1.21.2012

Pure retro on my Panasonic and Olympus Cameras. The manual, Pen FT Lens test EXTRAVAGANZA.


I'll start with a little bit of background.  In the 1960's Olympus starting making cameras that used a half frame of 35mm film instead of the full frame.  They called these "half frame" cameras.  Most of the cameras were little compacts that were very light weight and easy to use.  People who made small prints bought them to save money.  And, even back then, people were trying to shove cameras into their pockets...

The half frame is really the same size as a "full frame" frame of 35mm movie film.  Honest.  What we consider full frame is actually "double frame."  But I don't want to head down that rabbit hole right now. Having enjoyed a certain amount of success in the market the designers and dreamers at Olympus thought that there would be demand for a more sophisticated camera system that would keep the half frame film size but include some really cool things like a rotary, titanium shutter that syncs at all speeds, interchangeable lenses that are really, really good, and a mirrored reflex finder.  Which made the camera a genuine "SLR."  This was known as the Pen F system.  

The camera was used by plenty of photojournalists who embraced the camera for the same reasons people are flocking to mirrorless cameras in the present:  They were smaller, more discreet, easier to carry and very capable.  In fact, one of the most famous photographers in the 20th century, Eugene Smith, appeared in ads for the Pen F's and shot with them on assignments.  My favorite ad for the Pens is one in which Olympus showed how the whole system can fit in a shoe box.

But the reason the system had legs and sold reasonably well was the lenses.  That's something Olympus has always done well.  I won't go in for the standard hyperbole and suggest that they made lenses that are just as good as the current Leica M lenses but they were damn good and the half frame lenses were specifically designed for the smaller rectangle of film that the smaller cameras shot so they were optimized for higher resolution than the typical 35mm lenses of the day.  It makes sense, the frames would have to be enlarged to a much greater degree in order to make the standard, black and white 8x10 inch prints that were the lingua Franca of the day.

What finally killed the Olympus half frame cameras?  In a word?  Color print film.  Why? Because the labs begged for automated printers and those printers were never designed to deal with the odd ball size of the negatives.  If people couldn't get film printed cheaply they weren't really interested.  So what worked well in the days when people did their own lab work, and when labs handled each negative individually, didn't work as well in the age of automation.  Too bad because it's a great little system.  I should know, I have five of the Pen FT bodies and the collection of lenses in the first photo, plus some duplicates of my favorites in the Olympus equipment drawer.  The one guarded by angry black Mamba snakes...

When the new, digital Pens came out I realized that the shorter lens flange to sensor dimension would make mounting lots of different lenses on the bodies a pretty straightforward deal.  When I heard that adapters were already being made I jumped into the micro four thirds cameras mostly in order to breathe new, digital life into a collection of lenses that were interesting and, in some cases, a little exotic.  And I have not been disappointed.  But I'd never done the real test where you mount the lenses on the highest res digital camera you own and put that on a tripod with the self timer engaged and start looking at how the glass performs....wide open.  And stuff like that.  So I did.  And I found out some interesting stuff.

Two 1,000 bulb LED lights make for a quick and simple photo set up with lots of lumens for stopping down and using the slowest ISO on the GH2.  I think that's 160.  The black flag to the right is serving no purpose whatsoever.  It just happened to be there when I was setting up.

I chose to the Panasonic Lumix GH2 for  my tests because the sensor is acknowledged, at this juncture, to be the highest res of the m4/3 tribe.  It's also easy to use in a studio setting.  Set preview to constant and shoot in M and you'll see each change you make to aperture, shutter speed and ISO right on the screen.  Tap on the screen to increase magnification for fine focus...

Let me introduce you to the motley crew of lenses and say a little something about each one.  I feel like I'm introducing family.  Why am I in so little hurry to snap up the new primes coming to market?  Because I think I've already got cooler ones.  Take the 60mm 1.5, for example.  No other company makes anything nearly as cool for the smaller cameras.  Center sharpness is okay at full aperture and, like most lens designs of the time, you'll want to add some contrast to your files.  These lenses are not post processing free but when done well you can squeeze really good performance out of them.  When you hit f3.5 you are sharp from corner to corner and it's a very convincing sharpness.  Hell yes, I use it for theatre shots.  And portraits in dark and moody coffee shops and more.  It uses the same lens hood at the 50mm to 90mm zoom lens.  It's becoming rare and a bit costly but if you find a clean one you might want to put in on your camera and give it a spin.  If you shoot portraits I can pretty much guarantee that it's a struggle your credit card will win.

Reader Note:  you can click on any of the photos and they will come up much bigger in a separate window.  I uploaded files that are 1200 pixels on the long edge so you might want to depend on the text for my observations about their performance.


 above and just below:  the 60mm 1.5

In every system there's one lens that shows up everywhere.  Like the ubiquitous 50mm 1.8's for 35mm cameras.  Or the 18-55mm kit zooms for APS-C cameras.  In the Pen F hierarchy that lens would be the 38mm 1.8.  It's small, light, fast and well corrected.  This was my everyday shooter in the film days.  While most of the Pen F lenses are able to be used wide open they tend to mimic standard gauss designs in that the center is sharp at or near wide open and stopping the lens down brings greater and greater corner sharpness.  By f4 the lens is really good and by f8 it's as perfect as you could want it to be.

 Above:  think of the 38mm as the budget "system lens"

I think of the 70mm f2 as the equivalent of the standard 35mm 135mm lens.  In particular, I think of mine as the 135 f2 L series of the Pens.  It's not nearly as sharp as that much more modern lens, when used wide open but it sharpens up nicely one stop down and, by f4 is monster good.  If flares a little in contrajour light so I try to always use it with a hood or shade the front element with my hand...  It's a great "candid" shooter.

the 70mm.  half the weight of the chunky 60mm.

There are really two lenses that haven't jumped through the time travel portal with the same success as the longer focal lengths.  Those are the 20mm 3.5 and the 25mm 2.8.  The 20mm is widest Pen F lens that ever got made and it's really nothing to write home about until you stop it down to f5.6.  And alarmingly, at least with my copy, it tends to start flying apart with diffraction softening right at f11.  By the time you get to f16 you'll think you forgot to focus.  Which actually brings up something we need to talk about.  There's a lot of focus shifting, as you stop down, in some of these lenses (especially the zoom).  If you focus wide open and then stop down you may or may not have some safety with depth of field but you'll be way better off to stop down first and then focus.  Which is how the older lenses work on the mirrorless camera anyhow.  If you need a 20mm you might want to pass on one of these and head straight of the Panasonic.  The 20mm 1.7 Panasonic may be one of the most beloved optics of the entire family m43 system...

I've gotten detailed shots from the 20mm Pen F lens but I've had to boast contrast a lot to make them work.  And adding a bit of saturation won't hurt either...

 Above: the 20mm 3.5.  Not quite the sharpest of the flock.

Now.  Someone get me a drool bib.  This is one of my favorite lenses of all.  The fabulous 40mm 1.4.  I think of it as the high speed standard of the entire small camera universe.  There was faster and very rare 42mm 1.2 but it wasn't as well corrected as the 1.4 and weighed nearly twice as much.  I shot some flat stuff in the studio today which is represented below.  At 1.4 it's decent.  Not a lot of micro detail in the files.  But one stop down brings it to parity with just about anything out there.  At f2.8 it's sharper than the Canon 50mm 1.4 at 2.8 and even a little sharper, to my eye, than the Zeiss 50mm 1.4 at 2.8.  When you hit f4 it's like you put a macro lens on the front of your camera.  Sharp and contrasty over the whole frame.  Kinda like that Olympus 45mm 1.8 they've been shopping around.....only this puppy is a two thirds of a stop faster.  And it looks even better because it's black.

It's my photojournalist wannabe lens.  I love it for portraits and candids and street shooting and just about anything that requires a slightly longer prime optic.  The Panasonic camera seemed to swell with pride when I put this on the lens mount.


The crowning achievement of PenF lens design.  
Not because it's exotic but because it's nearly 
PERFECT.

Reader tip about lens adapters:  I have three different adapter rings that allow me to mount Pen F lenses on the m4/3 digital cameras.  All three of them will allow the lens to focus past infinity.  That means that the focusing scale on the lens barrel becomes meaningless.  And that reduced the lens's usability as a zone focusing "street shooter".  If I had the time I'd probably figure out the positions for hyperfocal distances and mark them on the lens barrel with a red dot but.....I'm too lazy.  Or I spend too much time writing.  At any rate you are now warned not to trust the infinity setting on any legacy lens mounted via an adapter.  Test before you set to infinity and go out for walk.  Even with the wide angles.  Especially with the wide angles...



And, Olympus knew how to do hoods.  Nice hoods with 
thumbscrews.  You tighten, they stay in place.

Which brings me to a lens that is an enigma to me. The 25mm.  For the longest time I thought this lens and the 20mm lens were not very good and not very sharp.  Today I changed my mind.  This is the first time I've put them on a tripod and then used live view to focus.  My focusing skills with the smaller format are a pale ghost of my medium format focusing skills and I think it's because the finders on the Pen F cameras are old tech, very dark and the DOF of the short focal length makes everything look like it's in focus in the viewfinder (when viewed tiny) while it's not sharp if blown up.  

Today I put this lens on the GH2 and focused at 8x magnification and shot test shots.  And I like them.  There's good detail everywhere.  It's not going to replace a fast focusing and bright lens like the Leica/Lumix 25mm 1.4 but it's very well done and, when stopped down to 5.6 it does a very nice job with subjects that give you enough time to check focus.  Sad about the lack of true infinity on the adapter rings because it's a focal length that would lend itself to zone focusing and shooting from the hip.

 the 25mm 2.8.  Beautifully made.
And now revealed to actually be sharp.

Which brings me to the longest half frame lens in my collection, the 150mm f4.  If you play the equivalent game this optic gives you the same angle of view on m4/3 as a 300mm on a full frame film or digital camera.  This is another lens that never really satisfied me until I put it on the EP2.  With the benefit of adjustable (by focal length) image stabilization I was able to hold it still enough for distance shots to discover that it is really well corrected and sharp.  One reader of a previous post about this lens pointed out what might be veiling glare but I think it's really just the lower contrast of a design from the late 1960's when a lower contrast lens with good sharpness was actually a benefit to people who shot black and white film in contrasty situations.  You could always add contrast in the darkroom with graded papers or multi-grade papers but you couldn't bring back blown highlights or blocked shadows.  

It was an epiphany to actually put the lens on a tripod and do the two second self time as a release mechanism.  The magnification works against hand holding.  Especially on the GH2 which doesn't have IS in the body.  If used correctly I find the lens to be quite good wide open and at its best when used at 5.6.  With a judicious boost of contrast and a moderate dose of saturation in your favorite post processing program you'll have snappy photos with some nice compression.  And it works well as a long lens for video.  As long as you're on the sticks....  A big benefit, vis-a-vis full frame, is that it's 1/3 the size and weight of the bigger format's equivalent.
 Go long.  And pack light.
I like the 300 f4.  Especially now that I know
the sharpness issues were really just 
my lazy technique.

Back in the late 1960's zoom lenses were really just a novelty and most of them (with the exception of the Nikkor 80-200 f4.5) were unsharp and unsatisfying.  But this lens from Olympus is pretty good.  Not nearly as good as the single focal length lenses above but head and shoulders above most of the dreck that was available way back then.  I wasn't old enough to shoot back then but I used the older zooms when I was on a budget in the earlier times of my amateur career as a photographer.

The focal length is not long, is corresponds to about 100mm to 180mm's but it seems just right for a guy who likes to do classical portraiture.  While it's not stunningly sharp at 3.5 it's pretty nice by the time you get to f5.6.  And.....it's a constant aperture zoom.  Nothing changes as you change focal lengths.  It's not a true parafocal zoom.  It does shift focus as you zoom which means you'll want to refocus every time you shift focal lengths.  If you press it into service for video you'll find that it shifts the image a lot as you focus.  The way to use this lens is to line up your shot and lock in your parameters, then shoot your scene and move on.  I wouldn't try to follow focus with this one.
An early telephoto zoom that acquits itself nicely at 
f5.6.  And it's less than a quarter the volume of
a Canon 70-200mm L lens.  This one I could
carry all day long....

While I'm not going to review it because I never really use it I also have a 2x converter for the system.

I haven't been able to suspend my belief that 
older teleconverters suck so I've only tried this
once, on the 150 and handheld.  If it's not sharp or
if it is sharp, how would I know?  I'll try it sooner or later
and let you know.


 40mm wide open.


 40mm at f4


60mm wide open.

60mm at f3.5

 70mm wide open

70mm at f4

20.

24.

38.

40.

60.

70.

50 on the zoom.

60 on the zoom

70 on the zoom

90 on the zoom wide open

90 on the zoom at 5.6

150mm.


20

60

70

90 on the zoom

150.

Physical Construction:  The Olympus Pen F lenses are made in the way we've come to expect products from the height of the industrial age to have been made.  Knurled metal barrel that are designed to offer just the right friction for your fingers, with areas of small indents alternating with big scallops to provide the sense that you'll always have a great grip.  The lenses are small but dense and feel as though they are made to last a photographer's lifetime.  And the proof is in the pudding.  Several of the lenses I have trace their origin back to around 1968.  And they were well used.  But the focusing rings are still smooth and sure in operation, the spring back for the auto aperture is still free of drag and the mounting rings look brand new.  Even the stop down button and the locking buttons are made of well crafted and robust metal.  If there is plastic anywhere on any of the lenses I've not been able to find it.

If Panasonic and/or Olympus introduces focus peaking in their next generation of cameras I'll be in heaven and will probably put off buying the current, popular primes for a long time.

Recommendations.  Of the lenses I've listed, most, beside the 38mm's, are going to be too expensive to be practical purchases.  Both Panasonic and Olympus have better performing (and easier to focus) wide angle and wide/normal lenses than the 20mm and 25mm.  The sweet spot for me would be the 40mm 1.4, the 60mm 1.5 and the 70mm f2.  All are wonderful lenses that are competitive with just about anything you'll find today ( provided that the glass is in good shape and not fogged in the least).

If I had to choose just one it would be the 60mm 1.5.  It's physically beautiful on the camera and the view through the EVF, or even on the rear screen, of the GH2 is wonderful.  With one touch of a button I'm able to fine focus at 8x and, one stop down the lens doesn't miss a beat.  A far cry from the slow kit lenses that most of us suffer with.

Since I own the 40 and the 60 Pen F lenses I've put off buying the 45mm 1.8.  But I keep seeing images that impress me.  If I do buy one it will be because I have become to lazy to manually focus my 60.  But for now, I'll persevere.

So why do I write this when probably no more than a few handfuls of people have any interest in MF lenses for mirrorless cameras?  Because the Pen F lenses deserve some recognition.  They set a standard in their days that's taken forty years to be re-invented.  And that's very cool.

Thanks for reading.

Below, the full sized, 4000+ pixel test of the 60mm at f3.5.  Jpeg (8 quality) sharpened. click it and see.

1.19.2012

On Politically and Legal Safe Ground. My review of the Nikon F...

The Nikon F.  Image by Kirk Tuck ©2012 Kirk Tuck.  This image has been post processed.

We were ready to be impressed by this one from Nikon.  It had gotten such good previous press.  And there are things we like about it but let's get the less positive stuff out of the way first.  This camera is not digital.  It only takes physical film but it does operate in a semi-open system architecture.  You can use any brand of spooled, perforated 35mm film, available from a wide (but ever diminishing) circle of suppliers.

We were horrified to find that instead of a bad, dim, dark rear LCD screen that requires the viewer to keep his or her eye centered behind it to see it properly, Nikon have left the screen off altogether.  We'll presume that this was an attempt to keep manufacturing costs down but...we at VSL feel like that's just one step too far.  Of course, LCD's may not have been available at the time of design but surely they could have put a little cathode ray tube back there, just to, you know, preview stuff.

Which brings us to our next criticism.  No Menus.  None? Nope.  Astounding.  I fiddled with the damn thing for nearly an hour, trying to find a way to auto bracket or to fine tune exposure.  I couldn't even find a color space setting.  Now that's primitive.  In frustration I sent the camera to our fully equipped and space age lab for further analysis.  Within days they had researched, poked and prodded and found the source of the design defect.  In a word: battery.  The camera maker had forgotten to include a battery in the package.  Or a place to put a battery.  It was all so mysterious.

We did some more research and consulted with a very, very old photographer (over 40!!!!) and he let us know that this Nikon F body was actually designed that way.  He showed us how to read a meter that lives outside the camera (but be careful, you'll have to choose a film first) and how to set the few controls available. And we were off and running.  Kinda.  

We stepped outdoors, put a slight pressure on the shutter button and ..... nada.  No focusing.  Defective lens?  Not according to our consultant.  The lenses were meant to be focused by hand, like the Zeiss lenses currently on the market.  We tried turning the lens barrel, as instructed, and were rewarded with improved focus.  But even though we looked everywhere we were unable to find the diopter.  With our eyes and that old screen we'd be lucky to get 50% of the stuff we shoot in focus, and that's outside in good light!

The buffer in the camera is pitiful.  No matter how much time we waited between shots the camera would always stop at 36 frames and not budge.  At one point we even left it "on" overnight to see if the buffer would clear but, no.  And it's apparently WORM  (write once, read many) technology because once you've hit the buffer you actually have to introduce new memory.  And that's not cheap.

The top shutter speed is a dismal 1/1000th of a second and the shortest timed exposure is 1 second.  

Here's our executive summary:

While we were anxious to buy into the hype surrounding this camera we knew at the outset that we'd been sold a "pig in a poke."  When attempting to first load "film" memory in the camera the entire bottom fell off.  Right onto the ground.  The camera lacks even the barest degree of customization ability and it shoots only as quickly as you can push a lever 120 degrees with your thumb.

On the other hand, the non-battery lasted forever and the lens was fast, sharp and well corrected.  Our recommendation?  If you're into fast shooting, extreme sports, quick work, total control or.... just about any metric you can imagine then this camera is definitely not for you.  So, how are they positioning it in the market?  Would you believe they are trying to position it for professionals?  Our prediction?  They'll need a lot of marketing (and just the right kind) if they are going to make any head way with this one.

See our gallery of 4x6 inch prints on the refrigerator....



Here are the specs:

Big.
Heavy.
Slow.
Construction:  Metal on metal and more metal.  With metal.  Everywhere.

Positives:  We were unable to destroy it in any fashion.  We even used it to chock  the wheels of a large school bus on a perilous incline.  We liked the noise it makes when we push the button.

Stayed tuned. Next month we'll be reviewing the Canonet QL17.  Camera, Icon or Ruse?


1.17.2012

Dis-attachment-ism. My new religion. Works for just about everything.

Everywhere I turn there are work boxes full of old negatives and transparencies. Most for clients who've been bought out, gone bankrupt or changed ownership.  Like dental records of dead people.
At some point it's good to disentangle the emotional cabling wrapped around our ankles before it pulls us under for good.

If you're anything like me you get attached to the processes that you master.  I once took pride in knowing all 17,000 keystroke commands for WordStar, the first really mainstream word processing software for early IBM personal computers.  I was sad when faster, better, more streamlined word processors hit the market because I had come to romanticize all the time I'd spent being conversant with the foibles of the older program.  I mistakenly thought that the early skill set had value outside the actual writing. (The main lesson for me today.)

In the film days we saved everything.  We saved the slides and the contact sheets and the negatives and transparencies in all sizes.  Over time that's an efficient way to fill up filing cabinets.  In those days businesses seemed to have a corporate memory and were interested in their achievements and milestones.  They liked the idea of having a visual historic record of their growth and success. They understood adaptive reuse.  But now businesses change hands like playing cards and they spin off and recreate themselves with amazing alacrity.  Executives don't add value through decades of service, now they leverage a quarter and move on. The value of the photographic records of their oblique and tangential orbits have become as devalued as Kodak stock.

When images had a physical manifestation we valued them as "objects" in addition to their stored visual information.  Negatives could be a thing of beauty in a of themselves.  But now we've become pragmatic.  Now mental and physical space comes at a premium.  And the lure of the old creates its own pools of amber and tar that serve, if we're not careful, to anchor us into a position that's a losing proposition:  the reminders of how we did stuff in the old days.  You know, ten years ago.

I'm grappling with a sea change.  I'm convinced that everything we knew about showing portfolios has changed profoundly.  That all the information spewing from photographic marketing consultants is as dated as MySpace.  Until recently I was right there with them.  I believed that we needed a printed book.  I believed that we needed to show our 20 most powerful images.  And I believed that screen based portfolios were a sidekick, an adjunct or a watered down appetizer for the real deal:  Hand made prints in fanciful and tragically expensive bindings.

Several things are changing my mind.  When I visit with designers and art directors they always default to the screen.  When I hand someone an electronic tablet with a portfolio on it they succumb to their addiction and wipe thru every image in the portfolio...and then they ask for more.  They tell me they like to see work electronically more than they like to see work on paper.  It's a sea change.  It's seismic.  But consider this, the new generation of art buyers and art directors, marketing directors and managers has, effectively, grown up with the screen, learned on the screen and earned on the screen.  Print is something....extra that gets done.

Why the disconnection between what consultants and old guys tell us and what's happening on the ground for 95% of the photographers I know?  Easy, the consultants go for the biggest pay off.  They work with the folks who are aiming with all their might at the biggest ad agencies with the biggest accounts.  And it takes time for the art buyers and art directors to work their way up the kerning ladder to get into the position to accept visits from reps and recommended talent.  By the time they get there they've been trained by each other and their predecessors to think of the "print book" as the "gold standard."  And that may be the reality for the "one percent" of advertising people.  But the vast majority, especially those under 40 (ten times more so for the people under thirty) the screen is the thing.  Show on a screen and you speak in their language.  There's an immediate connection to the relevant work they do.  E-mail blasts, banner ads, websites, video and the whole social fabric of modern life.

So,  I practiced with a Kindle Fire and today I'm heading to the Apple store to buy the iPad I put off buying for some reason that seems irrelevant now.  This whole line of thought came to me as I was searching the archives to see what else I might want to stuff into the portfolio I'd be building electronically this week.  And it dawned on me that some much of the studio had become a monument to the way we did things in the past, and the jobs of the past.  

I've pulled out thirty pounds of old film and paper from filing cabinets and job boxes.  It's headed out to the trash.  I think if I can winnow out thirty pounds a day for a few days I'll have unfettered the part of my brain that hand been tasked with keeping a mental inventory of everything physically photographic and where it lived and I'll be able to re-task those parts of my brain to re-enter now.

I've also been peeling off older cameras and lenses.  Not the hallowed stuff that I just can't seem to detach from but the clutter that builds up over time when you convince yourself that you need a back up for your back up camera.  Those sorts of things.

With every pound of film shed and every box of last year's photo miracle machines that heads out the door I feel lighter and less encumbered.  Less set on making old tools work for new jobs.  Less set in my ways and more open to change on many levels.  

I have two friends who are around my age and both of them, several years ago embarked on the search for the holy grail of print portfolios.  Their searches brought them to master "giclee" (fancy inkjet) printers who printed on thick, archival papers.  They printed large and they printed really well.  And then they bound the images in custom-made leather books.  Almost Medieval in their grandeur, detail and mass.  The pages sewn into the spines in the greatest tradition of book making.  And they wound up with multi-thousand dollar art pieces that are, in fact, prints stuck in amber.  Unchanging and unchangeable.  

Sorry.  Not for me.  I'm going after the fat part of the market that changes all the time.
I'm using different cameras.  I'm breaking the video rules I never really liked.  In short, I'm trying to translate the way I've looked at stuff into a modern idiom that works.  And the declining costs are like getting a "do over."

Unloading stuff is like getting permission to start over.  And starting over is just what the economy always seems to be doing.  I like the idea of showing up at a meeting with less than a square foot of electronics and being able to show off multiple and quickly configurable portfolios.  I guess not all aspects of change are so horrendous.  While I sometimes pine for film I'm equally aware that the back end is.....a pain in the ass, for commercial production.

Funny that getting rid of a few negatives and chrome would trigger so many other changes.

Note:  Dear Technically oriented readers:  Yes.  I would have to be living under a rock not to have heard the rumors that Apple will be launching a new iPad three the minute I buy an iPad two.  That's the way technology seems to go.  If the iPad two+portfolio produces one typical job I'll gladly line up for the next one.

Notes on the using the Kindle Fire:  I've actually been showing work, albeit informally, on the Kindle Fire and the screen is very good.  The two issues that may or may not constrain using one as a portfolio platform is the dearth of good portfolio presentation programs.  But for $200 it may be just what you need to show an ever changing book on a budget.  Or if you just hate all things Apple.  

Notes on throwing stuff away:  I'm spending time editing through the piles.  I'm saving the best frame from 100 on most old jobs but some are so old and so boring that they just have to go....

Final note for the morning:  The comments are on but that doesn't mean you must use them.  If you do, please be nice.  I'll try to do the same when I come over and comment on your blogs...

1.16.2012

Mini Old School Class on White Background.

Ad shot from the 1990's.  A Quick and clean revisiting of White Background Lighting Techniques from the film days. (ie: before you could just cut stuff out in PhotoShop).


If there's one subject that comes up again and again on lighting forums it is: "What is the correct way to light and prep for a white drop out background?"  Time and time again the bold rush in to suggest everything from blasting the background with one huge flash to shooting against black and just cutting it out with Gimp Tools XP10.  But there is actually a method that used to be taught in all the photo schools or learned at the feet of the guys who did it before you.  And it made sense back then.  


I thought I'd put this up for three reasons:  I like the image of the skater.  I was playing with the pen tool I've had for ten years and remembered how much I like to scrawl things across photos.  And finally, a younger photographer, who will have to do many, many of these kinds of shots asked me to.

In the shot above I'm starting by rolling out a nine foot wide seamless backdrop of Super White paper.  I roll it so that the front end (right behind the skater) is at least 12 feet from the plane of the hanging paper in the far background.  This allows me put an even light on all of the background but leaves me enough room to scrim the background light off the skater with black panels.

I'm using five lights on the background.  There are two flash heads on either side of the set and all four of them have white umbrellas with black backings on them.  They are aimed at the opposite sides of the seamless so the light feathers across the surface.  I've also added a center light, high up to both clean up the middle of the background and also provide additional light (via careful feathering) to the paper that's spread across the floor behind our model.  I always attempt to light the backgrounds so that every surface that shows to the camera is within a 1/3 stop of everything else.  Having too much light in a spot is just as bad as not having enough when you don't have the luxury of hands-on post processing.

In front of the background paper I've placed four sturdy milk carton holders to elevate my model's platform.  I've placed a stout piece of plywood under the shiny, white Pleixglas for support.  Having the platform raised means that, at the angle I want to shoot my dancer and the focal length I'll use, I'm actually seeing the far end of the white paper at her foot level instead of the part of the paper nearest the camera.  This is pure white and gives me a great reflection back on the shiny plexiglas surface which works to obliterate detail and go as white as possible.  It also gives me a nice reflection of the skater's blades and shoes right in front of her.

The one boom arm you see coming into the frame on the left hand side is tightly secured to a solid tether and it there so the skater can reach out and steady herself if she starts to lose her balance.

I'm using a large (54 by 72 inch) Chimera softbox from about 45 degrees to the left, in front of the skater and just far enough away so that it won't show in camera.  The only other source of illumination is a white fill reflector from the opposite side.

I meter (with an incident meter) the background and get a reading.  In this case it was probably f11 and 1/3 stops.  I then meter while adjusting the distance of the softbox to the model until I get a reading that's one third of a stop darker on the model.  In this way I am assured that the background will go pure white but I'm equally assured that the least amount of light will spill forward from the background lighting to contaminate (and lower the contrast of) the model at the front of the set.  In this situation all we left for the color separator was to clean up the area around the model's feet.

Even in the zenith of our digital days I can think of several reasons (all lighting and lens oriented) to maintain the same lighting practice.  Less spill means less veiling flare.  And, as I've written, less unwanted contamination on the subject.  The even-ness of the background means that, even though you will be using the selection tool in Photoshop you'll have less issues to deal with and will spend less time with "refine edge."  Finally, if you get used to doing it correctly you'll see that it also works just as well for video.  And it's easier than "green screening" everything and fixing it all up in post...

I won't get into the argument about "incident meter versus reflected" or exactly how to hold your light meter.  I think that's too personal to talk about on a public blog.  And I do think you'll figure out your own technique.  After all, you can see the results right away now.  But can you see 1/3 stop above white, on your camera's histogram?  Meters are still relevant.

We took the day off today.  Back tomorrow to discuss portfolios for the new age of screen dominance.  Maybe.

Have you ever had one of those days when you went out to shoot and nothing looked good?

Thank your lucky stars you weren't hanging around with me today because my photographic mojo was on vacation. Missing in inaction.  Everything I pointed my camera at just kind of oozed into blah.  And all the PhotoShop in the world won't save it.
Saturday was a nice day in Austin and I went out with the Panasonic GH2 and the kit 14-140 lens to walk around, snap a few photos of a seventy degree day in the middle of January, and to buy some kale. I'm pretty happy with the performance of the GH2 and the long zoom.  It's not the world's sharpest lens at it's longest focal length but I give it the benefit of the doubt since I've alway handheld it and depended on the magic powers of the image stabilization.

The wide angle on the 14-140 is good but it does have some geometric distortion.  If you use it for interior scenes with straight walls you will become familiar with "lens correction".

But I guess I've gotten bored with my usual route in downtown.  When I woke up this morning I had a craving to shoot somewhere different.  And, with the weather outside looking pretty darn nice I hopped in my car with two camera systems (the Nikon V1 and the GH2) and headed to San Antonio to shoot in their downtown.  Alas, the photo-gods were against me every step of the way...

Saturday afternoon in Austin. Love the long reach of the 14-140.  Nice compression effects, too.

I left the Austin city limits, heading south, around 10:45am and within twenty minutes the sky starting turning an abysmal, gray, gravy sort of color and then all the saturation drained out of everything and the light levels began to droop.  By the time I hit the street in front of the Emily Morgan hotel, about three blocks from the Alamo, I started seeing sketchy patches of light rain.  Nothing sexy or foreboding about the clouds.  No picturesque drama,  just a gray flannel funk that seemed to suck the visual life out of everything.

I started out with the GH2 and the 14-140 and stuck everything else in a little, sling bag. There were the usual families in front of the Alamo.  But even though I made the pilgrimage I just couldn't pull the trigger on another cynical shot of a another little group of social outliers posing in front of the shrine to Texas' freedom while the designated photographer in their girthy group gingerly held the smartphone up and fiddled and fiddled.    


 I did stumble across these guys but I cheated and actually asked them if I could snap a few pics.
Nikon V1 with the 30-110mm.

Some days you go out and the universe throws gold in front of your Nikon or Canon or Olympus.  But other days it's like the universe pokes you in the eye and puts a mental soft focus filter on even your best lens.  You have at least two choices.  You can keep moving and keep looking or you can pack it in and head to the closest bar/coffee shop/place to take a nap.  After driving for an hour I just didn't have the good graces to shove the gear back in the bag, lick my blocked artist wounds and crawl back behind the wheel.

I kept walking and headed down Commerce toward the Mercado.


I did come across this big T-rex which reminded me that I've been hearing T-Rex "Bang a Gong" (or various cover versions)  all week long on the radio.  Will the current ruling generation spend the rest of their lives mining the meager treasures of my generation? (Kidding, of course.  I never tire of hearing instrumental versions of Beatles' tunes in every elevator...).

Chair at Marti's next to the Alameda Museum.

Usually, in the middle of a three day weekend, the Mercado is crawling with tourists and locals and conjunto bands and vendors. It's almost always a patchwork of the interesting and eccentric.  Today the crowds were sparse and the gray sky acted like a giant tourist repellant.  The usual crowds were in Mi Tierra Restaurant but it was one of those days when I found no pleasure shooting fish in a barrel and only paid homage to the historic restuarant by shooting some images of the altar inside the front door and some sybaritic, sweet delicacies in the dessert cases that run forty feet wide across the lobby.

A detail of the altar in the foyer of Mi Tierra Restaurant.  If you've read the blog for a while you might remember me talking about Mi Tierra for its giant wall mural depicting San Antonio history.  Or the oil painting of Bill Clinton in jogging clothes.  Or the altar to Mexican-American music legend, Selena.

The GH2 seems to handle higher ISO's just fine.  There's a fine, black pattern of noise  when you examine a file closely but none of the multi-colored speckled splotches that we used to see in previous generations of noisy cameras.  The files seem to cling to their normal saturation as the ISO's climb.

GH2 Raw files are fun and easy to color correct.  

The Mercado left me cold and frustrated.  No matter how I looked at it I couldn't attach the leads to the art battery and jump-start any sort of creative vision.  I turned around and headed back east, this time going down Houston St.  I'm always happy to see the box office at the Majestic theater and I spent some time trying to get it to sing to my camera but the performance was perfunctory.  No magic transferred.  No talent welled up like blood in a fresh wound.  Nothing.


I usually love the way this structure looks.  The colors are so rich and tangy.  But today the grey sky reached in under the overhang, snuck around the marquee and just pulled and pulled at the chromatic joy that usually flows off the columns and ornamentation like delicious visual nectar.  The light was already failing by four and its dreary decline kept driving my little camera to higher and higher ISOs.  With each click up the scale a little bit of the character of the scene dissolved into the monotone froth.  The people in the street were mostly small families playing "tourists in their own town" and they seemed off limits to me today.  Misplaced compassion or just a lack of mercenary inertia.



In desperation I even tried 16:9 but it's like the wires between my brain and my eyes were disconnected.

When the battery in my GH2 finally died (after 462 shots) I decided to make a big course correction.  I buzzed by the Alamo one more time, on my way back to my car, and then headed up Broadway for a total change of pace.  I went to the San Antonio Museum, paid my eight bucks and headed in.  The featured show was about 5,000 years of Chinese jade.  I left all the other stuff in the car and grabbed the Nikon V1 with my favorite optic for that system, the 30-110mm and started walking through the galleries.  I would have done it on roller skates if I could have...


I'm not sure why but I still find the files I'm getting from the V1 to be very visually compelling.  The camera, lens and IS system handled the low, tungsten light beautifully, with very little intervention from me.  I don't remember exactly but I'm pretty sure this is ISO 800, wide open at 1/15th of a second and it seems tack sharp and relatively noiseless to me.


The museum was as sparsely peopled as the streets but that was fine with me.  I was there to re-charge my batteries; soaking in the feeling of continuity and creativity across time and culture.  And it seemed to work.  At least being in the middle of the art took the edge off my frustration at my own frailty.  


I loved this detail of the Hindu god, Vishnu, who had four heads that faced in all directions, until Shiva chopped one off.  


I came to the conclusion that even if art is permanent (and the jury is waaaay out on digital photography) the nature of the artist, over time, is to sink into anonymity and dissolve into the collective of his or her cultural and context.  Maybe that was the message the cosmos was trying to text me today..

But, like a child, I was quickly sidetracked by the pretty colors bouncing off the ceiling of this walkway between two buildings and the repeated diagonal pattern of the struts and I forgot to worry about my own implicit mortality for the time being.  

I love the visual pattern of standing in a gallery, looking into a gallery that looks into a gallery.

 Nikon V1 with 30-110.



Detail of a large and disturbing mural by a photo/artist/genius named Daniel Lee.

I almost missed this show (the Daniel Lee: Manimal show)  since it was wedged in between a gallery of decorative arts and a gallery dedicated to Pre-Columbian earth goddess figurines, and I've seen enough Pre-Columbian earth goddess figurines to satisfy even Claude Levi-Strauss.  I have struggled to wade through, From Honey to Ashes, more than a few times....  But the show that struck me had nothing to do with CLS.

It was a show of highly manipulated photographic images by Chinese born artist, Daniel Lee.  Here's a link: http://www.daniellee.com/  This particular show was part of his "Manimal" series and, seen in the flesh, it was stunning, disturbing and convincingly done.  That sparked me right up and I spent a good half hour really absorbing the two dozen large pieces of his on display.  The above is a portion of a very large C-print (think four feet by at least 12 feet.)  It's a riveting and cynical allusion to a number of classical paintings and reminded me of a twisted interpretation of european religious paintings from the 14-16th centuries.

Having finally connected with something provoking I felt justified in heading home.  The gray dived from 18% to 90% as only a winter afternoon light can and, even though it wasn't cold, the oppression of the short and parsimonious scraps of spiceless daylight was palpable.  I welcomed the stingy sunset and sat back on my battered fabric car seat and listened to an old Moody Blues album as the three laned ribbon of IH35 stretched out in front of me, the hum of the tires interrupted from time to time by the little round disks placed on the edges of the lane to keep drivers awake.

What did I learn today?  That sometimes you have off days and, while you probably won't know it until you suffer through them, you'd probably be best served dropping the cameras back in the bag and raking leaves or baking bread instead.  I learned that walking is almost always pleasurable, even when you are in a creative funk.  On the way back home I learned that Whataburger now offers whole wheat buns for their hamburgers and that jalapeños are delicious when combined with pickle slices.

I learned that more coffee does not make one see things in a more creative or visually interesting way.  

I think I've come to grips with why I love the Nikon V1 so much.  When I use it I preset it to "A" and leave the aperture set at the widest setting.  I put the camera into the auto ISO 100-800 setting.  AWB.  And the only thing I manipulate is the +/- exposure compensation.  It's really become my ultimate "point and shoot" camera and I don't have to think when I use it.

The GH2 is capable of so much fine tuning that the potential creates an impetus to meddle and control.  And I always feel like there's just one more thing I should set.  While both cameras are capable of very good images the GH2 is less transparent during the process of taking a photograph while the Nikon V1 is becoming more and more transparent.  It's no wonder photographers who've taken the leap love the V1.  It gives them permission to take a vacation from total control.  And sometimes we need that.

I came into Austin just in time to have home made minestrone with the family and to savor a glass of red wine.  Then I walked into my office to look at today's photographs.  I was disappointed but not defeated.  I think it's instructive to feel the world and my mind push back.  Next time out I won't take making fun images for granted.

Dear Nikon,  Please come out with an 18mm f2.0 lens for the Series One cameras tomorrow.  I swear I'll buy at least one.  KT

Finally, since I mentioned Claude Levi Strauss I have to toss out one of my favorite quotes attributed to him:  "I have never known so much naive conviction allied to greater intellectual poverty."  I've never found the actual usage but I love the phrase.  I think of it whenever I read something particularly passionate and totally uninformed on one of the photographic forums...

"One fallow day doesn't make a famine."  (mine.)

1.13.2012

A post that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Photography. Hang onto your hats, tech boys.


I'm in pretty good shape.  I swim with four or five former Olympians and a local Tour de France veteran.  Well, when I say I swim with them what I really mean is that we all show up at the same pool and take instruction from the same coach but I inhabit a lane a few lanes down from the "big dogs."  The pool is divided between slower (but still very competitive) swimmers in the first few lanes (on the left as you face the pool from the shallow end) and very, very fast swimmers on the right hand side of the pool.  I swim somewhere in the middle.  On crowded days, a bit to the left.

I try to go every weekday to the seven a.m. workout since I need to be up to transport my kid to cross country practice.  On the weekends we have practice from 8:30 to 10:00 am, both days.  Our workouts vary between 3,000 and 5,000 yards.  

One of our swimmers is a guy named, Rip Esselstyn.  In addition to having been an All American swimmer at the University of Texas, and a professional triathalon-er, and the current USMS 45-50 year old world record holder for the 200 backstroke, he's also the author of a best selling book called "The Engine Two Diet."  His book is a bestseller and it studies the benefits (on world class athletes and ordinary people) of eating a vegan diet.  All vegan, all the time.  His dad is a doctor, specializing in cardiology, at the Cleveland Clinic.  Dr. Esselstyn is the author of the book,  "Preventing and Reversing Heart Disease."

They have both done extensive research into heart disease and their books imply that eating a vegan diet can help make you heart attack proof.  The interesting thing about all this is that Rip has been able to convince many of the world class athletes he knows to undertake a vegan diet and the results have been pretty amazing.  Everyone's cholesterol drops dramatically, and, in the pool they seem to get faster and faster.

I've read Rip's book and his dad's book and I understood most of the underlying premises but I had been letting entropy and habit take their course.  Sometime in December two of my friends (who are only a few years older than me) got panic diagnoses from their doctors.  Both had over 90% blockage of major arteries.  Both required major surgical intervention.  Both were voracious omnivores.

We generally eat pretty healthy at home but I'd been letting things slide at lunch.  BBQ spare ribs here, a double cheeseburger there,  some really greasy Chinese food (but I swear it was loaded with veggies....) and of course, the errant cookie with afternoon coffee.  I was pretty good at breakfast and amazingly healthy at dinner (under the unblinking eye of Belinda...) but lunch was totally out of control.  Fries anyone?  And, at 56 years of experience who among us shouldn't be watching our diets?

So, after I watched Rip place one of the world's best known athletes on the full bore vegan diet, I decided to dive into the deep end and kick my "lunch training" up a notch.  A big notch.  Which has resulted already in tightening the old belt a notch or two.

Since the middle of December I've developed a new routine that saves me cash and hopefully will allow me to live forever and torment readers of this blog well into my triple digit years.  I've made it pretty clear to all my photographer friends, the ones who lunch with me, that I'll be having lunch at the vegan bar at the downtown Whole Foods Market.  The one at Sixth St. and Lamar Blvd.  The Mothership.  

How does this save me money?  Well, my favorite thing to order is the beans and rice on a bed of fresh, raw spinach leaves.  Big food but small cost.  Currently $3.99.  Filling, made with no oils or dairy or meat products, and served up fresh.  Today the beans were cannelli, made with garlic and chunks of artichoke hearts.  They were incredible.  The vegan bar also makes infused water.  My favorite is blueberry and sage.  It comes with any entrée, free.  As in no charge.

Then, in defiance of my own morning nature,  I finally learned how to make passably good coffee on my own and I'm eating a special blend of cereal called, Rip's Big Bowl.  It's really good.  And vegan.

So, what does all this get me?  Well, for the cynically pragmatic, I'm saving about six dollars a day versus my previous lunch adventures and that adds up pretty quick.  I eat lunch out most days.  I'm swimming faster than I did last year, although I'm sure we can chalk up some of the improvement to the placebo effect.  I'm dragging along a few friends, a subset of whom are a bit overweight and might benefit from sharing my new dietary discipline; and they haven't really complained.  Finally, I'm eating quite a bit farther down the food chain which should make Michael Pollan happy.

It's an experiment, like everything else in life.  But so far this is a happy experiment.  Am I going totally vegan?  What?  Do I look insane?  Life has to have space in it for the occasional strip of bacon, the random breakfast taco, and an nice, juicy rib eye steak from time to time.  But lunch is generally the meal where most of us do the most damage and I know I'm not keen to get my chest cracked open and have some veins moved around.  So it seems like a good place to start.  

Why am I discussing this on what has always been a photo oriented soapbox?  Because it's my only New Year's resolution and the more people who know about it the more friends I'll have holding my feet to the fire and helping me over the bumps in the road (I barely made it out the door past the hot dessert bar today....).  And if I jar someone else into at least considering their cardio health then that's cool too.

Coffee's not bad with a little rice milk in it........naw, screw that.  I'll still toss in some half and half.  

Whatever you've resolved for your New Year I hope you'll decide to throw in some exercise and a good balance of veggies over animal products.  I need to keep as many of you readers around as I can....you know I love a good audience.

1.12.2012

Thinking about gear made me think about gear.

Amy.  Brought to you by Phase One.

I got some interesting mail when after I wrote my last two columns.  Those screeds were essentially essays to myself, telling me to stop wasting time and money and get out and work on the work instead of working on the toys.  One person wrote to tell me that I was a dilettante who just played with cheap cameras and didn't "get" the allure and the technical virtuosity of cameras like the Nikon D3x or any of the other full frame cameras.  I certainly can't argue about being a dilettante;  I'm not nearly as committed to the real craft of photography as I should be.  If I were I'd be rushing into the darkroom to use the last of the real technology before the art of photography dissolves completely into a totally subjective romp through the imaginary Disney Land of digital where anything from a snap made on a phone to still frame from a video camera counts as big art... (that should get us some mail...).

But I did take umbrage from the assertion that I didn't know "shit" about bigger, better cameras than the micro four thirds, "baby" cameras I'm "always going on and on about."  I did have another life before I started this blog and in that particular life (three years ago)  I spent some quality time playing around (all dilettante-style) with three different, at the time, state of the art, medium format digital cameras.  Leaf, Phase One and Mamiya all sent me their cameras and asked me, "pretty please!!!" to use them for a few months and then, maybe, write a review for one of the photo magazines I haphazardly wrote for back then.  The Leaf AFi7 was a bit unwieldy, but workable.  They sent it along with a 180mm f2.8 Schneider lens that made me almost cry when it came time to box up and send it back.  In the days when 12 megapixels was about the max for my then Nikon System the 40 megapixels on the Leaf sensor was a technical revelation.  

But the camera I liked playing with the most, and the one I held onto the longest, was the Phase One with the 40+ back and two really fun lenses.  The lens I liked best (naturally) was the 75-150mm zoom. What a treat for a portrait photographer.  

I spent many happy days blowing up the files really big.  But when it came right down to it I just couldn't justify the price tags.  Had they come during a different point in our economic timeline I confess that I would have tried to rationalize the Phase One.  It just flat out worked.  Well,  if I'm going to be totally honest, the two different batteries (which died in opposite cycles from each other) drove me a bit crazy but I guess that's a "first world" complaint.

I made big prints.  I looked at every pixel.  I shot the cameras with flash, daylight, tungsten, florescent and even some early LED fixtures.  And I could see a difference.  Not a $45,000 difference but a difference.  But I'm getting off track.  My real point was that I have played with bigger cameras and that, in fact, helps energize my enthusiasm for the smaller cameras.  Being able to do 90%  (with the pixie cameras) of what I was able to do with ultimate cameras is a profound thing.  An amazing thing.  And I appreciate the engineering we can buy these days for so much less money.

Amy with coffee.  All is right with the Universe.

But this was my "take away" from the year of shooting big:  If I do my technique really well, and I'm not making a print very big, then most people, myself included, really won't see the difference between a $1,000 camera and a $30,000 camera with a $8,000 lens.  Under perfect circumstances?  Printed really large?  Best Technique.  Yes, the big camera files will technically look better every time.  But in real life?  Naw.  Having a camera with a stout battery, menus you know forward and backward and enough pixels to make a nice 12 by 18 inch print is really a very sweet spot on the whole continuum.  

Big bucks.  Little screen. 

Would I snap up one of the Phase One systems if it cost less than an old 2003 Honda Element?  I'd probably do that trade.  But it's like every other camera system.  No matter how good it is today someone will come out with a system to trump it in a year.  Learning to use any camera well never gets obsoleted.  People have warned me several different ways:  "Never drive a car that's faster than the one you have."  "Never work on a computer that's faster than one you can afford."  

And it's like every other camera system in the world in that, if you have nothing particularly interesting to say, the images don't look particularly interesting.  And while high quality is nice, it's not art.


Even those who loudly proclaim to care nothing about gear (sneer implied) stopped to ask me about the bad boy hanging off the front of the Mamiya camera. Tech Chick Magnet (TCM).


Finally,  I was reading through a forum post  in which an insane person wrote about the need for there to be a mirror-less full frame camera from the micro four thirds companies.  Huh?  That's like Tesla cranking out a diesel Hummer.  But the argument was soon joined and, at one point a "professional" photographer stepped in to say that having the full frame was "crucial" in order to maintain "credibility" with clients and stock agencies.  I think that instead of eviscerating his logic I'll just let that whole concept hang in the air...

Hope you're having a great week.  Let us know if you decided to run out and pick up a medium format digital camera system.  The whiskers on a cat will never be sharper.

erratic bonus:  Great video by someone I don't know:  http://vimeo.com/34813864

How to shoot far more interesting photographs...

(consumer camera.  consumer lens.  continuous light.)

The only way to shoot more interesting photographs is to become a more interesting person.



And, how do you do that?

Listen more, talk less.

Travel more.

Eat stuff you never tried before.

Go some place scary.

Make friends with people who are smarter than you.

Make friends with people who are actors, artist and musicians.

Change your habits.

Read more novels.

Read more poems.  (Try Billy Collins...or Wallace Stevens.)

Go to museums. Look at the art.

Go to  art galleries.

Go to a mosque.  Go to a church or go to a synagog.  Go to a house of worship that's not your current brand.  


Learn new stuff from your kids.

Pick a place that's one tank of gas away and go there.

Go on a life threatening adventure.

Spend a month on a cargo ship.  Or a fishing boat.

Take naps in the middle of the day and stay up all night.

Try your hand at abstract painting.

Date your wife.  Or husband.

Change political parties for a while.

Put down your cameras until you really learn how to tell interesting stories.

Become a more interesting person and you'll take more interesting photographs.  Really.

1.11.2012

Irrational purchases versus marketing strength.

(postcard mailer)

Versus...

(new camera of the moment)

Or this....

A piazza in Rome.
Street shooting in Rome.

I love cameras as much as the next guy. Maybe even more. But, at some point the mania of researching, buying, testing, trading and selling off cameras, and then wading through the next generation of offerings seems...over the top.  This isn't really me talking, it's my book on Commercial Photography.  I re-read it last night after having coffee with a pragmatic gentleman yesterday who mentioned the book.  

I get that it took a number of years and a number of tries for camera makers to get digital cameras back to the same level of working transparency that they'd achieved decades ago in film cameras.  Up until the time of the Canon 5D2 and the Nikon D3 we could easily rationalize that we "needed" to upgrade our camera to take advantage of the curve that was still grasping for true "holistic" usability in our professional tools.  But boy did we sacrifice some hard earned money, time and mental rigor.

Around 2009 all of the pieces were firmly in place.  Any of the top cameras on the market that year are totally satisfactory for the function of creating great images and mastering the needs of the mainstream commercial marketplace.  My Olympus EP2 was a perfect camera for the leisurely hobby of shooting fun stuff while on a walk or road trip.  And it still is.

My Canon 5Dmk2 is a perfected working tool for what I need to do to keep my clients happy.  In fact, the 1DS mk2 from 2004 was just about there as well.  When you think about it, just about every camera with delusions of professional competency made since 2008 or 2009 is probably better, overall, than us operators.  And in point of hard fact most professional assignments are usually done either on a stout tripod (at a reasonably low ISO) or in complicity with electronic flash or other supplemental lighting (also at a reasonably low ISO) and can be handled with a wide range of cameras and lenses.  Including (when stopped down) most recent zoom lenses.

What's fueling the race to make every camera full frame?  What's the cattle prod that keeps the herd begging for higher and higher pixel counts?  And what's the new fascination with the new "rangefinder" styled cameras.....that are anything but?  Desire and marketing?

It's fun to buy new cameras but even I have limits.  I was drooling over the Fuji X pro camera shown on Michael Johnston's blog and all over the web when my inner business guy (deeply repressed during most camera buying escapades) emerged, beating me about the head and shoulders with a rolled up copy of my own business book.  

He had a couple of questions.  But first he looked around the studio and started counting cameras and lenses and lights and gadgets.  He was still counting an hour later when I came back from lunch.... and then he turned on me like a spreadsheet badger and demanded to know what the hell I was thinking.

"I see enough cameras to re-brick a wall." He shouted. "But I don't see any new promotional mailers.  I don't see a revised contact list.  I don't see any work being done on adding to the e-mail lists.  Where the hell is the new portfolio of people we've been talking about, ad nauseum?  And why am I stepping over three or four different camera systems here?  Are you fucking nuts?  Or did you just win the lottery?"

(My inner business guy can really get in my face...)

But he had a point.  And I could see it pretty clearly.  And so can my bank account.  

"Hey, Photo-Punk."  My inner business guy taunted.  "Let me give you a quick lesson on asset allocation."  I slunk down in my chair and got ready for the lecture I knew I deserved...

He began:  "I see you have the Canon 1DX on order already.  Pretty sweet.  But dude (he calls me that when he's really pissed...) we're talking seven large  ($7,000) for that one camera body.  And how often, when making one of your executive photos or your product shots of electronic toys do you actually need like, 10 frames per second?  Or more throughput? (said with a vicious sneer...)  What you really need are more new clients and more return visits from old clients and, guess what?  They like the gear  you're shooting with right now just fine."

I reached for my cup of coffee and he slapped my hand with a ruler, hard.  Then he looked at the Starbucks label and just shook his head.  "We'll deal with that money leak in another conversation..."

Back to business:  "For the same $7,000 you could finance a coherent, effective direct mail campaign to every art buyer and worthwhile art director in Texas.  One thousand postcards, printed, would run you around $200.  One thousand stamps for said will run you another $430.  A little more elbow grease and a little less time haunting the Photo Equipment Porno sites and you'd have your mailing list in good shape.  Throw some cash at a good graphic designer and for less than $1,000 you can reach a pretty well defined list of potential, check writing clients.  And you could do that seven times in one year for the price of that one camera body!!!!!"   He was screaming and foaming at the mouth by this point...

"If you get a handful of new clients from just that advertising it would return a zillion times more cash to your pocket than a camera that you'll be convinced is obsolete by the time the next big photo trade show rolls around."  (Then he muttered something unflattering under his breath.  Very much a hard nosed business guy....not a marketing guy.  A marketing guy can insult you and smile at the same time.)

I decided to stand up for my inner artist.  I said that I needed the tools that would make my inner artist happy.  That was the argument I trotted out.  Bad move.

"Your inner-f-ing artist????  You gotta be kidding me.  That guy was happy shooting on the streets with an old Hasselblad, a used lens and a pocket full of slow film.  I haven't seen anything from these profit vampire digital cameras that looks any better.  And do you know why?  Because you keep spending all your money on toys.  Back when a camera would last you longer than indigestion you could put money aside for travel and adventure.  Remember travel and adventure?  A hell of a lot more fun to do, and write about, than the buttons on the lastest f-ing point and shoot cameras.  Wouldn't you agree?"

I looked back down at my shoes and tried to remember the last time I got on an airplane and left town to shoot art for myself.....

"Let's take that same $7,000 and see what you could do if you were smart enough to use if for a trip.  Shall we?"  

"Hey look!   Here on Expedia.  You could get a round trip ticket and ten nights at a decent hotel in Tokyo for less than $2,800 bucks.  But wait, don't you have a friend with an extra room in Paris?  And a couple million frequent flier miles?  So all you'd have to pay for is.....film?  No, not even that?  Just food?  And you're standing around your office, getting older and slower and looking at dinky ass digital cameras?  Just grab one out of the drawer, throw a couple of lenses in a bag and get your sad butt in gear.  What the hell are you waiting for?  Or take the $7,000 and go to Rome for a month.  Maybe you could even write a book about it.  Where's your old penchant for blue sky?  Have you turned into a photo pussy?"

He was right.  Where was my inner business guy as we got all wrapped up in the digital marketplace?  Now that we've got cameras that are more or less as transparent as the film cameras they replaced what was my excuse to buy more?  Was it the habit we got into as we feverishly tried to master early digital?  Or was it just resistance and the thinly disguised belief that we "techie" photographers have that the newest camera is like a magic talisman that will give us power over our competitors?  According to my inner business guy the only real magic is the work you do on your marketing to clients.

Everything else is just addiction to the "new car smell."

1DX order cancelled. Passport renewed.  Cards in process. How's that for a kick in the ass for the New Year?