5.17.2012

The Sony a57 Goes to School.


This is an available light photograph shot for Kipp Austin College Prep, a charter school here in Austin, Texas. I had an assignment there yesterday.  We spent most of the day photographing representative kids in their K-12 program. The images will be used on the web and for various printed collateral.

I was using several cameras during the course of the shoot but today I'd like to give my general impression of the Sony a57 as I just finished post processing about 650 files from that particular camera. (I shot around 2200 frames, divided among three cameras...).

I used a fast, wide angle zoom on another camera but I used only the 85mm 2.8 Sony lens on the a57. Having used the camera for several, previous, low light shoots I was confident using it at 1600 ISO which gave me a good range of exposure options as I moved through the various buildings at the school. I shot Jpeg.  I didn't have any issue with using Jpeg. In the past I usually shot raw but I've gotten into the habit of doing a quick custom white balance when I first enter a room and leaving the camera set there.  It generally means much less post processing after the fact since the color balance doesn't change or shift as it would in AWB as you point the camera at different scenes with different dominant colors and no real white references in the frame.

Unlike the a77, which has a superfine Jpeg setting, the a57 has only fine and normal.  I used fine.

The lens is a bit primitive in its AF construction. It's still using the little "screwdriver blade" drive shaft connected to the camera body.  But in any lighting situation where I can see to focus, it's pretty fast to lock in focus and it doesn't spend much time hunting.  I really like the performance.
In the scene above there was enough light to allow me to shoot at 1/320th of a second, f3.2 (one third stop down from wide open).

I think the bokeh (ha. ha.  I said, "bokeh") is nuanced and lazy, infused with echoes of plum and spices, blended for a nice, long finish, with hints of soft tangerine...  Actually, I think the out of focus areas are rendered softly and without much Sturm und Drang.  Whatever.  I think it looks nice in the parts that are out of focus...

While the finder in the a77 is better at previewing color and contrast than the a57 I found my routine white balancing exercise gave me the confidence to shoot even when the EVF showed colors to be a bit wonky.  If they were too wonky I would go back and re-do my WB.  Takes 15 seconds at the most.

When photographing kindergarteners it's always good to go in without much gear and without any flash.  The flash draws the kids like moths.

The Sony's also share the attribute of having fairly quiet and pleasant sounding shutters when the electronic first curtain is engaged.

As a lower tier camera, aimed squarely at entry level photographers and hobbyists, I find several things that I quickly figured out work arounds for.  The saturation levels for the standard Jpegs are much too high so I lowered them.  The metering (multi area) is not as accurate as the metering in the a77 so I either rode the exposure compensation adjustment or switched to manual, depending how long I'd be in one area. I didn't have much issue with highlights burning out and I routinely added back some black (+7) in Lightroom 4.2.

The benefits of the a57 are these:  It handles 1600 ISO to my complete satisfaction.  With menu modifications it is a charming Jpeg camera.  The standard files (with reduced saturation ) are very sharp at 1600 ISO and require no additional sharpening.  When correctly exposed the files have very nice, neutral color.  The battery life is good.  Not good like a Nikon D3s but much better than my Olympus EP3 or Panasonic GH2 and, just a bit better than my Sony a77's.

The camera is very light weight.  I'm familiar enough with my most used buttons that I am able to use the camera and set controls without having to take it away from my eye.

The camera is good enough, from a speed and quality of file point of view, to make a good, workable professional camera for someone who is thinking of starting a small wedding photography business or portrait business.  I am comfortable using it for professional assignments but confess that I'm working hard at using its bigger brother, the a77 for most things because I really like the "look" I'm getting by shooting very sharp and noiseless images at very low ISOs.
That camera is returning me to the kind of lighting I used to do with my old, medium format cameras, and that's not such a bad thing...

As far as I know the a57 is not waterproof or bullet proof.  It's just a fast handling, straightforward choice for people who prefer to "pre-chimp", shoot in low light and who want to use an EVF for most of their art or work.  It's a great back-up camera for the a77 but because of the higher quality of the a77 EVF the a57 is not a replacement for it.





5.16.2012

Getting over being too busy. A photographer's (and everyone else's) dilemma.


There's always something else that needs to get done. Always. But we'll never do it all before we die and no sooner do we finish dusting than, when we turn our backs, the next delicate layer of dust starts to descend. Invisibly and inevitably.  It's hard to open the door and just go.  Go anywhere but back to work. What good is it to work all the time?  When you're working you're only thinking about work.  You're not thinking about happiness or the taste of the wind or the way your heart feels.  You're only thinking about getting this project done so you can start on that project.

I was working on post processing image files today.  At first it was fun.  The dog was lying down by my feet, keeping me company.  I had a big cup of warm coffee with just enough creme to turn the world in my cup a deep and lusty beige. Each image seemed fresh.  But after a few hours I started to resent having to sit in my chair and do work.  It started to feel like the same thing, over and over again.

I thought about picking up a camera and heading downtown to see what new images I could find but really, that seemed like work too.  So I put my dog in the house with Belinda, grabbed a bright blue set of swim shorts (so not like the practice suits we wear at morning training) and headed over to our club to jump in the pool.

Usually, when I head to the pool it's to practice hard.  Swim laps.  Get competitive.  But my brain was having none of that today, hence the big, baggy, bright blue swim suit.  I got to the pool and it was nearly empty.  The kids weren't out of school yet and it was that nappy, snoozy time in the afternoon for people with small children.  

There was one woman swimming laps in a lane and two older woman standing waist deep in the water on the other side of the pool just chatting.  The sky was clear blue, which was nice after a week of clouds and rain, and the water was as blue as the sky.  I jumped in with a big splash and dog paddled around for a while.  I was wearing an old pair of goggles with very dark lenses and it was fun to go to the bottom of the deep end and look up at the sky.  The sun was a squiggly hot dot.

I resisted actual swimming.  I resisted doing anything that remotely resembled work in the water, and when I was refreshed and happy and calm, and floating on my back squirting water out of my mouth I knew I'd broken the sneaky spell of too much work.  Which made it so much easier to go back and finish my work.


Physically and metaphorically it's important to stand up from the desk from time to time and just walk away.  To short circuit the vicious little loop that keeps you trapped inside, away from all the fun.  You can always go back and work more but we need play time just as much.

I love the image of the picnic shelter, just above.  It was taken at a little municipal park a few miles outside the tiny town of Marathon, Texas.  I took it when I went to west Texas a year or two ago.  It was a trip that wasn't really about going anywhere as much as it was about breaking the cycle of habits.  Working and not stopping to look at stuff.  This image reminds me that we need to be alone with our thoughts from time to time to properly sort them out and integrate them into our dynamic sense of reality and self.  It's not something I can do in the middle of a crowded mall, at a PTA meeting or in the car between work appointments.  Sometimes you just have to shut everything down, kiss the spouse on the cheek and spend a week on the road having your own adventure.

It's okay for photography to be the premise.  As long as you don't make that into a job as well.
Big talk for someone who makes a living taking pictures....


Being alone is scary for a while.  Then it gets good.  And then you're ready to come back home and get back to life.  But the interruption changes the story.  Which changes your life.  Which opens everything up.  Bring the camera but don't be afraid NOT to use it.  Sometimes looking deeply is much more important.

Imagine, a non-picture taking photography vacation.  Novel.

"Our focus becomes our reality." Star Wars.

Lonely, lovely west Texas Highway between Ft. Davis and Marfa.

There are many interesting pecadillos about humans. We tend to pick at details to the exclusion of the big picture.  

Instead of asking, "Is it interesting enough?"  We too often ask, "Is it sharp enough?"

If our focus is on making art then we will make art.  If the press of press turns our attention to the technical nuances of cameras and we let our focus wander down the "rabbit hole" of trying to divine where the ultimate compromise lies between the fascinating power of the 80 megapixel backs and the affordability and portability of the everyday cameras then that focus will lead us to occupy our time in a pointless flurry of research that ultimately yields nothing of real value.  Technology is a moving target, we'll never get in front of it.  But the chance to take time and shoot for yourself is also a moving (and receding) target and when you shift your focus from what you want to say to what you think you need in order to say it you inexorably push one train off the tracks and replace it with something else altogether.

Instead of looking for amusing images we start to look for images that will show off the edge acutance of our new lenses.

I read camera reviews sometimes.  I like the ones that Michael Reichmann writes on Luminous Landscape. He doesn't seem to care what anyone else thinks about his choices and he's not bound by the middle class thought trap that he must make the right decision.  He only needs to make a good decision.

Entertaining the idea that there is one right decision (when buying a camera) trains your mind to endlessly compare and analyze datapoints that may have very little to do with how well a camera works, feels in your hands or compliments your point of view. It focuses you on the process of evaluation. And ALL camera choices are a compromise of one kind or another.  You might choose a very expensive camera because you feel like you need the robustness of a "professional" body and a high pixel count to go with it but in doing so you might have to make the choice of allocating resources to buy the gear and not have enough financial resources left to follow through with the project of which you dream.  You might choose a camera because it fits in the pockets of your disco jeans only to find that it doesn't make the quality of images you imagined it would.

You might scrimp and save for a Leica M9 and one of the new, miracle Apo-Summicrons (because they are the best?)  only to find that the price was so dear you fear taking it with you if it looks like it might rain, or if the neighborhood you'll be visiting is too insecure, or the activity you want to pursue today might exposure your camera to some sort of damaging trauma.

You might buy a Canon 5Dmk3 and a big L zoom because of the presumed value proposition only to find that the weight of the combination hurts your wrist when you have to use it, handheld, for hours at a wedding or a riot.  You may end up wishing your research had turned up a less professional but more comfortable camera.

But the peril of researching all these choices is that your brain shifts what it thinks is its most important focus from making pictures to the endless task of evaluation.  And then you get into closed loop territory.  Your research tells you, "Yes, the TurboFlex Three is the ultimate camera for me!!!!" but as soon as you make that decision you start to hedge because you imagine that it will only be a matter or weeks or months before the much better TurboFlex Three N comes out.  And you get sucked into the next round of evaluation while the world spins and life goes on.

One day you wake up and discover that you know everything there is to know about the most obscure and least obscure cameras and lenses but you have no box of interesting prints, no grand work and no legacy of images to share and cherish.  Nothing to share.  You only have last year's greatest camera body and the need to get back to work researching this year's.

Do you find yourself shooting test shots all the time to reassure yourself that you bought the right thing?  Frustrating.  But our realitybecomes what we focus on.  Shift the focus and you shift reality.  Pick up the camera you have and head out the door.  It's that easy.

Ah.  But what if you need to measure how fast you can shift your focus?  Then what?

5.15.2012

Haven't digital cameras just gotten good in the last five years?


I buy into the hype as often as everyone else.  I get convinced that a camera like the D800 or the newest Canon is an amazing leap forward and that I'll need to rush right out and get one or my competitors will trample me into a puddle of non-commercially dysfunctional goo and my career will grind to a bitter halt.  I'll be the Willy Lohman of photography.

I guess this insecurity with our cameras comes from many of us regarding them as little computers, bound intractably by Moore's Law.  That every 18 months the value, speed, coolness and everything else about new cameras will be double what it was before.  And that may be true of some of the processors inside, but.....

So there I was this morning, walking into the Austin Kipp School campus with my latest and greatest cameras getting ready to set the world on fire with 24 megapixels of hyperventilating coolness when I was stopped in my tracks.  Just kinda paralyzed in place by a visual smack on the head.

You see, I'd done a job for them about seven years ago and they'd printed it large.  How large?  The smallest image was about four feet by five feet.  The images were printed on a Lightjet printer by one of the best labs in the country and mounted on one inch thick GatorFoam.  And the school hung the images all through the entryway and lobby of the school.  They were stunning.  Incredibly sharp.  No obvious noise (especially at the viewing distance required by such big prints..) and tonality to die for.

My ability to process files that well is non-existent, I'd sent the lab raw files back then, knowing that their lab software, costing thousands of dollars, would do a much better job on the images then me running them through PhotoShop or a similar, consumer raw processor.  (which makes me think the raw conversion software has improved a lot more than the cameras....).

It took me a moment to remember which camera I used to shoot the images up on the walls.  Judging from the prints I imagined it might have been a medium format camera with a Leaf back I used to use from time to time, in the past.  Then I remembered.  They'd all been shot with a Kodak DCS 760C camera.  A whopping six megapixels on an APS-H sensor.   I'd given the camera as much of a head start as I could.  I used the lowest ISO which was 80.  I used a tripod for every shot.  I used a Nikon 105mm f2 DC lens at it's optimum aperture range (f4-5.6) and I used Profoto Electronic flash equipment in a big softbox.  No issues with subject or camera movement, etc.

I also did my set up tests tethered to a computer in order to make sure the exposure was right on the money.  The camera's rear LCD screens at the time were almost useless for fine tuning exposure...

When I walked into the school today I walked right up to one of the big prints.  It's of an African American teenager holding a microscope and staring into the camera with calm self-confidence.  I can't think of a better way to make that image today, even with "better" gear.  It's as perfect as I think I could make it.

In light of this I have to laugh at myself, my friends and all the people on the web who create so much self-inflicted anxiety in their quest for the latest and greatest cameras.  Yes, the new Canon 5D3 will shoot better in lower light but we needed the lighting not for the photons but for the direction and style and look.  The light from the ceiling mounted fluorescent bulbs wouldn't have the same feel.  Yes, the Nikon D4 would smoke the AF of the DCS 760 but then my subjects were all standing still in the glow of my modeling lights and focus just wasn't an issue.  The fact of the matter is that manufacturers have made shooting easier but not necessarily better.  Let me explain that for engineers and their surrounding Umpa Lumpas of high tech.  The camera makers made all the stuff you could measure "better" but they aren't in charge of manufacturing the art.  We add that.  And in the end, once you've crossed a certain line of quality or have the discipline to work in the sweet spot of the tools, all the mechanical and electronic stuff melts away and it comes down to how well you can direct, light and motivate your subject. The camera, in many ways, becomes nothing but an afterthought.

If you see the camera work before the art then the photograph has already failed and all the extra pixels in the world won't make a difference.  When Joe McNally shot a spread for Nat. Geo. with a Nikon D1x (5 megs.) he broke the acceptance of digital barrier for everyone else working in print. Since then countless great images have been done with 6 megapixel cameras and, at the 2000 Olympics, most of the shooters were using 4 megapixel Canons and 2.7 megapixel Nikons.  The pictures were stunning.  The world gasped.  No one asked for more.  The artists had done their work...

This post is partially to answer a reader who asked if the Nikon D2X was really such a good camera or, only good for the time.  Yes.

5.14.2012

I have to laugh, sometimes, when people talk about cameras.


They think everything should be sharp, like the images of earth from outer space.  But remarkably, the images most people seem to like don't really have much to do with sharpness or lack of sharpness.  The real parameters seem different.  People are engaged by subject and, with life documented sharply and accurately twenty four hours a day they may be more interested in photography that's an interpretation of a thing instead of it's literal molecular construction.


Both of these images are of a green chair.  The second image totally describes the chair. The first image alludes to something that might be a chair.  I like them both but the more abstracted reality of the chair wears well, day in and day out.

I looked back at these photographs as a counterpoint to the chatter all over the web about the new Olympus OMD EM5 camera.  Half the people discussing are convinced (as I am) that it represents the next real generation of tools for a large subset of photographic artists.  The others either don't care (which is shrewd) or they cling to what they know best and assume a defensive stance.

The arguments rage as to whether the camera is sharp enough (for almost everything I can think of  it is...) and whether it is a worthy tool (most cameras are).

But it got me thinking.  Were all the cameras that came before just a charade?  Were they some sort of place holder between film and digital perfection that we had somehow been duped into accepting because we had no other reasonable choice?

I didn't think so either and so, by way of a reality check, I went back to these files from a trip I took to west Texas where I took only two cameras:  an Olympus EP2 and an Olympus EPL-1.
After the hysteria of the web I expected that, when I opened the files, I would find only mush.  Baseball sized electronic noise and hideous color shifts that would render the files unusable.

But, in fact, I am quite pleased with all the files I scrolled through.  They seem to have more than enough bite to please even the most stringent and critical viewer.  I was pleased to see the squares again.  And pleased to see that the colors were as I remembered them.  Not hampered in the least but a nice rendition of what I'd seen and remembered.

When I finished pulling out some favorite files I was pleased by the thought that the work I'd done before the arrival of the new breed of revolutionary cameras wasn't in vain.  In fact, I think a lot of what I shot with the ancient EP2 is downright lovely.  In fact, I think I'll keep it.






Portraits. Light. Engagement.

Portrait of Sarah after a swim.

Years ago, before people got so serious and so busy, I would often ask my friends to come over to the studio and stand for a quick portrait.  One day I asked my friend, Sarah, who is a painter.  She makes art for a living.  And she swims for the joy of it.

I used two lights.  One was a big softbox, mounted up high.  The other was a small softbox just behind Sarah, illuminating the background.  The camera was a Hasselblad with a 150 or 180mm lens.  ISO 100 black and white film.

I never ask people to smile.  I ask them to stand in a certain spot and to turn in a certain way.  We shot a roll of film.  Twelve frames. Sarah went off to paint and I headed into my darkroom to develop the film.  

I like to look back at prints I've done of my friends.  It reminds me that I started doing photography for the fun of it.  That I work on projects for clients but I take images of people because it satisfies a human need to connect.  I could print this large or look at it on the screen, it has the technical finish to go either way.

People seem to think photography is all about sharpness or lack of grain and noise but it isn't.  It may be the imperfections in the processes (and the seeing) that makes images seem more valuable.  Very few people are really interested in perfection.

Go see Ken Tanaka's article about the Olympus "paradigm shifter" at TOP

http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2012/05/olympus-e-m5-first-notes.html

He writes well and, more importantly, I like what he writes.

Gamechanger.  Coming (some day) to a store near you.





Pecan Street Festival. May 2012



Sitting on the edge of Sixth St.  Sony a77 camera.  35mm 1.8 DT lens.  ISO 50.  1/80th f3.2

5.13.2012

Funny. I am reading a book about Steve Jobs. His mantra was to simplify and always move forward. Not back.




The simplest lighting I can imagine.


Simple styling.


Looking at the image in a straightforward way.


Trying an alternate point of view.


Trying a different dish.

Sony a77 with the 30mm Macro DT lens.  


After playing around with my smaller cameras I thought I'd revisit some bigger files.


This is a file from the Phase One 40+ forty megapixel camera I shot with back in 2010.  It does some stuff really well.  The resolution is amazing and, with a $10,000 Schneider zoom lens, the sharpness and contrast are very good. Even at medium focal lengths the rapid change in depth of field is obvious and somewhat dramatic.  The trade off is that the camera is much slower to operate than my other cameras, doesn't focus nearly as quickly and, with a couple lenses, the package cost about $52,000 at the time.  The raw files were very big.  The high ISO was just okay (and we're talking ISO 800, max.)  For the most part the size and complexity of the camera caused it to be relegated (for me) mostly to studio work where I could use it on a tripod and with ample time to focus.  


Here's how the Phase One handled an assignment to document some architectural production.  You are looking at a file that has been reduced from a huge file (pixel count) to a file that is only 2100 pixels on the long side.  In the original file you can blow things up really large and still see lots of detail.  It's pretty wonderful but nothing that my ancient Hasselblad film camera with similar lenses and low ISO slide film can't come very close to.  The real secret to getting sharp and contrasty shots with good depth of field in medium format (or any format) is to put your $52,000 camera on a good tripod.


I also shot a number of studio portraits with the Phase One system.  It was very good and the files were nice to work with.  Again, I kept the heavy camera on a stout tripod and shot at lower ISOs.  Something like ISO 80 or 100.  So, since the files are amazing and big (raising the bar?)  do all pros shoot with these kinds of cameras?  Not at all.  The smart ones consider the final destination for their files and use the tools that will do the job.  Even an iPhone can work in a pinch.  The different tools exist for different applications.  And sometimes they exist because we want choices.  We want  to break from the formulaic.  That's what moves the vision thing forward.