A favorite from a little over a year ago. Seemed appropriate today after all the gear talk....

One of my friends mentioned this over a glass of wine recently.  Today seemed like a good day to repost it.  I wrote it in 2010.  Near the end of the year...



Yesterday was Thanksgiving.  We had a houseful of people.  My parents were here and Belinda's parents, too.  Nieces and nephews and new additions to the family.  Belinda and I teamed up in the kitchen and put out some nice food.  My mom brought some fun wine, even three bottles of my favorite white wine, Conundrum, from Caymus Vineyards.  Everyone was happy and the day went smoothly.  I was so proud of my kid, Ben (you've seen his photo many times....).  We have a three step drop from the kitchen to the dining room and we were serving buffet style.  My dad is in his 80's and walks with a cane.  Ben waited until my dad filled his plate and then walked over and quietly offered to carry his plate to the table. 

Most of our family lives in San Antonio and everyone headed back home in the late afternoon and early evening.  Ben got invited to go surfing, down in Port Aransas, with family friends and he was gone by 6:30 pm.  Once Belinda and I finished washing pots and pans and dishes we decided to watch a movie from Netflix and we settled on a mindless romantic comedy called, "When in Rome." 

Near the end of the movie the female protagonist is trying to decide if she should take the risk and marry her new boyfriend.  Her father threw out a line and I grabbed for a Post-It (tm) pad and a pen.  It's a line that resonated with me like a bell.  He said,  "The Passion is in the risk."


That's pretty much the culmination or distillation of what I've been trying to say here for the past two years.  The magic dust that makes art work is the passion you bring to it.  And the passion is proportional to the risk required.  I've included two photographs to illustrate my point.  In the top photo I'm photographing life in the Termini train station in Rome.  I'm determined to get a shot of the baggage handlers.  I go in head first because I know they may (and did) object and I'd only get one chance.  Before I started I thought that there might be a heightened chance of confrontation.  There's a certain risk in a direct, "looking into the eyes" presentation.  I had to be quick with my technique.  I could be embarrassed if they got pissed off and made a scene.  All that stuff that goes thru your mind when you're out of your own neighborhood, out of your demographic and out of your own culture.  But you move forward because you embrace that level of risk and deem it acceptable for the potential reward.  That being said, this isn't my favorite photo.  But each time you risk you get more comfortable with the risk and you understand that something moves you to do this thing that's beyond a staid calculus of accrual.

In the arts the passion is never truly about money.  It may be about fame and with fame may come money but in reality the arts are about the passion.  When I step out the door I'm looking for a photograph that makes me feel something out of the ordinary.  Art is never a reaffirmation of the value of the ordinary.

The second photograph is passionless.  We make these all the time.  It's a quick, furtive shot that shows nothing but the back of one person and the profile of another.  There's no engagement.  There's little passion.  And when you look at this image you tend to pass it by because it's something you've seen a hundred or a thousand times before from every photographer who shoots in the street.  There's little reward because there's little risk.  And without the risk there's no passion.  And the passion is what gets transmitted to the viewer.

But the idea that The Passion is in the risk goes way beyond street shooting or even just the practice of the arts.  In fact, I think the slow building of passion comes with taking multiple levels of risk that correspond with access to the passion.   An example.  If you want to create great work in any art it takes constant practice.  I've used the analogy of competitive swimming as an example.  If you want to be a great surgeon you have to use those brain and hand skills all the time or you get rusty.  I have many friends who are doctors and when they need to have a surgical procedure done they never settle for the guy who's done a couple hundred successful procedures they search out the guy who's done thousands of successful procedures because they know that with practice comes expertise.  The guy who's done 2,000 procedures has dealt with every permutation.  In art parlance, he's become a "master".  By the same token I don't think photographers can be at the top of their art unless they live it with the same "hands on" intensity.  If they pick up the camera every once in a while they just aren't fluid enough to make great art.  And it's not just knowing where the buttons are and when to push them....for a people photographer it's also about knowing how to work with people in a fluid way. 

So, that means that it's almost impossible to do photography at a passionate level and still have the time and energy for a real job.  And there's the risk.  Freelance photography gives you the time but it also delivers risk.  And if you can accept that risk and move forward even with the knowledge that you may end up hungry and poor, but you still feel compelled to move that way then you may be driven by your passion and that passion may reward you with art you can love.

Beyond that, risk also means removing yourself from a comfortable situation to an uncomfortable situation that elicits responses in a photo which in turn make it interesting to you and your wider audience. 

The ultimate risk is working when you are the only audience.  When you stop caring what other people think about your work and you make work that is uninflected by the subtle pressure of others.  In this arena the risk of total isolation is so strong that only the most courageous passion will drive sane people forward.  It's a level I've not achieved and I'm not sure I can.  I have too many responsibilities.  I have too much to lose to risk everything.  And yet it's something I am jealous of in other photographers.

The person who finds a $100 bill on the street is just a bit richer.  The person who pulls a diamond from the jaws of a pissed off, deadly dragon has a story to tell for the rest of his life.  And he creates a legend.

That's what the few real artists in our lives do.  They battle metaphorical dragons that come complete with real risks.  They've already signed a blanket waiver with life and they're ready to strap in and take the ride.  They're the test pilots and we're waiting for someone to come along and pressurize the cabin.

So.  Why have I decided to work with LED lights in the last few months?  Do I think the results will be technically better than what I can get with state of the art flash equipment?  No.  But I know the results will be different.  I know that some stuff will be riskier (like subject motion and color correction) but I know that intangible and tangible differences in the way portrait subjects respond and react makes the photographs different and it's a risk with a return.

If I know how to do a technique forward and backward why do I constantly abandoned the safe techniques and try new stuff?  Because the risk of maybe failing makes the process more exciting.  If the risk pays off I have something that's new and maybe closer to my vision of what an image should be.  If I fail I learn and I come back and try again.

If I never try then I master one technique and use it, safely, over and over again until it's so stale and old that no one ever wants to see it again and I've squandered years and years when I could have been investigating and playing and failing and succeeding and doing new stuff.

The turn over of gear is open to many interpretations but unlike most amateur practitioners I seem to go from the highest iteration of equipment to the lowest instead of the other way around.  I'll start with a Canon 5Dmk2 and slide down the product scale where the risk is greater because it's more fun to work without a safety net.   Buying better and better gear is a way of trying to manage risk.  And managing risks is the perfect way to suck the absolute passion out of your art.  Perfect risk management means sitting in a bunker with the air filters on high.  But nothing moves forward that way.

Here's an odd thought.  One posited by a character in Stephen Pressfield's magnificent book, The Gates of Fire,  "What is the opposite of fear?"  The eventual answer?   "Love."

We work through the fear that everyone feels.  Fear is a very uncomfortable emotion.  Most people feel fear and move away from the thing that made them feel fearful.  Or they work to contain the process or action that caused the fear.  Some work through the fear to feel the love.  The work is the love.  The process is the fear,  The fear is the risk.  And the risk is the thing that artists embrace.  And that's what makes the best work work.  Knowing that you might fail.

Someone asked me the other day if being 55 and in a field that seems to be falling apart and crashing and burning scared me.  Yes.  I'm as scared as I can be.  But not because I won't make money.  I'm scared that I won't have the time and the courage to keep going out every day and doing something that rational people don't do.  Every time I go out and shoot it scares me.  And every time I go out and ignore the fear I get into zone and the photos get better and better.  When I stop getting scared the work falls apart.

The scariest moments for me are the days when I wake up and I've lost the determination to go out and try it all over again.....as if for the first time.  When I'm working from a "playbook" of greatest hits I know that it's over.  The passion is gone.  It's time to stop.  But the scariest thing of all is that all the inspiration and vision and passion comes from a well within.  There's no way to inspiration other than to wake up and want.  And  to be willing to accept the risk that creates the passion.  And that's why it's worth it not to copy anyone else but to create your own art and take your own risks.  Because:


The passion and the risk are different for everyone.  And so are the rewards.  And that's why people talk about gear instead.  Because it's so hard to say why you do what you do.  And it will be different for you.

added at 5:22 pm.
I never did get around to explaining why I took the image of the guys in the train station.  Let me go thru that process and see if I can put it into words.  We really don't have a train station here in Austin.  The closest we have is an airport and it was built in the last ten years and doesn't look much different than a nice strip mall with a bunch more chairs.  I have a romantic nostalgia for train travel.  But even more to the point, I  have a bittersweet memory of a time when travel was civilized and special and much, much less stressful.  The guys in the top photo are remnants of that earlier time.  It was a time in which you and and your family could travel for weeks  with multiple suit cases.  You would have suits and ties and nice shoes to wear to fancy restaurants.  Hiking boots and heavy jackets for romps through the Alpine plains outside of Chamonix and you would have also packed some casual clothes for evenings wandering through the old neighborhoods of Rome.  You'd find a nice cafe and have hot chocolate while your parents enjoyed a few glasses of wine and some savory treats.

And it was all made possible by men like these in the train stations and airports who would take care of the logistics of moving your heavy cases from the train to the to taxi's and back again.  And you were pretty sure they worked for tips and they worked hard every time a train came in.  They were freelancers like you are now.  Somedays no one would want to pay for their help.  Other days the work would be non-stop.  There were no guarantees.  No safety net.  But it was what they knew how to do.

And slowly all these men have have faded into oblivion as wheeled totes and "carry on" only became the vogue.  And now we  travel with only what we can carry and we're more like overnight visitors than real travelers.  But at the same time these guys were brusk and sometimes unlikeable, with a street smart cynicism that put you on your guard.  And there are now no more young porters.  It's a dying art.  Like dye transfer or black and white darkroom printing.  And it's sad when an era passes.

And they know it's only a matter of time before their knees give out and their lungs protest the decades of smoking and they won't be able to lift the heavy boxes that often replace the luxe leather suitcases and trunks.  And they're pissed.  And resigned.  And how can I get all those emotions and all those thoughts into something as insubstantial as a photograph?

I look over and see the scene come together.  They are resting on the cart, looking for customers.  They are smoking.  I walk closer.  I've already set my Mamiya 6 camera to the exposure I think the scene offers.  I bring the camera to my eye to fine tune the focus with my rangefinder.  The man raises his hand and as he starts to wag his finger I click.  Then I drop the camera down and gesture that I get it.  I understand.  I won't shoot another frame.  I'll hope I have what I want and spare them the indignity of overt and obvious study.  Young life swirls around them.  One man smiles in a resigned way.  Two others continue their conversation, oblivious of my transgression.  And the man with the wagging finger follows me with his eyes, just to make sure I got the message.  Yes.  I did.  I got the whole message.

When I develop the negative I wish I'd gotten closer.  Much closer.  But cropping is not the same.  I wish I'd gotten closer and wider.  The 55 instead of the 75.  But I got what I got and I learned that my reticence to walk in closer with the wider lens is like a slap to the face and I know next time I'll take the risk or not take the photograph at all.

the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions:







Re-inventing the portrait for myself.

When I first learned how to do portraits I learned from a Brooks Graduate.  We used at least three lights.  We carefully focused a medium format camera and we worked slowly and methodically.  The only job I've held as a photographic assistant was a short stay at a two generations old studio right next to the Texas state capitol building.  The owners, all highly trained photographers, made their living serving two constituencies.  They made official portraits of each state representative and senator for display in the capitol and for use by the state officials.  These were all done in black and white.  They were also the official provider of formal portraits for all the sorority girls at the University of Texas at Austin.  All the portraits done by the studio were shot on 5x7 inch black and white Ektapan film and developed by hand.  The images of the sorority girls were done in a style that called for the girls to be draped in a white fabric that left their shoulders bare but covered any hint of breasts.

The girls were photographed with an ancient portrait lens which obscured any skin detail and many faults.  The lighting came from ancient Photogenic studio electronic flashes that we wheeled into adjustment on large, caster equipped light stands.  The lights were a mix of giant beauty dishes and soft banks.

Once the girls were photographed it was my job to pull the film from the holders, transport it down to the large lab in the basement and tank develop all of it.  We had a drying room just for film, with lots of taut lines and clothespins or metal clips to hang the film from.  Once the film was dry I would contact print it on "printing out" paper.  This was a paper that would slowly fade away with prolonged exposure to daylight.  It kept the customers from keeping the proofs and not coming back for their prints.

Once an image selection was made I would print the images onto soft surfaced, Kodak Ektalure G surface paper.  We used this paper because it was nice and thick and, with the G surface we could use actual lead pencils for spotting and retouching.  At the end of a busy day the whole staff would sit around two tables in a sun splashed room spotting with pencils.  It was a skill that made spotone-ing with brushes look simple.

My problem was that with all the soft focus and all the retouching (both on the 5x7 inch negatives and on the prints) I couldn't tell the customers apart.  And I suspect that only close friends and families could really discern who was in the frame.  But I learned a lot.  I learned that in the old days one followed the proforma of the day and that lighting had rules....

I didn't last long because I was young and impatient and I hated the style of photography we did.  And said so once too often... Ah.  Reckless youth.

When I started to shoot portraits for myself I had as resources my experience with the formal studio and my training at the hands of the Brooks master photographer.  A died-in-the-wool PPofA (Professional Photographers of America) stalwart.  Lots of rules.  Lots of "this is the way it's done."  Good technical grounding but a whole different time period of aesthetics.

I experimented.  I liked softer light and sharper film.  I liked deeper shadows and less retouching.  And I like what you could do with just two lights.  One for the background and one for the person sitting in front of the camera.

For the last twenty years I've lit portraits in pretty much the same way.  Usually with flash and usually with big, soft light sources.

Now, I'd like to re-invent my portraits.  I want them to be more intimate and direct but I still want the light to be soft and contrasting.

Today I asked Belinda to come to the studio so I could test out the little Olympus 45mm 1.8 lens on the EP-3 camera.  I set up two of the 1,000 bulb LED panels behind a four foot by four foot 3/4 stop scrim and put them over to my right.  I set the camera at ISO 250 and shot at 1/125th at f2.8.  And I liked everything I shot today.  The Olympus shoots square if I ask it too and Lightroom 4.0 shows the file square if the camera is set that way.  Belinda wanted a black and white image for a marketing piece so I made the conversion in PhotoShop's black and white adjustment panel.

I think I'll spend the rest of the year re-inventing the whole idea of portraits.  Now that I can do what I want, handheld, with LED lights, with a micro four thirds camera and a really nice lens.  Why not?

Another version with a little post processing for fun.

Just a few notes on some technology that I'd ignored:

I used the Olympus Pen EP3 to shoot this image.
It has a very, very fast and accurate face recognition control for autofocus.
You can even tell it which eye to focus on.  Closest,
Furthest, Left or Right.  It works.  It's amazing.
It's accurate and it beats the hell out of 
racking the lens in and out trying to get an exact
focus and then having your subject move slightly and 
throw it all out of wack.

This was the most revolutionary part of my little 
portrait session.  I could, for all intents and purposes, 
ignore the chore of focusing and be certain that the camera
would select exactly what I would have.
What a burden lifted.

Thank you, Frank.

Getting ready for the new cameras. Jockeying around with the inventory.

Change is interesting and, I think, non-linear.  More like two steps forward and one step back instead of a graceful and ever escalating, upward spiral.  I've shot with all kinds of formats but since Olympus introduced the EP2 back in 2009 I've been drawn in the direction of smaller, lighter and more fun cameras like paparazzi are drawn to Snooki.  Sometimes I over step and sometimes I under step.  For a while I was three systems deep in smaller cameras.  Just two systems deep if you count the Panasonic and Olympus micro four thirds cameras as one contiguous family of mini-cams.  But I've been rationalizing the whole mess.  I've sold off a few Canon bodies.  I'm concentrating on the full frame bodies only.  I've bid farewell to two fine cameras, the 60D and the 7D, so I can concentrate on thinking about the full frame lenses in a singular way.  I've sold off all the EFS lenses and beefed up the fast Zeiss Primes.

Now I have the full frame Canon field covered with multiple cameras and I can consider those my "old school" professional tools.  To be used for clients who like "big" and "megapixels" and big brand names.  But I don't shoot with them nearly as much as I do the little cameras.  In fact, if I didn't shoot as a professional I'd sell them all and just concentrate on the little cameras.  More particularly, the Olympus Pens and the GH2.  (Because of its combination of resolution, hot shoe, EVF and good performance, I've come to regard the GH2 as the lifeguard in the pool of m4:3.....for now).  

While I'm excited, like everyone else who shoots with m4:3 Olympus cameras, about the arrival of the OM-D, I think I'm even more excited about all the cool lenses that have been introduced and are being announced.  So I cleared out even more inventory of non-related systems in order to make room and generate cash to add to my stash of lenses.  On friday I  added the Panasonic/Leica 25mm 1.4 Summilux and the Olympus 45mm 1.8 to the mix.  I was going to stretch and go for the 12mm Olympus lens but I'd like to see how the 12-50mm performs first.  I'm not as interested in wide angles as I am middle and slightly long focal lengths....

I haven't taken the 45mm out of the box yet because I'm captivated by the Summilux right now. (I've shot with borrowed 45's a number of times...).  I walked around and shot with the Summilux yesterday and had a blast.  It spent the day attached to an EP3 and I loved it.  The lens makes mechanical noise when it's just sitting there with the camera on.  That's been reported by most users.  I don't know what it is that makes the noise but I've decided not to care.  

The focus, under every condition that I shot, is fast and accurate.  The center two thirds of the image is radically sharp from wide open on down and the stuff I shot at f4 was pretty amazing.  My friend, Frank,  educated me about a unique feature on the EP3 that (in a moment of blind snobbery) I had overlooked.  If you set the camera to enable face recognition AF you can also select which eye you'd like the camera to focus upon.  The choices are:  Left, Right, Closest, Furtherest.  I chose "closest" because that's how I shoot portraits.  I tried it over and over again yesterday and it's a great, fast way to work.  I'm glad I have friends who are more open to experimenting than me.  It makes the camera a much more potent portrait camera.

I walked my usual weekend route and passed by the Littlefield building as the clouds and the light shifted.  The metering was on the money and the lens rendered a very crispy file.  As you probably know, I shot with Leica M and Leica R cameras for nearly the entire decade of the 1990's and I love the look of the Leica lenses.  While the Panasonic lens is a design by Leica with all the construction done in Japan it still seems to have some of the Leica DNA.  The files have more "weight" to them and there seems to be more contrast between tones.  I've only shot several hundred frames with the lens and only on a 12 megapixel camera but what I see is very, very good.  I'm sorry I waited so long to get this lens.

I know the nuance is largely lost to the vagaries and insults of web presentation but this simple shot of flowers is a telling example of what the fast prime lenses are all about.  The focus on the flowers is as sharp as I could ask for.  At 100% on the screen the range of tones within the purple of the flower is richly variated.  And the background goes out of focus in a smooth and visually pleasing way.  

But here I must be truthful and say that while the Pan/Leica lens is great it's not leaps and bounds better than some of my older Pen lenses (except at it's widest aperture).  So why did I shell out for this modern version?  After spending a few years zooming in and out to check manual focus I was ready to capitulate and go with some auto focusing options.  In fact, in a circular way, it was the EP3 that drove me there.  The autofocus is so good it was a shame not to use it.  

You can preach to me till you're blue in the face about the need to have super deluxe, noise free, high ISO's but I'll preach right back to you that it's more important to have high ISO if you hobble yourself with 2.8 and slower zoom lenses.  The image above was shot at ISO 640 in very, very low light.  The fast aperture obviates the need to crank up the amplifiers and bang away at the files.  I'm not necessarily a Luddite.  I do use a Canon 5Dmk2 from time to time but the whole noise thing seems over blown to me.    Give me a fast lens, a fun camera and some in-body stabilization and I'll be a happy camper in most situations that are bright enough for old eyes to see in.  Your mileage will vary, profoundly.  Test your own technique before accepting mine.

I photographed this little tableau at the W Hotel.  I used an ISO of 1250, at f4 and hand-held the camera at a quarter of a second.  I love the fact that anything I stick in front of an EP3 automatically gets image stabilization.  I can hardly wait to test the stabilization in the OM-D.

So, if I'm so amazed by the 25 Pan/Leica why did I also buy the 45mm 1.8 Olympus lens?  Why not?  It's a great focal length for the kind of portraits I like to do. I've shot with it and found it good.  Judging from work I've seen my friends produce with it the lens is probably as sharp wide open as the 25mm and it helps me fantasize about a time in the near future when I am able to shoot everything I want with just a bag full of m4:3 cameras and lenses.  

I'm photographing some portraits with the 45mm this afternoon and throughout the week.  I'm sure I'll have something to say about it in short order.

It's kind of funny.  I've been reading across the web this week about famous photographers who are making a transition in the opposite direction.  They are rushing to embrace the promise of medium format digital cameras.  Zack Arias has written a long blog entry about how amazed and impressed he is with the file quality of his new medium format camera.  David Hobby recently revealed his adoption of medium format as well.  Even my friend, Paul, has joined the exclusive club with the latest Hasselblad MF.

Several of my newer readers wrote to me directly asking me when I was going to "dip my toe" into the MF waters and see what it was all about.  They assumed that medium format was a  very new category and a fast growing one for professionals.  Well, I guess my answer is:  Been there, done that.  Box checked.

Back in 2008 and 2009 I was asked to extensively test and review three different medium format cameras over the course of the year.  I spent "quality time" squeezing the best performance out of each camera, exploring their proprietary raw files and dealing with their quirks.  Here's what I wrote at the time:

If you read through the reviews please keep in mind that, at the time of the reviews we were just starting to see announcements for 21 megapixel cameras from Canon and that Nikon had not year dropped anything bigger than 12 megapixels on the markets.  At the time 12 megapixels was considered a good standard for professional cameras.  It was a different time.

I'm happy to see the prices on the current MF cameras start to drop.  I think the benefit is not in endless resolution but in the size of the sensor and its relationship to focal length.  The benefit for portrait shooters has always been the use of a longer focal length for the same angle of view, with its attendant faster drop off of depth of field.  It's a look that's hard to duplicate.  If you are rushing to the big cameras just for the resolution then you've missed the train already.  But these camera sensors are still smaller than the 6c6 cm of the old, film Hasselblads. 

I'll be happy to sit on the sidelines and watch everyone embrace the new cameras in an attempt to differentiate themselves from the middle of the photographic Bell Curve.  If it works and puts more clients in their corral then more power to them.  But as Buckaroo Bonzai said,  "Wherever you go, there you are."  

The week ahead should be fun. I can hardly wait to see which company announces what this week.  It's just part of the continuing process of re-inventing photography....

This is an image from a 40 Megapixel Phase One back.  Is there a difference?  What is it?  How would you describe it?


The Fifth Book Has Finally, Officially Landed at Amazon.com. Finally.

LED Lighting.  Kirk's Fifth Book.

Of all the changes that technology's brought to photography one of the most interesting to me is how it's changed the way we light things.  The tools are transforming the vision of a generation.  Cameras with faster ISOs require less light but the light you do bring to the table is so much more controllable and easy to use than ever before.  While most still photographers use flash in some form I'm pretty certain that the future will call for more use of continuous light and more flexibility in choosing our tools.

I started using LEDs when Canon and Nikon and Olympus and Sony started putting really cool video capabilities in their cameras.  I wanted to see if I could open up some profitable markets for myself by adding video to the product mix I offer my clients.  While I'm not setting the world on fire with video, the simple interviews and web videos I've done put an extra $10,000+ in my accounts last year.   Not big money but if we work hard on improving every step I'm sure we can make those numbers grow, year by year.

So I got my first set of LED lights to augment available light with video but on the way to becoming the next Steven Spielberg I noticed that I was attracted to using the LEDs, more and more, for still life work where the WYSIWYG nature of continuous lighting made my shoot more efficient and productive.  Now I had a reason to jump in and learn with both feet.  So I bought more and bigger panels.  In effect, I slid into LED lighting the way you slide into a hot bath....just a toe at a time and then finally, the commitment, and the  plunge.

Now, a year and a half later, I've used the LEDs to light executive portraits, twilight portraits, complex (for me) food shoots, studio shoots with actors for Zachary Scott Theater, and some really fun and fast moving corporate reportage.  A few days ago I was asked to photograph some books in a three dimensional sort of way.  A few years back I would have been reaching for the electronic flash monolights and I'd start the "chimping" process.  I'd be setting up soft boxes and umbrellas and blah, blah, blah.  

With my bigger LED panels I just flipped the switch to "on,"  lined up the shot on the live view screen of my camera, set the aperture I knew I'd need to cover the book with sharp focus, adjusted the shutter speed until the live histogram looked correct and then tripped the shutter.  A quick, magnified look at the file and I was on to the next set up.  Color?  Perfect.  Just using AWB.  Perfect?  I finished in two hours what had taken me, in past "flash centric" shoots, perhaps four or five hours.

In the book I've written about choosing the right LEDs.  About the accessories that seem to work best for me working with the lights.  About using them for my favorite subject: Portraits.  There are over 250 images that illustrate every point.  The book is 160 pages long as is the culmination of a year and a half of research and "real world" use.  And then six long months of writing a re-writing.

I hope you'll take a chance and add this book to your library of photographic books.  I'll continue to update my knowledge base about LEDs and what's changing in the market place and share that information here.  What every writer in this day and age needs is the support of his audience.  In a way the books pay for and are the prime impetus for writing this blog.  Every book sold gives me time to explore, write and shoot more.

thank you.


Canon Designers Fail Again. My Overdue Review on a "Retro" Product.

When will all this retro nonsense stop?

I watched the Nikon rollout of the D800 a few days ago and it reminded me that Canon is on the ropes. For good.  Oh sure.  They're the biggest camera company in the galaxy (right now), design and produce their own incredible sensors, and just a few years ago the Nikon users were jumping in droves to get the white lenses, the super video, the full frame, the high ISO.  But now everything has changed and there's no such thing as continual "leapfrogging."  Canon is doomed.  DOOMED !!!  We all know it.  And I think I found the genesis of their hideous decline.  Someone asked me to review this camera (above)  and I was shocked with the primitive feature set.  I know it must be a current camera because it's so........retro.

It's called a Canonet QL17.   How cutesy.  It sports a prime 40mm lens with a fast, 1.7 f-stop but that's just about where the feature set ends....

Well,  here's my review:  The damn thing is unusable.  Let's go down the list of unredeemable flaws.  To start with, all that satiny metal finish is way too retro-ly conspicuous.  I've applied ample stealth tape in an attempt to tone down this grasping, faux modern design aesthetic as best I can.

The lens is FIXED.  Not that it was broken but,  I've learned now that any camera with a fixed lens is inferior to an interchangeable lens camera.  And zooms are best of all.  Who can do any kind of work without a fisheye and an extreme telephoto?  Read no further.  I'll warn you off right now.  This is not a birding camera.  Unless you relish the idea of tiny birds hidden in the recesses of your frames.  Dots, really. There's no reach at all. The lens is just a 40mm and that's on full frame !!!!  

But I just found out that the "full frame" imager is the same as the one used in the Nikon F full frame that we reviewed earlier.  It's not re-usable.  It's WORO.  Which means "write once, read once."  They used a sensor called "film."  It's very noisy over ISO 400,  and the camera doesn't have a lot of post processing tools built in.  In fact, it has none.  It's a very expensive way to run a camera.  But it's offset by having a MSRP of $149.95, new.

Continuing with the flaws you would have to add the lack of autofocus.  See the little knob just to the right of the lens in the photo above?  You pull that up or down to effect focus.  And the confirmation that you're doing a damn bit of good in the pursuit of focus is in a little window you look through.  Apparently this is a "rangefinder" camera.  Like that other retro copy, the Leica M9.  Come on, if you need the retro styling just get a Fuji X-100.  That's the real retro deal.

This camera may be one of the very few in the world without a menu. In fact, there's no electronic interface I could find.  You wiggle the stick for focus.  You watch fuzzy yellow blocks come together for focus and while I think there used to be a meter in the camera but the designers chose a battery that didn't "jump the shark" into the 21st century.  So your meter is all mental.  Kind of an "Abundance Metering" philosophy.  If you "think" good exposure then surely you will manifest good exposure.

The camera has a limited range of shutter speeds and those are only available in full stops.  Wanna shoot outside?  I don't think so.  The top shutter speed is 1/500th and God knows you can't do anything with that.  And get this.....the slowest shutter speed is 1/4th of a second.  Jeez.  No star trails here.

 There is a bulb setting and a self-timer but my test camera's self timer was obviously defective.  It buzzed like a savage honey bee every time I tried to use it.  Notice the steel and alloy construction.  Sadly it adds a lot of weight to what should have been a lightweight camera.  Don't those designers know about the joy of plastic?

Speaking of hopelessly retro, get a load of this.  It's a PC terminal for a sync cord.  And it's a "dumb terminal" not an interactive connection.  All it's good for is triggering flashes.  And, you guessed it, Canon "cheaped out" and didn't include any provision for "smart flash."  (Although they do have a provision for a primitive "guide number" flash.) Could they be more painfully retro?

And I'm sure you saw this coming...No LCD screen.  No way to preview or review your images.  It's almost like this camera is "capture averse."

This unit may represent an older part of Canon's line but it's an example of the company's obvious misdirection.  If they had launched products like this in the 1970's do you think they'd even still be in business today?

I'm waiting for an improved, eighty five megapixel verison with auto Hipstergram, auto HDR, auto Compose and auto Banter.  And, if Canon ever dumps the tired ass retro thing and comes into this century of camera design, let them know that I'm waiting for a red one.  Fire Engine Red.

In All Seriousness...The Canonet QL17 was my first real camera and was a constant companion for years.  I finally retired it to a place of honor in the equipment drawer when I bought my first Leica M3 with a 50mm Summicron.  The Canonet went with me to Paris back in 1978 and many of my favorite images came from that little, wonderful box.  It loaded quickly (hence the QL) and it gave me easy to print Tri-X negatives, roll after roll.  It was small, unobtrusive and quick to use.  The meter was acceptable but we took advantage of a useful tool, provided by Kodak, when we wanted fast and accurate exposure setting advice.  Every roll of Kodak film came packaged with a sheet of paper, and on that sheet was a little set of illustrations showing different light sources and recommended settings.  We'd tape the little paper strip onto the bottom of the camera, under Scotch tape, for quick reference.  And it worked better than matrix metering nearly every time.

The fast (and sharp)  lens and vibration free leaf shutter (flash sync to 1/500th), in concert with ISO 400 film, let me shoot with impunity in low light.  The rangefinder never front or back focused and was equally good in bright or dim light.  Your battery could go completely dead and all you would lose is the metering.  In all it was an incredibly condensed and compressed tool for shooting real life.  If you find one in good shape for a good price you might consider snapping it up.  It's a good intro camera for people who've never had the pleasure of using real film.


A time out from the new product mania.

I finished shooting a box full of books for one of my clients who publishes books about real estate and I was looking for something to cleanse my "visual palette."  I found this old Kodak folding camera that my mom sent me.  Apparently, it's been living in my parent's closet for a few decades.  It came from a relative's collection many years ago.

I cleaned it off and put it on one of my tripods and then thought about lighting.  I set up a different lighting design than I had ever tried before.  I placed a big, 1,000 LED light panel (the cheap, Chinese variants) on either side of the camera and used the barn doors to keep spill light off the gray wall that was, maybe, five feet behind the camera.  The LED panels were pretty close.  You can see the placement in the image below.  I expected the chrome parts to burn out and the dark areas to be noisy but it didn't turn out that way.  Even though the camera sits directly between the two lights I thought the overall effect was dramatic and pleasing.  I shot the set-up with a Panasonic GH2 and the 14-140mm lens.  When I opened the raw file in Lightroom I was delighted.  There wasn't much post processing to be done.  

My favorite aspect of the shot on top, and even more so in the middle frame (above) is the way the light falls off as it goes down the tripod legs.  I'm equally happy with the way the light falls off so quickly to the background that the wall goes black.  And, at ISO 160, I'm not seeing any noise in the shadows.  It's really nice performance for an inexpensive little system.  Once I finished shooting this I wrapped up everything and went into the house to have dinner with the family.  I can't decide which of the two above images I like the best.  The camera alone is nice and clean but the second image resonates with my inner photo nerd.  I wish I'd done the shot earlier because it would have made a nice addition to my book.  I'm anxious to try the same kind of lighting in a portrait set up so I can get that same rapid fall off.

Today was totally insane.  We had nearly 20,000 pageviews of my Olympus OM-D introduction.  This followed yesterday's big, web wide announcement of the Nikon D800.  The lure of the new cameras was palpable.  There was clearly credit card adrenaline in the air.  But when I looked at the new stuff I had a sense of having been there so many times before.  I'm starting to feel like Pavlov's sad little dog because I find myself drooling at the internet signal that tells me that new camera dog food is heading to my bowl.

In both instances the camera makers are moving their respective balls forward.  The Nikon may be the camera that pushes the medium format either off a cliff or into making a price competitive product for people who want or need a really large sensor.  It will certainly be strong bait for people who want the best you can get (conditionally--meaning: the best for under $5,000).  The promise of a 30+ megapixel camera is tons of detail and smooth tonality.  It may be overkill but that remains to be seen....  Wait a month and Canon will, no doubt, debut their answering salvo and the race will be on to lock down customers.  It's pretty much an easy sell.  Lots of dots and lots of good numbers for a pretty affordable price.  If you're an aspiring pro this is the kind of camera that popular wisdom will lead you to.  

The Olympus OM-D is the magic camera enthusiasts have been waiting for.  It's small and sexy and by all accounts it's going to be a very, very good picture taker.  But what is the real appeal of this whole micro four thirds niche?  Do you get it?  Can I explain it?  I'll try...

First of all, it's no longer "cool" to carry around huge cameras and lenses over your shoulders anymore as you go about day to day life.  It's kind of the equivalent of dragging around a huge laptop just to be able to cruise the web and read your e-mail at your favorite local coffee shop.  Get a tablet.  Save some table real estate.   

At the heart of it the appeal of the small, mirrorless cameras in general is that for all intents and purposes the image quality of these cameras is more than adequate for 95% of the kind of shooting and sharing that 95% of the people who are ardent photographers, want to do.  Really.  We might be shackled by nostalgia into thinking that only a "full sized" camera will work for us because "our" needs are specialized.  But really, if you aren't shooting a job or assignment you're probably sharing most of your photo output on someone's computer screen.  

I did another job today for the "book" client.  The first time we shot together I shot all the books with a full frame, "professional" camera and a dedicated macro lens.  But the client's only use for the images was as illustrations on their website and as product illustration on Amazon.com.  I'd be shocked if they were used any larger than 800 pixels on a side.  Today we shot the same kind of stuff on the Panasonic GH2 and, after I finished dropping out the backgrounds and doing my post processing, the images were equivalent to the earlier full frame shots.  The one difference I noticed in the actual shooting was that the increased DOF for the same angle of view meant that I didn't struggle to keep the product in focus at the cost of the effects of diffraction.  Oh, and the live view was much easier to use.  Oh, and the touchscreen was pretty cool for moving the AF sensor cursor around.  I guess my point is that while huge print sizes and ultimate quality are still the provence of the biggest camera sensor you can get it's not a binary equation for all photography.

The users of the m4:3 cameras that I know have all graduated from bigger cameras.  They are looking for great image performance in a package that's a good companion.  Small, easy to pack, light enough to carry for a full day and not in your face. Having graduated from the mainstream they seem to have left behind the idea that the camera itself conveys some level of competence to the photographer.  Now they just practice their craft for the joy of practicing their craft.

The other thing that seems attractive about m4:3rds is a side effect of the lack of the mirror.  The lens mount flange to sensor distance is much smaller and that means that every lens designed for longer sensor-to-flange or flange-to-film plane distances can, with an adapter, be mounted for use on these cameras.  That appeals to the experimenter, the do-it-yourselfer, and the glass epicureans who understand that all lenses have their own personalities and styles.  People routinely mount everything from long, fast Nikon telephotos to jewel-like Leica M lenses.  

But now the m4:3's have come of age. Both Olympus and Panasonic have started revving up the optical workshops and they've been introducing cutting edge prime lenses than can be designed to be optically better than lenses hobbled by having to clear a mirror.   A big gap between the lens and the sensor means that lens designers have to use retrofocus designs that are a compromise.  The new lenses made for the smaller format can be optimized for better wide open performance, better sharpness and higher contrast.

I think the graduates get that.  Maybe not the exact engineering but surely the idea that the lenses, even though small, are heavy hitters.  And they return really superb images.

Smaller, lighter, cheaper, designed for the hand, fully implemented EVFs and lots of other intangibles.  What's not to like?

Do I want one of the new OM-D's?  You bet.  Do I need it?  Not for a second.  I'm still happy with the Olympus EP2, spoiled by the EP3 and well satisfied with the workmanlike GH2.  Can we shoot jobs with these?  Of course.  Look to the destination.  Heading to the web?  Perfect.  Prints up to 20 inches? No problem.  Super impressive to clients?  Nope.  But that's a whole other story.

I'm not preaching for a total takeover of the market by mini-cameras.  I think there's a place for everything.  And I'm sure lots of other pros will be able to make the case for big Canons and Nikons and that may be true for them.  But the market isn't homogenous.  I think it's smarter to choose a camera that's fun and facile rather than following any of the herds and buying a camera that's just right for someone else.

Hope you're having fun.  There's never been a better time to enjoy photography.  Just don't let the obsession with gear ruin your fun...