12.01.2011

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.

11.30.2011

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

11.28.2011

Trying it both ways.

Photographers tend to be an "all or nothing" crew.  When we gear up for a shoot we focus in like lasers on the exact gear we presume will be the best for the job of the moment, then we pack it up and go.  But sometimes the license to experiment comes hand in hand with the job at hand.  I can't tell you why I packed up my Hasselblad 501 CM and the 120mm Makro lens along with my Canon gear on the morning that Amy and I went off to make portraits of scientists for one of our favorite technology companies.  It wasn't logical or rational.  And I can't tell you why I stuck a couple of 120 rolls of Kodak's venerable Tri-X in my pocket either.

We were making portraits of people against white that would become ads and posters.  We shot digital and tethered all morning long and paid close attention to things like white lab coats edged against the white background.  It was great to have some instant proofing.  The firewire connection had no problem matching my shooting speed.  It was a smooth but careful shoot.  The ad agency had no interest in experimenting with film.  But I did.

We had some time between sessions so I asked this scientist if we could take a few quick shots and she agreed.  I extrapolated the Tri-X exposure from the Canon 1DS mk2 ISO 100 exposure.  It should have been two stops different but I went with one and two thirds stops difference because I like a slightly thicker negative and I was certain that Tri-X could handle as much over exposure as I wanted to throw at it without blocking up.

I think my subject enjoyed a little foray into historic imaging technology.  I know I did.  We chatted about it for a few moments while I licked the little band that secures the backing paper around the exposed film, and then we were done.

When my assistant, Amy, and I got back to the studio and finished unloading I got straight to work backing up the digital files, creating web galleries and doing all the back end work we now take for granted.  A few days later I dropped the roll of film by the lab and asked them to "develop and contact."

The next time I was in the neighborhood I pulled into the lab and picked up the film.  A quick glance across the contact sheet and I zeroed in on two frames.  One somber and one smiling.  I scanned the smiling one and made one or two little adjustments.  I compared it with the digital file, painstakingly resolved from a big raw file and worked on meticulously in PhotoShop, and I must plainly say that the digital files rendering of skin tones in digital is not up to par with film technology from the 1960's and 1970's.  You can blame my technique if you want and you can direct me to countless thousands of people on the web who may have mastered black and white in the digital age but all stories are anecdotal unless you live them.

I can dump Canon files in SilverFX and create lots of stuff that's close but it's the tonal range that always seems to give it away for me.  The midrange always seems like gray mush.  I am consistently amazed that, with one or two little tweaks I can get wonderful black and white from the real thing (black and white film)  but the voodoo of manipulating color tones in relation to skin tones in relation to digital files seems so arduous by comparison.  Maybe it's just me.  I can accept that.

After I got this file back I had a husband and wife contact me about photographing them.  They wanted images showing her pregnancy.  I had the studio all set to do a digital session but when they showed up she remarked that she loved the look of square, black and white photographs.  I proofed with the Canon 5Dmk2 but I shot in earnest with the Hasselblad and Fuji Acros 100.  I got the contact sheets back today.  I am still in love with black and white film.  I don't care if it's less convenient.  It just looks better.....

So, for all the people who were getting bored with the writing about the Nikon V1.........viva la difference!

(If you are going to comment about print quality, please keep in mind that the image above is 1600 pixels wide and the original is capable of being cleanly scanned at 16,000 pixels wide. It's also been converted from 16 bits of grayscale to 8 bits of sRGB color. Just mentioning...)