1.14.2011

And so it begins. My first impressions about the EPL2 Camera.


It's a fun day when cool little cameras come from beyond and I get to play with them in a consequence free environment.  If you've followed my blog for any time at all you'll know that I have a real soft spot for the Olympus Pen cameras.  I think these guys are fulfilling a vast market segment that caters to non-professional photographers who want a small and light camera that can use long lenses to photograph their kids at soccer games and little league games but at the same time can be put in a purse or a really big pocket.  Pros and advanced amateurs like their big cameras but only because they tend to think of themselves as "outliers" who need that extra 5-10% of performance and features that the big manufacturers cram into their full size cameras.  The camera that came today is one I reached out and asked Olympus if I could review.  It's their new EPL2.  It's not meant to be their top line camera, it's a refresh of the EPL1.  In the next week I'll be shooting with it and carrying it with me as much as possible and on Monday the 24th I'll post an in-depth user's report about the camera and both lenses.

Why am I so interested? Because I've shot with the EP2 for a year and the EPL1 for almost a year and find them to be wonderful art cameras.  The kind of non-threatening, street shooting camera that will give you good results under most conditions and give the option of using an incredible range of legacy lenses from a bunch of sources.  This camera line has spawned an aftermarket in lens adapters for marks as varied as Leica and Nikon.  The updated camera should give me better high ISO performance, great video and easier handling with the new surround dial on the back.



Another thing that interest me is the Penpal PP-1 which is a bluetooth device that sits in the accessory shoe and should enable me to transfer images from the EPL2 to any other bluetooth enabled device.  That means I could send images to my laptop or you iphone via the camera menu.  Pretty darn cool.  I'll see how well it works with a couple of Mac laptops.


I guess the guys at Olympus PR didn't know about my stash of Pen and Pen compatible lenses so they sent along the new 40-150mm zoom lens.  It's incredibly light and should be silent enough to use with the video mode and, hopefully, not register on an audio track.  I'm more interested in putting on my 60mm 1.5 lens and shooting some portraits but I'll put the 40-150mm thru its paces as well.


I just threw this image (above) in because I like the way it goes out of focus on the edges.  Not because I'm making a special point about the lens.  Just wanted you to know.  I was shooting this stuff with a Canon 7D and a 50 macro 2.5.  The lighting is solely from an LED ringlight, which I think is really cool.


My first impression of the overall system is how small and lightweight it is.  Even with lens attached and battery installed.  It feels much lighter than the EP2 and even a bit lighter than the EPL1.  This is probably the last time you'll see an image of this camera while in my possession without the EVF-2 electronic viewfinder.  I think that this is the pivotal accessory that makes this whole system covetable.


The screen on the back is bigger (3 inches) and much higher res (460K).  Not quite the same as a Nikon D3x but wildly better than anything we had on a camera three years ago at just about any price.



Having the wheel on the back should make it easier to change aperture and shutter speeds.  I love the black finish.  It's fine with me if they make a chrome one as long as I don't have to buy it.  Overall the camera and lens package is not much bigger than a Canon G12 and I can think of a bunch of reasons why I'd much rather spend the extra cash.  Here are some of the reasons:  Nikon 50mm 1.1.2, Leica 35mm 1.4 Asph., eight Olympus original Pen FT manual focus lenses.  If you need more reasons then how about a sensor that's over five times the surface area and gives a  (we'll see) clean 1600 ISO and the potential to go to 6400.



The final "thumbs up" that I'll give to Olympus is that they've kept the battery the same so that all of us who already shoot various Pen models will be able to use our stash of batteries interchangeably.  Thank you.

Stay tuned for more random explorations.  It is really pretty.  I can hardly wait for the battery charger to give me the green light.

Note:  If you do Twitter you could follow me.  Just hit the link on the left side of the blog....

1.13.2011

A meeting of the minds. Working pros meet academia.

For the last few years I've been a member of the advisory board for the photography program at Austin Community College.  Once a year all the members of the advisory board meet and exchange information with the chair and the faculty of the program.  This exchange of information helps the faculty by supplying real world feedback to make sure that their offerings reflect the industry.  Since the working pros come from different sectors of photography their points of view are all a bit different and that helps to smooth out the outliers.

The program yields an associate degree and, per Texas rules, is very much a vocational program aimed at turning out people who can go to work in the field.  It's not a fine arts program that doesn't need to take income earning potential into consideration.  It is also the second largest associate photography program in the country (USA).  The quality of education is very good and the facilities would leave many working pros panting in envy.  State of the art Macs abound as do Epson 3880 printers, high end film scanners and a king's ransom in Profoto Lighting gear and accessories.  It's a good school and they make a point of pulling in guests to do evening lectures on a wide range of topics.  In a short space of time I listened to presentations from Jack Reznicki, Vincent Laforet and Will Crockett.

Austin is already a heavy duty photo town with UT's art and photojournalism schools turning out their share of students as well as a great program at St. Edwards University.  There's even an Art Institute just up the road that churns out photographers.  But the ACC program does a better job than any of them to prepare students for the business aspects they will encounter in the real world, and they do at least as good a job (I'd say better) teaching the nuts and bolts.  You want a big dose of art history or art theory or visual rhetoric with your technical knowledge?  Not going to happen at ACC.

But back to my point.  What did we discuss and what was our consensus?  To a person, from real world experience, we've come to the conclusion that in a second tier, regional market like Austin, jammed packed with aspiring newcomers who drive the market down, anyone wanting to make a living and earn $60 to $80K per year will likely have to become more than "just" a photographer.  We will have to be flexible enough to create, or for us veterans, rebrand ourselves as multidisciplinary content creators.  I spoke with two of the leading photographers who service the wedding and portrait markets and their sales are way down.  The corporate guys have seen their budgets cut in half.  We agreed that we'll all have to look beyond the traditional role and create new profit centers in our businesses.

Some of the avenues we talked about were obvious.  Most of the corporate shooters are already knee deep in becoming video producers for their existing and new clients.  One wedding photographer is branching into wedding planning.....and that's a natural and organic extension.  I spend as much time writing about photography and supplying the copywriting for many of the ads I shoot as I do behind the camera.  Others have gravitated into one-on-one teaching, group workshops and workshops that offer experiential entertainment.  A glamor photographer is busy creating apps of his most popular work for people to load onto tablets and laptops for a modest fee.  In nearly every niche photographers are stretching out to find natural adjuncts to their basic skill sets.

As a side note we talked about rationally identifying whether or not what we are selling is what the consumers want to buy.  The consumer side of the business was always monetized around the idea that people wanted to have prints.  And that the print represented the value source. But a whole new generation gets their hit of family photos, wedding photos and more on a 50 inch LED TV or an iPad or a phone screen.  They're just not interested in prints and if they do buy them they are looking for small and manageable, not big and framed.  So, why aren't the photographers upselling the shooting part of the equation and then delivering it on a customer friendly platform?  Why shouldn't wedding couples look for their coverage to be delivered on a tablet, with a back up on DVD?  Why should they have to want prints if they don't?

And in commercial photography why do we keep aiming all our focus on advertising agencies if they are the prime users of cheap stock?  Why not also go directly to the clients and put our selling proposition to the final arbiters as well as their de facto gatekeepers?

Even in marketing we've gotten pushed into a narrow structure.  At some point everyone decided that all marketing could be done electronically.  We abandoned post cards and print ads and shows on the walls of chic coffee houses and bars and we made everything virtual.  But everyone did it at once and now we have a billion needles in one really large haystack and most of the people who come to the haystack aren't even in the market for our services.

Interesting to me is that everyone talked about how much market share of holiday shopping ended up at Amazon.com.  But, reality check, e-commerce only accounted for about 9% of total holiday shopping.  The other 91% of the money walked into the stores.  And we need to understand, as working photographers, that while the allure of "free" advertising and marketing on the web is a powerful concept it may not be effectively reaching the people who write checks to us.

If I had the budget to experiment (and fewer pressing projects on the schedule) I'd look for local advertising the reaches my market (executives and upper tier marketing folks) and I'd probably do well running radio spots on news and talk radio during drive time.  I'd also do well with a few quarter page print ads in the business journals.  Wouldn't be sexy web marketing, and it sure wouldn't be free, but I bet I wouldn't have a single competitor crowding the airwaves and I'd have a pipeline straight to the likeliest buyers instead of everyone out there who has enough time on their hands to cruise the web and drink coffee.

So, will the curriculum change to register these new directions and thoughts?  If it does I think it will be more glacial than the speed of business and in a year or two we'll be identifying new areas to concentrate on.  But it does remind me that all of this (photography, marketing and business ) is a moving target and the sooner we deal with it the more successful we'll be.  The web?  Maybe.  Postcards?  Definitely.

1.12.2011

Self assigned and out of my comfort zone. Push and grow.


 Belinda buys these bags of clementines every time she heads to the grocery store.  I'm not a real clementine fan but she sure is.  Loves them.  Yesterday she came home with another bag and for once I paid attention because I'd just put away this cool glass platter and I thought the two colors would look great, contrasted.  So I grabbed the bag of clementines and the glass platter and headed across the walk to the studio.  I'd been itching to wipe out the big LEDs and light something other than a human face.



I must have tried 50 or 60 variations to get stuff I liked.  And it was hard.  Like getting back into swim practice after taking months and months off.  I'd try a few clementines on the platter and I'd try all the clementines on the platter.  I had three different lights I was using.  I had my 5d2 on a tripod with the 24-105mm lens.  I tried different angles and different focal lengths.  I tried different lighting ratios and everything from one light to all three.

I played with live view, to good effect.  I've posted these images just to show what I was working with.  I'll never show them to a client but I'll chalk it all up to research.  And I'll try this again next time Belinda brings in a large bag of clementines.  I'll try until I master the art of clementine and platter photography.  Because I'll be able to apply what I learn to other jobs.  

So, what did I learn in my two hours of mini-orange juggling yesterday evening?  I'll start with the most important thing:  If you want a good white background don't even bother to start out with a piece of foamcore.  Go right to the shiny white formica.  And make sure there's some rear light illuminating said background to drive the detail in the whites to zero.

Live view is cool but it doesn't show you what the image looks like at f16 until you push the stop down button or take the shot and review it.  

Using one light on many clementines at a very low angle yields gloppy looking areas of shadow and it's not very attractive.

Big LED lights work really well for still life work, even without diffusion.  More is more fun.  I used two of the 500 bulb fixtures and one of the 1,000's.  Color correction was a non-issue.

Clementines actually taste pretty good.

I'm not a designer.  It's always better for me to have a great art director standing by to arrange things and decide on points of view for any subject that doesn't smile back at me.

I learned that you can try and try and try but at some point you have to give credit where credit is due.  Art direction can be crucial.

Thankfully, after several hours of pushing and prodding and focusing and mumbling, the phone rang and it was Belinda, telling me that dinner was ready.  Saved by the bell.

But today I was out shooting a portrait and I felt that my compositional skills seemed just a bit better than usual.  Maybe these kinds of exercises convey the same benefits as physical exercise.  

I like the platter.




1.11.2011

Everything I said about the EPL1. It goes for the EPL2 as well.




I know this is old news on the web but Olympus just introduced my cheap "dream system" camera.  I'll take it in black, please.  It's basically an upgrade of the EPL1 that's been on the market for the better part of a year.  I've used mine (the EPL1)  extensively and I've found it to be the best of all the smaller cameras on the market.  Even better than the EP-2.  Why? Because they optimized the 12 megapixel sensor so that, for a while, it was the sharpest and lowest noise Olympus camera on the market.

The one reason people preferred about the EP2 over the EPL was the control interface.  This has been improved on the EPL-2.  The LCD on the back is now three inches (measured diagonally) and roughly twice the resolution of it's predecessor's screen.  Of course it still has the port just below the flash shoe, on the back, so you can use the exquisite VF-2 electronic finder (which is my standard set up), or a microphone adapter should you care to give the video a spin.  The EP2 gives you an extra dial but you give up a bit of speed in shooting.

I've pre-ordered an EPL2 to go with the EP2 and the EPL1 and I've sent a few e-mails to people I know in the Olympus USA hierarchy hoping to get a review copy to play with.  The day I get my hands on one I'll clear the decks and use the hell out of it with every lens I have in the drawer.  These little Pens are my "art" cameras.  When I head out the door to do gestalt snaps these are the ones I carry.

My day spent shooting the EPL1 recently, with the older 20mm Pen lens, was amazing.  The manual, hyperfocal, focus setting was a great way to shoot and took me right back to the way we used to do street shooting in the 1980's.

Pros:  Small, easy to carry.  Capable of taking an wide range of lenses from just about every manufacturer, including Leica M series.  Great electronic viewfinder/interchangeable with all other Pens and the new compact XZ-1.  Assuming great Jpeg files.  Yes to raw files. Yes to HD video.  Yes to perfect in my hand.  Built in IS works with 50 year old lenses.  Damn cute.

Cons:  I can't drive to Precision Camera and put my hands on one tomorrow morning.   

While I understand how upset Olympus four thirds users are at the apparent demise of the larger system I'm amazed at the balls Olympus is showing by burning a big bridge and jumping in with both feet to a new system and a new standard.  While we photo nerds love carrying around massive metal and big stuff the reality is that 90% of camera users will be perfectly happy with cameras just like this.  

Me?  I'll keep the Canon stuff for all the clients who want/need bigger files with more resolution.  I'll also keep those fun lenses, and especially the ones with image stabilization.  But when I pack for vacation, street shooting, art projects and general goofing around you can pretty much bet there's going to be Pen close by.  $599.   With a lens?  Really?  Amazing.

A little historical context:  In 2002 this would be a $20,000 camera.  Based on specs.

update note:  (8:04 pm):  Just got back an reply from Olympus.  Their PR agency will be getting in touch tomorrow to arrange a loaner of the EPL2 for my evaluation.  Wow.  That was quick!


1.10.2011

What I learned when AT&T disabled my DSL service for nearly six days. And why I still like them.



I've been using AT&T for all my communications needs for......well, decades.  Home lines, home DSL, studio voice and business DSL, and a couple of cellphones.  Recently, my long distance service got slammed by some creepy firm that specializes in shady practices.  When I saw the charge on my phone line I called AT&T.  They were great.  They investigated and disallowed all the charges.  But it made me re-think all the $$ I spend on these services.  A cellphone and a business line for a one person business?  Made sense when clients actually called on the phone but now everything is an e-mail or a text.

I called the business office back and asked them to discontinue the voice line into the studio.  I'd save nearly $100 a month.  They were to convert the DSL service to a "dry loop."  It should have been a slam dunk but it wasn't.  They got rid of the voice line okay but somehow the DSL service fell into the void.  That was last Wednesday.  Now it's monday and service has just been restored.

To their credit, everyone I spoke with at AT&T was competent and highly motivated to make sure I was taken care of, happy and patient.  The actual techs who came to the studio figured out the problem in under five minutes.  For a company that gets routinely slammed online I found their service and customer service demeanor to be absolutely great.  One reason to keep them in my vendor list.

Now my communications waistline is a bit thinner.  I'm practicing my texting and maybe I'll love that too.  But it was calming and reassuring to know that our home DSL was unaffected and that home is only fifteen steps from the front door of the studio.  Maybe that's why I didn't step over the line and become "one of those customers."

So,  what was the positive takeaway of nearly a week without high speed access to the web at my fingertips?  What did I learn without instant communications from the starship "VisualScienceLab?"
I learned that, without visual candy at my ready disposal, I was able to sit down and work on a project from beginning to end without even a glance away from the work screen.  Just this morning I retouched a bunch of stuff, wrote two bids and edited 700 images, placing them into two different online galleries.

Coincidentally Seth Godin wrote one of his short and obvious blogs to tell us that someone who receives and responds to 27,000 texts a month is a victim of resistance.  Duh! Seth.

But really, we've become acculturated to receiving information indiscriminately during our work days and we generally feel compelled to respond in real time.  What this does is serially and frequently interrupt our workflows.  Being isolated (the nature of being a freelancer) we tend to hold on to the communications we receive as a gesture of validation of our existence.  But what it really does is keep us rooted to our chairs or our smartphones, in a constant hold pattern.

I spent more time with the family over the weekend.  I checked e-mail less often.  I didn't surf the web. Instead I went for walks with friends.  Met clients for coffee.  Worked on my book.  And just relaxed.
Now I feel a different sense of calm than I did when I started the week, last week.  Even my overwhelming coffee habit seemed to have abated when my web access was restricted.

Talk about increasing productivity!!!!!  I guess what I'm saying here is that we need to individually reappraise just what the real pay off of social marketing, web surfing and facebook posting really adds to our bottom lines and our enjoyment of real life.  We can always "be" someone on the net.  Can we step up and be a real someone in real life?

Try turning off the stuff and see what happens.  You can always turn it back on.

1.09.2011

Staying alive is critical to good photography.

Seen on the side of a food trailer in downtown Austin,  Texas.

 Ahh.  The thrill of being an American.  When your lunch weighs more that your camera and lens something is definitely out of whack. 

One of Canon's overlooked lenses. Who cares if it makes a sound when autofocusing???

I wonder if all the people who bought 30mm 1.4 Sigmas and even 35mm 1.4 Canons ever took a good look at their shooting preferences and then the 35mm f2.0 Canon lens for their cropped frame cameras....

I'll readily confess that I've always been partial to the look of a 50mm lens on a full frame camera so when I started buying cropped frame cameras, like the 60D and the 7D I started looking for the right "50mm equivalent" lens for those cameras.  I'd already owned the Nikon version of the 30mm Sigma so I borrowed the Canon 35mm 1.4 to see what the difference might be.  It never really occurred to me to look at the 35mm f2.0 until I revisited some of the work I did in the 1990's with a 35mm fourth generation Leica Summicron while comparing it to a 35mm Summilux that Leica asked me to test last Summer.

Both the Leica optics are wonderful but their just isn't that much difference between the Summicron and the Summilux when you hit f2.8, and, to be honest, the area that most photographers end up working in is usually between f2.8 and a f8.

When you grease up your credit card and take the big $5,000 burn to acquire the 1.4 version of the Leica you obviously have visions of shooting everything wide open in enchanting, low light.

At some point reality sinks in and you realize that you spend a lot of time shooting at f5.6 just to make sure you get both people in focus or you have enough depth of focus to get everything you need to be razor sharp, razor sharp.  At a certain point, usually a few days before the next mortgage payment is due, you realize that your spent about $4500 more than you needed to for your real use profile.

If you paid cash for your house and scrapped together enough for your Lotus from the loose change in your sofa cushions you just crawl in bed and forget it.  But if you're still saving for retirement and saving to put a kid thru school you probably start hitting the overdrive button on your rationalization machine or figure out a way to return the miracle lens while saving face with the sales person on the other side of the counter.


I'll leave the logistics to you but I will tell you that when it comes to 95% of my uses for a 35mm lens the best confluence of price, optical performance and usability come from the 35mm f2.

When I finished my examination of Leica files I went to my local camera store and borrowed the 35mm 1.4 L and the 35mm f2.0.
The "L" is a great lens.  At its widest aperture it's just a tiny bit less potent and intimidating than the new Leica 35mm 1.4 Aspheric.  You can see a difference between the two but I'll chalk up part of it to the sensor on the M9 and its lack of an AA filter.  But the Canon is incredibly good, wide open and nearly one quarter the price.  Case closed?

Not so fast.  I shot the 35mm f2.0 alongside the 1.4L in an afternoon test and my results told me that on a cropped camera or on a full frame camera the 1.4L was much better than the 2.0 only at 1.4 and 2.0.  When both lenses were shot at f2.8 and f4.0 the differences were negligible.  At 5.6 they were indistinguishable.

So, how often do I shoot at f1.4 with a 35mm lens.  Quick answer?  Not often enough to justify the radical difference in cost.  I find that when I hit the lower reaches of exposure that require those kinds of f-stops I'm reaching for a flash or other light sources because by that point it's subject movement that's become problematic.  If I'm shooting at medium apertures or reaching for a flash do I really need to carry around a bigger, heavier and more costly optic to do the job?  I don't think so.
 The 35mm f2.0 is a pretty cool lens.  It's small and light with a 52mm front filter ring.  It adds almost no weight to the front of my camera and it rides easily in a bag.  It's much smaller and less obtrusive than zooms or the faster optic and the cost for one, brand spanking new, is less than $300.

I took the other lens back and wrote a check for the f2.0.  And then I got busy doing something else.  But a few weeks ago a friend in Istanbul wrote and asked me what to get.  My first reaction was to just send back an e-mail and tell him to go for the same lens I bought.  But I paused for second because I really hadn't put the lens thru it's paces over time and they are much more expensive in Turkey.  I decided to take it out with a 7d and really shoot with diligence.  Then I'd send him an definite recommendation.
 It was a clear, bright day on December 26th in Austin and I took to the streets to see what the 7d and the 35mm would see.




It was everything I would want in a mildly wide lens.   Even wide open the center part of the frame, from the 25 yard line to the 25 yard line, is sharp in a good way.  Most of the time outdoors I shot the camera and lens combo in aperture priority, using the +/- override when necessary.  I kept the lens at f5.6 and I was thrilled iwth the results.  Between f4 and f8 (the $$$$ zone) I can't say a single equivocal word about its quality.  On either the 7D or the 5D it's a stellar performer.

In fact, after further testing it's become one of the basics in my Minimalist street shooter kit.  That consist of the 35mm, a 50mm and the 100mm f2.  Any one of these blows the doors off the 24-70m zoom or the new 70-200mm zooms that are the basis of most people's kits.  Add to that the fact that they are tiny by comparison and you have a very shootable system.  That's how they did it "old school" and I see why.  You don't have flexibility of a zoom but you have the expertise of a single specialist.  You can always zoom a bit with your feet.  My next shooting iteration?  One camera for each lens.  No waiting.

Buy one right now before they decide to discontinue it!  And if I still shot Nikon I bet my results would track pretty much the same way.

Any downside?  Look at the highlight on the coffee cup on the bottom right of the photo above.  The highlight has only five highly defined sides.  For a thousand dollars more you can get a more rounded highlight............

I don't know Bokeh from Boca Raton but I like the way the CZ works on the 5D2

My dad on the evening of his 60th wedding anniversary.  We all celebrated at their favorite restaurant down in San Antonio.  I brought along a camera.  He's still pretty spry in his mid-80's. His doctor advises no more cage fights or extreme combat sports.......

The long suffering spouse, Belinda, stands still for a quick dissection of the ZE's out of focus character, nearly wide open.

This is a short post.  That's because there's very little philosophy to impart/discuss, no in-depth tests with DXO software and old Air Force optical charts.  I don't know how to measure chromatic aberrations and I could care less about corner sharpness in a high speed 50mm lens (that's why we have three or four macro lenses sitting around.....) but I wanted to report how I feel about the 50mm Carl Zeiss ZE f1.4 lens that I've been shooting since late last Summer.  In as few words as possible:  I like it.

Here's how I like it:  On the front of a Canon 5Dmk2,  shot between f2.5 and f4,  in low daylight.  It's not a "show off" lens.  It doesn't scream, "Look how brutally sharp I can be!!!!"  It doesn't throw oversaturated color in your face.  It's well behaved and it hits a beautiful balance between the impression of sharpness and high detail.  It's a graceful lens for shooting faces.

I think I've read just about every mainstream review of high speed 50mm lenses currently on the market. The testers test everything the same way.  They want the same sharpness in the extreme corners that they get in the center.  They want MTF curves that kiss the top of the graph at every aperture and (if zoomy) at every focal length.  They don't seem to understand that all lens design is fraught with compromise.

I want to know what a lens is supposed to do and whether or not it does that thing well.  If you read the works of Erwin Puts, an expert on Leica lenses and lens design, you will learn many things and one of them is that optical designers work to optimize the inner 2/3rds of the lens coverage based on the idea that the photojournalist who originally needed fast lenses was most likely trying to capture a subject or subjects in the middle of the frame and that the edges didn't matter.  You'll also find that it's possible to optimize a lens for high contrast and apparent acuity or high resolution but not both, simultaneously.  Good designers strive for a balance between the two.  Color rendering is at least as important as sharpness and contrast and, finally, all of these factors are inter-related, like the sides of a triangle.

I have no way of knowing what was in the minds of the designers at Carl Zeiss when they came up with the final design of the 50mm ZE but I know that their final product gives me a look that is more realistic than photographic.  Perhaps they've made the conscious design to tame hard edged acuity in favor of detail and wider tonal range.  At least that's how it seems to me.

The nice thing for photographers is that we have so many choices available to us.  I've compared files with the Sigma 50mm 1.4 and it'a clear that it is optimized to have high acuity and high contrast.  That could be very appealing to a "Jpeg Only" shooter who doesn't want to spend a lot of time messing around in PhotoShop.  The cool thing is that if you have a 50mm that's optimized for higher resolution and slightly lower contrast you can control additive contrast in raw post production and augment the good qualities of your lens without the attendant compromises.

Think of it this way,  a lens that is optimized for high contrast and high impression of edge acuity will look fabulous in the same way that highly saturated, highly sharpened images first look on the screen.  But you'll notice that they produce less real resolution and detail and the higher rendering contrast comes at the expense of wider tonal range.  You can buy a lens with a different combination of attributes and then add saturation and edge sharpness in post to emulate the best aspects of the "flashy" lens and the "tamer" lens.

It's all academic to me.  I judge a lens after I've shot with it for a while and pulled out some images that I really like.  So far the 50 CZ ZE is a mixed bag for me.  I like the focal length on the cropped Canon format but I think I like the performance of the lens on the full frame camera better.  What I especially like is the opposite of what most reviewers say.  I like the way it renders out of focus backgrounds better than my 50mm Canon 1.8 or the 1.4.  The lens whose characteristic is closest to the performance of the Zeiss lens is a much overlooked optic from Canon, the 50mm 2.5 macro.  At 2.5 to f4 it looks nearly the same.  When I grab a lens now it's generally a toss up between the Zeiss and the Canon macro.  People trash talk it's loud autofocus motor but it can be manually focused just like the Zeiss with the same silent profile.

Would I buy the Zeiss lens again with all the knowledge I've accrued concerning the four different 50mm's I've played with?  Probably so since I like the way it renders color.  If I were on a budget I'd just settle for the 50mm 2.5 macro and I'd be pretty happy.

What about the 50mm 1.1.2 Canon L series lens?  It's way too big.  It's way too expensive.  And I'll probably figure out some way to rationalize its purchase and then regret my purchase and sell it at a loss in the not too distant future.  Oh the horror of being a mindless consumer and still having the self knowledge of my foibles.........

A Sad Reminder That Everything Changes....

Future Driver Ben stands in front of the Silver Element and helps me evaluate the Bokeh of the 50mm Carl Zeiss ZE lens.  Excruciatingly low light.

I know you’re not supposed to fall in love with inanimate objects and it’s not that I really “love” my car in the sense that I’d marry it, but, it is the best car I’ve ever had when it comes to facilitating my photography.  I’m talking about the Honda Element and I’m writing this as a eulogy of sorts since I’ve just learned that 2011 will be its last year in production.
I wasn’t always an lover of practical cars with anemic performance.  The car I owned before getting my 2003 was a 1996 BMW 525i Olympic Edition.  It was fast and graceful and for the first few years I owned it the performance a reliability were peerless.  In the early days, while it was undented and the paint was new, the valets at the Four Seasons would park it out front.  Assignments to Dallas were fun to get to and it was never tough to get assistants who were ready to drive.  But whatever it had going for it I was always aware of the shortage of cargo space.

Over time my kid’s muddy shoes graced the leather seats in the back.  The tail lights started failing pretty regularly because I’d leave my sopping wet swim bag in the trunk overnight.  Then, around 60K miles the dark nature of nice cars reared it’s ugly head.  Expensive repairs.  $1300 for the electronic ignition switch which, as part of the theft prevention systems, had to be ordered from Germany and only after I appeared in person with my birth certificate to prove ownership.  The radiator failed twice.  The suspension had issues.  Etc.
I’d “graduated” to the BMW from a Volvo 940 Turbo Wagon which could have been the ultimate photographer’s station wagon if not for the expensive habit of burning up turbochargers every 25,000 miles.  (Yes, I knew enough to let the car idle two minutes after driving before shutting off the motor.)  It was bad enough bringing the car in under warranty, trailing white smoke, but after the first non-warranted turbocharger repair the car had to go away.  Pity as it was nice to be able to load up the back with all the stuff I wanted and needed for a shoot and drive well over 100 mph thru west Texas for the occasional shoot in west Texas......

But then, with the bitter taste of German reliability betrayal still on the tongue of my car consciousness I, on a lark, test drove a Honda Element.  Not fast.  Not quiet.  Never parked in the front driveway of a five star hotel.  But able to fit nearly the entire inventory of my studio in the back with room for an assistant and a beautiful model on board.
The sexy allure of $125 tune ups.  The amazing head room.  The stadium seating in the back.  And, amazingly, the ability to remove one (or both) of the back seats, lay out a sleeping bag and have a portable hotel room with inches to spare for my feet and my head.  It’s a car that takes photographers back to their roots as happy go lucky kids ready to go anywhere and willing to sleep in their cars to get the shots at sunrise.  And when the repairs do need to occur they are priced only in the one hundreds, not in the thousands.......and my local dealer makes good coffee and offer fresh kolaches and wi-fi.

I always thought, that when I had enough miles on this 2003 Element that I’d trade it in or sell it and get myself a brand new one.  Maybe even trade up to an SC model with the lower profile.  In fact, I could see myself buying an Element every ten years until the police took my license away. 

But now all my hope are dashed.  Smashed on the rocks of bad marketing.  Seems that the marketing people were the drivers behind the design and the demographic targeting of the Element.  They had their hearts set on creating a “cool” set of “wheels” for young surfers and groovy guys, just out of college.  In the hopeful minds of the marketers flocks of upscale millenials would rush to the dealers with their BMX bikes and their bongos, load up their girlfriends and haul off to the beaches and the mountains to sit around campfires, smiling, with their wide open Elements beckoning in the background.

Alas, it was not to be.  The primary market self selected.  They were predominantly over 40.  A surprising number were single women over 40.  With dogs.  And couples over 50 who could understand what a great value the car was.  And photographers.  I know so many photographers who have Elements that it’s become a stereotype.  In the distant future, when they make 3D sitcoms about photographers from the first decade in our new century, they’ll seat them firmly in Honda Elements.

Now I’m getting nervous.  My silver Element only has 75,000 miles on the odometer but I live in fear that it will dissolve under me and I won’t be able to replace it with a shiny new one.  And that’s made me a bit edgy.  Now I’m looking around to see what the next “photo nerd” vehicle will be.  I’m kinda leaning toward a Ford Flex because it’s nearly as goofy looking as the E.  I’m trying to keep it running because Ben gets his license next October and I’d like for him to get some use out a such a wonderful car.
  
If you have an opinion from the point of view of a photographer I’d love to hear it.  I’m nearly always fascinated by why people drive what they drive.  Anyways.  Honda Element, I loved you while you were here......

1.04.2011

Your Focus Determines Your Reality.

Perception and reality are intertwined.  And what is reality for one person isn't necessarily a reality for the person standing next to them.  The way in which you think about things determines the outcome.  If I know a technique will work, it works.  If I think being nice is hard then it becomes very difficult.

I find that many people have a thought process based on a search for a magic bullet or magic series of steps or charms or products that will unleash that person's creativity or allow them to live forever.  In their minds there is a need to do "research."  They cloister themselves in a library created from materials they find in the orbits they search and they proceed to read everything they can get their hands on.  They put off exercising or practicing or enjoying making art until they've accrued the "critical mass" of knowledge.  And it becomes like peeling an infinite onion because with every layer they peel back another layer of knowledge and detail is revealed.  And when that layer is dissected they move on to the next layer.  And when that layer has the juice wrung out of it they progress to the next layer.

The layer peeling in photography is prodigious.  And I find myself doing it in every facet of the business that I find frightening or unpleasant.  I don't like going out of the studio to show a portfolio.  Few people really do.  Instead, I spend time researching new ways of reaching out to clients.  We all do.  We rush to do e-mail blasts because it's easy and it gives us the impression that we're doing something smart.  We're reaching all those people on our list with an example of our work.  But we know that everyone else who fears rejection and face to face encounters to ask strangers for work first and then money is doing exactly the same thing:  sitting in their office, facing a screen and wracking their brains trying to think of something clever to say about a photo that's topical and hopefully interesting to a stranger.

When we finish with the e-mail blast we know we can't do it again for a few weeks so we "research" other ways to circumvent the stuff we fear = the face to face portfolio show.  Next we might turn our attentions to a postcard or start peeling the onion about presenting materials on our iPads.  We'll research which iPad to buy.  Which programs to make our portfolios in.  Which leather cover conveys the right message of coolness and affluence?  And, if we do our research right it should take up enough of our time and attention so that we've sliced thru a few weeks and we can now go back and start working on that next e-mail promotion without fear of saturating our audiences.  Of course we have no idea of how many people sent e-mail promotions to our intended victims yesterday or earlier today or the day after we do our.  And, really, all marketing is contextual.

When we tire of the "marketing onion" there's always the "gear onion" to fall back on.  We might convince ourselves that our current equipment is no longer competitive with the rest of the photographers chasing the same clients.  We resolve to differentiate ourselves by "upgrading" which takes a lot of research....because, of course, we want to make the right investments....So back to the websites and the books.  Once that injection of courage is absorbed and we find ourselves still stuck by our own fears and our focus that tells us we don't know enough about the magic bullets, we take the next step which is to find a mentor.  Usually at a workshop.  We focus on the mentor's success and hope that by spending time and energy with him a process of osmosis will occur that causes the mentor's creative powers to undergo a mitosis that allows him to share that power with us.  We'll learn not only what the magic bullets are but also how to aim the creative gun and go "full automatic" on our prospective clients.

But that will drive us back into research in order to find a new order of clients who are perceptive enough to share the vision you siphoned from the mentor.  It's a cruel and endless loop.  And in the end your lack of success will probably lead you to reject the mentor and his arcane magic and go off in search of a "real" mentor.  And that might mean getting some new equipment which will, of course, mean new research.

But by changing the focus from "learning" to "doing" we change our reality.  We stop looking for subjects that will resonate well with our technical tool bag and start out with the magnetic attraction to things we love to see and love to look at.  And then we'll figure out, through trial and error, how to share, visually, the point of view we alone have that makes the subject magical to us, personally.

When we have a focus that comes from curiosity about the subject that focus drives our unique vision.  Impediments fall and we become so enthralled by being able to share our version of the story about that thing or event that we get over our reservations about showing our vision to the right people because we allow ourselves to become invested in the story not in the material reality of the book.  The book is just one vehicle for the story.

I guess this is my way of saying to many of my friends, and even to myself, that all of us have all the gear we need and all the research we need to be able to shoot just about anything we want to shoot right now.  We need to stop the endless cycle of research because it does three things:  1.  Our focus on "research" creates a comfortable pattern of procrastination from the actual doing.  2.  It robs us of our real power which can only come thru actualization.  Reaching out and doing.  Because it is within the process of doing that we evolve a feedback mechanism that allows us to learn and fine tune what we really like to see.  3.  Research, and it's buddy "the search for the magic bullet," rob us of our power by investing power into the idea that the people/artists that we aspire to mimic  operate creatively by a set and sellable formula and that the search for the formula trumps our search for ourselves.  But if we let go of the edge of the pool we could actually swim.

It's all about the doing.  Not the learning about doing.  I can teach someone to read a meter but I can't teach them how to feel about life and how to translate those feelings into art.  No one can.  It's only thru the process of exercise that the body becomes fit.  It's only thru the process of creating your own art that your creativity becomes fit.  And nobody wants a pudgy creative spirit.