12.11.2020

I can't believe I'm making good on my resolution not to work in December. Everything banished from the calendar. It's an unsettling exercise.


Sometimes I think I have the same expression on my face as this robot. Stress.

Austin, Texas is on the cusp of having the top tier of pandemic alert levels triggered either this week or the next. Cases of Covid-19 are once again accelerating and the public health department changed the daily number of hospitalizations that will prompt "level five" from 75 down to 50. The reason? An overwhelming of our local medical professionals along with an ongoing tightening of available ICU beds. I think my decision to keep clients and members of the public well beyond arm's length for now is a sound one. I'm even questioning my return to the pool; and that's a big thing for me. 

But for what might be the first time in my adult life I'm not busy with work. I basically have tossed out the majority of structure that gave shape to my daily life. I feel like a leaky row boat that's broken its tether and is now aimless drifting on whatever currents there might be. 

One somber realization is that with free time comes a lot more time to indulge in endless news reports, New York Times updates, Washington Post analyses and a potent mix of mindless photo and video dreck on YouTube. 

I'd love to be spending the time off making wonderful portraits of beautiful people but I'm sure you can see the disconnection. Yep, public safety. And my family's safety. Just because you want to do something doesn't mean you should. If I needed to work to put food on the table I might be tempted to roll the dice but just as a salve for my own boredom? I consider it reckless.

But that doesn't mean I'm not thinking about making portraits. I'm revisiting some of my favorite work and playing with lighting in the studio. I can't remember the name of the cinematographer who came and gave a talk to our local ad club chapter about his motion picture work back in the 1980s but I remember being so profoundly impressed by his work lighting people for movies that I spent an hour after his presentation listening to him tell a very, very small group of interested photographers just how he did the lighting that we found most captivating. 

If you have seen the movie, "Dangerous Liaisons" starring John Malkovich, Uma Thurman, Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer you will have seen, in the bedroom seduction scene with Uma Thurman, the kind lighting that we were all marveling over. In a sentence, it's "hard light within soft light ---  with a very large dose of controlled fall off." 

We all thought we were masters of soft light back then. We all had the requisite 4x6 foot soft boxes for our electronic flashes and we used them in close and smiled as we saw the light wrap around our subjects. But what the cinematographer showed us was lighting done on a whole new level. 

He explained that (in his opinion) the light we were using fell off at far too rapid a rate. We were using our soft boxes extremely close and so, given the constraints of the inverse square law, the light from one side to another of our subject fell off very quickly which reduced any sense of realism or authenticity for the light. 
He was right; our lighting looked canned. 

He walked us through an image he'd made as a test. In a huge space he'd put up a 20 by 40 foot diffusion curtain that was either quarter stop or half stop diffusion material. He put his model close to one side of the diffusion material and then, on the other side, he moved a huge movie light as far back as it could go. Think fifty or sixty feet, easily. 

For his example he was using an 18K watt movie light with a front fresnel to concentrate the light a bit. Conventional logic would suggest that the distance from the light to the diffusion material is not pertinent and that it's only the distance from the surface of the material to the subject that determines the rate of fall off, but he suggested/claimed/demonstrated that quarter or half stop diffusion, and in particular some of the diffusion materials made for cinema, would allow through a mix of direct and diffused light simultaneously and that the thinner/looser the weave of the diffusion fabric the more the ratio is tilted to direct light. 

The result is that the direct light has a less steep slope of fall off from one side of the scene to the other; because the light source is so far away. It also looked much more like natural light than a fixture and modifier being used much closer. The added softness to the light comes from the percentage that is diffused by the material.

The cinematographer was also less willing to use any more fill on the shadow side of a subject's face than was minimally necessary. In fact, in some of his work he was happy to let the shadow side of a subject go wherever it was going to go without any interference. 

The effect was like being in a room lit by enormous windows which were themselves lit by strong but diffused daylight. It was beautifully lighting. I'm still envious of those professionals from the 1980s and 1990s who could afford huge studio spaces that would allow this sort of experimentation. 

This was the opposite of some of the very dramatic and almost harsh lighting that Albert Watson used for some of his black and white people work. Some of my favorite work from Watson in the 1990s was also done in big studios but for different reasons and effects. 

He would work with one smaller soft box and use it just above the subject's head, letting the light fall off very quickly because of its very close proximity. With a forehead tone that was just a mouse squeak from blowing the highlights one found the light almost plunging into blackness by the time it got to a subject's chest. The ramp of the fall off, in accordance with the inverse square law, yielded, almost, the very dramatic effect of  a spotlight. A spotlight with the character of a small soft box...

But he valued the larger spaces for a different reason. He loved the depth. He would use long lenses for his portraits, usually on a medium format camera, and place the camera far away from the subject. Then he'd place the subject very far away from the background. The effect was subtle but exhilarating because it married compression with an increased sense of depth. But it required maybe 100 feet of linear space to achieve a look in exactly the way Watson wanted. 

I can only get a shadow of these effects in my smaller studio but I do have a few tricks up my sleeve. I have a big square of windows on my west studio wall that measure about 10 by 10 feet in all. The top edge of the windows is up at about 12 feet.  If I place my main light outside the studio and up high on a stand, shining back down through the windows, and then into the same kind of diaphanous diffusion the cinema guys use I can get a much better overall lighting effect than just using a modifier and light in closer proximity to my subject. 

I spent many years doing my own, watered down version of the cinematographer's design. I use a 6x6 foot panel with one sheet of diffusion on it as close to my subject as possible and then put as many LED lights as I can on the opposite side and as far away as I can. My diffusion is a bit too opaque and the distance less that half of what it should be for the lights but it's more consistency interesting to me than pulling out a soft box. Too bad the diffusion panel and LEDs require so many light stands. In a much bigger space I would be able to leave all that equipment set up and just walk in on a day-to-day basis and take spur of the moment portraits. 

Life is full of compromises. We're lucky when we get to choose the compromises we want. 


12.10.2020

Spending time with a very enigmatic camera. One that's both potent and at the same time "under-spec'd" for a photographer.

this window on 2nd St. is a Holiday Display for a law firm. Interesting.

I bought a GH5S camera recently to use on video projects. We'd been doing work that required our video camera to be on a tripod and to run for anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half without stopping or overheating. The GH5S is actually considered a "pro" camera by Panasonic and it was the perfect tool for the job. In fact, after the first go-round I made it my flagship standard for work not requiring in-camera image stabilization. In most of these projects it was one of three Panasonic cameras rolling simultaneously and it matched the look and feel of the GH5 and S1H pretty much perfectly. 

I've been shooting a lot of full frame stills lately and I decided to change things up on my walk today and take something in the micro four thirds range. I was all set to head out the door with the G9 or GX8 until I glanced over and saw the GH5S lingering on a case, wearing its battery grip. I put the little Sigma 56mm f1.4 on it and exited the studio. 

The reason I say the GH5S is under-spec'd is that the sensor resolves all of 10 megapixels. In an age where our full frame cameras start at 24 megapixels and cap out at 47 megapixels the "paltry" 10 megapixels seems insufficient. And I guess if I were out shooting landscapes or incredibly detailed tableaux I'd find it to be lacking. 

But the reality is that the camera's sensor produces amazingly sharp and detailed files while adding an extra "snap" that seems to be missing from more muscular cameras. 

I shot sparsely today. I had a lot on my mind. I was mulling over a client situation in which I could have acted better. Not necessarily my fault but perhaps my response was out of proportion in the moment. At any rate that's one things walks are good for; introspection and a calm distance to parse stuff. Unlike our world leaders I am not adverse to apologizing where appropriate...

At any rate I was curious to see how much post processing I'd end up doing to the files coming out of the camera so when I got back home I made some coffee and sat down to play. Amazingly, none of the files I selected could reasonably be improved by my attempts at enhancement. They looked perfect right out of the camera. I'd shot Jpegs and was a bit surprised to see that the colors and especially the acutance of the files was just what I wanted. I've included a few here but no doubt Blogger will compress and darken them to take some of the glamour away. 

The funniest part of the shoot was my brain's insistence of shooting everything at f2.0. Everything. I was impressed at least as much by the lens. I think the sharpness at a nearly wide open aperture is pretty much state of the art for a short telephoto lens.  Take a peek. See what you think. Click the files to make them bigger. 

I met a guy named Shawn who had six or seven various vintage iPads on his bench.
At his feet were all these chargers and battery banks. We chatted for minute.

I asked him which was his favorite among the iPads. He pulled a phone out of his pocket and
said, "I like my new, 5G phone best." Shawn comes downtown to charge stuff on the 
city's dime and then goes home and plays with the gear. 

More mural painting under the 2nd St. overpass at Lamar. 
I was nervous for the artist when he climbed up on the very narrow 
scaffolding. It seemed precarious to me. 


Another painting crew on the other side of the street. The murals are fun. And bright.

That's all I've got. Don't "hold any thoughts" on my account.

 

My long awaited preview of the Leica SL2-S.

 The SL-2S has been announced. According to the press release from Leica it will basically be a collage comprised of the guts of a Panasonic S1 and the body, styling and color science tweaking of the previous SL2-S but with the white logo switched out to black logo type on the front of the pentaprism. 

A few small video details have been upgraded. 

Leica has made cameras for a number of years. Many were good. The lenses are supposed to be really, really nice. Some are.

The products are relatively expensive for normal people but are well priced for the luxury market at which they are aimed. 

With the exception of earlier M models and most screw mount models the products have a lower than average history of reliability. 

There. Was that so hard?

Eight minutes of posturing and pontificating to get to the point of talking about a camera the reveiwer had never seen in person. Breathtaking.


 I was lured over to Hugh Brownstone's YouTube channel today by a tag that indicated the subject would be the newly announced Leica SL-2S. If web-info can be believed the camera is basically a Panasonic S1 with  a custom body and some little software touches to tweak the interpretation of the final images. 

I presumed, given his much trumpeted relationship with Leica (free trips, lots of loaned test cameras, etc.) that he'd have substantive things to say about the new camera. Color me unamused that he spent a the first 8 minutes and 14 seconds giving us another in a series of overly hashed and overly re-visited stories about the early years of Leica. The faux history lesson was larded with an enormous Hugh-narrated ad for some sort of online service to which I paid no attention. 

I skimmed to the 8:14 mark, guided by his sponsor's watermark on the corner of the screen and prepared to hear something new and different about the product only to be given a press release version insulated on all sides by a smug projection of familiarity with the camera that was wholly unearned. 

The argument, of course, is that all YouTube videos are less about learning and information delivery and more about entertainment, and I can't argue with that. 

Sometimes Hugh can be quite entertaining but the  schtick is wearing thin and the callow disregard for the viewer's time in this instance was poignant. Time to become choosier about what sort of YouTube material I look for. Another one off my list.

12.09.2020

A few more black and white street shots which once again pose the question: Are any of the advancements in camera operation really critical?


People have an understandable tendency toward avoiding engagement with strangers. But it's exactly the engagement, or the willingness to engage if needed, that are critical to making good work. If you have armed yourself with the latest tools but have not armored yourself against potential rejection, or even abuse, then all the great camera gear in the world will have no good effect for your work. 

When I walk through the streets to take my photographs I go with the idea that I might embarrass myself, be the victim of someone's outrage at them having been photographed, and I'm further bolstered to accept that all the shots I take might be abject failures. Unsalvageable by even hours of arduous and expert post production. 

All that seems to really matter is having the will to go out time and time again, to smile as graciously as possible and just react (don't think!) to what you see in front of you. Instinct and reflex being the magic beans.


I love this early evening photo of a group of older Italians on the sidewalks in Siena. The light was dropping fast and the group and handshake was fleeting. I was using an old, fully manual Hasselblad, with a 100mm f3.5 Planar lens. I focused by looking at the focusing ring and setting it to an approximate distance based on previous experience. I didn't have time to meter but guessed that the exposure was something like f5.6 at 1/15th of a second. I'd been watching the light fall and was aware of the range. I tugged down on the the neck strap to stabilize the camera and then, composing through the dim waist level viewfinder, I clicked off two frames. Only one of which caught the handshake.

Everything happened quickly. You can see by looking at the woman just to the back of and to the right of the man in the light colored suit how slow the shutter speed was. Her face was blurred by her quick movement during the exposure.

Would a modern camera make a better shot? It might make a sharper or more noise free shot but at what cost? I think the motion and softness of the image, as well as the two-and-a-quarter inch, square format's trademark depth of field, is at least as important as those other parameters. But the essential piece of the puzzle is always just to be present with your camera and to keep your attention on the swirl of life around you. Nothing else really matters. 


OT: My favorite kitchen appliance. And, a report on my health progress.


 Only my close family knows my secret breakfast proclivities. Until now. Being in a confessional mood I feel compelled to let you know about my ardent affinity for toast. And by extension, my deep respect for our toaster.

We've had our current toaster for years and years. While my spouse is convinced that this particular toaster is a prankster that will often change its settings, mid-toasting, to antagonize her I am equally convinced that the toaster, though an inanimate object, is possessed of some specialized "toast knowledge" (machine learning?) and is merely over-riding Belinda's naive settings in order to offer her a chance at even better toast.

I adore the toaster. Even when I am absent minded and not paying attention it's rare that the toaster willingly destroys any of my toast. In fact, in times of stress I depend on its consistency to bring early morning order to my life. 

The toaster is a mid-priced Breville brand with extra wide openings that can accommodate bulkier breads such as bagels. My use of it is utterly routine and almost unwavering.

After decades of experimentation I've found a magic formula for perfect toast to have with my pour over coffee; both usually enjoyed just minutes after attaining consciousness each morning. To wit: I've found that the very best bread for toast is a variant of white bread. It's the sourdough sandwich bread from Trader Joe's. It's sliced thicker than most commercial breads and it's both denser and less sweet than its competitors. 

I drop two slices into the slots, set the dial for "5" and push down the side handle to start the process. If it's really cold in the house, judging by the feel of the Saltillo tiles under my bare feet, I might set the control at "6" instead. The toaster and the microwave oven are on the same circuit and, used in concert, they might trip the circuit breaker. That being the case I start the day heating water in the microwave. While that is in progress I open the bread package and pick two fairly well matched slices of bread, putting them into the toaster but not yet charging the lever to lower them into the heating zone and initiate the process. 

Once the water in the microwave comes to a boil that's the signal that it's time to engage the toaster in earnest. While the bread toasts I proceed with a careful coffee pour over. The toast is ready at some point near the middle of the pour over cycle and that gives me the chance to cover each piece of toast with a light glaze of crunchy, organic peanut butter and then cover the peanut butter with a lumpy layer of my favorite blueberry preserves.

By this time the last of the filtered water has wended its way through the coffee grounds and everything is ready for a sybaritic breakfast. The two essentials; coffee and toast, are often joined by eggs or yogurt but the first engagement is always the crunch of perfect toast intermittently washed down by nearly perfect coffee. To brew the perfect cup is impossible. It's a life long mission to work toward the perfect cup but it's the journey of constant experimentation and not the daily resultant nectar of the gods that we embrace. 

A post operative, post recovery memorandum. 

It was only a week ago that, with much fear, I went under the surgeon's knife to excise a cancerous growth on my left cheek. Against my usual hard-headedness I actually followed the physician's post op instructions and resisted all vigorous exercise, going so far as to inveigle my temporary plight into a full scale flight from my usual domestic duties. I suggested to Ben that the stress of taking the large trash can to the curb on Friday might be a bridge too far - at least according to my doctor. He's taken over the logistics and actual labor of transporting both the garbage and recycling bins to the curb. After all, it is a steep drive way... I also convinced him to carry the boxes of newly acquired LED lights from the front of the house into my office. 

My biggest coup was being excused from having to cook dinner, even though it was my turn, on Wednesday evening, by suggesting that the medical procedure has been so stressful to me that I was in fact balanced on a knife's edge between a full life and PTSD and that both cooking and cleaning up might be enough to push me over the edge to the wrong side. 

The reality is that except for the initial injection at my cheek of lidocaine, fending off any subsequent potential pain, I have been agony-free for the entire experience; from procedure to the removal today of the stitches which were, presumably, holding my face together. But who can blame me for trying to milk the most out of the experience that I could?

So, here's the coda. The procedure was successful in its mission to eliminate a squamous growth. I followed all the instructions, choked down a course of antibiotics, cleaned and bandaged the wound twice a day and used a special antibiotic ointment to promote epithelial healing. The stitches were removed by a chatty and charming nurse around noon today. The original surgeon examined the wound and declared himself both an artist and a genius and then, under my insistent pressure, yielded and gave me his blessing to return to swim practice this Saturday morning. The one proviso is that he'd like me to wear a waterproof bandage over the wound during the workout. Don't tell Benjamin but I'll be cleared to take out trash and lift boxes from Saturday onward. We'll see just how long I can carry forward my guilt-driven advantage.

Knowing that episodes like this might reoccur I've purchased futures in the sunscreen commodities markets and started ordering in cases of zinc based product. 

It wasn't as bad as I thought the experience would be. It almost never is.

"Worry is a price we pay for a future that may never come." - Ian Fleming. 

Hard Edge in Black and White.


 I don't need a chart to figure out if my lens is sharp.

`A Mere Shadow of My Former Self.


















anonymous day in photography.

letting go of technique.

12.08.2020

It's a cliché by now but I'm making a list of all the stuff I want for Christmas. Surprisingly, the list is fairly short. Perhaps I'm not being strategic enough.


 It should come as no surprise to anyone here but I do like my cameras and lenses. When December rolls around, and the consensus is that I've been better not worse, I like to think about acquiring just a few more things to tuck in around the corners of what I already have. 

The first thought is always that it would be an exciting holiday if I just did a full system change. That would keep me busy for a while but it's definitely not going to happen this year. I keep playing with the new "toys" my more advantaged photography peers buy and parade in front of me and, to be frank, with the exception of a Leica SL2 there's not much out in the market that piques my interest. The SL2 itself is only interesting to me because of what I think is a very beautiful implementation of industrial design coupled with a minimalist operating menu. That's the long and short of it. Because underneath I believe that the SL2 is really a re-bodied Panasonic S1R. Sure, the colors and tones are tweaked with Germanic special sauce but after playing with raw files from an SL2 I'm pretty sure, if I spend hard time in PhotoShop, I can make some profiles that will get the differences in looks between the two cameras pretty close.

Then there are the stand alone cameras, like the Sigma fp and the Fuji X-100 V. The X-100 V is tempting. And after reading through a torrent of comments in response to Michael Johnston's article about the monochrome Leicas I went so far as to reserve the last new Fuji X-100 V (in black) at Precision Camera. I thought it might be interesting to work with the monochrome profiles represented in that camera's menu. I stopped myself when I remembered my low level distaste for the 35mm equivalent focal length. I quickly texted my guy and cancelled the hold on that one. Much to his relief as he had someone standing right in front of him ready to buy it. The Fuji camera was the group collated choice for "poor man's Leica Monochrome" in the comments at MJ's blog.

Paul (photographer and friend) texted me this morning to tell me that Precision Camera had just taken in trade a minty Leica S2 (007) and what is reported to be a fantastic Leica S zoom lens; the 30-90mm. I could have the pair for the paltry sum of only $12,000. I knew better than to consider dropping $12K on a camera and lens from a company that is legendary for taking its time to repair their ailing medium format cameras and I also realized that without access to a functional warranty that camera might just break me financially. And, of course, I'd want to supplement that zoom lens with some faster and longer optics; all at breathtakingly high prices. Pass. 

But that put me in the mindset of getting something medium format-ish. Being cheap and frugal I started researching the Fuji MF line and nearly settled on the 50R and a 110mm f2.0 lens to go with it. About half the price of the Leica stuff and with a much more Kirk like lens. I thought about this combination while I took a brief nap on the couch in the living room. And, by the way, the light coming through the doors in the dining room and reflecting off the Saltillo tile floor onto the high ceiling in the living room was just gorgeous today.

When I regained consciousness, surprisingly, the Fuji medium format lust had passed. Too many systems and too many rabbit holes to burrow down. While those pixie format MF cameras might seem "medium format" to most digital camera users I would always know that it could never compare to a "real" 2.25 inch by 2.25 inch negative or sensor. Just not the same thing. Plus, I'd done a few comparisons with files from the 50R and the S1R I own and found very, very little advantage to make grasping for mild sensor size upgrades even a thing.

I looked around the studio and thought about lighting. Hard to argue that one can ever have too much lighting gear. Hard but not impossible. That's why I've given away five or six big flashes and four or five smaller flashes this year. I also keep throwing out tattered light modifiers and crippled light stands. No, I'll have to look elsewhere for a satisfying addition to the pile this season. It's not going to be in the lighting field. Not unless someone invents something so exciting and new that we all have to have one.

And believe me, it won't be a flash.

In short I've looked and thought about the rich assortment of stuff in the market place and I've come up with only two things that I really think I want this year. Happily neither is pricy or prestigious. In fact, they are both kind of anti-prestigious in the current age of photography. 

Both are lenses. Both are from Sigma. And both are infinitely interesting to me. In this moment.

I've already mentioned the Sigma Contemporary 65mm f2.0 lens. I like the focal length very much and would love a lens that's engineered more to be good than to be fast. I don't mind carrying the fat Lumix S-Pro 24-70mm f2.8 around with me for work, or hoisting the ample 70-200mm around just to get close to that focal length but for my own jovial and relaxed personal work I think it would be really nice to have a lens that's slightly portrait-ish, smaller and lighter, while also highly corrected and ready to replace any number of 50 and 55mm lenses. So, that's my first choice and it's already on order. I hope I get one from the first delivered batch.

I know most of you would rush to get the matching 35mm f2.0 Sigma lens but I can hold off on that. It's so close to the 45mm and in a contest for my admiration the 45mm would always win. No, the other lens I want from the newly announced Sigma i line would be that delightful 24mm f3.5. It seems just right. No heroic measures taken to make it super fast! I'm happily surprised to see a wide lens like this enter the market with such a slow aperture became I interpret that to mean that Sigma compromised on f-stop and not on image quality. It's reasonably small and three or four copies of this would tilt the scales about as much as the one copy of my Sigma Art series 20mm lens (which I always find to be just a touch too wide for me...).

There are two configurations I imagine for the new batch of lenses. For work, where appropriate, I could arrive with an S1R body along with the 24mm, the 45mm, and the 85mm f1.4 (a recent purchase) and be ready for the kind of projects I really enjoy. The second configuration would be my "artistic" travel system which would include a solitary Sigma fp camera, the 24mm f3.5 and the 65mm f2.0. Those and a little plastic bag filled with additional camera batteries. 

All small enough to fit in a very small shoulder bag and all competent enough to make me look like a better photographer than I may be. 

I thought about buying a sports car instead and I drove two of the ones that interested me from Subaru. One was the WRX and the other a BRZ. But as I was test driving each in turn I kept imagining how frustrating it would be to actually own an exciting performance car in a city with one of the worst cases of traffic congestion in the country. A heavy clutch and a responsive six speed manual transmission might be a joy on winding country roads but in stop and go traffic, with the required cup of coffee in one hand, it's a recipe for nightmarish scenarios and disappointment. And, sadly, as a very practical person every time I exited the sports car/driving experience and re-entered my pedestrian Subaru Forester I found my comfort and joy level rise. I think I found the appropriately sorted vehicle for me already.

Truth be told I feel unsettled buying anything for myself this year. We've been fortunate in this economic down period and pandemic but I watch the (real) news and see so many suffering and I can only imagine how desperate things will get for people when the rent moratorium ends and the last of the money runs out. 

Something tells me it would be karmically a bit wiser to save some dry powder and be ready to help out. At least locally. There are bound to be people I know in the arts who will need a helping hand. Not sure how I'll feel trotting out new gear knowing a friend or acquaintance is grappling with profound need. 

Maybe I'll just get that set of replacement inks for the printer and call it a day. Hmmm. Somehow that seems better than yet another lens. 

I know almost all of you would love to donate to me this year. That's why I've established here on the blog a Patreon account, created numerous affiliate links to online retailers, started to accept PayPal and Venmo donations and am begging for you to send me hard cash so I can pay for and write about more photography gear. 

Oh....wait....none of that is true. I don't need any donations. But if you feel overwhelmed by your own good luck and wonderful personal situation perhaps I could suggest a donation to your local food bank instead. The people who benefit will likely never know you did it but I don't think that's really the point. 

Me, I'll suffer along with the meager gear I've managed to accrue so far. Hope you have a happy holiday season and I hope you take a moment in these rough times to make the holidays a little happier for someone less well off. 

End of soapbox.

Sorry, that's it for the "must have holiday gear listings."



Interesting results with black and white files from the Sigma fp; along with some dynamic range enhancement by the Sigma's "fill light" setting in the shooting menu.



We're heading into the holidays. Is it any wonder people's thoughts are rushing to black and white photography? 

A bowl in the sink. A weird little camera.


The Sigma fp is a weird, little camera. Like a chameleon it sometimes presents itself to me as a formidable video camera, festooned with all the regalia of motion picture production. Sometimes it wears a "cage" and has an SSD and an external monitor mounted on it. At times it also sports a shotgun microphone to capture scratch audio. When in its guise as a production video camera it also hauls around an LCD finder that's as big as the camera.

But there are those days, especially after I've had a hard and introspective look at old work resting patiently in the form of flat, black and white prints, I feel compelled to strip the little bugger down to its very minimal essentials and take it out for a regular guy shoot. 

My first foray with "naked fp" was on Sunday evening when I dropped by Zach Theatre to see how the outside concert series was coming along. The cast of five, on a very narrow stage (front to back = 10 feet),  was doing a dress rehearsal and I wanted to see how they would handle the new stage, holiday program and new space. I also thought it would a good, low stress, low expectation moment in which to try out the Sigma fp on a newly acquired, Zhiyun Weebill S gimbal. Maybe it would give me a chance to check out a little moving video footage.

The Sigma fp with the 45mm f2.8 lens is the lightest combination I've tried on a full sized gimbal yet. It's far smaller and lighter than the GH5 or G9 which are my "go to" cameras for gimbal work. And the fp has a secret weapon for night time gimbal work; it's outrageously noise free at most ISOs. Certainly noiseless when shooting video at 3200 or even 6400 ISO.

While it was obvious from my experiences that evening that I need more practice with the new gimbal it was also obvious that the Sigma, by dint of its compact form and lower weight, gave the gimbal (and my left arm) a running start. All imperfections of production were on me. The lighter weight of the camera package made that gimbal sing. I was just a less perfect accomplice. 

When I filmed that evening I worked in a different way than I had with video in the past. I set the camera to ISO 4000, used the 180° shutter angle (1/60 @ 30 fps), set the camera to the All-I, 4K mode and then resisted the usual compulsion to shoot with the lens near wide open and instead tried shooting at f11. WTF?

Why? Well, the Sigma fp might as well not have included C-AF on its menu because in low light, on a moving gimbal, with moving subjects, the C-AF is worse than worthless. It's counterproductive. I figured my best shot at video greatness, in the moment, was to work with the idea of hyperfocal lengths. With the focus set around 15 feet and the aperture at f11 I calculated that I probably had enough depth of field to render subjects between 10 and 25 felt with acceptable-to-great sharpness. And, damned if it didn't work perfectly. The combination of hyperfocal distance focusing and Promethean ISO performance was awesome. All I needed to worry about from that point on was piloting the still alien in my hands gimbal.

When I looked at the footage the next morning I was amused to see that it was at least as good (and maybe better) at 8 bit, 4:2:0 than some footage I've recently shot in other cameras at 10 bit, 4:2:2. Which, considering its competitors, speaks highly about the sensor and color science in the fp.

And all that pre-loaded thinking pushed me to want to further explore this camera again as a photography tool. 


I took the little brick beast out for a walk yesterday, all through the city. The only accessory being a neck strap. No rear loupe, no cage, no stuff. Rather than my usual f2.8-f4.0 fixation I played around with f8 and f11 as my preferred apertures and felt freed from the constraints of having to produce images with limited depth of field. And in the process discovered that the lens, at f8 and f11 was magnificent; though probably no better than many, many other lenses when stopped down so far.

The sun was bright so the rear panel was difficult to see in certain situations. In any use where the screen was not in direct sun it was fine but it did remind me how habituated I have become to eye level finders. Maybe the phones will somewhat cure me of that over time.

One control on the camera that I played with a lot was "fill light." It's got five steps up and five steps down of adjustment rationed in thirds of a step. When you set it the camera takes two exposures and processes them together to give you a fixed amount of increased or decreased "fill" light. Since there is processing involved it's a feature only available in single frame shooting; no bursts. And it takes a few seconds to finish processing before you can see the result. But it really does work. This tames wildly dynamic scenes as surely as the shadow slider in Lightroom. 

I included the scooter shots above so you could see the results of a 1.66 x increase in fill light when shooting against the sun. It almost looks as though I shot with fill flash but it is just the "fill light" control. I'll be experimenting with that a lot.

An interesting point, at least about my reaction to shooting with the camera, is that I don't feel compelled to shoot multiple frames of the same subject with it. I seem to take a bit more time in composing but once I really look at my proposed composition and exposure on the finder I feel comfortable taking one frame and moving on. 


The camera has some faults. The C-AF is slow and ponderous. The rear screen is overwhelmed by direct sunlight (but what isn't?). The battery lasts about as long as warm mayonnaise at a picnic in the Texas Summer. And I wish the non-raw video files could offer more bit depth and more color information. But it's a camera that is sincere and honest. It's a wonderful way to drive out the demons of over-featurization and get back to fundamentals of still shooting. With L-mount lenses it's a breeze to shoot in manual since one touch of the focusing ring brings up a central window with a magnified view of the frame. 

What I like most about the Sigma fp is the feeling of solidity and quality. The camera feels indestructible and  darn near bulletproof. It's a disaster of a camera for people that need to operate quickly. It's an unexpected pleasure for people who work, as I do, slowly and methodically. It's a bad "sneaky" street camera. But it's got loads of nice, non-threatening character for those of us who are comfortable approaching and engaging with our subjects. 







Blogger note: I go in tomorrow at 11:00 am to have the sutures (stitches?) removed from my left cheek. I have followed every step of the surgeon's orders. I've not exercised (almost killed me with pent up energy and ensuing boredom). I've cleaned, treated and bandaged the site on the proscribed schedules. I've done a course of oral antibiotics. I've even customized my own bandages for this ordeal.

The incision was about one and 1/8th inch long, running vertically. It's hard to tell with the stitches still there but I think the skin is recovering nicely and there's no redness or discomfort. 

In fact, the lack of pain or bleeding/gore has been a high point in this little medical adventure. I anticipated becoming good friends with Mr. Extra Strength Tylenol (much to the anticipated chagrin of my liver....) but the lack of pain made it superfluous. 

I've already put a Saturday and Sunday swim back on the schedule, predicated on the anticipated approval of my "medical team." I hope this comes to fruition. 

One more note about cameras in general: There seems to be much discussion about needing a dedicated monochrome camera on MJ's site: TheOnlinePhotographer. I'm always curious about stuff like this and I get Michael's point that it's nicer on the brain if the camera works in a way that's in thrall to our desired outcome. I, for one, can't stand having to pre-determine cropping when working with a camera that doesn't feature the ability to change aspect ratios. 

While I'd like to have a monochrome camera I'm not sure how the maker would handle so many different understandings of what the curves and feel of a black and white file should look like. How is my soft, Ektalure G rendering of Belinda going to be interpreted versus the chalk and soot of a Ralph Gibson vision? And will the makers provide the tools to affect a specific vision of what monochrome is to me?

Interesting questions. I'm certainly not the least bit interested in dropping kilo dollars on a Leica Monochrome of any variety. But I might be interested in the black and white profiles in a Fuji camera or I might just need to fine tune my understanding of the Sigma fp's mono setting.

What is the general consensus of black and white fans here? Drop me a comment if you have time between napping and secret missions.

12.07.2020

I dropped by Zach Theatre last evening to take a look at a rehearsal for their outdoor Christmas Concert. I ran into my friend, Austin Brown.


 Austin Brown is one of the stage lighting designers at Zach and he's been given the unenviable task of designing a lighting scheme for the outdoor concert series this winter. The budget is tiny and one consideration is that the lighting instruments and cabling have to be brought in if rain hits and also during the days no shows are scheduled. It's either that or round-the-clock security on the plaza. Cheaper, I think to reduce the complexity of the light inventory. 

I've been using Austin as an assistant on shoots lately. He's incredibly good at it since running cables and working with lights is his real, 40 hours+ a week job, when the theater is not closed down for a public health emergency.

When I ran into him yesterday he was making sure the lighting was set but he was also playing around with an iPhone 12 Pro Max on a cool, little gimbal, shooting a bunch of video and giving the stabilizer a good workout. He noticed I had a camera with me (when do I not?) and asked me to make a quick portrait of him up on stage. 

I went totally counter-intuitive with this one. I got so much feedback from readers and fellow, local photographers chagrined about my disdain for the 35mm focal length that I thought I'd give the messy little focal length another try. This shot was done with the Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art lens for the L-mount cameras. I had it attached to an S1R and I was shooting at some zany f-stop, like f2.2.

I could see the flare when I took the photograph and I really liked the effect. Pretty amazed though at how well the lens does delivering contrast into the main subject, even with a couple of 2K spots shining directly into the front element. 

I also shot a little bit of video on my new gimbal --- since I was there and we had actors on the stage. More about the video in a bit...

12.06.2020

I don't show as many portraits of men. I'll try harder. This is from the very early years. Back when I was in my "Richard Avedon-white background" phase.


 Back in 1978, when I was just getting started in photography, I lived and did portraits in an ancient building on East Seventh St. in Austin, Texas that used to be "The California Hotel." It was a flop house back in the 1960s and was shut down sometime near the end of that decade after there was a double homicide on the second floor. Peter, who was a museum curator, and Lou, who was an impresario/entrepreneur/eccentric, found the shuttered building and got a long lease. With a lot of work they made it into a downtown live/work commune for artists and musicians. 

Some tenants had real jobs. My neighbor across the hall was an art director for Texas Monthly Magazine. Peter was a curator at a wonderful art museum. Mr. Sexton was a musician. Those people rented their spaces as studio; they had houses or apartments to go home to.  I made photographs during the day and worked at a short order/fry cook in the late night hours and on weekends. The hotel was my base camp.

My space had amazingly high ceilings but it was just one big room. The two things it lacked were a telephone and air conditioning or heating. But man, it was cheap. We had a shared phone down the hall.  We had a commercial kitchen downstairs, and also a huge gallery space. I had my first show of sixty 16x20 inch black and white prints there. All portraits. That show effectively launched my journey as a picture maker/taker. 

We were all mostly artists/hippies back then. I rode a moped to work. It had a sturdy milk crate bungee'd to the back rack and I used to haul my camera gear around on it. We all wore sandals. We bathed in an outdoor shower in the courtyard. It felt like we were living in a movie and it was one of those fun, "Coming of Age" light-hearted comedies; for the most part. 

Any way, back then I would ask anyone I thought was at least somewhat interesting to come by and have their portrait made. They'd let me shoot exactly the way I wanted to and in exchange I'd make them a nice, fiber based print.

While trying to get my fledgling career off the ground I was working as a cook, in odd shifts, at a mid-city diner called, Kerbey Lane Café. If you guessed that the owners named it that because it was on Kerbey Lane you'd be right. It was one of Austin's first all night, comfort food + beer and wine, restaurants in what was then a sleepy, little college town. Gingerbread pancakes or migas anyone?

The guy with the cat, above, was Craig. He was one of the owners of Kerbey Lane Café and a really great guy. He'd hop into the kitchen and help us cook during rushes. He taught me how to flip over easy eggs in a pan without the use of a spatula. I asked him to come by the studio for a portrait and he brought his cat. 

I was pretty much broke at the time but I'd managed to buy my first "real" camera. It was an ancient, highly used, Mamiya C220; a twin lens camera with interchangeable lenses. I had two lenses for the camera. One was a 135mm which I used all the time for portraits. The other was the stock 80mm which I used for group shots. My "arsenal" of lights back then consisted of a Vivitar 283 which was a powerful but barebones shoe mount, electronic flash. If I could afford double "A" batteries then we had light. When the batteries died the shoot was over. No lithiums or NiMh rechargeable batteries back then. We did have NiCads but they were so much crap. 

What I did have access to though was the Ark Cooperative Darkroom. That's where I made most of my prints. I got pretty good at souping film in D76 as well. I always hated the drudgery of making contact sheets.

It was very much a hand-to-mouth existence back then but I wouldn't have traded it for the world. And we thought it was grand. Yuppies had not been invented yet and eccentricities were seen as a major plus. How else would I have gotten my start?

I guess it was an Austin thing...

Vegetable seller in Venice. Empty streets. Cloudy skies.


 My iPhone XR is an unusual copy stand camera. One side or the other of the image I'm shooting is always "toned" or darker in the corners. It's because I'm lazy about stuff like this and not willing to do much more than lay a print down and shoot with the light coming through my windows. 

I see images on the blog as illustrations of something also written down, like notes, not as "Art" in a standalone gallery. 

This image was taken 30 or so years ago and what I wanted to draw attention to is the wonderful texturing of the vegetables. The image started life as a black and white snapshot, on Tri-X, in an old Leica CL with the little 40mm Summicron on it. I printed it on a matte surface paper (probably Kodak's Ektalure G) in my studio's darkroom; back when I had the studio on San Marcos St. in east Austin. 

I liked photography life better when shots could be taken that were casual and informative but didn't suffer under the expectations of perfection. Just notes between friends, not a hoary manifesto used to beat each other over the head. Sometimes I didn't even care if a photo was totally in focus as long as the content evoked memories for me that I enjoyed. 

I know it's strange now to contemplate Venice, Italy (sans Covid) without pressing crowds, noise, litter and high prices but back when I first visited the city it was so inexpensive that we opted to stay for ten days and roam around. We were traveling in late October and the weather was cool, the skies gray. Our president at the time had just bombed Libya which scared USA tourists from traveling outside the borders at all. Which, of course, meant for us lower hotel rates, easier access to good restaurants and streets no more crowded than the ones at home. 

What a wonderful time to travel.

No Cheat Street Photography. Tell me again why it's crucial to have dual pixel, phase detection, auto focus in order to get close candid images of people...


I get that PD-AF means a surer chance at getting stuff in focus. Just as evaluative metering and a plethora of automatic exposure modes ensures (maybe) better exposed images. But I find people tend to use their lack of access to the absolutely latest tools as a dodge to explain away their fumbled photographic results. 

I thought about this today as I opened up a few boxes of prints done years ago and rifled through them. All of the images here were taken with a medium format camera. The cameras I used (mostly a Hasselblad 500 C/M) were absolutely manual in every regard. Lenses were focused by turning a big ring. By hand!

Exposures were set by adjusting both the shutter speeds and apertures individually. And by hand. And the logic behind getting the right exposure setting came either from experience or referencing a handheld meter. Which was/is also totally manual. But somehow I was able to walk into strangers' worlds and make photographs that I found interesting. And most of them printed up well. 

I conjecture that we've made photography so easy that we don't take it very seriously even when we say we do. The manual methods required a modicum of thought, planning and an allocation of resources; you could only comfortably bring along a limited amount of film. No pray and spray with a 12 exposure roll....

I guess we'll relegate all this to the idea that it was another time and everything has changed. But after looking through a fat box with hundreds of prints I feel compelled to set my cameras to manual exposure, turn off the AF and take a bit more time before maniacally pushing the shutter button over and over again. 

Who knows, I might actually get good enough to compete with myself from 25 years ago... (ellipses mandated by subject matter!).