Walking back a commitment to digital imaging.

The latest Photokina and the showing of new product from the makers of medium format digital gear started some discussions around the web on just how different current medium format digital cameras are from 35mm sized digital cameras. And that led, on most of the forums that deal with the arcane world of cameras costing over $10,000 to a rather logical discussion of just what might be the differentiators between the current state of MF digital and all the more "plebeian" format such as m4:3, APS-C and 24x36.

Here's how I parse it all: Until the launch of the Nikon D800 the medium format market dominated the highest image quality tier because of the enormous resolution advantages and the true 14 or 16 bit depth per channel. Holding the line at 6um pixel sizes also yielded advantages in overall dynamic range. There was also the presumption (or prejudice) that CCD sensors looked better than CMOS sensors and all of the MF digital backs and cameras used CCD sensors.

When Nikon (Sony) showed up with the 36 megapixel chip and it turned out to be really, really good it naturally eroded a lot of the imaging quality advantages.  Now the MF crowd are starting to source CMOS sensors to answer two of the vexing issues facing MF camera users: 1. Being able to accurately focus the systems, via live view and getting meaningful previews. So now the perceived advantages of the CCD sensors will be eliminated as well (holy homogenization!).

Where that leaves most medium format digital users who are in the financial "nose bleed" section is with camera backs of about 40 megapixels with a total sensor geometry that's about 50% bigger than a competing 24 by 36mm sensor.

None of that really matters to me. The thing I want when I look to medium format is that wonderful size different that we had between 56 by 56mm film and 24 by 36mm film.  Being fractionally bigger doesn't convey the optical difference in depth of field or rate of focus fall off the way X times bigger does.  What's the difference in surface area? How about 864 versus 3136? Roughly a 4:1 difference.  The difference between a Leica S sensor and a Nikon/Canon/Sony sensor? Roughly 1:1.5.  Hmmmm.

In the old days of film we came to MF for the resolving power but we stayed for the smoother tonal transitions and the smoother, more elegant and faster transitions between in and out of focus.  
And to a large extent that's one of the critical looks that's been missing from the tool box/ammunition dump of expressive photography since the early part of the century. We throw aesthetics out when we chose mindless convenience.

( Sarcasm alert: Yes, I'm sure you can put a fast lens on the front of your small digital camera and emulate the look of an older, square format camera with a long lens exactly..... )

Some of my photographer friends have been mystified by my acquisition of two nearly brand new Hasselblad 500 series cameras this year and I am sure they will be equally mystified by my acquisition of a lightly used 180mm f4 Zeiss Sonnar but I'm here to tell you that the look is different. At least it is to me and it's my pervasive sense of reality that I have to deal with, not anyone else's.

I actually did a private portrait session recently for a client who also thinks they can see the difference. While I'm sure it's a tiny niche market I'm equally sure that portraits done on full frame, medium format film can be a profitable niche in higher end markets. The more things are automated the more it seems that people are drawn to original works with mature and archival materials.  I guess we'll see we'll see what the market will bear.

The image above was done years ago with a Hasselblad ELX and a 180mm Sonnar f4. It was a very sharp and flare free lens that used to cost an arm and a leg. It can now be had for less than the price of a small sensor camera body. I go both ways. I have a Sony Nex system and I've used so many different professional and quasi professional digital systems that I could have saved the money and shot everything on film for the last 12 years. 

Digital has it's place. It's good for most stuff. But there are areas in which the bigger film size of 6x6 has clear aesthetic advantages to me. And if we're trying to market images without compromise why wouldn't I want to be able to work with the tools that match one vision? After all, someone has to work in that last 5%. (Remember all that stuff about "raising one's game?).

Staying focused on the work.

I think one of the interesting aspects of modern life is the push to turn everything we do into experiential entertainment and "group participation" exercises. You see it everywhere. In the 1970's we ran for exercise, now we run to participate in 5k's, 10k's, mini-triathalons and charity events of all stripe. It's not enough to own a cool car anymore, now you have to belong to a car club and write about your car on a forum.  As a working photographer it's the path of least resistance to do a workshop, a photo walk, a forum chat or work on your brand (whatever that means...). All of those things are generally focused on becoming more popular or more integrated with other photographers than they are focused on getting more work or doing more art.

The real work of all photographers is to do their work but being surrounded by other photographers slows down the process and dilutes most photographers' focus on their own individual point of view. Coffee and conversations about cool gear seem more fun than trudging around alone, looking for your kind of subjects or building a collection of images. Teaching workshops is a two fold reward equation. As a photographer you are getting paid for your efforts which is more and more necessary for people who are unable to move their shooting careers forward with real clients. But there is also the emotional reward of feeling wanted or needed by eager students. It can seem like a validation of your worth as a photographer.  

Likewise, frequent photo gatherings, be they workshops, coffees, photo walks, lectures and gallery visits also help people feel connected and as though they are learning more about their art, and moving their game forward.  In a sense the fully engaged workshopographer and his student counterpart have made a separate social activity of the idea of photography.  And it's a universe in which everyone seems to win and everyone gets a trophy for playing.

But it has little to do with the actual process of creating great photography or getting paid for it. 

Good photography comes from pursuing good pictures, not pursuing good reviews from non-professionals. But it's so easy to get sidetracked by the comfort and inclusion of the social process. Of the entertainment side of photography. And it's newest entertainment outlet, the stage show.

I feel it every time I'm asked to give a talk about some aspect of photography. Speaking about LED lights is not something that moves my creative vision for photography forward. Nor is talking about small flashes or electronic viewfinders. I'm repeating what I already know over and over again and many times to the same audiences. While fewer people would know who I am it would be more productive for my art to spend that time working on the work.

As a working professional and aspiring artist there are two groups of people I do need to surround myself with in order to be successful and neither group includes other photographers. One group is clients. Not workshop clients (unless I plan on changing careers, like so many of my peers, and start "teaching" full time. Oh crap, let's be honest. Entertaining full time ) A working photographer needs real clients. These are the owners of businesses, the marketing directors of corporations, the creative departments of advertising and public relations agencies and other people who need, as part of their jobs or the promotions of their businesses, to contract for the creation of images.  These are the people who license our work for money.

The last four years has been hard sledding for many commercial and editorial photographers but there is work out there. Magazines still publish. Products still launch. Press releases still go out and websites still get built-----a lot. But it's been harder than before to compete. The low hanging fruit got picked a while ago.  To many teaching a workshop or giving a speech or guiding a tour of wannabe wild life photographers seemed like a bright spot for previously working photographers in the midst of a cloudy business forecast. But, if you want to do advertising photography you have to find clients who will pay your invoices.  And if you want to lecture about current practices in commercial photography you pretty much have to be doing it contemporaneously.

Your business of licensing images depends on non-photographers being a large part of your universe. And it's their language you need to master. Not the language of the teacher.

Likewise, writing books for other photographers might be a great full time job for a writer who is keenly interested in photography but I think it's a sidetrack for someone whose life is about making great images. While sharing your knowledge, in books, about lighting, composition and even inspiration can return income it's nowhere near the income stream that one derives from successfully participating in advertising and commercial photography if you are able to compete. My books don't speak to my core audience (see: ad agencies and business, above) they speak to other working photographers and people with a keen interest in photography.  As such they do nothing to leverage my interface with my primary audience but they do create momentum that pushes me to do social marketing and blogging to effectively transform them into a profit stream which validates the time I spent on the books. It just doesn't move forward the actual work at the core of my vocation and avocation. 

I don't regret the writing because on several levels it sustained my interests and aided me financially during an altogether bleak period for the commercial arts. But I am ever cognizant that the book publishing process retarded my personal momentum in photographing for myself and it took time away that would have been well spent pursuing the kind of clients who represent my core business.

The other other group I need to access in order to continue to have real success as a photographer are gallery owners and curators. If you make the presumption (and who doesn't?) that your personal work has value you need a conduit to buyers who would want to acquire prints for collections and the decoration of their homes and offices. The gatekeepers to the real money in this field are the gallery owners and curators. Every jovial afternoon spent with the local camera club traipsing around "mentoring" amateurs and feeling wanted and needed by receptive and welcoming photographers is one less slot of time to spend researching and meeting with people who can move your career forward in a different way.

When you become ancient and you are wearing your trousers up under your armpits and combing what little is left of your hair over the bald spot on your shiny head you will still be able to work your camera and pursue your vision. But you will no longer be on the highly transitory "A" list for the next generation of camera buffs looking for a charismatic teacher who will lead them out of darkness and into strobism, one light-ism, zone-ism, and all the other offshoots of  the photo entertainment industry.

Better to make art and make the connections to sell art, and the connections to sell to commercial clients, right now so that you can afford to enjoy your photography on your own terms as you head to your dotage.

Staying focused on the core requirements of your commercial work means identifying the best markets for your work and connecting with as many members of those markets as you possibly can. Money is the reward for properly connecting with this market, not the adoration of your peer group.

Staying focused as an artist is harder. It's harder because it's not collaborative. It's not about consensus and it's not done in a group, jockeying to get a shot of the same subject from a slightly different angle. It means spending time alone coming to grips with what visual nutrition sustains you. It means spending time honing your craft. It means time spent actually doing the work. If you are a portrait artist it means time spent finding just the right subjects and convincing them to willingly bend to your ideas of what a portrait means. If you are a landscape photographer it means getting up early to get where you need to be when the light is right, and being willing to return to a spot again and again until the light is right.

If you work in the street it means working up the courage to engage people and jump on chance. Which means you have to be open and ready for chances, not engaged in a heartfelt discussion of the edge sharpness of the latest boutique optique.

But if you really want to do the art or anything it means you have to be committed to spend the time to work all the way through the process. If a print is your final  espressive product then you work from idea all the way through to the print and beyond. And at each step you have the choice of doing it your own way or getting all collaborative and share-y.  No great art is ever done by committee. No great art is a result of sharing with your team. And no great art can be learned, wholesale, from your mentor of the week or that class on creative imaging you take on the cruise ship.

The inspiration comes from many avenues but the realization comes solely from the artist. Staying focused makes the art focused. Too much discussion with peers and playmates during the gestation process just dilutes the original inspiration and makes it more group accessible. It's the latest creative battle: How to make art that you love while resisting the lure of being about art for entertainment's sake.

I'm not saying the equation needs to be all or nothing but I think we've become like aspiring film makers who've been to way too many movies. Spent too long on the learning curve.  We've seen every great film ever made and make time to watch movies almost continuously and, as a result, we never have time to make our movies....

That's okay if you are a movie critic but it's tough sledding if you really want to produce your own film.

I guess the real key is moderation.  Moderation in everything except the creation of your art....


Coming back to the blog after a long and dusty trail of jobs.

I started working on projects last week and haven't slowed down since. I've learned that post production takes about 50% more than the amount of time it takes to actually shoot something. I've re-learned that camera bags get heavy by the end of the day. I've learned that no matter how long you've been doing this and how lofty the client there's always someone at an event who thinks you're the same thing as the party photographer at the frat house; who demands, in that imperious sort of voice saved for communicating with fast food cashiers and professionals from the plumbing and pest control industries, that you immediately follow them and photograph said order giver and her friend, Missy. Missy being too important to walk across the room...

If you've read the blog before you probably know that I was out this week photographing a conference at a conference center west of Austin. We started packing on Saturday night. The first wave of packing is to make a list of everything you want to bring.  My list included a Sony a77 camera, a Sony a57 camera, a 16-50mm 2.8 lens, a 70-200mm lens, a 24-85mm cheapo lens, six sixteen gigabyte SD cards, two extra batteries for each camera. One Sony HVL- a58ef flash unit with two extra sets of batteries. One Leitz monopod. One Leitz Tiltall tripod. Some Stride peppermint gum and an iPad. As an afterthought I added a small 160 LED panel and an extra battery for that.

Before I pack everything into a Domke shoulder bag I put everything on a table, pull all the batteries and put them all on chargers. I like to make sure all the batteries have a fresh charge. I must be doing something right with my Sony camera batteries because I'm routinely getting well over 1,000 shots in each camera, per battery.

Sunday was an easy slide into the job. My house is about four miles from the venue and the first part of the conference was a reception and dinner on Sunday night. I arrived at 6pm for a 7pm start. The dinner and reception were held in a large pavilion but the show crew was busy in the main auditorium, setting up lights, sound and staging. I stopped by there first as the event company is one I've worked with in five countries and for over twenty years. They are also based in Austin. I chatted with the show director and dumped the monopod and tripod in safe place behind the curtain wall since I wouldn't really need them until the next morning.

The staging was relatively simple. The had two ten by fifteen foot screens, one on either side of the main stage. The screens would be part of a two camera I-mag set up and the show would cut between live stage shots and charts, graphs and other infographics during panel discussions and lectures.

I took a few minutes to talk with the lighting designer who let me know that the front lights (the lights that wash the people on stage) would be  unfiltered tungsten. I said that would be great and I was happy I'd be able to set the camera WB at tungsten and be done with it.  He burst my bubble and told me they'd be dimming them to 75%. I concentrated for a minute, trying to channel the information I once read in my Kodak Photo Data Guide from 1978. It came to me. The 25% reduction would drop the color temperature to around 2900k and it's possible that the light would add .05cc's of green.  Simple enough setting with the Sony cameras.

I headed down to the dinner/reception location and got myself set. One camera dialed in with a 16-50mm fast zoom for use with flash and the other set up to do available light and also some work with a small LED panel.

I've shot corporate events for years and I'm always reminding myself that event planners want to have a record of all their hard work. That means shooting all the different flower arrangements, table decor and any extra touches they've put into a party or dinner. It's good to do this before the guests start to show up or, invariably, you'll be trying to shoot as people walk in and out of your backgrounds.

If there's an ice sculpture it's a good idea to get it shot early.  That dolphin is going to look like a jelly fish later on....

Everyone gets cranked up at a different speed when doing event work. No two photographers I've watched do it the same way. I like to stand around and just observe until at least the first fifty or sixty people show up. I like to the first arrivals get their choice of alcohol and start drinking before I start walking around the crowd shooting. It's like warming up a car engine on a chilly morning.

I like to shoot real candid photographs. I don't mind shooting pairs and trios and foursomes but I'd rather slink through the crowds, stalk the beautiful people and try to be as anonymous as possible. Works for some crowds and not for others.  While the sun set outside I was trying to work fast and get nice blends of on camera flash and exterior ambient light.

The Pavilion sits up on a hill and is surrounded on three sides by one of the nicest golf courses in central Texas.  The pavilion has a wide porch  on those three sides and people took advantage of the unusually temperate day to loll about outside. I took the opportunity to substitute the small LED panel in place of the typical flash. The panel has a control dial that allows the unit to be turned up to full power or all the way down in a smooth and continuous arc. I set the Sony a57 to 3200 ISO, opened up the 16-50mm lens to f3.5 and set the WB to AWB. My goal was to use the dial on the light to create an amount of front light that just barely overpowered the ambient light. I was in manual exposure and I worked the shutter speed dial as the daylight dropped.  Since the depth of field was limited by the f-stop I shot more to make sure I had "keepers."

It worked pretty well but eventually I got tired of working nearly wide open on the lens and switched back to the flash for small groups.  When the host got up on the small stage to welcome everyone I used the LEDs as my main light there as well.  It's a different way of working. Some things are better than with flash and some are worse. If I had been shooting advertising and had been able to set up the shots and work on a tripod it would have been a wonderful style to shoot because it's so easy to see the effect as you are shooting.

The evening's festivities wound down around 9:30 and I headed back home to recharge two batteries and get ready for the long Monday. When I hit the studio on my way into the house I checked e-mail and noticed two different client messages. Both needed some files generated and retouched ASAP and I figured I'd better just sit down right then and knock them out instead of letting it go into the week.

While I worked on the files on one computer I downloaded the evening's memory cards on a second computer, using Lightroom 4.1. I renamed the files and wrote them to two different hard drives. Once the files were downloaded I put the memory cards into a small, manilla envelope and wrote the job name and creation date on it and put the envelope into the job file for safe keeping. This way, even if both hard drives were fried by lightning or capitulated to some more arcane disaster I'd still have the originals to go back to.  It's standard procedure around here now that the cost of SD memory has dropped to almost zero.

I'll put the cards back into service as soon as the job is completed, the clients have multiple DVD copies and I've burned a set or two for myself.  When I finish making conversions from the raw files (after the job is backed up) I'll dump the raw files and keep only the final high res jpegs. On a job like this nearly all the uses will be in electronic media and 3200 original raw files from cameras that shoot 16-24 megapixels is just too much to store for posterity.

I hung a navy blue poplin suit, white shirt and thin black tie on my closet door, took a shower and hit the rack.

Ben and I were up Monday morning at 6am. Pretty standard this year for weekdays. I delivered Ben to cross country practice and headed back to the studio to pack up and eat a quick breakfast. I've gotten into the habit of eating plain Greek yogurt with a fistful of walnuts and a little drizzle of local honey on top.

I got the last close in parking space at the conference center and was on the show floor with the director and client at 7:15 am.  We spent a half hour shooting various "stage looks" and lighting designs for everyone's portfolios.  The main doors for the 350-400 attendees opened at 8 am and the conference was scheduled to start at 8:30 am. I staked out a place at the table that faced center stage, put down my camera back and then headed to the atrium area just outside the ballroom to grab coffee and an apple.

The conference started at 8:30 on dot and we spent the entire day, from 8:30 am to 6:30 pm, divided between individual speakers and panel sessions. I keep two cameras and two lenses with me and the monopod. I shove a couple extra batteries in my pockets along with two extra memory cards. Part of the job is to shoot various angles and magnifications of each speaker and of each panel member as they speak on stage.  This requires me to move around a bit and I always try to time my moves with slide changes on the big screens or audience laughter or responses.

I'll kneel down next to the the side of the stage to stack up panelists with a bit of compression using the longer lens and I shoot corner angle shots of the full stage at the widest angle for a little forced optical drama. You have to have a certain balance. You don't want to shoot so many images of each person that your wading through and endless sea of big, fat raw files but, at the same time you are covering live performances and you're trying to catch moments where people looked engaged and focused and they are not making funny expressions with their eyes or their mouths.  Some people look natural pretty much all the time and some people have faces that are constantly in motion-----and not always in a good way.  You get a rhythm over time.

There's a break every two hours. At the morning break there's always coffee and pastries and fresh fruit and bagels. The next big break is a seated lunch in the conference center's elegant restaurant.
And then the afternoon is broken up with several more breaks. The favorite is generally the one with all the ice cream treats and fun cookies.

I try to pay attention to the content of the show but I am just a small business person and most of the jargon, acronyms and subject matter is way over my head. The distinguished speaker from the Deutsche Bank spoke better english than most people I know but he might as well have been speaking German for all the good it would do me. Anybody else not know what a "Non-Agency RMBI" is?  Oh well.

After the last session (Champagne served during the panel debate...) everyone headed back into the atrium for yet another "heavy hors d'oeuvres and cocktails" reception before crawling into the town cars and limousines that whisked the attendees off to various restaurants across town.

I tossed the hardware back into the bag, hoisted it onto my shoulder and headed back to my car. Back at the studio I answered e-mail while backing up  Monday's covey of memory cards and writing out yet another envelope for temporary storage in the job folder.

Tuesday was a repeat of Monday. And I guess I should mention that in the between times between sessions, during lunches and breaks, I am trying to get photographs that show people networking and building business relationships. I get my best stuff on the last day of most conferences because people have had enough time to get acclimated to my presence and become well bored by the whole idea of that novelty of the 20th century, documentary photography.

But I'm also constantly on the prowl for little visual tidbits that I take just for myself. The way a man pours himself coffee, the over the top shoes worn by the remarkably good looking woman who just happens to be the youngest of the attendees, the way the swivel chair bases all line up. It's fun and it's generally what I remember most from the many conferences I've shot. The way the key lime pie looked on it's white china plate was more alluring than the keynote speaker at a show in San Francisco.  The flowers and the sky, smashed together with a 15mm lens was more fun than the famous band at another outdoor venue and, of course, the woman with the stunning eyes trumped presidents and CEO's for pure magnetic attraction.

We wrap up around 6:30 pm on Tues. night and I head home to shove the last of the memory cards into the system. The suits are still fresh so I hang them up. The shirts get in the bag that goes to the dry cleaners. I check my black tie for food spots and count myself lucky once again. I kick off the Cole Haans and relax with the family as the cards drone on and spit their files onto the spinning platters of our reality.  Before I head to bed I go out and transfer the SD cards into yet another envelope for safe keeping.

The show is over but the work isn't done.

Weds. morning was set aside for two bid meetings, back-to-back. I know I'm just the "invited guest" to round out a three way for one of them but I think I have a good shot at the other job because it's largely portraits in my style and it's an art buyer I've worked with.

Played with the dog for an hour and then headed to Esther's Follies for an absolutely fun assignment. Esther's Follies is a live cabaret/theater that does political comedy, topical comedy (think: Honey Boo Boo meets Snooki) and magic. Every year I get a call to come in for an afternoon and shoot a non-stop, hyper photo shoot to generate advertising images for the next year.  We were originally booked for last Weds. but you'll remember that was the day I damaged my poor back and, as a consequence, I had to re-schedule.

We did the shoot the same way we do our running shoots for Zachary Scott Theater. They run through the acts and I shoot like crazy.  I did bring along four Elinchrom monolights and a bunch of Varistar umbrellas and we did use them for some stuff but most of the images were done with the stage lighting and a follow spot.  I leaned heavily on a pair of Sony a57's because the file size is just right in raw, they have really clean 800 ISO and very satisfactory 1600 ISO and they're nice and light.  I used a 16-50mm on one and an 85mm 2.8 on the other.

The lighting was high enough to be able to shoot 1/250th of a second at f5.0 and the camera locked focus at least as well as my Canon 5D mk2 ever did. We did that all afternoon and then I headed back to the studio to go through the same routine I've already written about above: Ingest through lightroom to two HD's, pull the SD cards and put em in a job jacket until I've finished post processing and burned disks for myself and the client.

Quick shower, change of clothes and back out the front door to a public relations company party. Their speaker/guest of honor was a woman astronaut who was part of the crew of the first successful, commercial spaceflight and space station docking.  She grew up in Iran and emigrated to the U.S. with her family when she was 16. A great argument for digging in and doing your math and engineering courses. The party lasted all the way through the debates, sparring me all that.  Home, see family, pay bills, sleep.

So now it's Thurs. and I can't put off the post processing of the two jobs any longer.  I drop Ben off at cross country at 6:30 am, grab  coffee and some Greek Yogurt with walnuts and then head to the studio for a marathon of post. I started with the Esther's Follies images first because it's a smaller job and it's visual candy. The routine is to open up the folder in Library mode and start tossing out stuff that doesn't work. Blinks, blurs and bazingas. I grind it down from 1300 images to about 700 images. Then I switch to the develop  module and start color correcting and contrast correcting the raw files. I batch as many as I can.

Every hour on the hour I get up to stretch my back, throw the tennis ball in the side yard for the dog or make a cup of tea. In three hours I'm finished with that job and I push "process" and convert the files to highest res Jpegs, color space= sRGB.  That's the way my client likes em. We deliver what our clients like.  So now those files are processed but not yet burned to the disks. The SD cards stay in their envelopes and I move on to the big conference job.

Whoa!!! That's Huge!!! I forgot that I ended up shooting about 3800 raw files. Damn. That's too many. But there's no way to get through them if you don't start on em. Into library mode to start winnowing down. If I find an expression I like I just keep one out of every three similar files. I edit until lunch and I'm less than a third of the way through. The dog is helping me. She's sleeping on her studio dog bed and occasionally she gets up, comes over and licks my hand and then growls at the screen. I instantly delete anything at which she growls.

I take a break around 4pm to pick Ben up from school and then I get right back to it. I've lost me assistant editor. The dog has decided that hanging with Ben and begging for treats beats the hell out of grinding out work with the pack leader. It's lonely at the top.

As Belinda pulls into the driveway from work around 6:30 pm I've just finished my final edits and color corrections. Luckily, with the pre-chimping capabilities of the Sony EVF's I'm already right in the ball park on 90 % of the files. That certainly saved me a couple hours, at least.

I winnowed down 3800 files to something like 2600 files and they've been converting since around 6:30. Judging by the progress bar I've got about an hour or so to go.  That's as much time and energy as I want to spend on everything today. Ben needs some help with calculus and physics and Belinda reminded me that it's my turn to do the dishes. The dog reminded me that she really likes walking the neighborhood after dark----she loves to smell the deer and armadillos.

Tomorrow I'm scouting a spa for a shoot next week but as soon as I get home I'll be burning DVD's in three different computers. Then I have to do the billing (still have some stragglers from last week to bill) and then I get to deliver the jobs to my clients. My goal is to have everything out of my hair by the end of the day Friday. Barring any glitches we're right on target.

My big observations from these last few days: 16 megapixel raw files trump the crap out of 24 megapixels for overall processing efficiency.  Even with i7 processors this stuff takes time. The ISO performance of the a57 is great. What noise there is tastes like dark, monochrome film noise and not the color splotchy kaleidoscope that drives people nuts.  I even went to 6400 on a few of the reception images and I'm happy to deliver them. Used at less that full screen they are quite good.

In better light the a77 files are great. But for $600 the a57 is a very good deal and a very good work tool.  With both cameras the electronic first shutter curtain and the stationary mirror both make the cameras much quieter in use than their flippy mirror poorer cousins.  Much better for any conference use than the Canon 1DS mk2 I used for some of the same conference last year....

The 16-50mm 2.8 Sony zoom lens is flawless. I wish it was 16-60mm but it is what it is. I would buy it again in a heart beat.

The 70-200mm 2.8 is just as good as the Nikon and Canon counterparts (yes, I have used all three) and it's just as heavy and burdensome as it's lofty associates as well. But the images are wonder.

The batteries in both cameras lasted twice as long as I thought they would and that made me very happy.  The image stabilization also worked very well with both lenses.  I still feel more comfy with the 70/200 on a monopod but that may just be a prejudice I picked up from the days before I.S.

I felt oddly disconnected from the blog and yet I just didn't have the energy to write anything cogent or interesting while I was so immersed. We've already booked up three days next week so I hope to get some writing done this weekend.

Lots to discuss. Hope you've had a good week and that this sheds some light on the glamorous life of a freelance content creator.


Photographing little slices of Texas.

Sony a77 with 85mm 2.8 Sony DT lens.

I had a wonderful time at the grand opening party for the newest addition (the Topfer Theatre) at the Zachary Theatre complex. We were entertained by Tony Award winner, Brian Stokes Mitchell, treated to open bars and fed lavishly by some of Austin's finest chefs. Today I'm off to shoot the opening reception of a very interesting conference and, knowing both the client and the venue, I'm sure I'll be well fed there as well. Social Photographers; as long as we stay busy and booked we'll never have to pay for dinner again... :-)

The image above is part of the signage at the Nutty Brown CafĂ©, out near Dripping Springs, Tx. I shot it as an afterthought to a job. I'm very please to have the image because it reminds me of growing up in Texas.  Back when the state seemed to be all about cowboys, oil and cattle. Now it's all about business, tech and entertainment. Life changes. It's always good to have a front row seat. That's one of the perks of being a photographer.

The image was made with a Sony a77 camera and a Sony 85mm 2.8 DT lens. 

"We've got miles and miles of Texas....."  -Asleep at the Wheel.

Monday and Tues. I continue at the conference and Weds. we're shooting some advertising materials for Esther's Follies. Weds. evening is another short event and Thurs.& Friday are all about getting back in the pool and catching up on the post processing. A week of fun.

But that means that blog entries might be a bit thin on the ground.  There are over 1200 previous entries you could catch up on.......Just keep scrolling down.


Why camera selection has become....meaningless.

fun at the Pecan St. Festival. Today.

There's a point at which the technology in nearly every industry gets (for want of a better word) homogenized. It's the point at which everything you consider buying in that industry's category works as well as everything else and you're buying decision is relegated to trim, design and specific feature sets rather than reliability, performance and technical parity with competing brands. Consider broad categories like cars, sound equipment and food processors.  Or scanners or inkjet printers. 

In the early days of each category you were rewarded for diligent research and wise choices. If you did your homework you ended up with a car that was reliable and safe. If you shopped and listened intently you'd end up with a sound system that was faithful to the recordings and didn't introduce pain into the listening stream. Intensive evaluations of the charts in Consumer Reports might have led you to a food processor that sliced, diced and mixed perfectly and lasted decades and if you listened well to the earliest adopters of ink jet printers you would either have (rightfully) decided not to enter the fray, early on, or, if you did partake you may at least have saved yourself from buying a clogging money pit of an "art machine."

Now, in each of those fields the choices have largely homogenized. All cars are more or less reliable for about 100k miles and nearly all provide an equivalent feel and performance in plodding rush  hour traffic or cruising the nation's highways at 55 mph. Choose a Honda or a Ford or a Kia or a VW and chances are good that you'll have satisfaction for the first four years of your car owning experience.

A current Canon, Epson or HP printer will print faithful images and, for the most part, dodge the expensive to clear head clogs of yesteryear.

When Sony produced the now ubiquitous 16 megapixels APS-C imaging sensor that is now in nearly all of the mid-range DSLRs and most DSLTs they effectively (and amazingly) homogenized that entire market. Now they'll do the same with the full frame market by offering a choice of 36 and 24 megapixel sensors that will also become omnipresent. While it's true that each camera maker's iteration will have some differences in noise and color performance due to processing decisions the underlying engine will be largely the same and each participant will have the opportunity to take full advantage of the basic infrastructure to make high quality files.

According to a recent review by DP Review the $600 Sony a57 is competitive, in terms of image quality and noise performance with the Nikon D7000, the Pentax Kr5 and a bit ahead of the latest Canon 18 megapixel versions.  

While it remains to be tested we can safely assume that the performance of the 24 megapixel sensors in the Sony a99 and the Nikon 600D will be roughly equivalent as well.

At this point, when it comes to image quality, it all comes down to lens choice. And we have a game changer in that sector as well. Independent lenses makers are stepping in and offering amazingly good lenses that are, for all intents and purposes, cross platform.  Sigma introduced two lenses this year that are making waves for micro 4:3 users and Nex users alike. The Sigma 19mm and 30mm 2.8 are, by most accounts, remarkably sharp and defect free lenses and they set a new standard by pushing prices downward. Each is available for less than $200.

The Sigma 50mm 1.4 is widely thought to be the best fast 50mm on the market for the Sony, Nikon and Canon cameras.  Zeiss is also offering a complete, cross platform product strategy which makes the choice of camera body less dependent on the glass offerings of the major camera companies.

This is not to say that there won't always be outliers in the field. The Fuji faux rangefinder line exists because people are willing to pay more for design and form factor.  In a way this is an extension of the Apple design strategy.  Nikon and Canon are operating like the Dells and HPs of the world did five to ten years ago. They were selling hardware strategies based around the speeds and feeds of the physical technology. They got killed because someone else paid more attention to making products that felt and looked right even if many (most) of the internal components are largely the same. That's a benefit of good design = higher margins and more customer differentiation.

If you look at the product side of digital photography in a new way you'll see that the homogenization brings two side effects. It should create a continued push down on pricing of new cameras and, at the same time it should create a drive to better design and feature sets, beyond the sensor, to capture new markets and retain customers.

In the traditional camera field camera makers lock in their customers with unique lens mounts. While the mounts are accessible to third party lens makers they are not interchangeable between Sony's Alpha DSLT line, Nikon, Canon, Pentax or Samsung.  But the world of photography product marketing changed profoundly when Olympus, Panasonic, Leica and other signatories to the micro 4:3rds lens mount standard came together to create a semi-open standard. Users could keep their existing optics from just about any maker and use them interchangeably on any of the m4:3 camera systems.  An Olympus 45mm 1.8 works equally well on a Panasonic GH3.  A Leica/Panasonic 25mm 1.4 works equally well on an OMD. The smaller lens mount of the m4:3 cameras and the Sony Nex cameras, along with the much shorter register between lens mount and sensor in each of these systems means that almost any lens from the older Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony/Minolta catalogs can be used on these cameras with a wide range of inexpensive adapters.

And the best Nikon lenses can, with the right adapter, be used on Canon's bodies.  This changes the lock in quotient profoundly.  

Another thing that's going to bring strange market forces to bear on the big two (Canon and Nikon) as well as the next three (Sony, Pentax and Samsung) is something that's already happening in the video end of the business. There Zeiss and other specialty lens makers are creating lens systems that can be used on different mounts. It's only a matter of time until all third party lens makers harken back to something like the Tamron Adaptall lens system that emerged in the 1970's and allowed users to buy the lenses they wanted only one time and then to buy adapters to use the same lenses on new systems if the consumer migrated from their previous systems.

In the new paradigm you would cherry pick your lenses first and then buy the adapters you needed to work with the camera with which you are currently smitten.  Suppose you started with a Nikon D-Something and you were pretty darn happy with its performance and image quality. You bought a Zeiss trio of lenses that constitute the lenses that really define your personal style.  And then you buy a set of Nikon adapters for them.  Somewhere along the line a friend hands you a Sony a99 body to look through and in a flash you have an epiphany and discover for yourself just how incredible, efficient and effective a really brilliant EVF based camera can be. Easy fix. 

You sell the Nikon body back into the very efficient used market (along with the converters) and you buy a Sony a99 and a new set of adapters. The lenses you have come to love, and more importantly, understand, follow along with you and bring the utility of your visual training with your prized focal lengths to a newer and better system.  And when Nikon finally gets the message from the future and introduces a pro camera with a 4 million pixel EVF it's just as effortless to switch back.

And since Sony makes the sensors for both you will largely make your decision on these kinds of features rather than photonic performance.  Which may mean that we actually need to change systems far less often.

Isn't this essentially what Hasselblad said to the public when they showcased their Lunar camera collection to the public in Photokina?  They basically said, "Okay, this sensor and imaging pipeline is more than good enough. Soon it will be in a large number of cameras. We will use it but we will add value by creating a design aesthetic that some will perceive as a tremendous attraction."  In effect Hasselblad said, "We will Apple the Nex."  Only they were thinking in terms of multiples of margin instead of percentages.

By using an ostensibly open lens mount they opened the way to re-badge lenses not only from Sony but from other makers as well. It's open systems run wild.  The down side for consumers is the tendency for homogenization and consolidation to eliminate seemingly eccentric other options.

And that, in a nutshell, is what Sony's 36 megapixel sensor is doing to the medium format digital market.  We now have a sensor that matches (and in many cases exceeds) the performance in nearly all the sensors in medium format and, for the first time, lays bare the little fib that keeps MFD alive = that the bigger sensors give a decidedly different image rendering.

The biggest current MFD sensor out there is slightly smaller than the 6x4.5 cameras that defined the smallest boundary of medium format in the older, film days. Most of the sensors are quite a bit smaller than that with the Leica S dimensions being only 50% larger than the 35mm frame. By comparison film images from a square Hasselblad negative or chrome are four TIMES larger.  That overwhelming difference in size is the main and most critical factor in making MF look so much different than 35mm. The obscuring of this fact over the last 15 years has been largely based on the fact that, pre- Nikon D800e, the only way to get a massive amount of data was through medium format digital.

When professional reviewers and photographers realized that the D800e created largely a condition of parity with all by the most expensive of MF cameras the industry was granted permission to also homogenize the high end of the market.  At a certain point I feel almost certain that we'll all end up shooting variants of a standard 35mm full frame sensor.  There will be differentiators in style, body features, software features, etc. but not in sensor geometry. When we reach that state (three years??) we'll accelerate the homogenization of lenses as well since everyone will be aiming for the same target in a market that expands and is contracting simultaneously. 

Once we're all shooting with the same sensor geometries and with the same lens choices and with the same bayer pattern overlays the inevitable next step is the homogenization of vision.  When everyone has a finish hammer everything looks like the same nail.

The wide spread use of food processors drove artistic chefs back into a rediscovery of hand skills and exquisitely made knives. The pendular swing was realized.

And once cameras are rationalized and made as interchangeable as different brands of whole milk it will be the crazy people who jump back to big film or crazy little cameras that will drive the next revolutionary capitulation of the camera market.

All the little cameras you see announced are like little weather balloons being sent aloft. How many features will we be willing to lose to hit a price point? How similar can cameras become before we are unable to differentiate them in advertising? How long can we sell the idea of hierarchic lens performance when everything is diffraction limited beyond f5.6? 

The herd loves homogenization because it means we're all in this together. The artist hates homogenization because it means the tools for a unique expression of unique vision are lost.  And it's the artist that will drive the next re-imagining of photographic tools.  And they hate it even more precisely because it does seem to mean that we're all in this together.

I love the Sony's new cameras for their EVFs but I dislike the whole genre for robbing me of square aspect ratios, for forcing me to wade through CMOS color and for making all of the lens choices seem the same.

I hate the Hasselblad 503 CX because it costs me real cash money every time I use it but I love it for giving me a format that matches my vision, a choice of colors and renditions and for making all of the lens choices seem different (and wonderous).

Where will it all stop?  Nowhere and never. You just have to choose what and how you want to see right now and take care of business. That's all we ever could do.  But we had more real choices in the past. Now we are constrained by what industry can pull off silicon wafers. What a lame way for art to exist...


Big conference starts Sunday. What am I packing? What am I taking?

Every Fall, about this time, I get hired to provide photographic coverage of a very cool conference. People come from all over the world to spend three days discussing the state of the real estate economy on a global scale and how all the myriad details of growing and falling economies will punish and reward the markets. The conference is fairly small, as conferences go. A total of less than 400 guests but the most of the guests and all of the panelists and speakers are what we in the USA would call, heavy hitters. Billionaire investors, hedge fund managers, government officials and representatives from some of the big banks in in North America and Europe. I attend every minute and document everything that looks interesting.

This will be my fourth or fifth year to photograph the conference and each year I've used a different camera system. Last year was Canon's year. The year before was Olympus and the two years before that were Nikon.  This time it's Sony's turn.

A lot of the coverage is in a darkened auditorium and most of the rest is available light work in cocktail receptions, lunches and break out rooms. Since we're always working with low light situations at this show I was hoping that Sony would have an a99 in my hands by now but it was a vain hope. So I've tested everything I currently own and I'm going in light.  And cheap.

I want to use long glass and fast glass and that means I need to be choosing from the SLTs and not the Nex 7 category. The low light capability of the camera is critical so after my low light tests I've decided to go with the a57.  I have one and Ben has one but he won't need his right now because he's at the Pre Nationals Cross Country Invitation in Portland, Ore. till sunday night and then he's swamped for the next few school days----catching up.  He gave me the thumbs up to use his a57 body and a couple extra batteries.

While the a57 shoots a 16 megapixel RAW file it's more than big enough for my client's needs and the smaller (than the a77 ) file will help keep me from loading up lots and lots of SD cards.
I am perfectly satisfied with the camera's noise performance right up to and including ISO 3200 and very comfortable going to 6400 in a pinch.  The camera (according to the testing druids at DP Review and DXOmark) also has class leading dynamic range chops which will help with the contrasty stage light.

I'm going mostly with zoom lenses on this job since I don't want to move around in front of the stage very much.  I'll mostly have the very stellar 16-50mm f2.8 Sony lens on one body and the very good 70-200mm 2.8 G lens on the other body.  I'll bring along my 50mm 1.4 if I want to use something faster or smaller.  Three batteries per camera and a pouch full of 16 gigabyte SD cards for overkill.

I'm going way outside the zone on this show and I'm going to do most of my supplemental lighting with a Fotodiox 312 AS LED panel.  I'll bring along the big Sony flash just in case I get cold feet...  Finally, I'll bring along my old Tiltall tripod just for those overall room shots and long shots from the back of the auditorium.  Not a lot of gear but that's a fun way to work.  I'll spend the real budget on the suits and ties that are mandatory wardrobe. When you hang with the bankers and policy makers it's expected that you'll dress like they do.  I hope my ties haven't gone totally out of fashion.

With a little bit of luck I'll be totally over my combination illness/structural dramatics and ready to make some really fun images of people being smart and saying smart things. Do you think anyone will notice that I'm not using professional cameras? 


Freelancing and calling in sick....

Nothing sucks worse than coming down with whatever sore throat, grungy thing your kid had last week and then throwing your back out while struggling to find the clementine that rolled over by the refrigerator at six o'clock in the morning. Addled with lack of sleep you bend over at the waist to pick up the errant fruit and all of a sudden your lower back goes KAPOW! and you feel like you're never going to walk again.  And that's the easy part. The hard part is rescheduling the shoot you had booked for 2:30 pm at Esther's Follies because you know they've been looking forward to it and I've been looking forward to it and they've had lighting people and actors and magicians booked and ready to go since last week.

If you're a cube pilot or and engineer or a banker you get to pick up the phone and-----call in sick. Someone covers the slack for you and if anyone feels like giving you crap about staying home you can unleash the HR goons on em.  And generally calling in sick means that you still get paid and  still get all the goodies that go with your job, wherever it may be on the totem pole.

Around here everything wants to grind to a halt but once you cancel you can't replace the lost income from today. It's gone like mayonaise left out on that picnic table in the August sun. So I'm getting a friend to help reconfigure my computer so I can work standing up. At least I can try to get those 36 portraits on my to do list that need post production/retouching scheduled and pumped out today.

So, here's the drill:  Blow nose, cringe at back pain, blow nose again, cringe at back pain. Look desperately to see if anyone has any left over pain relievers beyond Tylenol.  Work on file. Repeat.

I can wade through the scratchy throat and the sniffles but feel free to send me your magic cures for lower back pain----the nemesis of working (and aging photographers). I need to work through this one with a certain amount of expediency, I have a three day conference that starts on Sunday and will keep me moving for 12 hours a day and today's shoot, rescheduled for next Weds.

Please don't bother to tell me I need three weeks of bed rest in the Bahamas. My private jet is out for repairs and I can't bear the thought of flying coach...

Seriously, miracle cures?


One of those weekly phone calls that makes you question your career choice...

I was driving home from Maria's Taco Express, where I had a great lunch, when my phone rang. I thought it might be my errant lunch companion who failed to show up so I answered it. The call started out pleasantly enough, it was a woman from a publishing company in another city. She immediately went into the sell mode to tell me "what a wonderful series of books they produce about major cities in the U.S. and, isn't it wonderful?" They're going to do one on Austin.

Well, that's okay with me, I guess, but why was she calling me? "Well, in order to make it a great book about your city it would have to have photographs of stuff, including some food shots from some of our more famous local restaurants. So the publisher asked the restaurants to send in photographs. But here's the problem, the photographs from one restaurant are too small and mushy and they need big, meaty, high res images for their super deluxe, super high quality printed book." And they just kinda think I may have taken the photographs of this wonderful food that they want to put in a wonderful book that might just put Austin on the map as a city. Imagine that. Austin as a famous city. I can see people walking with more spring in their step right now....

I described the image I thought the person on the phone might be interested in and she more or less agreed that it probably was that image. Great, I say. What is your budget for the use of photography (one time) in your beautifully printed book that will put Austin on the map and save us from obscurity?  "Zero.  Ziltch. Nada."

But there are a couple of stumbling blocks to her wishful "free" thinking... The first is that the images were done for a magazine on a one time usage rights agreement. Oh darn, you mean the restaurant didn't get all the rights to my magazine assignment? That damn, pesky copyright law. Then came the "leverage."  "But well, if we don't get the high resolution files to use then we'll just have to pull that restaurant out of our book!!!!"  Oh no!!! This particular restaurant with a two hour wait for a table on week nights, the restaurant that's been here for twenty five years-----all that may crumble if I don't send off my intellectual property, ASAP.

Then why are you calling me? I ask.  "Well, you see, we need a high res version of the image and since you might be the person what took the image we were thinking we might be able to get the high res version from you. Because we need the high res image. See? For this impressive book."

Why didn't you ask the restaurant for a high res image? Isn't that their responsibility? "Well, they like this image but they weren't sure where it came from.... "  So why are you calling me? "Because we need a high resolution version for our book." But you don't have any budget to pay for it?

Now I'm getting a bit feisty. So you're producing a book to make money? "Yes." Your company is in the business of making books for profit? "Yes!"  And the restaurant will get free advertising because it will be in the book? Is that right? Yes!  And so why is the artist of the work the only one who doesn't benefit from the use of the work?  Why is the photographer the only one who isn't getting paid?

"Well, stutter,  I just trying to find out if you have some deal with the restaurant, like they pay you a yearly fee or something so we can use the image...."

But I don't have any business relationship with the restaurant. I own the photograph and I need to be paid if you intend to use it.

And then she asked, "Why are you getting so upset? Is someone you know dying or something?" (actual question...).

And I asked, Do you have any intention of paying to use my photograph?  "NO!" she said ".... .and you've been so unhelpful and mean I'll never call again and if I ever see your name come across my desk I will never use you!!!"

Thank you, I said, because you'd only be calling to see if you could get more stuff for free.

I don't remember who slammed their phone down first. But it never helps my blood pressure to be on either end of a call that's all about getting shit for free.

LED Lighting. My first choice for studio still life projects.

As you may or may not know I wrote a book about LED Lighting for photographers that was published this past Spring. Naively, I expected the book to be the hot seller of the season.  After all, who won't want to read an "edge of your seat" thriller about the promises and perils of the coolest hot, new lighting trend of the decade? Well, as it turns out photographers are more like stamp collectors and model railroad train hobbyists than they are adventurous revolutionaries. While the vast majority of reviews are five stars, and people who've actually read the book love it, most people keep looking for yet another iteration of a book on... How to Make Happy Light with a Battery Powered Flash... (can we all say, "been there, done that. and the t-shirt was lame?).

I've given seven or eight speeches and demonstrations about LED lighting and I guess I'll have to admit that I'm not a fiery on stage evangelist. I think my big marketing mistake was showing off the lights by using live models. People. The average photographer has worked hard to become comfortable shooting family and friends with his reliable electronic flashes and is loathe to learn new tricks if he or she can help it. But, I'd like to try a different tack in both selling my book and the general use of LED lighting------it's the best thing yet for anyone who does still life photography.  No long explanation, rather it's really just a matter or what you see is what you get. Or, what you light is what you get.  Good quality LED panels have never been cheaper, easier to use or more visually reliable. I still believe they are the game changers in the lighting space, going forward.  And with the special secrets revealed only in my book or my two week long, $15,000 workshop you too can learn the.......

I'd like to formally request that, if you have been a long term reader of the blog, you consider ordering a printed copy of the book. Even if you never decide to pull the trigger on purchasing a single lighting panel you'll have the knowledge to at least convincingly attack the whole folly of everyone else's adaptation of LEDs... And you'll make me happier into the bargain. But, if you shoot food, still life or studio work, and especially if you are dipping your toes into the world of DSLR video I think you'll be amazed at how fluid and easy LED lighting can make your jobs.  And, of course, your book club will thank you for introducing the drama and power of LED Lighting: Photographic Techniques for Digital Photographers, to them....

Below is a quick tutorial about using LED lights to photograph an old, folding Kodak camera. It goes like this:  "set up camera. set  up two lights, one on either side. turn on lights. play with positioning until the effect looks good in the viewfinder of your taking camera. Push shutter button.

 An in-depth look at the very complex lighting set up.

By using an EVF endowed camera I was able to pre-chimp the entire shot, from comp to exposure, to color balance, without looking away from the finder.

If you are interested in dipping your big toe into the LED waters and trying out the promise of the future I recommend one inexpensive lighting unit about all others. It's is the Fotodiox (or similar OEM) 312 AS.  The output is great. The color balance is infinitely adjustable between 3200 and 5500 and the whole fixtures output can be controlled with a simple rotary control on the back of the unit. It comes with two rechargeable lith-ion batteries and a keen carrying case. It's about $160 bucks.  But if you have to choose get the book first.  It doesn't have three easy steps to losing weight or making new friends but it is the first book on the subject on the face of the planet......