8.17.2022

The business changes but the joy of it seems to remain. Why photography is not "dead" yet.

A trucker trying to figure out where to park in a tight, urban shopping center.

I think humans crave simplicity. Photographs are one of the most efficient ways to tell a story quickly. Instead of endless paragraphs of description and discussions about how to use things, or do a certain process, a photograph or two makes quick work of communication.

Add a good, brisk caption to the photo and you've got a story ready to transmit to someone else's brain. 

But an endless parade of very similar images gets stale quick. When we want to stand out from the crowd it's incumbent upon us to come to the commercial world with a different point of view. That's how new work shows its value. It breaks through the clutter of copycat work.

I have a small index card on my bulletin board. It's Apple's branding message. It just says, "Think Different." 

I read posts every day that seem filled with anguish. The photographers writing them opine that all the subject matter in the world has been photographed a thousand or a million times. There's nothing original left to shoot. Which is like saying billions of people have fallen in love with other people so we there's nothing new there...

I laugh. Seems like there are only a handful of musical notes and yet songwriters have been using the same notes to make beautiful songs for thousands of years. And they do so, with great relish, even today. And each new artist comes with a new point of view. A new voice.

There are so many books published every year no one could possibly read them all. But they still get published. And the new stories reach new audiences. The stories, at their core, reprise but handful of subjects and narratives honed over centuries but every writer brings their own individual voice to their project. And we crave hearing the stories told in new ways. And we buy new books.

Great songs keep getting made. Great books keep being written. The Muses continue to show up at the sides of artists who are intent on making their own, unique voices heard and their work seen. Inspiration continues to flow. Each generation has its "golden age."

The utility and purpose of an image isn't meant only to satisfy an inquiry into the technical process of photography rather it's meant to be a message from one human to one or more other humans who are all  unique because they exist at a point in time that's never existed before and they draw from references that continue to morph as quickly as a virus. Both the artist and the audiences alive today, right now, are unique.

When we talk about the trillions of other photographs that exist we have to understand that the vast majority are tiny messages from one human to another. In many cases the audience is just the creator. But for dedicated artists every encounter with images is a brand new day. One that's never existed before. And if the artist can resist the desire to copy what everyone else sees then they are creating a message with a certain, albeit, temporary power to rise above the clutter. Even if only for a second or two. But it's the communication and the uniqueness that give a great image wings. 

The photo above is just a truck. I was walking along and it looked interesting to my audience = me. I snapped a photo. I'm sharing the photo. No one else will ever see a truck in exactly the same way. That doesn't make the image great. But it does make it different. And the fact that it was different and pleasing to me is all I can ask for in the moment. 

If we can remove the unnecessary drama from our adult lives we can simplify our existence. A simple existence means more time to look, experience, and curate the fun things we come across. Life should be like a good, happy walk through a vibrant downtown. Made even better with a camera in one's hands.

8.16.2022

Today's portrait: Jaston Williams. Playwright, actor, novelist

 

Jaston Williams. 

Jaston Williams is a legend in theater. Especially in Texas where he and Joe Sears invented and starred in "Tuna Texas", a long running, hilarious send up of small town Texas. The show toured nationally to sell out crowds. And did so year after year. His college alma mater is inducting him into their version of the "hall of fame" and he needed a new portrait for the honor. 

I have been photographing Jaston for at least 20 years now. We've collaborated on many projects and I seem to have become his "go to" photographer for portraits as well as show photographs and marketing. When he called I was delighted to book him as quickly as possible.

Because it was Jaston and because he respects the processes of fellow artists I decided to reach back to a different style of lighting than that I have fallen into lately. I wanted to use my big, 6 x 6 foot, double layer, white scrim as my main light source. It's flattering but also can provide a bit of lighting drama if you control the intensity of shadow on the unlit side of the face. 

So, there was one strong LED fixture aimed into the center of the 6 x 6 foot scrim construction placed at a 45° angle to Jaston with my camera peeking through the front juncture between fabric and c-stand. The light is 6 feet or so behind the scrim and Jaston is about five feet from the front of it.

The camera was a Leica SL2 fitted with the 90mm f2.8 Sigma i-Series lens set to f4 and 2/3rds. The ISO was 400 and the shutter speed was 1/30th of a second. I shot with Raw+L.Jpeg and the Jpeg was set to high contrast monochrome with added contrast. It's a look I like a lot. 

Recently a lot of internet "ink" has been spilt discussing the best way to get black and white images out of digital cameras. I come down firmly on the side of finding exactly the right camera for your way of working and then learning that camera with intensity, vigor and dedication and daily use. There is no "magic bullet" black and white camera on the market but having a methodology and routine will allow one to make the best use of any camera for making black and white images. Fine tune your recipe for the best results.

Now I'll let you in on the only secret I know about photographing interesting people. People like Jaston. Here it is: Invite the person into your studio but be sure you have set up all the lights, cameras, etc. beforehand. When they come into your space offer them a chair, hang up whatever wardrobe they've brought along, bring them a bottle of water or a really nice cup of coffee, and sit down in a chair across from them and catch up, socially, for half an hour or so. Don't touch the camera until you've had a good conversation, shared, listened and enjoyed the camaraderie. Only when you sense that your subject has become completely calm and at peace with the environment you've created do you move them onto the set and talk them through what you both hope to get out of the shoot.

Start photographing. Photograph a lot. If something's not working stop and change direction. Let them know when you see something you really like. Work that pose until it becomes fake and then move on again. If they brought extra stuff to wear try working with as many outfits as you can. You'll probably find one that makes the subject feel completely comfortable. 

Give your subject something to lean on. A table. A posing table. Whatever. Just don't have them stand alone in the middle of a room. Untethered. Give them a home base to exist around. Anchor them. My favorites are old photographic posing tables from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. They provide a good place to position your subject to keep them from pacing all over the place. They provide a sturdy surface on which to place hands. They are a convenient piece of furniture to place eyeglasses on. If the lighting style calls for it they can even  be a perfect place to put a white fill card for "under the chin" reflection. 

Guide the shoot. Ask questions. Listen.  Acknowledge. Then stop talking and shoot some more. 

Even though the light never changed this morning and the exposure was consistent we spent about two hours together to make our portraits. The first third of the shots I could probably toss without guilt but the middle third and the last third were speckled with great poses and expressions. In the two hours we worked most of it was conversation punctuated by, "Wait, that looked perfect! Hold that for me please. A little softer smile. A bit more serious." And then back to whatever topic we had been discussing in earnest. 

When Jaston left the studio I dived right into editing the images and dropped our frame count from about 422 to about 250. We had done four different wardrobe changes so maybe 60 or 70 images per shirt or sweater. I'm currently working with the black and white Jpegs but I'll make color Jpegs from the raw files so I can send Jaston the images in color first. Once he makes his choices I'll retouch and do any additional color corrections. 

When he got ready to leave he (paragon of virtue...) asked if I wanted his credit card number for payment. But you know what? I had so much fun and felt so good about the shoot that I declined to be paid and instead suggested that I should pay him. After all, this is always what I really wanted to do with my art.

It takes two to tango but it's even better if you actually learn how to dance.

And that's what I did today after swim practice but before lunch. The gallery is already up. Yay. More like this.

A Few More SOOC black and white Jpegs from Yesterday Afternoon...

Richard Avedon book: Evidence. At my third desk. The one in the living room.
That's mostly where I browse art books...

the back porch. If I were really wealthy I'd air condition it even though it's just screened in.
Then I could have breakfast out there every morning.


Caught this image quickly. It was hot soup. The bowl was burning her hands... almost.

I bought two of these coffee mugs in Santa Fe in April. Lost to black and white is the lovely, 
deep yellow inside the cup....



No filter needed when the Leica SL2 is set correctly.
I call this my SL2 Monochrome setting...









I must be losing weight. Those shorts look baggy.

 some camera brands are just much, much better at making monochrome images. Some are set up to shoot black and white as a horrible afterthought. 

8.15.2022

I was so worried that I was "pre-visualizing" my black and white shots wrong that I almost missed the shots...


All "stranger" images shot today around 5:30 pm. Post processed and uploaded right after dinner. 
Shoot a lot. Get then done quick. Learn a lot. 

Photographing in the streets takes a different sort of ambivalent disregard for personal space. The top four images here were all done of strangers I met today on 3rd St. while using a 21mm lens on a Leica SL2. You have to be close to fill the frame with a 21mm. Like...really close. After working with the 21mm for most of this afternoon lenses like the 28mm and 35mm seem almost claustrophobic. But I think the wider lens yields a more dramatic image. And you really have to get "buy in" from your subjects...

I didn't stop to consider how my camera was seeing. Whether or not, like the proverbial "bear in the woods", it has the potential to shoot color if I have it set instead for monochrome. I presumed that whatever I set in camera the camera was going to come along for the ride. Some cameras are better in monochrome than others. I never, ever could find a nice, in-camera, combination of parameter settings or tweaks in my Sony or Nikon cameras. The Fuji film simulations could be absolutely great. But the Leica SL and SL2 are in a totally different league. I go for the BW HC (high contrast) settings and actually add more contrast. The files come out exactly as I would have done them with traditional film except that they are sharper and better. 


The secret to mastering any function of any camera is to learn what it can do by relentless trial and error. Sitting in a chair looking at samples on the internet doesn't actually transmit the hard earned  knowledge you need to have in order to really "know" what's going to happen with the files every time you push the shutter button. But five or ten thousand photographs, shot the way you usually work, and shooting nearly everyday, will give you a much more intimate perspective concerning what to expect from your camera when you use it as a black and white instrument. In fact, you never have to turn on the color....if you don't want to.

Blog author self-portrait using an SL2 with a super cheap, super old Canon 50mm f1.8 FD lens. Camera set to monochrome, appropriately tweaked, and executed at ISO 12,500. Nice, crunchy grain.

This camera has become my Leica SL2 Monochrome. In an emergency I can push a hidden, secret button and get color. But...it really has to be a psychic emergency.  

How confident are you in shooting strangers on the street up close, with a 21mm lens? 


Do you believe your camera when it tells you it can shoot in black and white?


Who or what is in control of your photographic process?

 

Seen on the web today. A smart article about portraiture along with a wonderful portfolio of photographs.

 https://www.orartswatch.org/picture-this-notes-on-photographic-portraiture/

If you are sitting at your desk working on actuarial tables, fact checking your colleague's latest paper on accelerating erosion or typing up a pithy comment about cameras having their color stripped away from them and you are feeling a bit ..... vague, you may want to take a few minutes to hit the link above.

It's an article about the nature of portrait photography by an artist and writer I know who has sometimes visited the VSL blog. His name is Kenneth Dixon and I love the way he writes. And the way he thinks about portraiture. He sometimes goes by K.B. Dixon. 

I've reviewed several of this books on the blog in the past. 

I have no affiliation other than a respect for both of the genres of art in which he works. And I'm happy to know two great writers who hang out here from time to time.

Take a break. Read the article. It's calming.

8.14.2022

Down another rabbit hole. But not a very expensive one. Waiting on delivery of my new film camera. But not to shoot film....


 I'm the kid in the class that can't sit still. I want to move all the time. It's exciting for me. Annoying for some of my family. Incomprehensible to some of my friends. Especially when it comes to fun stuff like camera gear. Many see the purchase of camera gear as some sort of final race. An all out effort to find the very best stuff in the world, buy it, and check that box before moving on to the next task. Not me. I like the process of trying new stuff. And old stuff. And old stuff on new stuff. 

You might remember that I bought a couple of super cheap, really cheap, remarkably cheap Canon FD 50mm lenses last year, along with an inexpensive Canon FD to L mount adapter. And you've probably read recently that I have a newfound desire to photograph a bunch of stuff with those lenses. 

Part of it is the nostalgia of working with lenses that were current when I first became interested in photography in the mid-1970s, and part of my renewed fascination is the realization that images taken with those older lenses have a different look and ... it's one I quite like. In fact, there's a lot to like about both of the 50mm f1.8 FD lenses I have because they are both sharp by f2.8 (at least across most of the frame) and the colors from the lenses, when used with a Leica SL or SL2, are unique and simply beautiful. I know that's subjective so I'll readily admit that your mileage most likely will vary.

When I bought my first interchangeable SLR camera in 1978 it was a hard, hard stretch to come up with the cash for Canon's  very cheapest SLR and their cheapest lens. A Canon TX in a kit with the 50mm f1.8 FD. It took me a couple of semesters flipping hamburgers and scraping trays at the Jester dormitory food hall to save up enough. Not glamorous work but you've got to start somewhere...

https://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2022/08/the-very-first-lens-i-ever-bought-for.html

In the early days with the new camera nothing ever went through it but Tri-X black and white film. I rolled my own with a Watson bulk loader, developed it in a co-op darkroom in D-76 diluted 1:1, and printed it on double-weight Ilford Ilfobrom graded paper in the same co-op darkroom. It was all magical back then and my passion for photography kept me working part time jobs through most of my undergraduate career just to be able to pay for film, processing chemicals and print paper. I lived and breathed the stuff. And the idea that I would "upgrade" my lens never, ever crossed my mind ---- at least for the first two or three years. 

As I started to get work as a budding photographer/writer I upgraded the camera to a Canon FTb, in black enamel finish and along with the FTb the lens upgrade in the kit was a 50mm f1.4 FD lens. It was the hot standard lens of the day. Unless you were shooting with Nikon. Everything I shot with that kit looked great. Pretty soon the 50mm was joined by Canon's 24mm f2.8 and then a 135mm. And that was it for a while longer. 

Of course those were the golden years of commercial photography and as soon as I started making real "buy a car" "buy a house" money the relentless upgrades ensued. Unlike other famous bloggers I have never been much encumbered by crushing domestic responsibility so I was free to spend money like water. I just figured that since Canon and Nikon and Minolta kept introducing "better" and better cameras and lenses that it was only logical to keep pace with everyone else in the business. Keeping up with the Joneses, et al. So the FTb and the 50mm f1.4 FD went by the wayside. A trade-in no doubt for the F1 and the EF from Canon  and then, later, into the autofocus EF system. But in looking back at the hundreds and hundreds of black and white prints on double weight paper  I find that so many of my absolute favorites were the ones from both the TX and the FTb cameras and their attendant 50mm lenses. 

Part of that can be chalked down to youth and access. Most of my friends were handsome and beautiful. Everyone was happy to pose or just be documented, and I was unencumbered by excess knowledge about complex (and mostly unnecessary) lighting and technical voodoo. So only part of the magic I see when I look at the prints can reasonably be credited to the gear of the time. And another large part of credit was due, certainly, to the use of Tri-X film --- which is magic and amazing. Still. 

All of those lenses seemed to become irrelevant in the first decade and a half of digital photography because they either wouldn't fit the new cameras or were a tremendous hassle to use on DSLRs; if possible at all. In that period of incompatibility the prices of the older FD lenses dropped into the basement of gear pricing. You could pick up the coolest of the cool FD lenses for well under a hundred bucks a pop. 

The widespread acceptance of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras has changed the market once again and people have discovered that many of those older lenses which they thought to be decidedly inferior to more modern, AF, made-for-digital, lenses were anything but. In fact, the old lenses in many cases seem to have laid bare just how clinical, neutral and boring modern designs have become. Or how little aesthetic progress has been made. But the real contention for me about modern lenses is mostly how unfriendly they are for people who really want to manually focus them. It's like manual focusing is an afterthought. An add-on. Something camera makers have to add but really don't want to support. Non-mechanical focusing (focus by wire) generally means no hard stops at infinity, no hard stops at the MFD and no good depth of field scales engraved on the lens barrel. All tragic losses for people who value the control and (yes) quickness of manual focusing for street work and decisive moment photography. (Set the lens to a hyperfocal distance and then ignore the idea of relentlessly refocusing and just get on with the photography). 

Even the Sigma i-Series lenses which I have praised over and over again for their optical performance are mostly geared toward being AF dominant at the expense of fun manual focusing. They are NOT charming to focus with your fingers or to try to leave at a fixed focal point. But where AF tech has failed us weird, retro MF lenses from Chinese lens makers have come to the rescue with lots of fully manual choices. And I've plunged in and bought a number of them but even though I've been surprised at how good they can be the feel and process of focusing them is not as good as the focusing on the best of the Japanese MF lenses from the 1970s and early 1980s. 

My TTartisan 50mm f1.4 for full frame is nice and sharp wide open. It's really a relative bargain for a modern MF lens. But it's not nearly as nice to focus as my ancient Canon 50mm f1.8 FD lens. The focusing ring on the Canon is a perfect balance (even forty years later) between easy to turn but with just enough smooth resistance to allow for a feeling of great control. No glitches. No rough spots. Just a delightful fingertip responsiveness that was epidemic in the age where all lenses were meant to be manually focused. 

I wasn't as good a photographer, technically, when I was shooting film back in the old days. I didn't always hit focus. I was impatient. We depended on the leniency/latitude of film to compensate for our sloppy exposure discipline (or lack thereof) and so I never really knew the true potential of those old lenses and presumed that other writers were accurate when they categorized them as inferior to modern glass or just less sharp. Or less contrasty. But you should always test for yourself...

But then came the epiphany. I put an old Canon 50mm f1.8 FD lens (the one with the metal breech lock) on the front of a Leica SL via an adapter and shot with it for an afternoon. Later, in post production, I was taken aback by how much I liked the look and the sharpness of the files I'd shot out in the street. Some credit has to go to the camera which is likely much more accurate of an exposure machine than film cameras of the old days. And the AA filter-less sensor is certainly capable of greater sharpness and resolution than the older, black and white film, but the lens held up quite well and resolved, to my eyes, as much detail as I would get using current, state of the art lenses in the same focal lengths. 

Recently I decided to see what happens when one pushes the limits a bit. I put the Canon 50mm on the higher resolution SL2 body and shot for a while with that combo. It was gorgeous. It was a blend of technical adequacies with old lens character, and the slightly reduced contrast in the highlights seem to add to the sense of wider dynamic range. 

This led me down the rabbit hole of FD lens lore. The literature I've read leads me to believe that the "silver nose" 50mm f1.4 FD SSC lens was designed and produced as the "reference" lens for the FD system lens family. It's the lens by which the color and contrast of all the other FD lenses was compared. It was their optical "statement" of the time. It's coatings were sophisticated for the era and the incorporation of glass additive materials like lead and (radioactive) thorium, which have long since been banned from manufacture, led to an enhanced optical capability that was perhaps hidden by the limitations of film, film flatness and considerations of the foibles of wet processes. 

I started a search for a very good condition of the first generation of that particular lens. I'd narrowed down a few choices on Ebay but I'm always reticent to deal with sellers on Ebay because of the endless torrent of stories about negative buyer experiences there. A few days ago I was browsing through the website of a West Coast photography dealer when I came across an item that jumped out at me. The vendor had listed a Canon FTb, in black, with a very good condition early gen. 50mm f1.4 FD for the whopping price of a little under $150. For both. For the kit. Instead of ordering online I called the store and asked them some in-depth questions about the lens. I liked the answers and so I ordered the kit. 

I've dealt with that store a number of times before and feel confident that they'll deliver exactly what they described. 

I might buy a roll of Tri-X and run it through the camera just for old time's sake but my real reason for the purchase is just the lens. A lens that will go right on the front of an SL2 body just in time for our vacation to the coast. 

I have high hopes for the lens. If it's a tiny bit better than my existing f1.8 version I'll be well satisfied. If it's not great I won't be overwhelmed with disappointment. If it's not great I'll stick the kit on a shelf as a piece of memorabilia from my film days. But if it does what I want it to I'll rush to shoot some square, black and white portraits with it and the big Leica body in a kind of mixed-era renaissance for my photography. 

I've now got my eyes out for a really nice 85mm lens from the same era. After years of spending way too much money chasing perfection in cameras and lenses it feels great to be able to happily embrace a few of the bargains that are out in the wild and also know that their "look" corresponds well to the way I want things to look when photographed

That's about it for today. Anticipation of delivery is palpable. Vacation looms. 

Pool Notes: Swimming this week has been really, really nice. We've got the water temperature at a comfortable and sustainable level and we can all feel the benefit in our ability to go harder and faster. My swims at the other,  colder pool have also been really nice. It's fun after a week of competitive swim practice to have a lane to myself on an early morning and just to work on the mechanics of my stroke without worrying about times, goals or the enthusiasm of other swimmers. I'm working hard on getting my butterfly stroke back into racing form. That's a challenge. I'm burdened with the memory of how much easier it was to swim that stroke fast back around the same time I was buying my first interchangeable lens. There's something about being 19, training with college competitors, etc. that's not able to be duplicated by a 66 year old who has let his butterfly stroke languish. 

Boy Notes: The boy's recovery is coming right along. He jettisoned (narco) painkillers a couple days after the bones were surgically set and he's already partially back to work. I keep dropping by (calling first!) to drop off groceries and do "dad" things like changing his A/C filter. He gets the stitches out this week and starts P.T. after that it's a smooth glide path back to full function. 

People bitch about USA healthcare but at every step he's gotten incredibly compassionate and expert care. I'm thankful for that. He's been seen right away and each specialist from the orthopedic practice has taken a lot of time to explain every step to the kiddo. I have to mention that the practice was a client in the past and is the practice that provides orthopedic consulting and care to the UT athletes. In fact, two of the doctors are former UT All American Swimmers. Go with what you know. And who you know.

8.12.2022

How is that TTArtisan 50mm f1.2 lens when used at its close focusing distance and wide open or near wide open apertures? Well, I do have a sample...


 This was taken at the minimum focusing distance for the lens and the aperture was f1.4. The depth of field is, of course, quite shallow but where the lens is in focus it's seems very sharp and detailed. 

Just a field note. 

Why would I use a cheap, manual, APS-C lens on a top of the line, full frame camera? Why?


It's pretty obvious to me and everyone else in photography that there are two distinct kinds of photographers. One faction has the mindset that pushes them to do everything as logically as they possibly can. They will spend lots of time narrowing down gear choices until they find the one piece in each category that gives them the "best" set of compromises they can find within a price range which they consider acceptable. Barring any severe post purchase disappointment they will use the collection of non-overlapping equipment until the wheels fall off. They wax eloquent about owning the same gear for years and years which they believe gives them special and Mariana Trench deep knowledge of every square centimeter of their kit and it's firmware. They generally have every subset of the menus memorized and have spent days, weeks, years fine-tuning custom function buttons --- which are also completely committed to memory. 

And then there are the people practicing photography who like to have something different for lunch every day. Who don't own vacation homes because they want to go somewhere different each time. Who own more than one pair of dress shoes. Who like sticking their toes into new stuff and seeing just what they can do with it. 

News flash! There is no "best" camera and there is certainly no "best" lens. There are lenses that are highly corrected and extremely, clinically sharp and then there is a huge range of lenses, old and new, that have character, faults, foibles, weaknesses, odd strengths and, most importantly --- personality. 

The photographers who have NOT battened down the hatches, frozen their credit cards in ice cube trays and taken vows of new photo gear abstinence are sometimes drawn to eccentric optical solutions like fraternity boys are drawn to beer. Like republicans to authoritarianism. Like chubby people to fad diets. 
Like .... well, you probably get the picture. 

For these people (the second group) photography can be a serious undertaking but it's clearly leavened with a bigger amount of sheer fun. Of off center experimentation and with a huge dose of disregard for following the "rules" of engagement the more logical and economically wise photographers devise to homogenize the practice of photography and to make it "safe." Repeatable. Acceptable. Consistent. Codified. 

I bought two of the TTartisan 50mm f1.2 lenses because I wanted to see just how good a $99, made in China, totally manual lens could be. I bought one in the L mount variety and the other in the micro four thirds lens mount variety with the idea of using them on both (or all three) systems. I've used the L mount version on the CL for about six months now and have found it to be a very good lens with a few caveats. It does have a lot of barrel distortion and there are no lens profiles for it in Lightroom (which is my preferred "front door" for post production. You'll have to figure out a correction for the lens yourself. 

But recently I've been playing around with older, vintage 50mm lenses including a Nikon 50mm f1.4 (pre-AI), two versions of the Canon 50mm f1.8 FDs, as well as time spent with the Contax/Yashica 50mm f1.7. All are basically good lenses that work okay wide open and then clean up progressively as one stops down toward f8.0. Since most have ancient and simpler coatings than current products I find them to have lower contrast. Not desperately lower contrast but enough to be evident in side by side comparisons with more modern fifties.  They are also less resistant to flare.

A good measure of my ongoing interest in 50mm lenses likely stems from my early embrace of photography, a limited budget at the time, and the efficiency of buying a first camera "kit" complete with a normal lens (50mm). But I would also say that it's a very natural focal length which more or less replicates the way humans process seeing.

When I photograph with a modern 50mm lens I am sometimes underwhelmed because the lens is clinical and analytic in a way that doesn't allow room for a different technical interpretation. They tend to be very effective literal documentary tools but less appropriate for images that need some visual friction in order to enhance a different presentation process. 

I like lenses like the TTartisan 50mm f1.2 very much not because they are sharp and contrasty; which they certainly can be, but because they can also be flawed and curiously alluring for many kinds of images. I especially like shooting this lens in conjunction with black and white camera settings because the lower overall contrast, when compared to something like the Panasonic 50mm 1.4 S-Pro lens, enhances the feel of a longer range of gray tones and a gives an impression of a wider dynamic range because of lower contrast in the higher values.

As other reviewers of lenses have written, the TTartisan 50mm f1.2 seems like two lenses. When used at f1.2, 1.4, or even f2.0 there is lots of vignetting, lower sharpness in the corners and softer look overall. Stop the lens down to f2.8, or more obviously f4.0 or f5.6 and the lens becames more "modernly" sharp. Competitive with all my legacy lenses and almost even with a current lens such as the Panasonic 50mm f1.8 S. 

If I use the lens on a full frame camera at the "open gate" of the frame there is obvious and uncorrectable mechanical vignetting. But if one uses a full frame camera set to a 1:1 aspect ratio then the lens just covers that frame with slight optical vignetting (correctable) in the corners when used at wider apertures and no vignetting from f4.0 all the way to f11. But even used wide open in 1:1 the vignetting is correctable and when I look at the photo at the top of this post the effects of any vignetting are obscured by the distributions of tones away from the main subject. In that example, when using the lens wide open, I see the underlying strength of the lens which renders the statue beautifully, with restrained highlights and open shadows, which makes the file very malleable in post production. The image just below is an example of using the lens stopped down to between f2.8 and f4.0 which shows off the relative sharpness of the lens.

So, if I embrace the foibles and weaknesses of a lens like this as an aid to artistic interpretation why then would I mate it with a state of the art camera? Well, the Leica SL2 has a very high resolution EVF which aids in and adds pleasure to accurate manual focusing. Especially when combined with the ease of punching in to a magnified frame for very fine focusing. Then, the sensor resolves 47.5 megapixels at the full size of the sensor but it also delivers 31.5 megapixels of resolution at the square, 1:1 crop setting, which is ample for just about any use and is probably beyond the resolving capability of the lens anyway. 

Added to that is a very nice monochrome setting in the camera's menus which gives me a much better starting point for later tweaking of the files. So, lens with personality combined with a highly capable shooting platform makes for a nice blend of tech and art. What's not to like?


I was curious to see how the lens would handle flares such as potentially caused by
 the direct sun reflected off my favorite new downtown building. Here (above) is the full frame. 
While just below is a prodigious crop of the part with the sun reflection. I think the lens does quite well 
if used anywhere but wide open....


The TTartisan lens under consideration here is widely available under $100. That makes experimenting with one a low cost, low risk undertaking. With the pace of inflation this lens has become almost free.

My next trial will be of the TTartisan 50mm f0.95. Just because.....zero point nine five! 
 

8.11.2022

Blanton Museum Battle Collection. Trying out my new 1:1 specialty lens.

Camera: Leica SL2
Lens: TTartisan 50mm f1.2

This lens only completely covers an APS-C sensor.
I used it in the full frame mode but with the aspect ratio in 
the camera set to 1:1. Wide open there is some corner
vignetting but when stopped down past f2.8 it goes away.
Even wide open it can mostly be corrected in post processing.

Shot mostly wide open.




Gesture.




Camera: Leica SL2
Lens: Canon 50mm f1.8 FDn


 

It's impossible to really discuss how stuff looks anymore. Some people want to reference prints which we'll never see while some of the audience only sees art on a cellphone screen. Amazingly bad way to analyze a visual medium.

 


This image was taken using good technique, high shutter speeds and an optimum aperture. The shadows are open and the highlights are not burned out. It was done with a 47.5 megapixel, state-of-the -art camera. I can enlarge it on the Retina screen in the studio up to 200% and see lots and lots of detail. The granularity of the rock faces. The detail on the plant leaves and more. I can easily print this as big as I'd ever want. 

In a small size, such as the reduction to 3200 pixels and then the additional reduction and compressions courtesy of Blogger, a viewer using a phone or small iPad to view will see none of the technical "features" that might make the image worth looking at. Features that make the image more immersive for me. The distillation for the web will gut much of the impact that something like a well printed and presented 4x6 foot print might have. So...how can we possible have a discussion about the merit of either the image or the technical underpinnings of its creation with any common context? Or a common visual language?

We often ask where the great photographic artists of today are hiding. This comes from our pervasive habit of judging everything on media that represent the lowest common denominators of presentation. Tiny, low bit depth screens, viewed in poor lighting conditions after being squeezed through the internet pipeline with all of its attendant compromises. 

We do have choices though. We can search out the galleries which may be showing work of good artists and see the images as they were intended. If that's not possible we can try to hunt down better channels for the work and take the time to look at what's being produced on monitors that are actually accurate and are positioned in such a way as to minimize random light, the color casts of rooms in which they are situated and the kinetic clutter that comes from looking at images while out in the world and on the move. 

Having tried it I can tell you that a nicely done image on a big, color corrected screen in a room with controlled light is much, much (infinitely?) better than trying to balance a cellphone in one hand, a half unwrapped burrito in the other while rocketing through a tunnel on a hard seat in a bumpy subway car with flickering flourescent lights from the last century overhead while anxiously awaiting your next stop.

Even magazine writers from the print days realized that the actual work and the diminished, commercially printed paper version of the work were wildly different and, when writing reviews about gear, always cautioned readers to chose to believe the writer's description over the vague final print sample offered up by a web-press printed magazine page made with crummy paper. 

I made a mistake of blogging yesterday. I put up some images of an aerial dance troupe. The images as I see them are gorgeous and detailed but apparently when viewed on lesser media under worse viewing conditions the subjects of the images seem too small; too distant. We have now flattened a general audience for photography on the web down and down so that now all that's expected of an image is that the design be rendered big, graphic and simple for easy cellphone screen consumption. 

This is why I make every effort track down the bits of good work I occasionally find on places like Instagram and see if the creator has an actual website that I can visit. To see if the artist provides a better viewing experience for those with the time and energy to drill down a bit.

It's also the reason why I like to hit as many galleries and museum shows as I can in a year. I can see work more or less as it was intended by its creator and it's always a bit transformative; if the work is good. 

Seeing a Chuck Close photo realistic painting splashed out eight feet by ten feet in size and beautifully lit on a museum wall is a totally different experience than coming across the same image as a cropped, 4x4 inch Instagram image even on the best of screens. 

I am often asked by commenters why we don't talk more about the "art" of photography here on the blog instead of going over lots of gear and technical work considerations and it's basically because of the inability to have a common standard for accessing viewing the works. It's hard to agree about the amazing detail in even an Alex Soth print if most of the audience has only seen the work as a weak copy on a small screen and the writer is talking about his experiences seeing the work on a museum wall in its original printed size. On a print that was the photographer's final intention.  So, when we do try to talk about the work we end up with so many different avenues for viewing, each of which is a diminished and poor replica of the original,  that it's impossible to make many meaningful assessments. 

I'm reminded of all the times people have presented work to the masses done by great artists only to have the works judged by people who have never seen art the way it was intended by the artist. "The Mona Lisa should have had more fill light. And the artist should have gotten a better white balance on her face....."  So many hobbyists, when viewing Henri Cartier-Bressson photographs on the web rush to tell the world that his work is bad because it isn't sharp enough. And suggest that he should have used an autofocus camera. Etc. Etc. They might have taken the time to see the work in one of the well printed books of HCB's work...

Group think tends to peel off concept, gesture and mood and replace it with "easy to see" and "easy to look at" work instead. 

That's why we have an endless supply of skinny, big chested, just post adolescent, half-dressed women to look at on Instagram and very few images of substance or interest. Sex, food and cats. That's about it. But I guess we get the audiences we create.

I'll remember that the next time I post anything that falls out of the easy view parameters.

8.10.2022

Aerial Dancing at Seaholm Power Plant. Austin, Texas.

#BlueLapisLight
An aerial dance troupe.
Practicing for a series of shows in September.

It was breezy and less humid this morning in Austin. I grabbed a camera and headed out for a walk while the heat index clocked in around 90°. Funny how context and comfort go together. 

I was feeling camera-egalitarian so I paired the Leica SL2 with a battered by serviceable Canon FDn 50mm f1.8. The last FD iteration of their manual focusing "nifty-fifty." It's the one without the metal bayonet lock and it has a 52mm filter size instead of the previous models' 55mm filter size. But it's a charming, small and light lens that I think does a wonderful job as part of a rudimentary walk-around kit. And actually, the optical performance is not at all poor. By f4.0 and f5.6 it's actually quite nice. 

The focusing ring is smooth and light on the touch. It moves without too much effort and that makes it a wonderful choice for manual focusing. It's a very simple optical formula with 6 elements in four groups and a set of five curved aperture blades. I use it on the Leica SL(x) cameras with a Fotodiox Canon FD to L mount "dumb" adapter. There is no electronic connection whatsoever between the lens and the camera so everything, EVERYTHING is manually set. 

I walked along with my camera slung across my chest on what Peak Designs calls a camera "leash" and it was comfortable enough. I turned the corner into the Seaholm Power Plant (now decommissioned and an active retail and office environment with a nice central courtyard) and walked right into a really fun aerial spectacle. Graceful dancers suspended dozens; maybe up to 100 feet, up in the air pushing off the sides of the old power plant cooling towers into classic dance and action movie poses. 

They were practicing for an upcoming series of performances that will take place on the same towering cylinders in the middle of September. Being a bit acrophobic I was astounded at the ease and fearlessness of the dancers. I found it all quite amazing.

The lens and camera worked well but I wish I'd brought along a few longer lenses. But isn't that always the case? You chance upon something and you just have to make the best of what you brought. Thankfully the high resolution of the camera sensor meant that crossing by 50% wasn't an issue. 

There was more to the walk but I was just thrilled by what I found in the first five minutes. I'll definitely go back for the show....












Cheap lenses on pricy cameras. It's a thing.


8.08.2022

Same lesson over and over again...


 Like many photographers who are inordinately fond of gear I keep looking for that one perfect lens or camera that will unlock my true photographic potential. Yeah...as if. 

If you read the blog regularly you'll see that I've really tried hard to substitute hardware for talent. Over and over again. But as the old saying goes: "Wherever you go, there you are." Or, in my world: "What ever camera you are shooting with you still have the same photographer." 

In a moment of delusional weakness I actually paid full pop for a Leica 24-90mm zoom lens for the SL system. I thought that this would be the one. But it's big and heavy and a slog to carry around, and when I did finally cart it everywhere with me I found my images to be maybe a bit sharper but by no means any better in terms of insight, impact or overall splendor. It took me decades to stumble into the trap of considering new gear as an important factor in successful imaging and I'm afraid it's also taken me additional decades to figure out (or to admit to my recalcitrant techie self) that all of that motivation to buy new stuff was an error. Not a life or death error but certainly a stumbling block of sorts. 

When you get bit by the acquisition bug you waste a whole lot of time doing mindless comparisons between products which are, for the most part, far better than anyone really needs them to be.  You waste time watching obvious shills for affiliates wax on and on about the "glory" of the latest 35mm lens or the perfect Q2 camera. You waste effort in working for more money only to give up a big part of your profits to buy yet another step "forward." You encounter many opportunity costs. Trading time you could have spent finding a great model, a great location or a great client in exchange for another piece of gear that will eventually, again and again, lay bare that the only important thing is the strength of your ideas and your own concept of a photographic vision. 

Why am I beating this dead horse once again? Hmmm. A few weeks back I came across an older zoom lens that was labeled with a brand badge that marketing people have inflated into an icon in the industry. It was an ancient, heavy, well used Yashica/Contax zoom lens made by Kyocera in Japan, but festooned with the Carl Zeiss branding on the front ring. It was offered used for "only" a couple of hundred dollars. I bought it.  I like it but I don't know why...

I went out shooting some landscapes yesterday and intended to do the whole shoot with my newly acquired Sigma 35mm lens just to see how that would work out. But, as an afterthought I put the Yashica/Contax zoom in the backpack and brought it along. After a few preliminary shots I got bored sticking with one focal length so I pulled out the big zoom lens. The Contax-to L-mount adapter makes it look even bigger than it really is. I added a cheap, rubber lens hood for some protection against flare. 

The rest of my time spent on the hot rocks was occupied shooting with the big, old zoom. It's a bear to shoot. It's used in "stop down" mode exclusively so you have the choice of slowing way down and opening the aperture to its maximum in order to fine focus. If you are shooting at f8 or f11 the depth of field delivered to the finder makes fine focusing hard. Really hard. Couple that with a "one touch" zoom mechanism and you'll really have to work to get stuff in focus and ready to shoot. It's hardly a quick process...

With the current Leica zoom lens all of this gets handled by the camera. No user sweat is involved in getting stuff in focus. 

But here's the deal, the $250 used lens was perfectly adequate for the photographs I had in mind out in the field. The reality is that we're mostly using the lenses at something like f5.6 or, even more likely, f8-f11 and at those middle apertures each lens is delivering image quality to the camera sensor that is more or less identical. Which, once you've spent five or six thousand dollars on a different lens is something that's hard to admit. Especially to such a critical audience as yourself.

It's a bit unreal to come to grips with the fact that you've duped yourself into believing that a specific piece of gear can be so, so, so important to a process that you can rationalize spending a fortune on a lens that you end up rarely using. Which also brings up the question of why I chose to drag along an older and supposedly less capable lens instead of instantly reaching for the penultimate lens in the collection. 

And I think, after pondering this last night, the reality is that working harder at making an image seems to be more fun than working less hard and letting the camera and lens do the heavy lifting for you. When I saw the image I'm sharing at the top of this post I also realized just how much post processing has to do with the success or failure of an image, tech-wise. The image is enhanced with a Leica SL2 preset I got from The Leica Store Miami and parts of the image have been selectively subjected to the clarity slider or have saturation of certain colors enhanced. 

That the $250 lens can make a file that can be quickly and easily post processed to equal the output from a much more expensive lens is deflating and basically delivers us back to the the same old story: It's not about the lens. It's not the camera. There is no "better" brand. There is no special sauce. It's all up to me. Or all up to you, or all up to whoever is out photographing. If we point the world's best camera and lens at something boring you get a nice, but basically boring photograph. Point decades old gear at an exciting subject and you capture the excitement without much (or any) compromise. 

My early work was all about people. As I got older fewer and fewer of my personal photographs have been of young, beautiful people as my age and access marched in reverse ratios to each other in lockstep. And here, now, I have relegated myself to photographing something I have very little interest in --- landscapes. And why? So I can "test" out my camera or my lens and share the results with people I have mostly never met. And who mostly disagree with my assessments.

It's not a very awe inspiring confession. But over the course of the last two decades the world, the universe and all of us have allowed for a near total homogenization of what was once a richly diverse craft to take place. At least where subject matter and style were concerned. Now it feels like we're just going through the steps in order to keep a sidelined hobby alive. Billions of cat whisker photos later...

Sobering. For sure. 

I'm sure I can fix this. At least I think I can. But it's tough if you have to learn the same lessons over and over again until they actually sink in and do some good.

I have moved from the hobby of taking photographs to the hobby of spending money with an almost seamless efficiency. I wish there was someone to blame other than myself. 

But there we are.