6.23.2021

Progress report on all fronts. What's going on with the camera systems in-house. How I am adjusting to the re-opening of my part of the world. Just another Wednesday morning...


the swan boat is the touch I like...

I have to say that my endodontist must have a dry sense of humor. And a light touch with appointment reminders... Several months ago I had to have a root canal procedure and while my rampant "white coat" syndrome (fear of medical procedures) was nearly paralyzing the experience was actually just fine. I liked my doctor and she was really good at putting at ease. I do remember her telling me that they'd want to do a follow-up scan in a couple of months and I'm sure I thought about putting it into my calendar but it must have slipped my mind between the payment window and my car. I didn't worry; all of my other healthcare providers are very good about calling, texting and e-mailing me about a week out from any appointment to confirm and update me. But the folks at the endodontist's office seem to follow a more minimalist protocol when it comes to reminders... I was caught off guard at my desk yesterday when I got a terse e-mail letting me know I needed to present myself for my follow-up testing at 9:45 a.m. the very next day. Which was today.

Fortunately that was well after the end of swim practice. I went this morning and had a quick and pleasant check-up, and was left with an extra 45 minutes of "scheduled grace" so I high-tailed it to Second St. in the downtown zone to have a really incredible, and amply overstuffed, breakfast taco (@Torchy's Tacos). Scrambled eggs, shredded cheddar cheese and crispy bacon presented on a freshly made, flour tortilla. Toss a bit of hot sauce onto it and yowza! Good breakfast! But I did not get coffee there because there seems to be some sort of inverse relationship at good taco restaurants when it comes to coffee. The better the tacos the worse the coffee. Odd, but the draw really is the tacos.

There's coffee to be had downtown but when I walked back by my current favorite shop there was a line out the door, and it's the kind of place that has a lot of people ordering complex drinks that require a lot of time and handiwork to get just right. I might have waited half an hour to get a cup. Instead, I decided to get something closer to home. And now I'll admit something that will get me kicked out of the society of "Pretentious Coffee Drinkers and Elitist Coffee Snobs International."  I actually, sometimes, like to get  coffee from our local McDonalds. I saw that the drive through was empty and did a quick racing turn onto the property and up to the ordering kiosk. I ordered a large coffee with two creams and paid a whopping $1.89. Seconds later I was back on the road, redlining with a super hot, large cup of coffee. And the implicit shame of buying coffee from a fast food chain. But in spite of my snobbish pretensions I have to say that, after decades of everyone throwing dark roasts at us consumers, a very smooth, lighter roast was a breath of fresh air. And I also like the shade of deep yellow they use on their cups!

The only thing left on my schedule today is to attend a cocktail reception/happy hour at one of the downtown hotels for the artists who provided the various Gov. Ann Richards photographs for the months long exhibition of work along Congress Ave. Lining both sides of the street between the Colorado River and the state capitol. A calm day for sure. 

So where are we with the far flung L mount systems that seem to be taking over every corner of the studio? 

I am still very happy with the camera bodies from both Leica and Panasonic and find little leverage points for each system that so far have precluded me from reaching some inflection point at which I go all in on one system or the other. I currently have all three of the S1 variants from Panasonic and each has its own strengths. The S1 is that all-arounder camera one hopes for, and it's the bargain of the system. The sensor is great. The latest firmware updates put it into much closer competition with the video-centric, S1H and mine is a bit scuffed up from wear which endears it to me even more. If I could have only one S1-variant it would be the original S1. 

To be honest, after the long and brutal season of making videos for Zach Theatre (stretching from August thru to late December last year) I've gotten less use from the S1H because my brain has tagged it as a video camera and I seem to making a subconscious but active attempt to discourage more video projects at the moment. As the pandemic dragged on I started to absorb the calming introversion that B and B practice and I've become less and less enchanted by the idea of being "a team player." Considering the $$$ I have tied up in the S1H and the lack of use it gets I ought to sell it. But I don't currently need the money and I just know that the minute I pack it up and ship it off the phone will ring and Netflix will want to produce the feature length movie of "The Lisbon Portfolio." They'll ask me to play the lead part, which I will gracefully decline, but I will insist on being one of the camera crews for the additional screen credit. They'll accept knowing how easy it will be to sideline me via editing. And scheduling. I'll suggest Daniel Craig for the lead. That should work. And the S1H is a Netflix "approved" video camera.

So, if I'm going to shoot part of that movie for Netflix I'm going to need that S1H. And besides, I think it's destined to become a classic.

That leaves the S1R, and the presumption on the part of nearly everyone who bought one is that we'd all be printing large and making dramatic crops to all of our photographs. Those things would necessitate the 47+ megapixel sensor and that would quell our concerns about the frame-to-frame speeds. But it never really works out that way and I find myself using the camera interchangeably with the S1 and resizing the files in post or just working it in Jpeg at the 23+ megapixel setting. And while shooting in 23+ I convince myself that the downsampling the camera is doing to get there is reducing noise and artifacts while increasing sharpness. It's a good rationale but I have no idea if it's true in actual practice. 

Doesn't matter as the S1 and S1R are nicely matched. Both have exquisite EVFs that are still pack-leading at resolution and optical quality. All the cameras take the same beefy batteries and I might as well keep the lot as the trade-in value has dropped past the point at which emotional pain would start to kick in. 

I think the S1 series is one of two professional mirrorless systems on the market. The cameras are big and very robust. There's rarely, or never, an issue with overheating or shutdowns and the cameras are a joy to hold. Even the menus aren't off-putting. They don't rival the Leica SL series menus for logic and clarity but there are not exercises in obscure cryptography either. 

And then there are the Leicas. Here I can point to two flaws in my original buyer's strategy. I bought the SL2 first because I assumed that I'd still need a high res camera to work professionally (I have now come to understand, emphatically, that 24 megapixels is the professional sensor size and is just right for almost any job but the most niche). I should have saved a thousand dollars and opted for the newly announced (at the time) SL2-S, which is a beast in its own right. And uses the same structural elements as the SL2. 

But if I had really been on my game I would have started out by buying a mint, used SL (type 601) body and testing the waters. After a good test run I would have found that I actually prefer the personality, and design, and menu/button structure of the SL and could have purchase three really well cared for SLs for the price of one new SL2. 

I've been keeping track of my use habits since having bought two SLs and the new SL2. Since the second SL arrived I've yet to pick up its much pricier and newer sibling (SL2) for anything but a random studio portrait. The SL creates files that really resonate with the way I like to see my digital images. The bodies seem indestructible and they are just eccentric enough to be cult items for me. I can't put them down. And I am worried that by writing this I'll be shooting myself in the foot by popularizing a camera that's so well aligned with my idea of what an "ultimate camera" should be that I feel like I should actively be trying to corner the market instead of enflaming it. 

But I'm trying to go all Buddhist here and resist the desire for always getting more. If the collection of SLs falls down and the cameras eventually fail, or become irreparable, I know I can always replace them with whatever new product is out there from Leica without too much remorse. There's a cherry SL right now at one of the dealers I like and it's taking some effort to resist grabbing "just one more." Which always reminds me of Monte Burns on the TV show, The Simpsons. He is explaining to young Lisa that while he is wildly wealthy: a billionaire, he always wants more. To quote: "....I'd gladly trade it all...for just a little more!"

The Leica SL2 is, in many ways, a perfect camera and therein lies its biggest issue for me. It makes taking  technically really, good images just too easy. Its proficiency takes away the friction which makes the process of doing art work for me. It's like having a cheat sheet for a test. It doesn't feel as though you've succeeded like you would if you really studied. 

I'll just leave it there. 

I'm deep into the lenses now and I'm sure it will drive Leica fans everywhere a bit crazy when I say that  most of the lenses I've come to depend on are either Sigma Art lenses or Panasonic Lumix lenses. There is a core set that's corralled for jobs and serious projects that require pushing for highest quality. The Lumix S-Pro 70-200mm f4.0 is perfect for everything I need at the long end of the range. I was sad not to be able to shoot real theater work all year long because that's why I bought this lens. It's perfect for wide open shooting and the combination of lens and in-body stabilization is perfect for stage lit performances. 

There is a battle going on in the mid-range. For the work lenses it's between the Panasonic 24-105mm, which is under appreciated by nearly everyone, and the newly acquired Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 Art lens. Both are amazing. I seem to have convinced myself that the f2.8 is necessary sometimes but I can't now remember how I talked myself into that when most of my current cameras can shoot at ISO 6400 with aplomb... But I did and now I have both. 

On Friday, for the wine project, I'll be shooting a mix of stills and video. While all the cameras can do both it's easier to set one body up for each different kind of task. For video I need to shoot in a Log format, need to use just the right ISO, need as much image stabilization as I can get; and will be working with a variable neutral density filter on the lens. It's the perfect use case for the S1H + the Panasonic 24-105. Together they provide between five and six stops of image stabilization while covering the complete range of focal lengths I need. I'll set that up and have it ready for quick video captures as we go. And if I never leave f4.0 all day...I'll be happy.

For stills I'll put the 24-70mm Sigma Art on the SL2 and use it for all the wide, and most of the longer, range. I'll set up a second camera; an SL (601) with an 85mm f1.4 Sigma Art lens for those times when I want to get just a bit closer to the subject or when I want more control over "single subject" depth of field. No need for ND on these cameras as they all feature electronic shutters that will go to 1/16,000th of second. I can shoot them wide open in bright light. Another reason to like the SL, especially, is that its native ISO goes all the way to 50 !!!

That's the routine for a very specific work project for a larger ad agency. I'll bring some other stuff but what I've outlined here is the main inventory. Were I shooting only still images on this job I might opt for an even more pared down kit package. I think it would be fun to do a job like this with just two bodies and two lenses. 

A fast 35mm on the SL2 body would give me the ability to be as wide as I usually want to get but with the capability (provided by the sensor resolution) to crop out to 50mm or even 70mm of focal lengths. More or less giving me a 35-70mm prime lens. The second body would be an SL with the 85mm f1.4 on it. While that body has "only" 24 megapixels of resolution I think it's still enough to allow me to crop the field of view down to match a 100mm lens. Boom. All done. Nothing else to drag along. 

I am packing up to do some photography just for me and in that sphere I am drawn to using the two SL bodies and older, manual focus lenses. I have a set of Zeiss lenses in 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 135mm which I am very happy with. I use them all mostly at one stop down and they are uniformly good. I'd cheat and add the Sigma 65mm f2.0 to this selection just to round out the all important near portrait range. It's a gear change but if the cameras match and the lenses sing it can be so much fun. 

I don't have much left on my "wish list." I'm pretty well equipped for the stuff I like to do. Now I just need to go out the door and do more stuff. There are a lot of people out in the world I haven't met yet. I'd like to meet more of them and make their photographs. 

So, how am I adjusting to the re-opening of Austin and beyond? 

I'm not sure. I seem to have lost a bit of my ability to meet strangers and convince them to collaborate with me in the making of portraits. Maybe I've lost a bit of my enthusiasm or maybe I've lost a bit of my hunger to do stuff. Early in my career the need to make enough money to eat and pay rent was intertwined with the desire to always improve the craft I practiced. Now, with money a less pressing issue it's hard to decouple the art from the imperative of making art. And that can be difficult. It's like removing a carrot. No stick either. But I really think it's like swimming. I've been (metaphorically) out of the pool (of photography) for over a year and it's not as easy as just diving back in and expecting to be in as good a shape as you were when you left off. There is a process of building back up. Getting back in shape. Getting back into a groove. 

There is also hesitancy born from ambiguity. Where do I need to stay masked? Where is it okay not to mask?What are the new protocols of re-engagement? And mostly, I need to constantly be aware that the people I might want to photograph are also emerging from isolation, trauma, loss and other issues that skew us from exactly how we interfaced in the past. Lots to navigate. Lots of empathy required. 

But then again, I don't want to continue forever down this boring path of being a cityscape photographer. It's getting tired for everyone. Especially me.