1.27.2020

Approaching an assignment with a new mindset. And some new tools.

All images from Zach Theatre's production rehearsal for "A Night with Janis Joplin." 

I find myself to be almost irrationally exuberant here at the end of January. Clients seem to be rushing back to work and circling me in on a bunch of nice assignments. I've pretty much completed the bonding process with my Lumix gear and I'm finding it easier and easier to do the kinds of images I've wanted to take.

But I'm also changing the ways in which I approach work in particular and photography in general. I've pared down from so many systems and so much stuff to the point where I have fewer cameras than at any time in my entire imaging career, and part of the process is to try to buy only the best quality stuff I can get my hands on. A pivotal decision I made last year was electing to buy the Lumix 50mm f1.4 S Pro lens instead of "settling" for the Sigma 50mm Art lens.  While I am sure the Sigma is a very good lens I find myself continually surprised (in a good way) every time I photograph something with the Lumix lens. While I spent more money on the 50mm lens than I ever imagined I would the pay back is something that has less to do with a financial return than it does a return measured in satisfaction and, to a certain degree, fascination that a lens can make such an overwhelming difference to me. 

After seeing the results I've gotten from better lenses I find myself considering lenses based on their reputation for superior results rather than slotting something into a needed focal length range, shopping by price, and then being moderately satisfied with median results. 

With the same sensibility I've moved toward photographing my theater work now in raw file formats instead of defaulting to Jpegs. When I started working in digital for live theater work two things worked against the idea of shooting raw files. First, storage was much more expensive at the time (cameras and computers) and shooting raw was just plain expensive. Second, the raw files were much bigger than the Jpegs (even the least compressed) and it took much more time to edit through an evening's take and then convert them into client usable Jpegs. Since we're working with a set turnaround time any glitch in the raw process conversion process could set me back and cause me to give up additional time better spent working on the next client's job.

I guess a side issue of big files and small, expensive storage was also just the slow speed of computers and processors, and their pipelines, a side roadblock which only really became a non-issue with the introduction of affordable SSD drives, USB-C, and cheap storage. 

With the prices of USB-C 10 Gigabytes hard drives dropping under $200, and with internal SSD system disks now rationally affordable, there is much less of a penalty for opting to use raw files in the workflow. Add to this the speed of my new-ish iMac Pro and I finally have a holistic system on which the workflow and processing speed of using raw versus Jpeg is largely without any noticeable penalty. But the benefits are plentiful. 

Just as an aside, I remember working with early digital cameras and buying PCMCIA cards for Kodak's DCS 660 and 760 cameras. We got camera storage measured in megabytes with price tags that were stratospheric. And the performances were not as nearly foolproof as today's storage. I did a job in Spain for IBM which required shooting all digital back in 1996. It was a freaking nightmare and when all things were considered we could have made a down payment on an Austin house for the $$$ outlay that eventually expanded to fill my tolerance for indebtedness to the breaking point. 

But yesterday I went on a job with a couple of C-Fast cards that can write science fiction fast. Each card holds 128 Gigabytes of images and with all the space and speed the images might as well start life as raw files. The benefit of super fast cards in cameras that can make use of the bandwidth is a magical process in which your camera's buffer seems to grow close to infinity. 

Today I plugged a camera into a USB-C port and edited the take. I used the camera as a card reader for the C-Fast cards because I haven't invested yet in a dedicated card reader. Given the speed of transfer I'm not sure I'll ever get around to buying yet another device that has only one function. The camera as card reader worked just fine. I edited down 2200 files from across three cameras (the Sigma uses SD cards so those went into the on-computer slot) to 700 files in about an hour (I know, I know, I spend too long looking at all the variations) and then did a series of post processing corrections that mostly consisted of tweaking the color and lifting shadows (I tend to shoot a little dark because in the early days I lived in fear of blown highlights ---this morning I found myself pulling DOWN a few exposures by up to a full stop with no impact on image quality. I may try shooting a bit more to the right next time. 

Last year I was used to going out for lunch when a large folder of raw files needed to be converted to Jpegs for clients. I'd get the process running and then have a leisurely lunch. Sometimes, when I came back to the office, the files would still be churning away. Today I started the process, packed some stuff to take with me to lunch, answered a couple of e-mails and then looked over at the computer on my desk to make sure the process was going smoothly. I thought something had gone wrong. 

The upload was complete and Smugmug.com was ready for me to publish the gallery for my client. 

The raw files gave me a bit more ability to really fine tune colors and to rescue shots that I did a less than stellar job on in the shooting process. Now when I make conversions I default to large, fine Jpegs and I upload everything at the largest size and highest image quality available. It's refreshing to be unencumbered by the processes. 

On the shooting side of things I'll readily admit that I've shied away from using ISOs like 3200 and 6400 in the past. If you remember early digital days you'll no doubt remember that flagship cameras from Nikon and Sony, until sometimes post-2010, were absolutely horribly noisy at just about any setting above ISO250 (thinking of cameras like the D2X and the Sony a900 and a850). Then there were the years spent with the smaller format cameras which required a very gentle hand at higher ISOs. Now, I've thoroughly tested the Lumix S1 and have found that I am quite happy with both ISO 3200 and 6400. Especially for theatrical photography. I photographed last night with two different cameras at ISO6400 for some of the dimmer shots, and both the S1 and Sigma FP had relatively clean flesh tone areas and no real issues with noise in the shadows. Gone are the days when a program like Noise Ninja was a mandatory part of post processing.


By embracing new technology and better lenses I'm continuing to make the whole adventure of photography that much more fun. Stayed tuned as we slow down my brain and take more time to play with considered attention. It's about damn time.












Something from the same assignment to compare with. This one is from a Lumix S1 raw file with the same Sigma 85mm Art lens I used on the Sigma FP.

From the Lumix S1 + 85mm

From the Sigma FP + 85mm

After declaring his intention to be "more eccentric in 2020" Kirk Tuck acquires the most eccentric "point and shoot" camera currently available...


I looked around at all the cameras that were introduced in the last year to find the one with the least amount of press coverage, given the least love on blogs and vlogs, with the fewest inches of hands-on, preview, now testing, first impressions, in-depth and field test written reviews, and, with the help of the VSL mainframe and our (not really!) sponsor, Palantir, we ended up with these results: the least loved and least explored, new, interchangeable lens, full frame camera in the world has to be the Sigma FP. 
So we bought one. 
Mary Bridget Davies as "Janis Joplin" for Zach Theatre.
Sigma FP + 85mm f1.4 Art Lens.
ISO 2500.

This is a camera will be universally overlooked by nearly every photographer, videographer, reviewer and retailer in the world in 2020, but everyone who actually buys one will probably love it and embrace it as one of the most fun cameras to work with ---- ever. (disclaimer: unless you shoot: sports, birds in flight, fast moving children, sports, skateboarding, things in motion, sports, or things that require fast, continuous autofocus. You will also be disqualified as a buyer if you need real, in body image stabilization, any sort of professional flash performance, or an EVF or other viewfinder). 

So, who is this camera for and why was I crazy enough to actually spend my scarce American dollars to buy one at the full retail price? Let's dig in and watch me rationalize...

I've shot enough commercial work with the Panasonic Lumix S1 series cameras to know that I made the right choice in selecting them for my work-work cameras. They are, in my opinion, the only truly professional caliber mirrorless, interchangeable lens, full frame cameras currently being made by any of the Japanese camera companies. A case could be made for Leica products but I'm almost certain that any improvement over the quality of the S Pro Lumix lenses would be firmly slotted in that category we call, extreme diminishing returns. The S Pro line is sturdy, robust and highly capable. The new Lumix S Pro lenses are astoundingly good. And, as an added bonus, the cameras don't overheat when shooting 4K video (which they do very, very well).

But what might be amazing for cameras that one uses for work might not fit the bill for photographers who enjoy walking miles and miles with a camera over one shoulder, looking for fun images to memorialize while reveling in the exercise, and soaking up the feel of the great outdoors. 

I looked through all the current "real" point and shoot cameras and didn't find one that fit perfectly with the perspective of the ultimately ambulatory, rambling photographer. I also wanted whatever camera I ultimately chose to have the imaging potential of the S1 cameras I've been shooting with. While I may use it in a less rigorous fashion I wanted to be able to put great lenses on the front of the camera, in a pinch, and walk away with files that were as good as those generated by my primary industrial strength imaging cameras. 

While I would love the Sigma FP even more if it used the same batteries as the Lumix S1 series, I am falling under the spell of this tiny, ungainly and slow, brick of a camera in a way I didn't expect. And right now I am writing about it in its incarnation as a still imaging camera (photography) and have not yet switched the magic switch to try out the video. That will be grist for another blog post somewhere. 

I took the Sigma FP out for it's maiden voyage this morning after swim practice. I'd tell you more about swim practice but I think the majority of my audience could care less about training for the USMS Masters National Short Course Nationals coming up in April...... 

I charged the battery last night and charged a generic back up battery as well. The camera does not come with an external charger so you have to use the USB-C port to charge batteries while they are in the camera. I am chafed by this and have purchased an aftermarket charger and more batteries to remedy this oddly vexing issue. I am a bit miffed that a $1900 camera doesn't come with an external charger but I guess I should have expected this since the camera doesn't come with a viewfinder/evf either. It's functionally a brick, just like the "brains" of a Red movie camera. You get to add the parts you think you'll need as you go along and, I suspect, that after you fit out the camera the way you'd really like it you'll have spent somewhere in the vicinity of $2500 instead. 

So, no battery charger, no evf, no dual pixel phase detect autofocus; not even DfD AF. But you do get a strap and detachable lugs for the strap. No dual card slots, just the one lowly SD card slot. But in an interesting side note, you can attach an SSD drive to the USB-C port and write files and video directly to a fast SSD. The SSD drive the few other owners of Sigma FPs seem to gravitate to is the Samsung T5, in the 1 terabyte flavor. You'll need it if you want to take advantage of the completely uncompressed video raw files which write at about 2500 megabytes per second, at their highest quality setting. 



Doesn't seem to be the sort of camera you take to a rock concert or a stage show, right? Well, in the spirit of counterintuitive eccentricity I decided to toss the tiny Sigma FP into my camera bag, along with a couple of Lumix S1s and my four favorite lenses of the moment (24-105mm, 70-200mm, 85mm and 45mm) for an evening of photography at Zach Theatre. 

I started out shooting mostly with the bigger cameras but when I felt I had a lot of good coverage I pulled out the little Sigma FP and started banging away with the 45mm lens. Emboldened by a vague feeling of success I decided to step into the forbidding land of stretching envelopes (landed up here courtesy Ming Thein) and slap the ultra fast, ultra heavy Sigma 85mm Art lens on the front. I'd been led to believe (by many non-reviews) that the focus ability would be slow-to-marginal-to-non-existent. My actual experience quickly proved over wise. But....click on the images below and see for yourself... Nobody stopped to pose for me; the stage was as kinetic as ever, but the camera and long lens seem to have nailed the focus (and color!!!) of everything at which I aimed.

So, what's my takeaway from this one day test?






Mostly that all cameras are good now. The Sigma FP has some really good color science along with a super sharp sensor (no AA filter on the sensor) which makes it a formidable competitor; at least as far as image quality is concerned...

There's a lot left for me to unpack and certainly, one day of shooting is hardly enough to nailed down a definitive assessment of a complex camera. We have some video that needs to be shot and some controlled portraits to be made but my first installment of hands-on with the Sigma FP went much better than I was led to believe possible.

People (reviewers and influencers) love to run with the herd and are most comfortable touting the status quo. It's hard for them to review or assess a different approach which I think accounts for the scarcity of Sigma FP reviews. Everyone here is on notice though...I'll be using it and writing about it extensively. At least for the next 30 days or so. 

I also learned that, with a current prescription for my bifocals I can use a rear monitor, if nothing else is available...

Buckle up. 

(Disclaimer: I have never been approached by Sigma for anything. Not to write about their cameras or lenses, nor to try or test or review their products. I paid for my Sigma FP and all the equipment I've written about in this post with my own funds, generated almost entirely from my small but happy commercial photography business. I am putting Sigma on notice that if they want me to come to Japan, tour their factory, and write about my experiences, I have my bags packed and my passport ready!).

And then, some photos from around town.





As a part of becoming more eccentric I am growing out the hair. I must remember to get more glamorous glasses frames.... Sorry, not going for tattoos.