Gone out shooting. Check back later.

Becoming a photographer is a lifelong project.  It's important to pace yourself and enjoy the process.


Pocketability? It's a bad word and a worse concept.

Must find more pockets.......  Must find bigger pockets......

What in the world is with the latest metrosexual camera obsession called pocketability?  I was reading some well reasoned discussions about Olympus Pen and Nikon series 1 cameras and when I started to scroll down through the comments I found entry after entry downgrading the cameras because they can't fit into someone's tight, slim fit, rocker jeans back pocket.  Since when was that a concern for real photographers?  Pathetic.

So, now a camera has to have fully interchangeable lenses, a complete selection of super fast prime lenses, a fully programmable wireless flash system, a battery that will last for 10,000 actuations+ chimping,  amazingly noise free and noise-reduction-artifact-free files up to 12,000 ISO and it must fit into a space smaller than a round can of smoke-less (Skoal?)  tobacco in someone's pants pocket in order to be considered anything less than a "fail"?  (And while we're at it let's stop with the achingly cliched: "total fail.")

Let's step back and set some ground rules for the family here at the Visual Science Lab.

1.  If you honestly feel that the ability to cram a camera into your Levi's pocket along with your car keys is a most vital stat, please don't tell me that or write that in your comments.  I will not be able to resist critiquing your education, your taste and your tenuous grasp on sanity and logic.

2.  You can have pocketability but you are relegated to cameras where that's the only design imperative.  The Canon s95 and s100 and a few of the candy colored Nikon Coolpix cameras come to mind.  But we don't really like to talk about cameras here on VSL that don't have, or can't be retrofitted with, a grown-up viewfinder.  " Stinky Diaper Hold" is a camera handling technique that's generally thought of derisively around here....

3.  Don't expect any serious camera manufacturer to make a workable, interchangeable lens camera that fits in something the size of your pack of cigarettes.  Besides, where will you relocate your pack of cigarettes?

4.  Let's stop insisting on mutually exclusive design parameters.  Are there "serious" pink camera and lens sets?  Can you have a camera you can stuff into your wallet WITH an 800mm f2.8 lens on it?  I didn't think so.  Neither would Einstein have thought so.

5.  Speaking of price/performance/size compromises,  please, immediately stop slagging the smaller cameras because they won't do noise free performance on par with a Nikon D3.  One is $250 the other is $5,000.    Don't expect your Fiat 500 to match top speeds with an Aston Martin Rapide either.  (almost hit a brand new Rapide today heading toward the coffee shop because I was trying to yank my Hasselblad 500 CM with the 150mm out of the pocket of my Kenneth Cole Slim Fit slacks so I could photograph it!!!!  (sounds stupid, doesn't it?)

6.  I don't want to hear stories of how you were cheated in the warranty repair process after you realized the crunch you heard as you were sitting down was the camera in your back pocket.

7.  If you need a special tool or aftermarket attachment to hold the camera properly then it is too small.  If it slips through your Metro shelving and falls onto the floor of your studio then it's too small.  If you confuse your iPhone with your camera then the camera is too small.  If it slips through the seat cushions of your sofa.....it is too small.  Like saving money by buying a Canon 5D mk2 for video and then adding $10,000 worth of Red Rock Micro stuff to it to make it all work....

8.  Every time you whine about a camera not fitting into your English rocker pants pockets   mystic wood spirits kill another puppy.

9.  It's a sickness if your weight hasn't changed but you've switched from buying pants with a waist size of 32 to pants with a waist size of 44 inches just to better carry your "arsenal" of "pocketable" mini-cams.

10.  If you insist on panta-looney photography people will make jokes that start with......"Is that a toy camera in your pocket or are you just glad to...........?"

This photo is the minimum assemblage of gear recommended for daily carrying 
by the American Association for More Profitable Chiropractors. (AAMPC).

Seriously.  I understand that it's great to not carry around a ton of gear in your day to day life but just let a little more testosterone flow into the system and use one of the unobtrusive camera straps that comes free in the camera box.  Your camera will be ready when you need it (and where you need it), you won't have to hear lectures from your bespoke tailor about the "bump that's ruining the sinuous line of your trousers."  No jokes about dressing "left" or dressing "right."  And then, since you saved a bundle getting a tiny camera instead of a reasonable camera, you'll have acres of pocket space left for that dramatic roll of banknotes.  If pocket dimensions are an overriding concern then skip the mini-cam and get an iPhone 4-something.  Join Jack Hollingsworth in his pursuit to redefine photograph.....one quarter inch sensor at a time.

Hard to believe that some of the same folks who pine for "pocketability" are the same people who rush to the other side of absurdity and put giant, militaristic, nihilist, Goth, Black Rapid Straps on their sane sized cameras......but that's a whole different discussion.

Apple Boxes. A very mundane accessory. Priceless when needed.

This is Martin Burke as the mouse in a new kids play, 
based on the children's book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

I love working with talented actors and I had a romping good time with Martin in my little studio today.  We were shooting marketing photos for post cards, posters and the endlessly starving web.  Unlike "civilian" subjects actors of Martin's caliber make a photographer's job really easy.  In the course of 30 minutes we had 225 keepers in twenty or thirty different poses.  We were shooting under the watchful eye of Zach's collateral designer, Rona.  

Before they got to the studio I set up the lighting using two Elinchrom D-Lite 400 monolights.  I wanted a harder light than I usually use to sharpen up the edges of the images so I used a 28 inch, silver beauty dish, with no diffusion, for my main light source.  I filled in with a smaller, 18 inch silver beauty dish that was wearing it's white diffusion "sock."
That's all the light we needed.  I set the light levels for f5.6 at 1/60th of second, ISO 100.  Two test shots and we were ready to go.

I'd been waiting for a simple studio shot like the one above to test out the Nikon V1 combined with studio lighting.  I used the SBn5 I have on loan from Nikon to trigger the studio flashes by setting the flash in the manual control mode and dialing the power down to 1/16th.  I pointed the  on camera flash over to one side so it would have no effect on the subject illumination.  The images were all easy to work with and one click of the lens profile button in Lightroom release candidate 3.6 does nice stuff for the 10-30mm lens.  The files were shot in RAW.

Most of photographs were standing shots but we also wanted to do a few seated images so out came several of the cheapest and most useful studio accessories I have ever acquired:  The Apple Crates.  These are boxes, made of wood, that were born in the movie industry.  What you see in the image above is what is referred to as a full Apple.  They measure 20 x 12 x 8 inches and they are plenty sturdy enough for anyone to stand on.  The people who make Apple Crates also make "half apples" and " quarter apples" which are shorter in the smallest dimension.

We use them to do so many things.  I used one (inappropriately) to stand on and clamp off my white background paper this morning.  They are valuable as posing blocks and they are especially valuable for photographers who, like me, are five feet, eight inches tall... or shorter.  You can stand on a sturdy Apple Crate when you need to do eye level portraits of desperately tall people.....

Quick Note on the Nikon V1:  Now that I've done three or four charge cycles on the batteries I am getting a lot more frames per charge (fpc).  When I shot a dress rehearsal on Tues. I shot over six hundred images and the battery meter indicated that I had 72% battery charge remaining.  After shooting an additional 225 frames today, with puny flash in every frame, the counter is only down to 60%.  I think the eye level viewfinder might be much more energy efficient than the rear LCD screen.  At any right I am now, officially, happy with the battery capacity of the camera.


Playing around with actors. White background musings.

Outtake during our set up.  No post processing.
 I packed up some lights and went to shoot some photos for "The God of Carnage," at Zach Scott Theater last week.  A quick assignment to shoot two couples against white.  The images will be used online, in a post card and in print ads.  I lit the actors with one big beauty dish from 45 degrees to one side (main light) and a second beauty dish on access with the actors as a fill.  The main beauty dish was 28 inches in diameter and the fill dish was 18 inches in diameter.  Both had white, cloth diffusers  over the front.  All the lights were my new, el cheapo, Elinchrom D-lite 400's.

We were shooting in the rehearsal studio so I had plenty of room to stretch out and to get the white muslin background as far back as I wanted.  I used two lights, one on either side, about ten feet back from the background to light it.  No modifiers on the background lights.  I've become lazy about white backgrounds.  In the old days we had to get them right.  Now, with content aware fill and refine edge in PhotoShop CS5, I think  the images are better off being clipped in post processing.  But that's meat to chew in another post.

I switched back and forth between the Olympus EP3 with the kit lens (and, for my Jedi Knight friend, ATMTX.....I put a trigger in the shoe of the EP3 and used the force by looking on the LCD screen on the back.....the vertigo was almost unbearable...  :-) ), and a Canon 1DSmk2 with an 85mm 1.4 Zeiss ZE.  Both at f8 and both at ISO 200.  That's the sweet spot (ISO-wise) for both cameras.  Looking at the images on the screen the difference isn't that much.  Either set of files would work just fine.  Yes, the Canon is a bit sharper and more detailed if I look at 100% but......  The images have the same overall "look and feel."

I saw the dress rehearsal of the play on Tues. and laughed out loud while I was shooting it.  Fun to have a whole theater as a camera test lab.  If you are in Austin you should see this play.  It's well done.  And if you have not seen The Santaland Diaries  you might want to stop reading in about twenty words and head to the phone to order tickets for you and your closest friends.  It's that good.

Live theater is fun in the way that live music is fun.  You love being in the moment.  You're aware there could be a "train wreck" and you're relieved when it doesn't happen.  Good night.

The dual edge sword of control.

We love to have the illusion of being totally in control.  At least I know I do. (the photographer during a particularly anxious period in my life.)

But my best work is nearly always the result of the things I can't or didn't control.  The move of a model's head, the glowering weather, a mis-set camera that makes a file I didn't expect and can't repeat.  The illusion of being able to control everything around us can be debilitating because we make it so hard for happenstance to have space to enter the equation.

We can't predict a real laugh and we can't engineer it.  We can just be ready when it occurs.  And it's the same with so much in photography.  I can't tell you how many times I've been on location, all set up and ready to go, and had the client run late.  The sun, which was perfect at the agreed upon shoot time, starts to move into the "wrong" position, shadows move over into my perfectly conceived space and everything moves from "planned and controlled" into chaos.  

If I fight it I come away with something that meets the technical constraints of acceptability but mocks my vision of how great it could have been.  But, if I go with the flow of the situation I usually discover some better angle or nearby location that makes an even better image.

In the first photograph I was meticulously metering a location in a courtyard at some really nice convention hotel in Scottsdale, AZ.  The client wanted portraits against the background for attendees of a conference who would walk through the courtyard on their way to the main event.  They funneled everyone through me.   When I got there the wind was strong and the background flapped around, totally out of control.  I couldn't use big umbrellas because the wind would knock them apart and take my lights with them.  Even with the water bags I had positioned on each stand, as ballast.  Eventually I freed the bottom of the backdrop so it could swing and flap in the wind.  I couldn't control it and I certainly couldn't "will" it to stay in position.  But as soon as I gave up control the wind seemed to die down and "schedule" itself only to be exuberant between sessions and not during them.

I hate handing people my cameras and letting them shoot photos of me.  But this time I gave up that control and actually had a great time sharing stories with an executive who was not only interested in photography but also in my role as a photographer.  

In the image of the young woman above I had a list in my head of the expressions I wanted to capture.  Joyous laughter wasn't on the list but it should have been at the top.  When I let go of the list and let the model take control she gave me more than I had planned for.  A wonderful smile that communicated well being and joy, and, incidentally, was the perfect image for a dermatology practice.

I've learned the hard way that the universe likes to toy with people who feel as though they can control everything, in the same way a cat toys with a mouse.  You'll get some slack but eventually the hammer comes down to wipe away your misguided belief in control.  If, instead, you learn to let go of the final result and work to get a good result you'll just about have fighting chance.

As a photographer it's a good idea to know how and why to do the "right" stuff.  The technical steps.  But it's a hell of a lot more important to recognize the overwhelming power (and sometimes hidden blessing) of chance.  The real secret is to be ready to go both ways.

Prepare to follow your plan.  Be prepared to abandon your plan.  Don't take the path of least resistance, take the path of "most fun."

Veiling glare or atmospheric haze or low contrast?

Reader, Nick, commented about the "veiling glare" issue in some older lenses.  And that may well have been his experience with some optics.  I went back to the images I shot for the previous article on the Olympus 150mm lens and tweaked each image with the black slider and the contrast slider in Lightroom 3.6.  Kind of like matching negatives to paper contrast grades in the old days of printing black and white in a darkroom.  I think that what Nick saw in the train shot is a a lot of dust and atmospheric haze (and some bad technique since I hardly nailed focus on the front of the train).  In the other images I think what he saw IS a combination of the lower contrast of the older lenses combined with some atmospheric haze.  They clean up okay when you through some post processing on them and we could probably do quite a bit more in curves, etc.  Just thought I'd throw this up to show a post processed version...... commentary welcome.


A brief review of a lens you probably would love to have for your Panasonic or Olympus 4:3rds camera.

I think it's funny how we pretend that optical manufacturers only really figured out how to make good camera lenses very recently.  That computerized optical design only arrived in tandem with digital imaging and how constant optical upgrades are now de rigueur.  Is the Canon 70-200mm II IS L really that much better than it's predecessor or have Canon learned how to tweak its design parameters to favor perceived sharpness and contrast over total resolution and longer tonal range?  The truth is that almost every advance has been conceived and conjured into existence to lower production costs and keep quality control manageable.  The better the lens the more hand assembly, and sample by sample tweaking, occurs.  And if you want to see the true cost of building state of the art lenses;  lenses that have price as a smaller part of the creation equation you need only look to Leica and Zeiss.  While you may not value or need the final 5% or 2% of quality over your Canon, Nikon or whatever plastic lens it's an inescapable fact that there are very few manufacturers left who offer "better than required for profitable sales" quality.

And that brings me to the latest frenzy over lenses for the Olympus and Panasonic mmc's (mini-mirrorless cameras).  The two lenses I've watched take off in the current market are Olympus's 45mm 1.8 and Panasonic's Leica 25mm 1.4.  I've played with them both and they are excellent.  And they are a good start for the systems if they want to garner widespread acceptance.  But in truth, with the older lenses stopped down one stop, the modern lenses are just about equal with the lenses Olympus was making for their Pen F film camera system over forty years ago.  Even in the late 1960's there were computers that could be used to create very good optical designs and, more importantly, there were craftspeople who could "customize" the performance of each lens they assembled.  In many parts of the manufacturing process a craftsperson could eyeball an exact fitting that guaranteed the highest performance.  Today's factory produced lenses have "tolerance targets" for their plastic mounted lens element and group modules.  Fitting into the window of tolerance makes the lens "good enough" for sale.  Not as good as it could be based on the theoretical designs!  Just good enough so that most customers who buy one won't bother to complain or will instead blame their own photography techniques.

I got a used, Olympus 150mm f4 Pen F lens sometime in the late 1980's.  I put it on a Pen film camera (what else could I use it for back then?) and tried some hand held shots.  They didn't seem amazingly sharp to me and I didn't use long lenses much so I stuck it in the drawer and was glad to have the lens because it rounded out my collection of Pen gear.

But recently, on the occasion of getting a new lens adapter for the new Pen EP3,  I decided to give the lens another try.  I mounted it on the camera, set the IS menu manually to IS mode 1 and dialed in 150mm as the focal length and I headed downtown to shoot some stuff that might help me make a better evaluation.  Here's what I learned:  1.  Image stabilization makes a lot of difference in handholding longer lenses.  I'm presuming I could do even better with a tripod but it's a good compromise between mortal and godlike performance.  2.  Single focal length telephotos don't get less sharp at their longest focal length, like longer zooms. 3.  The real promise of m4:3rds is in the enhancement of usability through size and weight reduction.  Good for the cameras, even better for the lenses.  With the 2X increase in equivalent focal length you really can enjoy the pull of a long lens without popping those lower vertebrae into the painful and queasy zone.

These images are straight out of the camera Jpegs and, if I had wanted to be disingenuous, and make my point about the quality of older lenses more obvious, I could have run them through some post processing to increase the contrast and some add some selective saturations, perhaps sharpen up the edges.  But I'm happy with the way they look as raw material.

I think we've seen a sea change in lens design.  It's analogous to what happened in color film in the ten years before the mass market for film crashed.  Film manufacturers discovered that most users loved hot saturation and harder contrast in their images.  It was more............obvious.  So they started to pump up the eye candy volume.  We thought the knobs on original Velvia slide film went up to ten but on the newer films you could turn the volume up to fifteen (a nod to the movie, Spinal Tap).  While the films were no longer even remotely faithful renderings to the original scenes the same people who like monster trucks, Big Macs and now, full bore HDR, fell in love with the miracle of MORE COLOR.  Eventually Kodak and Fuji had to issue specialty films for the professional market with the color and contrast dialed back down so professional photographers could make neutral and accurate images for product ads.  And less aggressive films were also introduced for portrait photographers once they found out that contrasty and saturated are two things that DON'T flatter most skin.

So, in lens design, given lower resolutions from the last three generations of digital imagers, coupled with acutance robbing anti-aliasing filters, camera makers started creating lenses that added snap and sparkle back in at the expense of longer tonal ranging and high resolution rendering.  You can design a lens for high resolution or high contrast but not necessarily both.  Nearly every lens is a compromise between those parameters.  Another change has been the push to even out lens performance over the frame.  Again, there are two design philosophies in conflict.  The first philosophy says that most images are of three dimensional objects and 2/3rds of images created in the U.S. are of people in or near the centers of the frames.  Lens makers can optimize for center sharpness and let natural geometry takes its course or, with the use of additional (contrast robbing) elements they can even out sharpness over the entire frame to meet the theoretical needs of a generation of number worshippers.

While even-ness is important for tilt shift lenses and macro lenses it can be completely counter productive for many day to day uses.  But I guess this is fodder for another discussion at another time.  Suffice it to say that lenses designed in the 1960's and 1970's were based more on actual use parameters since most people weren't sitting in front of monitors doing "pixel evaluations" instead of shooting and printing.  But I will end by saying that so many of the attributes we admire in the work of legendary photographers have to do with design decisions made in the glass labs and lens design labs by engineers who were far less encumbered by the current strait-jacketed, tunnel vision of marketing teams.  And we are the poorer for it.  

Do I like the 150mm lens for the Pen F?  Yes.  I like the feel of the all metal construction.  I like being able to turn the well damped, click stopped aperture ring.   And I love being able to focus the lens by hand and have a focus throw created with the human hand and brain considered.  Couple that with well made glass that doesn't suffer from chromatic aberrations and I think we've found a nice, long lens to use with the Pens of today.  But look for yourself.

Note:  If you have any disagreements about my statements concerning contrast versus resolution please read this first: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/tutorials/understanding-series/understanding-mtf.shtml

Shooting A Dress Rehearsal with the tiny Nikon and the Pens....

I wanted to see how the two mirrorless systems I've been playing with handle the "real world" of Kirk so I jettisoned the Canon stuff from the camera bag and loaded up with mini-Nikon lenses and Olympus Pen toys and headed to Zachary Scott Theatre to photograph the dress rehearsal of a wonderfully funny play called, The God of Carnage.  Shooting plays can be interesting.  When I arrived at the theater the first thing I noticed is that the floor had been painted a deep, bright, fire engine red.  The stage lighting hit the floor and bounced a juicy red light into every actor's face.  Made white balancing a little more interesting...  My biggest concern was whether or not I'd be able to accurately focus my favorite Pen manual focus lenses under the stage lights and you can tell on a couple of frames that I missed by a mile.  I was worried about whether or not the Nikon V1 would focus under these conditions, given that the lenses are slow (aperture-wise) and I wouldn't be able to use the AF assist light.  

I started out shooting at ISO 1600 with both cameras but quickly determined that I'd be able to use ISO 800 under the kind of stage light the lighting designer had cooked up.  While the play was funny and engaging it's still an hour and twenty minute (sometimes heated) conversation between two couples so there are exciting costumes, not many light changes and not much action..... but that worked for me because I was in the "casual" test mode.

I worked mostly with the 30-110 on the Nikon V1, shooting raw, and I worked with the 40mm 1.4 on the EP-2 (which worked well!!!) and the 25mm 2.8 on the EP3.  The wider angle on the EP3 is what screwed up my focusing....  There's just not enough acuity on the screen given the wider angle of view.

I popped the kit lens on the EP3 just to make a comparison with the Nikon in terms of focusing speed and was pleasantly surprise.  It kept up well.

Usually I shoot this kind of work with a couple of Canon cameras like the 5Dmk2 and the 1dmk2N along with some L series zooms.  The 5Dmk2 has about the same level of noise at 6400 as the Nikon V1 does at 1600 as the EP3 and EP2 do at 800 ISO.  The biggest difference is in apparent sharpness.  The big Canon pixels are in their element at these kinds of sensitivity settings.  To be bitingly honest I'd use the EP3 with no real restrictions at ISO 400 and slower.  The Nikon V1 at ISO 800 and slower and, for comparison's sake, the Canon 60D at 1600 and the 5Dmk2 at 3200.  Working at those settings and nailing exposure would get me into the same ballpark, in terms of "noise" image quality, across the board.

And here it's important to say that all of this is predicated on nailing an optimum exposure.  Sure, you can blow out the highlights and you'll have less noise in the shadows but....blown highlights aren't really acceptable.  Alternately, you can pull good stuff out of dark image files if you don't mind a higher noise floor and, by extension, less sharpness in the middle tones.

I found (happily) that the three micro cameras all have the same gameplan when it comes to noise.  It's a monochrome noise that I've described as a uniform sprinkling of black pepper in the shadows and reaching (with less exposure) into the middle tones.  I had the high ISO noise reduction turned off on the Nikon V1 but I understand that the camera still does some noise reduction and it's hardwired to do so.  I set the Oly cameras to the lowest noise setting as well.  And I stayed away from leaning on noise reduction in Lightroom conversions because I wanted you to see the differences between the files instead of differences in processing.

The Olympus cameras have meatier files with more sense of density and mass in the the lower tones and a more color neutral rendition of the higher tones.  The Nikon is less noisy but I'll chalk some of that up to the in-camera noise reduction.  Neither camera is particularly well suited to this particular kind of work but if I had to choose I would give a nod to the Nikon by 5%.  With the right lenses both would be fun.  For this kind of work I'd love the holy trinity of focal lengths to be the 35mm equivalent of 35mm, 60mm and 90mm.  Longer is fun but if the files are clean enough I don't have bad feelings about cropping in.

Next time I head to the theater the Canons and the fast primes go back into the bag.  Focus and ISO performance aside, the increased resolution of the 5D2 gives you a bit more wiggle room for fast action and aggressive crops.

Does all this mean that my love affair with the small cameras is over?  Hardly.  In good light they are more fun to shoot and more fun to carry than my traditional cameras.  And the files are very, very good.  Just put me in the camp that's waiting for Nikon to make good on their prime lens roadmaps.

The images below are a sampling from all three cameras.  The Nikon's are on the top and the EP3's are on the bottom.  While it's not an authorative test it is the way I tend to use cameras under these conditions.  My base exposures were 1/100 with the zooms, nudging up to 1/200 when the light permitted and 1/320 with the fast prime.  The wide angle fell somewhere in between.  But hey, see for yourselves.....

 Nikon V1, 130-110mm zoom.
 Nikon V1, 30-110mm zoom.
 Nikon V1, 30-110mm zoom.
 Nikon V1, 30-110mm zoom.
 Nikon V1, 10-30mm zoom.
  Nikon V1, 10-30mm zoom.
  Nikon V1, 10-30mm zoom.
  Nikon V1, 10-30mm zoom.
  Nikon V1, 30-110mm zoom.
  Nikon V1, 30-110mm zoom.
  Nikon V1, 30-110mm zoom.
  Nikon V1, 10-30mm zoom.
  Nikon V1, 30-110mm zoom.
 Nikon V1, 30-110mm zoom.
 Nikon V1, 30-110mm zoom.
 Olympus EP-2. 40mm 1.4 PenF
 Olympus EP-2. 40mm 1.4 PenF
 Olympus EP-2. 40mm 1.4 PenF
 Olympus EP-2. 40mm 1.4 PenF
 Olympus EP-2. 40mm 1.4 PenF
 Olympus EP-2. 40mm 1.4 PenF
Olympus EP-2. 25mm 2.8 PenF
 Olympus EP3 and PenF legacy lens
 Olympus EP3 and PenF legacy lens
 Olympus EP3 and PenF legacy lens
Olympus EP3 and PenF legacy lens