10.10.2012

I bought another lens. It's an "old news" lens but I like it.


Over the last four years I've played with a lot of lenses. Some good.  Some really good. And a handful that were mediocre. But whenever I talked to my photographer friends about good medium telephoto lenses for APS-C cameras someone would always toss in the "really, really good Sigma 70mm f2.8 Macro."  But something always kept me from buying the lens. When I shot with Canon's APS-C cameras I used the 60mm 2.8 macro and it was pretty good. With full frame cameras I always seemed to fall back on the Zeiss 85mm or one of the Canon or Nikon 85's.

My optical sweet spot  for portraits (based on my years with "full frame" 35mm film) has always been a 90, 100 or 105mm focal length.  When I switched to the Sony a77 cameras I started looking around again. I have the 85mm Sony lens but that works out to about a 128mm equivalent focal length. I love the lens and I'm sure I'll get plenty of use out of it when I buy a VG-900 or an a99 but I wanted something shorter.  

I could use the wide end of my very nice Sony 70-200mm 2.8 G lens but I really wanted something smaller, lighter and more single-focally.  And having used the 85mm wide open to good effect I wanted something extra crisp at 2.8.  The 70-200mm is great from about f4 on down but it can be just a tad softer wide open.

I started looking again.  Then, in the middle of the week several unconnected people mentioned the Sigma 70mm.  When a client called last week to book me for a shoot today, which was all about portraits that would run big on large posters, I decided to get the Sigma 70, test it and use it if it passed the test. It did.

The lens is sharp wide open and insanely sharp by f4.0. It uses the old screwdriver AF so it's noisy when it's looking for sharp and it's a real macro lens so it tends to be geared for lots of range in the close area which means it hunts more than a lens with a different slip differential.

I don't really care. In the bright light of a white background, studio set up the camera and lens combo focused promptly and with ample authority. I just got back to the studio after spending the better part of the day shooting. I've been reviewing the files I shot at 1:1. They are very, very good.

So, the lens is four years into its product cycle and noisy when auto focusing (manual focus is silent and easy with focus peaking). I don't care. It's sharp wide open in a way most lenses never achieve. It has a crispy character and it cost less than five hundred anemic American dollars.  I love it. It reminds me of my old Nikon 105mm f2.5 lens, once considered the ultimate portrait lens. Only sharper.  Images to follow.




10.09.2012

A strange assignment that, in retrospect, is analogous to modern over processing...


An art director who had seen some of my hand colored portraits called me and got a bid for making a number of still life constructions, photographing them using 4x5 Polaroid Positive Negative film (Type 55), printing large prints from the resulting negatives and then lightly coloring them with Marshall's Transparent Oil Paints.

Each of the construction was used as a facing page or illustration in a four color brochure for a financial services company. We shot 12 set ups over the course of three days, in the studio.

At the time I was using a Linhof TechniKarden 4x5 inch view camera with an older set of Zeiss lenses. Most of the images were done with shorter lenses, in the range of 150mm to 210mm. To get different lighting effects we were spraying light through glass bricks, clear marbles and odd screens. It was the early 1990's and torn paper was chic.

The process was fun. We'd work on the constructions and keep photographing them with the Polaroid film. If the art director liked a construction we'd take the resulting negative and soak it in a sulfite bath to fix it. My darkroom was adjacent to the studio and at the end of the third day we had clotheslines full of curly, thin negatives hanging in neat rows.

My assistant and I contact printed all the "keeper" negatives and shared them with the art director. She made final selections and I headed back into the darkroom to make black and white prints on matte surface photographic paper. Once the images were printed (I made multiple copies as hand coloring is anything but an exact science) I sat down at a big table in the middle of my big studio and started coloring with little brushes, balls of cotton and cotton wrapped around little wooden sticks.

Once the prints were finished and presented we grappled with the fact that the color separator wasn't too thrilled about wrapping still malleable oil painted surfaces around their very expensive drum scanner. We ended up using an Apo lens on the Linhof and shooting copy shots of the large prints. The color separator did their work from the resulting 4x5 inch transparencies.

The process, from bid to final copy transparencies took, cumulatively, about ten days. We shot at least 150 sheets of Polaroid black and white, positive/negative film. The images worked well in the brochure and the brochure won some awards. everyone was happy.

When I look back at jobs like this I wonder where planning and patience has fled to in the world of advertising and the graphic arts.

The image above is a snap shot of a copy transparency of a work print from that time. The final image, presented above was taken with a Sony a77 and a 30mm macro lens with the transparency precariously balanced on the frosted plexiglass top of an old light box.

Just mellowing out to a bit of nostalgia this morning.










10.08.2012

Yes Virginia, there can be such a thing as too little depth of field.

Untitled Photo #2

Contax RTS3. 85mm 1.4 Carl Zeiss lens.


Maybe.











Little City Coffee Shop on Congress Avenue.

 Untitled photograph.



Obscure and marvelous objects of keen desire. Meter me. Please.







While the photo world pants at the rumor of more and more very similar cameras being readied for the market a lot of really cool stuff is languishing because it's not bling enough for prime time. The Sekonic Pro L-478D light meter is one of these cool stuff devices.  

While light meters seem to have fallen out of favor with most grab and shoot photographers I still carry around two different ones and use them on every shoot that requires me to use lighting.  I wouldn't want to do lighting set ups without one. The one that travels with me everywhere is the tough and hardy Minolta autometer V f.  Like most good meters from last century it reads both flash and ambient light. It's never broken and it takes a double a battery, which makes me happy.

In the studio I depend on my Sekonic L-508 zoom meter. It's a great incident light meter and it also has a built-in in spot meter function that I use, infrequently.  I use both the Minolta and Sekonic meters to measure mostly flash output on white backgrounds but after a bad experience with the rendering of test portraits on the rear LCD of a Nikon D700 I've gone back to making incident readings for every portrait session I do. I've found LCDs on most camera give varying results in varying ambient light environments and it's easy to under expose portraits since the live view or review screens always seem too hot to me.

With two meters in residence at VSL why in the world would I want the L- 478D? Well, mostly because it's so cool. It has features that I think are fun and useful.  I love the big screen and the fact that it's a touch screen. I like the front and center cinematography features and while I probably won't have a use for shutter angle settings as the world of film movie cameras darkens I find being able to set frames per second on the meter a big help when I'm trying to noodle in a good exposure that still hews to proper video technique.

The meter builds on the camera calibration we first say in the L-758 meter and the compulsively detail oriented photographer will have the option of fine tuning the meter and its read out based on actual camera performance.

But why use a separate meter at all? Precisely because we are so subjective when it comes to visual analysis. Most camera LCDs and EVFs show a preview or a review based on the jpeg converted file generated by our cameras, even when we are shooting raw. The exposure latitude of jpegs is much narrower and I've found that camera makers consistently engineer their cameras to err on the side of underexposure in nearly all situations. Even when the image on the screen is big and bright. You can see it plainly if you examine your camera's histogram and compare it with what you are seeing when you look at the same image on the camera's screen. The screen shot looks bold and bright while the (too tiny) histograms almost always have a notch-lette of flat line over to the right hand side.

When I use an incident flash meter, at the subject location, aiming directly back to the camera I generally get readings that are one half to one full stop more aggressive than what my cameras suggest. When I trust the meter I generally get perfectly exposed skin tones and detain in all highlights but I don't get crunched shadows and ruddy transitions from mid tone to dark in portraits.  That alone is enough to keep me using meters for a long time to come.

Where incident light meters really come into their own is aiding in the quick and precise set up of white background studio shots. I meter the background to make sure it's even and I take the incident reading (plus 1/3 stop) as my base for the set up. Then I use the incident light meter with the subject and raise or lower the illumination on the subject until it reads what the background does (before adding the 1/3 stop correction for detail-less white...) and I know I'm where I need to be to have the cleanest, noise free files with the right tonal ranges. Magic.

You're probably able to do much the same process with the reflected light meter in the camera but there's more math involved and the reflectivity of the background materials makes a difference in the accuracy of the metering. 

The reason I want the new is mostly that the new display is much more readable for me than the older, lower contrast, monochrome displays of the older meters. I also like that I can make changes to frequently used parameters on the touch screen rather than having to find the right button and scroll.

The meter uses two triple "A" batteries, which is better than some obscure older camera type battery (I'd prefer one double "A"....).   With included accessories you can use the meter as a reflected one instead of an incident light meter, and, by adding an accessory you can convert the meter into a five degree reflected spot meter.  The meter is highly configurable and offers thirteen different custom settings. It is firmware upgradeable via an USB socket.

Both of my current meters are over ten years old. Buying a new meter happens rarely but they are pieces of gear that I use nearly every day. When I'm shooting with a non-metered Hasselblad they are a constant companion. Now, if I can just get approval from the CFO.....












What book would I start with if I wanted to learn how to light?

The one book I always recommend for people who want to really learn about lighting.

I know you might have thought I'd be pushing one of my lighting books in today's column but I'm writing this because I've been hearing from a lot of people lately who want to move beyond the noble savage stage (available light only) of photography and really learn how the nuts and bolts of lighting work. I'm old fashion, I think you should learn the theory first and then build the practice framework on top of that.

I've written five books on photography and I know how hard it is to do it right. Fil Hunter, Steven Biver and Paul Fuqua have done it right with their book, Light, Science, Magic..., so much so that it is now in its fourth edition and it never leaves the top ten tier of lighting books on Amazon.com
It is one of the best books about the nature and control of light I have ever read and I keep replacing copies that are (permanently) "borrowed" from the studio bookshelves because I find myself returning to the book time and again as a primary reference for both my writing about lighting and my practice of photography.

Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in this book. Mr. Hunter and I exchanged e-mails several years ago about the possibility of doing a joint project but we were both too busy to follow up and nothing came of the communication. I just really like this book and think VSL readers will be happy to have it at hand as a resource.

Buying a copy from the link below will help to support the blog with no additional cost to the purchaser: 

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0240812255/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0240812255&linkCode=as2&tag=thev0c1-20










10.07.2012

Michael Reichmann has written a first review of the Sony a99.

http://www.luminous-landscape.com/reviews/cameras/sony_a99_field_report.shtml

It's a good read for anyone interested in Sony's new, FF, DSLT flagship still camera. He likes nearly everything about the camera except------------the inclusion of the electronic viewfinder instead of an optical viewfinder. I'm holding back my opinion until I handle a Sony a99 in the flesh. We'll see....













Smaller, Lighter, Faster? How about bigger and better. What's ahead for the professional photographer.

Steering is almost as important as taking the right road.

I had a plan for the recession and it worked out okay. It was pretty simple. Get rid of anything with a recurring payment (stuff like cable TV, a fax line, subscriptions of any kind, standing lunch appointments, car payments and coffee) and then relentlessly downsize. Minimize. Maintain a low overhead and continue to market as much as possible.

Professional photographers were the first "luxury" item to be cut by our corporate clients and right after us they put all the good graphic designers and traditional ad people on hold. Clients maximized anything they could on the web because of the perception (real or imagined) that they were getting placement for free. Also, web oriented design shops turned out (according to studies done by Ad Age) to charge about half the fee traditional print shops did (and still do) for creative content.  The lunge to the web and the hop out of more traditional media made "good" photography less mission critical than in the days of print and P-O-P and that made it A-okay for everyone to lean heavily on "almost free" stock photography for their websites and e-mail blasts.

Given the Scrooge-ian nature of the last four years in our industry I think my instinct to downsize and hold the line were prescient. It didn't hurt that we produced five books over the course of the recession but that was sheer, dumb luck and not part of any conscious plan for survival.

More to the point I counseled any who asked to do as much as they could with the least they could manage. My first book, Minimalist Lighting was marbled with this convenient belief.  And so, for the last few years, we've excused our assistants from the room, learned how to pack lighter and continued to try and make a living in photography.  And when I say, "We" I mean professional photographers around the world.

Like a sinusoidal waveform on an oscilloscope every trend and cycle has a natural progression. A market hits the apex of its successful curve and then crashes down to the bottom of its trough and then repeats the cycle. The main differences are the length of time over which the cycle plays out and how steeply inclined are the angles of destruction and recovery. Those pesky x/y axes.

Now we're starting to see a healthy revival amongst our diverse client bases. People are coming back to the table. Like all you can eat Sushi that's three days old they've had pretty much all the stock imagery they can take and they're ready for more diverse and substantial fare. But while everyone was hibernating in their bunkers the content providers shifted and changed. Now all the cameras are more or less the same. Everyone seems to be using little battery powered lights that limit the potential to provide a wider palette of lighting design.  At our clients' cues, in the past four years, we all started to gear down for "good enough." And now that they've emerged (the clients) from the economic bomb shelters and the  life support stasis pods they're hungry to go back to a universe they used to know. One in which photographers could trot out the big guns and do marvelous things.

But circumstances flattened the playing field so hard that few are left who even remember how to light well and big.  Or even anything at all beyond one light.

Much of the style that dominated over the last four or five years was generated and mutated by a grim necessity = no budgets. No budgets for models meant more retouching and a lot of compromise on the messaging. No budgets for gear meant lots of available light with fill flash and a rash of itchy, uncomfortable PhotoShop manipulations just to get images up to what would have previously been considered basement level quality.

So here's what I think clients want right now.  (Real clients. Players with checkbooks and P.O.'s.) They're starting to think they want to see how good it can really be again. They want photographers to play big again and break out the atomic arsenal of creative kick-ass and they're almost willing to pay for it again. But they're looking around and not finding many steady hands left. Or new ones to take their places. And no one wants to play "re-invent" the wheel again.

Here's the plan for commercial photographers for the next few years (and hopefully these are years that are on a newly ascendent part of the economic waveform):  Play big. If you still have your big power packs and heads and a case filled with Monolights then get them out and play big. Light shit up old school good. Show potential clients the difference between a skinny, anemic Nikon flash in a cheap umbrella and several thousand watt seconds through a seven foot Octabank and several layers of real silk. Show them with the work. Demand good models (not their office admins and interns) and demand real make up artists, not the Goth chick you met on Model Mayhem.

We need to get back into the mindset of knocking down imaging compromises and re-focus on making images that are as good as we are capable of producing. We need to deliver the highest production values we can imagine.

We ducked and covered when there was no other way. That's over.  If you can handle big lights well and big files even better you're almost there. If you can also direct and produce a shoot and make it sing then you have become re-competitive. As of now it seems like price is no longer the only consideration in the bid process.

The mantra changes as the economy changes. We spent doing the last four years doing whatever it took to stay afloat and profitable.  That meant smaller teams; it meant cutting muscle and it meant a diminished way of working. It's hard to change gears now but it's a new quarter and a new game and it's ramping up quickly. If you play to your strengths and amplify your advantages you have the potential to grab and hold more market share as advertising and commercial markets move from positions of procurement weakness and uncertainty to a new drive with a new goal. Cumulatively the clients know the dreck they've been using for the last four years is now an anchor on profits and forward momentum and they know they need to upgrade their game. They'll do it with much better content and much more differentiated content.  When economies recover it's almost always reflected in the advertising, expressed as much increased production value.  Grander visions and greater emphasis on quality.

For many companies it's time to reposition as "subtle yet elegant" instead of "workmanlike." And the first contact every company has with it's clients and customers are the image presented by their advertising.  Strong, powerful, stable and innovative companies show off best with high production values, beautiful faces, professional styling and appropriate propping and great locations. It's the good, old "put  your best foot forward" theory.

If you can light and shoot well you may win. If you try to sell  only on low prices now you'll only play in the discount sandbox with the other children.  The rest of us are getting back to business.  And it makes sense to go back to playing with the big gear now.

Program note: This advice is relevant only to the north American market. I think we've de-leveraged a lot of debt both on the consumer and corporate sides of the ledgers and we've become more financially efficient. Europe is lagging in the de-leveraging arena and it's retarding their small business and medium business recovery, in some cases severely.

I don't know about the wedding and portrait markets. My statement is only about the commercial, advertising, public relations and corporate markets. That's where the money current sits. That's the segment with both pent up demand and actual need as opposed to "want." 

10.06.2012

A black and white walk. Why I think the Sony Nex 7 is a great black and white camera.




When I first started taking photographs all I could afford was black and white film and black and white prints. They were much cheaper than color at the time. We grew up in photography convinced that nicely done black and white prints represented the apotheosis of artful photography and that color was something people did for work. It's hard to bust up long time habits of thought.

I'd come off a long week of working photography and post processing so the last thing I wanted to do today was walk around and shoot color images. I really did want to walk around and shoot black and white images and channel my first romps with Tri-X and its brothers.  My first thought was to shove the Hasselblad in the car and go to it but I've decided to reserve that puppy for making portraits. Methodical and well thought out portraits. Instead I grabbed the Sony Nex 7 and the 50mm 1.8 OSS lens, a Hoodman 16gb SD card and some cash and I headed out the door for a brisk walk in the first afternoon of Austin's first brisk weather of the Fall.


I've worked with the Nex 7 long enough so that it falls to hand transparently and operates on an almost subconscious level. The focal length is perfect for most of the things I see and now I find that its black and white rendition suits my tastes as well. I usually end up brightening the image (but not much) and adding a little gob of contrast. No more monkeying around with the laborious black and white controls in PhotoShop "Adjustments."


When I shoot with black and white in mind I don't worry or even think about noise at higher ISO settings. I just shoot. I had my camera set up as aperture control (generally at f3.2) and the ISO set to auto. I used my EVF and I could see instantly, via pre-chimping, if the image was going to need a slightly increased exposure or not.  After the settings were locked in I just enjoyed the looking and the shooting.


Working in close with the sparkly 50mm 1.8 Nex lens means having fun with limited depth of field and high sharpness. I was handholding these shots at the bar in Caffe Medici at around 1/20th of a second so I'm going to suggest that the OSS (optical super steady) works pretty well.











I spent a good amount of time just walking out the kinks from the recent structural failure of my back. (concerned parties may be interested to know that I was able to swim about an hour or around 3,000 yards this morning, without incident.  Thanks to all who recommended ice packs and Advil....).  I was also breaking in a new pair of shoes.

As a result of tests done with the Sony Nex 7, the 50mm 1.8 and lots of pixel peaking I'm ready to announce that the Nex 7 is one of the finest IQ and handling digital cameras I've ever had the pleasure to use. The files are far better, overall, than the files from my recently discarded Canon 1dsmk2 and even a bit better (dynamic range and low ISO tonality and sharpness) than my even more recently discarded Canon 5D mk2. Not at all bad for a camera that's roughly 1/7th of the 1DS mk2's original selling price and about 1/3rd the original selling price of the Canon 5D mk2.

We can argue lens choice all you want but with an ever increasing range of Zeiss and now Schneider lenses becoming available for the Sony Nex system I think the Canons are currently fighting a losing battle.

There is a caveat. The Nex 7 is not for action photographers. The contrast detection AF is really good but it is not up to the level of focus tracking and quick lock on that many amateur will expect. Not much of a bother for those that used to focus under dark cloths with 4x5 and 8x10 view cameras.  I'm willing to give up a few milliseconds for the kind of imaging performance I am able to get from such a small, inexpensive yet powerful package.  And I suspect that if you shoot the way I do you may too.










Ye olde dayes of corporate photography...


Mid-1990's. I've set up a flash and I'm going to make portraits of each person who gets on this boat for a cruise around the lake. I'm stacking up the city skyline in the background. I'm using the self-timer on my camera to test the flash. Since we didn't have little TVs on the back of our cameras I am using a flash meter. We shoot a lot of 35mm film and our lab makes prints for everyone. The event is for Motorola. They serve a dinner on the boat. It is chicken or beef fajitas and assorted complementary Mexican food. Wine and beer. I eat a fajita, it is pretty darn good.