f8.0, handheld in a hotel ballroom, a < $100 nifty 50 would do about as good a job as a Zeiss Otus 50mm f1.4 miracle lens. Maybe it would actually be better because I'd be able to handhold the combination all evening long without stress and strain. But I'm sure some Otus owner out there would look down their nose at my pedestrian choice because, from their point of view, the quality of the lens, when used wide open, trumps everything else.

Relying on someone else's test of a camera is also fraught with peril. In the present all cameras are good enough for most of the subjects for which people use them. Some people are sensitive to noise, some to size and many price. A smaller subset has allergies to confusing menus. You can tell me till you are blue in the face that "once set up you'll rarely need to delve into the Olympus menus on a daily basis!" but that does nothing to assuage my frustration and confusion at their interface.

Buying a camera is partially about buying a lens system so that's the first place most people should start. But after that it's all about what feels good. In your hand. In operation. In your budget. The Leica M10 might just be the best camera ever designed but if I can't afford the lenses I need and the back up body that functions as my security blanket then the camera (and by extension, the system) are unusable for me. I'd love to buy one of the Fujifilm medium format cameras, and a lens (please send me the 110mm f2.0, thanks!) but I can't see pushing my sister to replace her ten year old Canon Rebel with one.....

Jeez. The cool thing about being a consumer in the most fertile consumer market in the universe is that shopping is supposed to be fun. A bit less time reading that bad review and a bit more time figuring out what you'd like might just be the ticket to camera purchase happiness. Do I even have to write, "just sayin'"?


I mentioned lens testing the other day. Today I decided to find out if the longer end of the Fuji 100mm to 400mm zoom was really......meh. Or not.

(click on the images to see them bigger)

There is a lot of misinformation out here on the web. If you take it too seriously you'll either miss some good opportunities or you'll fall flat on your face. I mentioned in a previous post that most reviewers of lenses (exceptions being people with test benches and people who know how to use them or people with decades of experience using all manner of lenses professionally) have the manufacturer of the lens they are interested in testing (for affiliate clicks) send them a lens to "test" for a week. In amongst their many weekly chores, such as answering comments, having coffee, buying small hats, grooming their beards, attending manufacturer's press junkets and making Vlogs, they may take the lens (without updating firmware in either camera or lens) out for a few hours of shooting. They'll take along whomever they are dating at the time to serve as a model. Then, with a coffee in one hand and a camera in the other they will proceed to (vaguely) handhold the camera and the test lens at ridiculously slow shutter speeds (with an almost religious belief in the supreme power of image stabilization technologies) and then shoot at whatever catches their eyes. In some instances I believe that they just point the camera randomly and keep the shutter button pressed down, hoping to fix up whatever they manage to get on their memory cards in post production (which they insist on calling "editing."). 

You can see where I'm going with this, right? Their methodologies, honed by weeks of experience, might work okay if testing is being done on wide angle lenses; maybe even medium focal length lenses but as they zoom inward toward the longest focal lengths the ever magnifying angle of view shows up more and more of their bad/awful/faulty technique. Which they then blame on the "poor imaging qualities" of the long ends of (nearly every) telephoto zoom lensed they test. 

I have read in several places about the long end of the Fujifilm 100-400mm lens being somewhat "soft." I thought I'd better test the copy I got last week in the unlikely case that the less capable testers might have gotten it right just this once. I wanted to find out any bad news while I was still able to return the lens for a refund.

I shots some frames with the lens bolted to an XH-1 which was bolted to the biggest, strongest tripod Gitzo makes. I aimed at targets with lots of fine detail; targets which themselves were immobile. The lens was nicely sharp at the longest focal length, even when used wide open. So that became the gold standard for my tests. I might have been able to slightly improve my results by using the camera's self timer but I was satisfied (for my uses) with what I was getting in these studio test conditions. I could have made the images even sharper had I used short duration electronic flash for everything..... but that's a digression. 

My next test was to go outside and shoot the lens the way I might normally use it. And the way even the most inept web-tester might use it. I put the same camera and lens on a Leica monopod and headed to the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge that spans Lady Bird Lake. I put the camera in aperture priority, chose the wide open aperture (f5.6 at 400mm), AF-C, and proceeded to photograph people as they biked, walked, scootered (is that how we say it?) and jogged across the bridge. Almost every frame was shot at the longest focal length of 400mm. The exceptions were the grouping of downtown building shots (taken from about half a mile away) that start at 100mm and go in steps out to 400mm, just so you can see the range. 

It was a two coffee day for me but the monopod neutralized the overall effects of caffeine poisoning fairly well. While none of the frames are absolutely perfect I would chalk that up to the fact that it was my first real outing with the lens and I've previously confessed to not using the longer focal lengths too often. Click on the images and see what you think. 

Could they be improved? Yes! I could stop down to f8 or f11 and I'm sure I'd pick up a bit of sharpness as a result. I could ask everyone to stop moving so I could carefully manually focus, etc. But the bottom line is my studio results told me what the potential of this lens is and this test outside shows me what I can expect in non-studio, actual environmental use might be. Would I buy the lens again? Yeah. 

After further thought and evaluation this morning I thought I'd add this: Besides being sharp all over the zoom range of this lens I should mention two other things; first, the lens is really lightweight and compact for the range it covers and the speed it offers. You can actually handhold this lens if you have to. You won't get the sharpness you'd get using it on a monopod or tripod but you won't get it from any other lens in this range either. Secondly, I didn't mention how good the image stabilization is. Beyond just taking out the jitters we humans add to the equation the I.S. steadies the viewfinder image which makes it easier, at longer focal lengths, to more effectively compose the image. At up to 250mm (estimated) I can get sharp images, free from camera shake, if I use the I.S. and take my time to let the system settle and for my breathing to settle. Might want to skip the extra cup of coffee if your intention (with any lens) is to rely on I.S. for long focal length, handheld shots.....

All I.S. systems take time to settle. Don't rush.