Shooting "Old School." Ancient tricks of the trade....

An event at the Four Seasons Hotel, Austin.  November 3rd.

It all started with a film camera called the Nikon N-90S.  That camera, and Nikon's  top-of-the-line flash at the time, changed the way I shot events.  It was the first camera I owned that, in conjunction with the flash assist beam on the flash, could reliably lock focus in a dark, dark room (but not a darkroom) and return consistently well exposed images every time.  Nostalgic memory is a dangerous thing and now that I sit here and think about it so much of what we shot back then was on color negative film and that might have had a lot to do with my perception of the combination's lack of fallibility....but on with my story.

By the days of the Nikon F5 and the SB-25 and SB-26 we pretty much had the technique of event flash well dialed in.  We'd load the 160 or 400 ISO color negative film of our choice, set the camera and flash to TTL put the camera in program where it would generally default to f4 @ 1/60th of a second and we'd blast away.  A few days later we'd be looking through 4x6 inch proof prints that were remarkably uniform and, well, perfect.  I remember well shooting a show in Scottsdale, AZ. were we needed to shoot 250 people walking up on stage and being handed an award.  One by one.  We'd use a Quantum Turbo pack, an SB flash and a moderate zoom.  I took two images of each person (in case they blinked)  with the president or vice president of the company and our only limitation on throughput was how quickly we could unload and reload film.  Good days for flash.

Before that we'd use our flashes pretty much in the "guide number" mode.  You turn the flash down to 1/4 power, figure out what the exposure is at 7 feet and then at 5 feet and then at 10 feet.  For most event work, depending on your framing, you'd work around maybe three f-stops and you'd know the approximate distances and working numbers by heart at the end of a long evening.  If you added a bounce board to your portable flash you'd work out those numbers as well.  The name of the game was consistency and "no surprises."

Well, surprise!!!  Early digital from all the major companies supremely sucked at delivering automatic flash and in my opinion it still does.  I wrote an entire book about using small flashes in the digital age and if you read it carefully you'll notice that, most of the time, I'm using them in their manual modes.  I like repeatability.

Both Nikon iTTL and Canon eTTL have gotten better and better over the years but it's still easy to fool them or hard work to compensate for the times you know they'll mess up.  I'm learning to trust the big Canon flash these days but I still have reservations.  Especially when shooting people in very light or very dark clothes and trying to maintain a different exposure for the background.  I've read Syl Arena's book, Speedliter, and I've been working on it.  But.........

Bear with me because this is my introduction to my decision making process of yesterday....

The other flash nemesis I have, and I can't blame this on either the cameras or the flashes, is the difficulty of DSLR's to lock focus in most formal candid situations.  People wear black.  The lighting is subdued. The way the process is supposed to work is something like this:  I walk up to a couple or a small group and playfully coerce them into a tightly compacted grouping and then I pull the camera up to my eye and push halfway down on the shutter button and wait for the annoying, red patterned light to play over my victims while the camera desperately tries to find an edge to focus on.  Usually it finds a sea of black fabric or, worse, a sea of white fabric and the lens begins to hunt.  I move the lens to a different part of the scene until I find success and then I lock the reading, re-compose and take the image.  By the time the flash finally goes off one or two of the people in the group are checking their Phillipe Patek watches while someone else is looking back over their shoulder, trying to find someone hot in the crowd.

Very annoying for everyone. And yet, when each new system comes onto the market one of the selling points is the incredible performance of the flash.  Liars.

Yesterday, from 5pm until 9:30pm I shot an event for a non-profit that I've worked with for over ten years now.  There's a VIP reception at 5:30, a general reception at 6:15 and then dinner mixed with the program.  I enjoy shooting at the Four Seasons because the food is always good and the staff is superb. (Thanks again to the in-house AV team for last year's double A batteries....the one thing I forgot to pack...).

The event is a fund-raiser is attended mostly by well to do lawyers and judges, and their spouses, so I'm always assured that the wines served will be superb.  We started dinner last night with an interesting salad and a really nice, un-oaked chardonnay and moved on to a really nice Cabernet.  But I digress.

My job is to shoot couples and small groups of influential guests (meaning everyone) during all of the receptions and then cover the speakers and award winners during the presentations.  I rarely get to finish an entire course at dinner because our table is near the back and we tend to get served last..... 

I had the crazy idea that I wanted to go "all in" and shoot the whole event with the new Nikon V1 but the photographic and charity gods intervened and denied my access the the wildly proprietary flash for the system.  At this point there are no substitutes.  I figured that, if I couldn't go "state-of-the-moment" and take a huge risk that I would go ultimately "old school."

I decided to shoot all the candid reception shots with my ancient Canon 1Ds Mk2 camera and all of the podium/award shots with my Canon 1d mk2N camera.  I put a Zeiss 35mm f2 ZE on the big sensor camera and the loyal and resolute 70-200mm f4 on the sport cam.  I charged up four of the enormous and dense-as-plutonium batteries for the two cameras and then shoved three sets of rechargeable Eneloop batteries into the bag.  I packed a 580EX2 with a 430EX2 in the side pocket as a back up.  

The one nod to modern strobe therapy was my inclusion and use of the Rogue brand flash reflector.  It's a soft reflector that attaches to your flash and has bendable metal rods inside to allow you to curve or bend the modifier as you please.  Fully unfurled it's about 10 by 12 inches and does a nice job both staying put and modifying the light source to make it softer.  About $30.  

The camera and lens for ALL of the flash candids was the 1DS mk2 and the 35mm Zeiss.  Flash mounted directly on the camera.  Head pointing to the sky.

So here's the weird part.  I'm using a manual focus lens.  On a camera that's clearly not designed for razor blade sharp focus with manual lenses.  So I set the lens at f8 and figured out where the hyperfocal distance was for my working methodology.  I didn't care about close ups and I didn't care about infinity but I did care about five feet to ten or twelve feet.  I calculated, set the lens there and locked the rear wheel on the camera.  No changes.  I never touched the focusing ring or the aperture control for the rest of the evening.  Honest.  It was so nice.

Why was it so nice?  Well, I could swing the camera around, frame and shoot and never worry about locking in focus, in getting the "green dot."  There was never any hunting or kinetic racking from minimum to maximum focus and back again.  It was, for all intents and purposes, the "one use" aunt Ethel point and shoot.  Albeit an $9,000 version of one.  And do you know what?  It really worked!!!!

I set the camera at ISO 800 (which it handles with dignity and aplomb) and put the camera in manual exposure mode (figuring that it was good symmetry with the focus mode) and I would modulate shutter speeds depending on what showed up in the background.  If the peoples' backs were to the windows I would set the shutter to 1/250th, if the background was one of the walls of the room I would drop the shutter speed to 1/60th or 1/30th of a second.

I tried flash two ways.  First I tried eTTL and got pretty good results about 75% of the time.  Then I put the flash on manual, at 1/8th power and I got good exposures nearly 100% of the time.  If you use the guide number approach your flash/camera is never fooled by black velvet or white silk.  You never have to lock and recompose.  And the recycle time is ridiculously short.

As I worked through about 400 files today in Lightroom I paused from time to time to fix the exposure on a person who, at the edge of the frame, might have been closer to the flash than my main subject.  Amazingly, the 1DS 2 can pull detail out of raw files even if they've been over exposed by 1.75 stops.  Almost like color negative film of the old.

The rear, LCD screens on both the cameras are about as accurate as a weatherman or an economist so, at some point, you have to start trusting in the infallibility of camera physics.  

Now, I'm not saying that this is the only way to shoot event candids.  You probably have a great method that works for you and I'd be the last person to tell you to change it.  But if you haven't tried the patented, Kirk Tuck Hyperfocal/Guide Number Paradigm-Shifting-Lumen Launcher-Method, you have my permission to try it for thirty days for free.  There's something purging about shooting photographs and not having to think.  Maybe it's a faux Zen thing.  Maybe it just incorrigible laziness but the proof is in the deliverables.  To think that old fashioned common sense would be as useful as hundreds of million of dollars (billions of Yen?) worth of R&D that have gone into focus and flash automation....

Now,  I have another conference for another clients that starts Sunday and runs for three days.  Will it be the Nikon V1 or will I have to fall back to some other technology?  Candids with the Hasselblad?  I did it years ago but I'm not crazy enough to do it now.  Or am I?  (Please, Nikon, ship the damn flash!)


Thoughts while sitting at the Honda dealership, waiting for the Element.

When I wax euphoric about the new generation of small cameras I have one little wince somewhere in my brain that wonders, "Why didn't they set the market on fire 40 years ago?"
I'm sure I'll be blind-sided by some glitchy "gotcha." 

Taking your car in for routine maintenance puts you in touch with the rest of humanity.  At least the part of humanity that can own cars and get them repaired.  And it brings me out of my little compound in west Austin to mix and mingle with the other fine citizens in the waiting "lounge."  Most are well over 40 years old and are doing exactly what I'm doing.....reading stuff on their laptops and iPads or typing stuff on same.  Several very plump women get intermittent cellphone calls and their ring tones are annoyingly cloying.  They talk in sing-songy voices to whoever has called and make little to no effort to moderate the volume of their voices.  I am now listening to an older woman talk about her upcoming surgery and radiation therapy.  In the next breath she's explaining that she's having her oil changed.  But I think she means the oil in her car.

In one corner of the waiting area the dealership has mercifully glassed in a play area for small children.  I can only guess that it's a lab for infectious diseases.  Inside the play zone today are four children under the age of four and they are currently having a contest to see who can scream the loudest while slamming plastic toys against one of the glass walls.  One mother has abdicated all responsibility and is staring, empty and resigned, at the screen of her smartphone as if it will provide the equivalent of a Star Trek transporter and deliver her from the maelstrom.  The other mother rocks back and forth and occasionally tries to intercede in whatever "Animal Farm" contest of hierarchical ranking the savage children have devised.  People outside the glass shake their heads and look back at their screens.  I keep writing.

Once in a while a "service advisor" named Craig or Chip or Steve or Armando comes up and calls out a name.  Then it becomes a "luck lottery" for the designated customer.  Will it be the "all clear", your car is ready?  Or will it be the dreaded pronouncement, usually delivered bent over to show the documentation to the seated customer, "....we found a few things that you really need to take care of...."?

The room goes quiet for a few minutes and all you can hear is the tapping of keyboards and the labored breathing of the larger customers.  The silence is broken by the person from the dealership who asks, "Does anyone need a shuttle ride this morning?"  And then all hell breaks loose as the four, three year olds resume a chaotic, tag team, death match in the almost-but-not-quite soundproof child and parent detention zone.

When I arrived today my young service writer noticed the camera hanging over my shoulder (really? would you go anywhere without your camera?) and asked me what I do for a living.  In retrospect I might have said that I spend most my time ensconced in very quiet neighborhood, with my wife and studious son, far away from the sturm und drang of fluxing humanity, but I admitted to being a "photographer."  He asked if I had a website. (Really, do I look that old?) I showed him some work.  We talked about my camera. He seemed pleasant.  Maybe he won't find the dreaded "few things you need to take care of..."

I write this with a sense of re-engaged wonder.  I spend far too much time sitting in my office on my little plot of land.  It's only 600 square feet of white space but it's comfortable and when I look out the window from my desk all I can see is trees and lantana and, occasionally deer.  Tulip (my dog) keeps track of the perimeter, between naps at my feet.  The only time I interface with people (other than swimmers and family)  is when I willingly seek out friends or when I make appointments and venture out from my hide to talk to people about work and projects.  I go to the same coffee shops because I've found the ones where the customers are the most civilized (unusually silent) and the employees most civil.  I have been accused by my assistants of never wanting to leave my zip code.  But that's not true.  I like to get out.  But there's something about mixing with a general cross section of society that makes me uneasy.  Almost as if I've dodged some sort of bullet (or more likely a barrage) and I should be thankful.  Instead I'm always looking for the next contingent of snipers.

But I share the same feelings for the idea of having a conventional job.  To be constrained to be in the same place for x hours every day and to have to interface with people chosen at random by someone else seems to be an odd trade for the non-secured promise of security.  I am probably an anomaly.  Most people probably enjoy getting out there and mixing it up.  Why then do they look so joyous when the service advisor calls their name and they shuffle off toward the payment counter, anxious to gain the isolating freedom of their cars?

Yesterday I got a package in the mail from someone I never met.  I'd exchanged two e-mails but never so much as talked on the phone.  The package contained three proprietary circuit boards.  A terse note about angles and technical parameters was enclosed.  I photographed them.  I retouched them and then uploaded huge files to their FTP server.  This morning my invoice was settled with a Paypal deposit.

No driving.  No parking.  No meetings.  What a wonderful way to do business.  And it reinforces the idea that we evolved to spend hours alone, tracking and hunting our food.  We spent tens of millions of preparatory years to run for hours after our prey and then to drag it home to share with a select few.  Even in sales meetings today I hear the phrase, "You only get to eat what you kill."  But it's a false admonition because what they really mean is, "Show up and plow and we'll share a tiny bit of the harvest with you...."

So, I got off light today.  I knew I needed to have the fluids and filters replaced and I knew that I needed to have a leaky strut replaced but I feared the words, "brakes" and "transmission."  When the service writer knelt next to the table where I was writing (and eating up their kolaches and swilling their coffee) he looked serious.  He told me the only thing they'd found was that my wiper blades all needed to be replaced.  Another fusillade of bullets dodged.  Now back to the isolating freedom of my car.  Who were all those people?


Speaking of disruptive technologies and generational disconnections...

I just cringe when I read something from a photographer who's been working in a decent market for years and now they are reaching out, trying to understand why, when they are at the top of their game, surrounded with the best lights and camera equipment in the world, with a string of awards and successes, why are their billings and assignments consistently shrinking.  The rejoining comment, from many people who don't work in the field always seems to be:  "Stop whining and raise the level (meaning quality or creativity) of your photography!"  Oh, these "monday morning quarterbacks" have it all figured out.  If only we were shooting with $50,000 systems and doing everything just right we'd be able to rake in big dough.

And for about two minutes I bought into that sentiment.  But I'm rarely smart enough to take "crowd wisdom" at face value so I started going to our traditional sources of income (the ad and graphic design agencies and magazines) to do some real, shoe leather-telephone call-coffee meeting research.  And here's what I've found:

The newly ascendant art directors and designers, who are just hitting their stride in the field, were in their training periods or in school during the first collapse of the creative economy, in late 2001-2002.  The budgets evaporated just as they did again in 2007-2011.  Their bosses and their clients pushed them relentlessly to use much cheaper stock photography.  Which they did.  But what really started the ball rolling toward the gutter was when all the good schools began teaching all of these students to become highly proficient in PhotoShop.  The current "best/worst" practice in art direction, as it's practiced in nearly all but the most lofty agencies, is to have the staff search relentlessly through stock photography online to find "parts."  The parts are then assembled in layer after layer of Photoshop and then massaged and "post process designed"  to create a final image for whatever project is at hand.

Many shops have a Canon Rebel with the kit lens, or a point and shoot, or even a cellphone with a "nice" camera and they will pull in staff and friends to be "parts" for a big assemblage.  In my interviews I find that many shops think nothing of having their own people pose without paying model or talent fees.  The agencies also LIKE the idea that they can cobble together some internally generated shots and a handful of inexpensive stock shots and then have their in house PhotoShop savant put everything together because they can bill the time spent montaging and massaging, directly back to the client.  In some cases they are able to charge upwards of $150 an hour for eight or ten hours.  These are directly billable fees whereas external photography can only be marked up by a percentage.  The agency ends up owning the rights to the composited images which go into their internal library for possible recycling.  The  end cost to the final client is generally close to what the cost of custom created photography would have been but the agency wins because they are able to keep the entire revenue from the project (less the stock charges).

And make no mistake, given enough time and enough RAM and a fast enough processor, a gifted PhotoShopper can pull something really.....adequate... out of the mix most of the time.  Obviously, this doesn't work as well when the brief calls for a beautifully executed ad shot of a particular person, or an artistic shot of a unique new product but it's mainstream for ad images that are just looking to be symbolic archetypes.

The economy trained the art directors to create, essentially, a new creative product.  It's one based on nearly infinite stock photography choice and tons of post processing.  Both of which fall into the best interests of an agency since they accomplish three things:  1.  They keep the lion's share of revenue in-house.  2.  They keep an employee engaged in long periods of additional, billable work.  3.  They deliver generic concept ads under tight deadlines without taking any real risks.

It's interesting to see that a whole new style that doesn't depend on reality or believability is emerging.  And really, short of opening their own ad agencies, there's not a great deal photographers can do to combat the trend.  It's one of the reasons you see so many still shooters chasing after video projects (and conversely, the video market is so flooded with new, low cost recruits that many veteran video shooters are now starting to try their hands at still photography....).

The uninformed may exhort photographers to "raise their game!"  But it's utter nonsense.  What we're really seeing is the ongoing evolution of two giant industries, each following the same trajectory as most other businesses that have been touched by digital, the web and the relentless cost reductions implicit.

Services are delivered quicker, in higher quantity and for far less money that ever before.  And at the heart of the transition is the unabated, culture-wide acceptance of "good enough."  But that's not even fair considering that what's emerging is really not photography, per se, but a new commercial art form based on a different set of assumptions.  And that's where the schism is between generations....

I've written about these changes before and each time people outside my industry chip in that it could never happen in their industrial or service niche.  But in reality, for most businesses, it's just a matter of time.  The real secret is how well you deal with change.  And acceptance of new realities is always the first step in re-creation.

Does everything need to be shot at a zillion megapixels?  Does every delivered file have to be massaged longer than the Mona Lisa?  Are all clients worth keeping?  Has our generational idea of what constitutes a "deliverable" been passed by on the creative highway?  Are we even selling what clients want?  It's a fine beige puzzle of 10,000 squiggly pieces and we'll only know the real answers as we move forward.  If we even glean the answers at all.

I did "parts" last week.  110 clipped images that will be included in an illustrated design.  I added a CEO and a corporate President into backgrounds that I shot in another space and time.  I finished the final proofs for a book. I'm prepping for two speaking engagements and a workshop.  Nothing looks like the kind of stuff we made a living doing just ten years ago.  Or even five years ago.  But before you can change your business you have to know what is real and what is mythology.  And it's different in every section of the market.  Pick up the phone and call the next generation.  If you pay for the coffee they'll tell you what they think.

If you are a photographer all I can tell you is that everything you knew about the photography business (hyperbole caution...) is pretty much obsolete now.  Being a service provider is critical.  Finding the new markets is critical.  And, in keeping with my fascination about new technology, keeping up with new technical stuff is part of the whole equation.  Just don't use new stuff to shoot in the same old way.  To a certain extent you have to let the gear steer.

If you are shooting for your own pleasure you can ignore everything I've just written.  Until the wrecking ball comes to your house.


Coffee break.

Just taking a coffee break.  This is my cappuccino at the sidewalk tables at Medici Cafe on Congress Ave. (in Austin).  The sun was on the other side of the building and the light was coming in from the overcast sky, around dusk.  I was checking messages on my phone and I liked the way everything looked when it was wonky and off balance.  It was one of those rare days when even my coffee looked good to me and I didn't want to waste it.  It was rich.

Just a quick post with a few more Nikon V1 observations.

Tulip the Wonder Dog.  Nemesis of cats.  Patroller of the "holy" fence.

Tulip was in the studio this morning while I was doing a portrait of Natalie with three different cameras. I shot with the Nikon V1, the Canon 1DS mk2 and the Hasselblad 501C/M.  We were shooting with two large LED panels projecting light through a six foot by six foot diffusion scrim.  We also had one LED panel at 1/4 power on the back wall.  This shot is from the Nikon.  I'd set it to manual exposure and metered for Natalie.  Tulip was sitting on the floor nodding her approval and she looked like she needed a new headshot so I tilted the camera down and shot a few frames.  We were using the electronic shutter so the camera was absolutely (hello court photographers!!!!) 100% silent.  She didn't blink because there was no noise and, bonus, no flash.  I made one mistake, though.  I'd metered Natalie and Tulip was way down on the floor.  She ended up being underexposed by 1.35 stops.  And this was no raw file, it was Jpeg all the way.  I tossed the file into PhotoShop and with much trepidation I slid the exposure slider to the right by 1.35 stops.  Since the image was shot at ISO 400 I expected to see big, bad noise in the shadows.  It doesn't look bad to me but I like the tonality of the image, the definition of Tulip's coat and the "just right" white balance.....all under my array of CRI 80 (not very color accurate) LEDs.  The camera is very easy to use in manual exposure.  Just be sure to take a test shot at your final settings and review it before you proceed.

Yes.  Austin is Headquarters to the Univers(e).  It says so right here.

I've modified my camera settings since I last wrote about the little V1.  I'm now using the continuous drive setting because it does away with the preview lag of the single exposure setting.  I set the power down setting for one minute instead of 30 seconds and that's all I can think of.

I spent all day Monday making "paper doll" clipping paths for about a hundred images, and these are images I did real clipping paths for last week.  That was enough torture for me to consider taking this afternoon off for some "away from screen" time.  Today I did a walk through downtown with just the camera and the 30-110mm lens.  That thing is sharp.  At least I think it is.  I'm not "captain DXO" so I can't talk about sharpness in nerd numbers but I can say that it keeps up with my best lenses for other small systems.  And, given my caffeine rattled hands I'm going to say that the VR (it is Nikon, after all, we can hardly call it "IS") seems to do an incredible job.  Here's a big difference between the Nikon and the Olympus m4:3rds gear:  The Nikon uses "in lens" stabilization while the Olympus Pens use "in body" stabilization. While I like being able to mount any lens on the Olympus cameras and still maintain the use of stabilization I also love the way the image in the Nikon V1 finder gets all steady and calm.  You can see the VR in use with "in body" systems.

This is the Littlefield Building.  I think it looks pretty cool and it sits on a premium piece of land in Downtown Austin:  It's on the northeast corner of Congress Ave. and Sixth St. (Old Pecan St.).  One of my clients had an office there for many years.

Whenever I'm out playing with new cameras and lenses I am always drawn to the corner face of this old building.  The combination of brick and stone work shows off good lenses and makes bad ones look worse.  The 30mm to 110 mm zoom lens is the angle of view equivalent of an 81mm to 297mm zoom lens, in full frame parlance.  I think it's doing a great job here.  I love standing on the sidewalk with the camera draped over my neck, staring up at cool buildings.  Makes me look like a tourist from the hinterlands.  Sometimes I'll even stop people and ask for directions.........

This is the 30-110 at its full extension.  I'll give it a big, "not bad!"

So, why do I care at all about these little cameras?  Why all the sudden excitement with the Nikon V1?  Well, I guess I could say that my generation has lived with continual change and I'm generally always trying to figure out how the whole system will change every time a new system arrives that disrupts the old systems and is "just good enough" to do most of the stuff we do right now with bigger and more expensive cameras.  

In a few years kids of Ben's generation will buy something like this camera because the price will be right, the lenses sharp and image quality more than good enough for most of the final applications the market has in mind.  At that point, from a business point of view, they'll shift the paradigm and we can talk until we're blue in the face about "sharpness at 100%" and pixel well size but they'll be out taking photographs that meet client expectations without ever contemplating going in to debt to buy their tools.  

My generation buys the best tools some times as a hedge or a delusional barrier to entry.  We (as a group) hope that our clients will notice our superior "fire power" and conclude that we're the ticket to imaging success.  I'm coming around to the idea that most clients wouldn't care if you shot your jobs with an iPhone, or on film or some other method, as long as it works for the use in front of them.

I remember a large group of photographers, eager to maintain their market position, who laid down big bucks to buy Canon 1DS Mk 3's for $8,000 only to see them supplanted by 5D Mk2's with superior image quality at $2,500 less than a year later.  And Nikon photographers who embraced the first D3's only to see the D700's come to market for several thousand less dollars.  I remember when wedding photographers were convinced that brides would never choose little Nikon D1X cameras over medium format film.  And the next generation came to market with D30's and D100's.   

Every new technology is disruptive and we always have the choice of sitting back and "waiting out" the storm of introduction or jumping in and figuring out what's really cool about the new stuff.  If the whole concept is a bust well, we'll move on to something else.  But if it hits we're in the vanguard.  We get to loot and pillage while everyone else plays catch up.

This store always gets really nice, late afternoon light.  I shoot it when I walk by to remind myself what a difference the quality of light makes.

So, what futuristic, Star Trek-like, disruptive paradigm gigging technologies does the Nikon V1 have?  I haven't played with all the buttons yet but I watched the tutorial for the 400 fps slow motion video mode and it was incredibly cool.  Like having a $100,000 Phantom camera for one one hundredth the price...(kinda...).  And I haven't wrapped my creative brain around a mode that lets you shot a frame while recording a second of video.  When you play it back you get a cool slow motion lead in to your final still frame.  I bet Ben's crew will think of something very cool to do with that....

I'm an inveterate tinkerer and experimenter.  I love to take stuff apart and see how it works.  I love to see if we can light shaving creme on fire.  I want to make giant mylar balloons and float stuff around.  Can you blame me for wanting to see what a whole new camera format is all about?

This doesn't mean I want to abandon my other cameras.  I don't want to give up shooting portraits with my Canon full frame cameras.  And certainly I love the look of my Hasselblad portraits whether clients do or not.  I'm just coming to grips with my need for variety.  Lunch yesterday was a sandwich, today some cool feta, buffalo and jalapeno pizza, and tomorrow macrobiotic vegan food at Casa de Luz.  Life without variety?  You might as well take away my coffee....

"The Meaning of Life is to Make Life Meaningful." A.C. Grayling

This is Tulip.  She's my dog.  I'm her human.  We do things for each other and it makes both of our lives richer.

If you think about life in a pessimistic way you find yourself wondering, "Why are we born just to suffer and die."  If you think about life in an optimistic way you find yourself saying, "What's my next challenge?  How can I make this fun? What can I do to make life better and more meaningful for those around me?"  I know lots of people who live in the first camp and I'm amazed.  I know only a handful of people who live, fully, in the second camp and I'm amazed.

Our lives are like rockets.  They are self-propelled and when loaded with fuel they can leap into space.  When they run out of fuel they plunge to the earth.  The love of life and the pursuit of real meaning in life seems to be the fuel. Our problem, as modern humans, is not the final plunge back to earth but the failure to launch which consigns us to stay on the pad until our rockets rust away and are moved off into the scrap heap of eternity.

No one gets out of this alive but......possessed of an incredibly cool rocket doesn't it make a lot more sense to soar through the stratosphere and attempt to escape gravity than to wait back on the ground until all the fuel leaks out and the tubes and circuits of our space ships are rendered unusable?  We are fortunate.  We get to create our own meaning in our own lives.  We just have to have the courage to launch.  We have to be fearless.  And the opposite of fear?.......is love.

I saw a fun bumper sticker,  it had a picture of a dog.  It said, "Wag more, bark less."

How does this relate to photography?  How about this:  "Shoot with your heart, not with your brain."


Happy Halloween.

It was a weekend in September that I remember for two reasons.  First, it was our annual encounter with Austin City Limits Musical Festival, and second, it was the first day of rain in over three months.  I was walking around downtown with either an EP-2 or an EP-3 (don't remember which) and a pocketful of older prime lenses and I decided to head for home when the clouds broke open.  I put my hat over my camera to keep it dry and walked back to my car.  Whole Foods was on the way.  I walked up to the front of the store and there they were.  Pumpkins.  The light was wonderful.  A cloudy sky with hazy, diffused light and pumpkins just underneath an overhang.  Nestled in the shadows but tickled to a gentle glow by a tentative. lingering light coming in from one side.

I like these pumpkins so much that I made a stack of 5x7 inch prints to hand out to my friends.  Someone at my favorite coffee shop asked me to sign one for her.  I was so flattered.  I'm always incredulous when people ask me to sign stuff.  I always thought people only wanted signatures from famous people...

I consider my pumpkin shots the closest thing to a landscape I've shot all year.


Nikon V1 part two. Wet performance.

Just adding a bit more information about the Nikon V1.  I did not get it wet.  I did take it to our first Annual Rollingwood Pool Masters Swim Meet this morning to catch some photos of people swimming fast.  Yesterday's post contained photos that were all shot using the basic 10-30mm kit lens.  Today, all the images were shot with the little telephoto lens, 30-110mm.  Now, if someone tells you that these lenses are too big I'm here to tell you that person has been off their meds for too long.  Both lenses are in the size ballpark of the Olympus Pen lenses, for equivalent focal length ranges, and at least one quarter the size of lenses with similar angles of view offered in APS-C camera systems and full frame camera systems.  Tiny.  Really.  There is one lens, which I do not own, that ranges from 10mm-100mm and it's big but it's pretty much a specialty lens for video.  It's still not overly large for what it offers.....

 So I stuck the lens on, set the camera for auto ISO (between 100-400), the camera on A for aperture and I was using the mechanical shutter in the continuous mode which gives the camera operator about 5fps for what seems like an unlimited number of frames.  I could have used the silent, electronic shutter at 60fps but it reduces the file size and is vulnerable to the "jello" effect that can be seen on DSLR's that shoot video.  I mostly used the lens at its widest aperture and let the camera compensate with shutter speed and ISO shift.  I used the matrix mode for metering and never touched the exposure compensation dial.
The camera locks focus quickly and very rarely hunts.  Certainly less so than my Canon 5Dmk2.  While the camera is fast on frame to frame performance the shutter has a bit of lag and I found myself having to make some big adjustments in timing compared to using my Canon 1Dmk2N for shooting swimming.  On my first tries I was missing the peak of action by 40 or 50 milliseconds.  Once I learned to predict the moment my keeper rate rose.

I haven't shot RAW yet because I'm not sure if I have my hands on conversion software to make the files work in Lightroom or PhotoShop CS5.  The Jpeg files are the "fine" setting and there is very little to select in terms of fine tuning.  In fact I can't find any sub-menus to change things like contrast, saturation and sharpness.  What squirts out of the camera and into Lightroom are files that are very well exposed but somewhat low contrast vis-a-vis the Olympus files I'm used to. (And with the Olympus cameras there much be 813,000 possible setting combinations for the Jpegs.....).  Since the files are nice and flat they accept a good amount of nudging without going nuts.  I pull up the blacks by about ten percent in levels, add a bit of contrast with curves and push up the vibrance control in Lightroom about 10 points.  I'll keep hunting for more user controls but I have a sneaking suspicion that, once all the Adobe products are updated with the latest raw information,  I'll shoot this camera as a raw machine.

 The thing you notice after your first hour with the camera is just how light and small the rig is compared to our traditional cameras.  And how deep the buffer is.  You can shoot and shoot and you'll never wait for the camera to catch up.
Nice high elbow technique.  Just an observation.

I haven't played around with some of the more modern settings like the one that shoots ultra fast and then presents you with the "best" four frames.  But I'm happy with the files I'm getting from the more pedestrian settings.  A quick aside not related to capturing swimming:  If you set the camera to electronic shutter and turn off the sound effects in the menu the camera becomes absolutely silent when shooting.  There is no "click," no mirror slap noise, no fake motor drive noise, nothing.  The perfect courtroom camera if Nikon decides to come out with a few fast primes.

This is coach Chris.  He was an All American at UT Austin.  He stood up on a sleepy Sunday morning and banged out a 1:45 200 free.  I thought that was amazing.  Loving the shadows from the backstroke flags.... 

I love the way the meter locks in and handles dappled sunlight.

Once I got the lag time figured out I was able to pretty consistently catch the moments I had in mind.

I shot 484 frames this morning, in between my volunteer duties of timing and counting laps for a swimmer in a distance event. (And coffee drinking.  And bagel consumption.)  The camera meter (which reads out in percentages) showed that I still had an 80% charge left.  Not bad at all.  I may go against twenty years of tradition and NOT buy a second battery.....

 The three frames above are a sequence and it was easy to capture once you get the cadence of the camera down.  I need to figure out how to turn off the instant review function if I'm going to use the camera for serious work.  David's a darn good 200 butterfly swimmer.  I think that beats having a cool camera any day of the week.
All in all I think the lens performs very well and the camera does a good job focusing it.  I'm pretty impressed for an optic that gives me roughly the same field of view as a 90 to 300mm zoom on a full frame camera and costs only $249 WITH BUILT IMAGE STABILIZATION.  

I've read a bunch of comments on the web about these new cameras and it's amazing (and depressing).  According to the "experts" this camera can't do much.  And what it can do they suspect it can't do well.  If you really want to know what a camera can do take one out and shoot some images with it.  Because, as they say on the web, "Your Mileage May Vary."

The smartest thing Nikon could do is to run program where people can come into a store and borrow a camera and lens package for 24 hours with no strings attached.  I think they'd have a hard time getting them back out of people's hands.  

Note to the highly literal and people with "JTCD" (jumping to conclusions disorder):  Just because I like this camera doesn't mean I think all other cameras are bad, deficient, unusable, etc.  Nor does it mean that I'm putting all of my other cameras in a box and heading down to Goodwill to donate them.  It does mean I'll be shooting with it for a while to see what I can squeeze out of it.  And then I'll turn on the video and squeeze some more.  This doesn't mean that anyone else has to like it.  Really.  



Nikon 1. Counterintuitive. Crazy. And a whole lot of fun.

Nikon V1 Camera with Kit Lens. Sweet.

I got some money for my birthday on Thurs. and it was still around when I decided to drop in and see what was new at Precision Camera, my local, grown up candy shop.  I was thinking I'd take a look at the Canon SX40 because Ben and I have had fun with the super zoom cameras from Canon in the past and it's a lot of camera for $400.  My camera guy, Ian, and I played with the SX40 for a few minutes and then I asked him, "What's new?"  And that set of the chain reaction that led to the insertion of VSL into yet another camera system.  

When the Nikon 1 Series was announced I thought it looked pretty cool but I didn't take time to understand any of it, and the howl from the denizens on the web forums threatened to kill the whole system before it even hatched.  It is amazing to me how entrenched people get with their current systems and the level of disbelief they have that technology can march onward.  People are shaking their heads at the "small" sensor while gushing over cameras like the Panasonic LX5 and the Canon G12 which have much smaller sensors.....

Ian sauntered over to the case that holds the Nikon goodies and pulled out the V1.  He asked, innocently, "Have you played with one of these yet?" and he put the camera in my hand.  Can I say, "love at first sight?"

I have average sized hands and this camera fit perfectly.  The thumb rest on the back and the finger grip on the front are as close to perfect for me as I can imagine.  If you have gorilla hands you may have a different experience.  While I love the control covered carcass of the G series mini-pro cameras from Canon I was pleasantly surprise how much I loved the minimalist control protrusions on the V1.

But let's back up for a second and I'll describe the V1 for those who haven't kept up with new introductions lately.  Nikon supposedly has been working on this camera system since 2007.  It's got a smaller imaging chip than the micro four thirds cameras and the chip has a 2.7X crop factor compared to full frame 35mm.  There are two bodies available but the cheaper one doesn't allow for an EVF so I pretend that it doesn't even exist.  The body I am interested in is the V1.  It has a built in EVF with a 1.4 million pixel res screen in the eyepiece.  The camera can be set up like the old Minoltas and Sony's so that the screen on the rear is live until you bring the camera up to your eye and then it switches to the electronic viewfinder.  Nice, but the first thing I did was to use the display control to turn off the rear screen all the time.

The camera is small but not too small which makes it easy to carry but nice to hold.  You'll hate this camera if you like all your major controls front and center.  Just about everything on the camera is menu driven.  And it's the Jekyll and Hyde opposite of the EP-3.  The menus is barebones.  Where you can fine tune and finesse just about every setting imaginable in the Olympus the Nikon is almost delightfully straightforward and uncluttered.  You can't fine tune many of the settings but maybe that's because it's intended to be a raw shooter.

You can look at the picture of the product at the top of the page and you'll find it to appear very rudimentary.  I like it.  But I like Mid 20th Century Russian Industrial too.  I think, once you hold it in your hand and shoot it you'll find it's a cross between "collective functionality" and the kind of simplified interface that makes Apple products so usable.  If you are the kind of guy who likes to replace the motherboard in your PC just so you can say you built it yourself then.....nope, this one might be something different.  To me, clean, spare and functional are attributes.
When Ian and I were playing around with the camera in the store we shot photos of the inside of a camera bag.  Silly test, but at ISO 3200 we saw very, very little noise and lots of non-smushy detail.  There was a little bit of evidence of noise reduction taking the edges off eyelashes and what not but not much.  On par with a Canon 7D at that setting.  Maybe a little better.  

I beat Ian out of a 4 gigabyte card because I wanted to go out and shoot immediately.  The battery had a 40% charge fresh from the box so I saddled up, asked my full service camera guy to put the strap on the camera and set the date and time and, a grand lighter, I was out the door and headed for downtown.  I thought I'd head to Cafe Medici and read the owner's manual.  Something I do with every camera I buy.

OMG!!!!  Nikon managed to do the IMPOSSIBLE.  The manual is only about 60 pages long and yet manages to cover everything I needed to know with good, clear explanations.  Amazing, since even the most rudimentary cameras these days come with books that rival War and Peace  for length.  I was back out the door one cappuccino and ten minutes later.  
I'd write more stuff but I just spent three hours and 200 files with the camera.  Look above.  It's a shot right out of the camera in Jpeg.  Click on it because I uploaded some big files.  You'll see lots of detail and lots of dynamic range.  I know the sensor is small and I won't be able to put lots and lots of stuff out of focus but I also know that I can lean over a bridge, shoot in total automatic, and come away with a shot I like.
What are the "gotcha's" that I've found so far?

1.  I don't like the fact that they use a brand new mechanical interface for the flash.  I'll have to use their dedicated flash and figure out how to use it to trigger studio flashes if I want to use it that way.  They haven't shipped flashes yet so I'll see what that's all about when they get here.

2. "Wake from sleep" takes far too long.  When you turn on the camera from the "off" position it leaps into action and is as ready as a teenager.  But when you've let the camera go to sleep it wakes up like a grumpy old man.  Figure on several seconds and some pressure on the shutter button before it says hello and asks for Sanka.

3.  Shot to shot recovery is too slow in the single shot setting.  You click, it shoots, then it pauses and then it shows you the shoot and then waits for you to put a little pressure on the button before it comes back to pre-shoot readiness.  Fine for still life and things that don't move much but not so good for my kind of shooting.  Switch to continuous and gain immediate shot to shot responsiveness and a 45 shot buffer.
 What do I like about the camera?

Can you say, "Image Quality?"  Forget all the crap you hear on the techno sites and just look at the images.  They're gorgeous.  I don't remember which ones I uploaded at full size but if you click around I'm sure you'll have no trouble finding them.  I think the out of camera jpegs are very, very good.  Maybe the color is different than Jpegs from Olympus Pen cameras but it's not necessarily worse color and the sharpness and resolution are second to none in the tiny class.

The other major thing I like is the use of the big, D7000 style battery.  It's rated for 500 images.  I'm tired of tiny batteries that cough up the spirit after only 200 or so images.  

Do I like the camera better than my EP3?  No.  But I do like it just as much.  The EP3 is very elegant and so beautifully designed.  The V1 seems more industrial.  Will I get rid of the Olympus stuff to replace it with Nikon stuff?  Naw.  I still like using all my legacy lenses and Leica lenses on the Olys.  And I still love their color.  What do I like about the Nikon? I love the crisp feel of the files, the perfect meter, the fast autofocus and the incredible ten frames per second I can get at the full 10 meg image res.

There's a lot more to this camera and I've barely scratched the surface of it's capabilities in video (can you  imagine 400 fps video played back at 30 fps for incredible slow motion?).  The camera is small, discreet, focuses faster than my Canon 5Dmk2 (the whipping boy of modern focus...) and fun to handle.

I've only had my hands on it for five hours and I'm still learning.  But I've learned on thing: If most people who've never handled a camera hate it.......it might be really good.  More.  Much more to come.


Another fun review by one of the VSL readers: http://www.b-vong.com/journal/nikon-j1-review-by-a-girl/

It's a moveable feast. A portable picnic.

HEY.  Looking for the blog?  It's Saturday and I've started a brand new tradition with Michael Johnston, the grand curator and wizard at THE ONLINE PHOTOGRAPHER.  I'm doing a blog on the last Saturday of each month on his site.

Go here if you want to read it:  http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/blog_index.html/the_online_photographer/blog_index.html

Then bookmark Michael's site if you haven't already.  My suspicion is you're going to like his stuff at least as much as you like mine.  And it's usually a different take.

Thanks for being a reader.  We'll be back tomorrow.

Best, Kirk

P.S. someone reminded me of this ancient article,  vintage camera now: http://photo.net/equipment/leica/m6