Why choosing a subject is more important than choosing a camera.

I have two friends who both read VSL (and take me to task regularly :-) ) and they both suffer the same affliction. They are both convinced that there is a holy grail in the camera world. They are of the intellectual opinion that all that matters is the final image but they are of the emotional opinion that there is one perfect camera for them and the creation of their ultimate images is dependent upon them finding and mastering the one camera fate has put into their path, somewhere in the labyrinth of photography.

How do I know this? Because I sat down with each of them, individually, this week and listened to them. One friend switched systems (sort of) this year and bought the redoubtable Olympus OMD camera (actually two...) and all the really juicy m4:3 lenses. He hoped that they would kick start his enthusiasm and inspiration to create more and better photographs. But the thrill of that purchase is wearing off and now (six months later) he's considering buying into the Sony system in the form of the a99 full frame body and "just a few of the better lenses."

My other friend bought a Hasselblad digital system (many lenses!) this year to upgrade his photography business. He wanted to differentiate himself by offering his clients the best possible image quality that can be purchased on the market right now. After the initial excitement wore off he orbited back to doing most of his work with a very practical (and very well performing) Canon 5Dmk3 and assorted premium and esoteric optics. This week he's been buying up Leica M gear and a little bit of Leica R gear. The buying high wears off quickly. And the ebb time frame seems to accelerate with each subsequent purchase.

I watch my hobbyist friends and a lot of my pro friends and the cycle they go through looks like this: Identify new camera that may bring inspiration and spark to photography through research and the reading of forum tea leaves. > Purchase new miracle camera and begin the process of learning all of its tricks and getting a sense of mastery over the machine. > Find some things that are not optimal about the miracle camera and/or the miracle lenses. > See greener grass in another company's new catalog. > Begin the research process again. And again. And again.

There is a fear that leads one to believe that no good photographs can be taken until and unless one has selected and mastered a tool that one superstitiously believes they have been ordained by photographic fate to use. But it really is cover for the fear of getting started.  And the fear of getting started comes, usually, from the fear of having to come to grips with not really knowing the thing you really want to say with your photographs. Because at some point, if you want to make art, you have to come to grips with what it is you really want to say with your images (subject) and how you want to say it (style).

(none of this particular blog is aimed at casual photographers who just want an enjoyable pass time or professionals who just want to make a few bucks with their cameras. It's aimed at people who've studied the work of current and past masters and have been intrigued and engaged by that work. Now they want to make their own work and have it be really good.  It's written for artists waiting to blossom.  Yes, you can just go have fun with your camera but you really don't need me to tell you how to do that...).

The fear that paralyzes most practitioners is the fear that they'll waste time and resources using a camera that isn't up to the task of their specific creation and that they'll spin their wheels until they find out that their inadequate tools have sabotaged their best intentions. There's also a subconscious fear that by not choosing cameras vetted by the herd they will not be taken seriously by people who know and they may not even take themselves seriously. Heavy stuff to lay on someone. Even heavier to lay upon yourself. The over riding fear is that no matter what kind of gear one ends up with you still might not be able to perform and you'll have to deal with your own sense of failure. But the failure is always an inability to connect. It's almost never a breakdown of the technical steps...

The secret of artists (good or bad artists) is to ignore the tools as best you can and figure out what your subject matter is. For me it's portraits. I love the process. I love the give and take. I love finding out just a little bit more about an interesting person. But most of all I love translating what I learn about my portrait subject into something that is a representation of my photographic voice. My point of view. My original way of showing someone.

I like my Hasselblads because I feel safe with them. But if there's an interesting, alluring, provocative, prickly, sensual, sinister or beatific person that triggers that part of my brain that wants to make a portrait then the cameras became totally secondary and my focus is on working with them to get the images.

What both of my friends are looking for, each in his own way, is the subject matter that gets them excited, that makes them need to use any camera instead of just wanting to use a new camera.

Both of my friends are pretty smart. Pretty soon they'll realize that there's no pot of gold at the end of the gear rainbow and they'll find the stuff that makes them rediscover the all encompassing addiction of having to make images because the subject in front of them is something they care about and need to share. When that realization clicks in the camera lust will fade into memory and they will both get on with the work of making a different sort of work.

If you are planning on researching new cameras on the web after stopping by here for a dose of my curmudgeonly and primitive philosophy please try a new tack. Sit or lie down on the floor in a comfortable spot. Turn off your phone. Breath in and out slowly and deeply and just let your non-gear brain tell you what it is you love to see and shoot.  Then hit the sleep button on  your computer, and go out in search of that subject. When you find the subject matter that causes a visceral reaction for you just look for a while instead of jumping right in and photographing the crap out of it. Really look. And then decide how you'll use your visual voice.

Then come back with any old camera and an overwhelming dose of intention. It may be harder than shopping but long term it may be a lot more satisfying.

My 500px portfolios now have huge, dynamically resizing image...thanks to ATMTX.


May be all the website I ever really need...  We'll see.

edit: Don't blame ATMTX for my bad editing (duplicate images) he just let me know what could be done with the tools at hand. To see a really great implementation you need to see what he's done with his new membership at 500px: http://portfolio.atmtxphoto.com/

Pretty damn nice, I'd say.


Visual Science Lab posts 1300th blog and this week we'll hit ten million pageviews. Wow. Lotta work. Lotta eyes.

Scrabble game at the in-laws house. I love the simple solution in the front right corner. "Io" in two directions and "oi" in two directions. That's fun. Taken with the Kodak DCS SLR/n and a Nikon 50mm 1.8 AFD lens. Handheld after turkey, stuffing and pie. Lots of pie.

Putting words together is like swimming or photographing. It gets easier or better or both the more you practice.  You learn what to keep and you learn what to throw out and it all makes better sense. If you've been a long time reader, thank you very much for hanging in there. If you are new to the blog don't worry; we only do these self-congratulatory missives at big milestones. For me, anything with the number "ten milliion" is a big deal.  

A banal photo of the table topper at P. Terry's Hamburger restaurant in Westlake Hills, Tx. I just like the way the 70-210mm Nikon lens looks on the Kodak digital camera. In a short phrase: Sharply mellow.

Out for a walk with an old friend. Raiding the camera orphanage and a lens from the far past.

Waiting for the bus on S. Lamar.

I've been mulling over the purchase of a Sony a99. I'm reasonably sure that it's a wonderful camera and would work well in my business and in my new hobby of making short movies. But for some reason I just haven't been able to snow myself with enough rationalizations to pull the trigger. Maybe it's the imminent cost of paying for Ben's college education that's slowing me down but maybe it's also a process of trying to figure out what the camera will really buy me in terms of improved performance. The first a99 rationale that perked up was the need for the full frame. And I pondered that after having owned, used and subsequently sold off both Canon and Nikon full frame cameras in the last couple of years. 

The devilish lure of the full frame argument came wafting through like the Sirens' song and for a while I felt an unnerving desire to get into my car and drive closer to Precision Camera. But I slowed down and decided to do a few experiments before my usual frantic lunge for whatever is new and shiny. I actually started going back and looking at the work I'd done with the Sony a77 and the Nex 7 and I really liked what I was seeing. No big, glaring hole in the fabric of my imaging universe that needed to be filled lest we trip and fall into a different and dangerous dimension. In fact, my little foray into recent files made me long for yet another Nex 7 just to keep on the shelf, in its box, in case it disappears from the market and I'm never able to get another new one..... (down that path lies madness).

As part of my exploration into the vagaries of desire I started looking through the equipment cabinets, affectionately named, the camera orphanage, and started thinking about how we got down the road to this point.  That's when I saw my old friend. A scion of the second full frame camera family to hit the market. The Kodak DCS SLR/n. (The first being the Contax 6 megapixel full frame camera. Legend has it that only four hundred were made). 

The Kodak SLR/n is enigmatic and wrongly maligned. It came onto the market at a critical time in the evolution of professional digital cameras and was killed by unskilled marketing at its worst.

The DCS SLR/n was proceeded to market by the Kodak DCS 14n. That was a challenging camera. It had no real power management which meant short battery life. The sensor was noisy and prone to color shifts from magenta to green from side to side but at it's nominal ISO it was very sharp and could make very nice images. The Kodak SLR/n was a vastly improved camera with a new sensor, good noise characteristics at 160 to 400 and no real issues. But it was not a sport or event camera. It should have been marketed at studio photographers, fine art photographers and portrait photographers. It excelled at portrait work in the right hands.

At any rate it was a victim of the march of materialism. When a better camera came to market in the full frame sensor catalog at Nikon I jumped and bought a D700. But what is better? The D700 was good but the Kodak was sharper. The D700 handled better and was much, much faster but I never liked the color palette. The D700 was much, much, much better at making files at high ISOs and combatting the intrusion of noise but most of the portrait work I did with both cameras was created with the aid of powerful strobes. I could have worked at just about any ISO.

In the end it was really all about the screen on the back of each camera and the annoying propensity of the Kodak to stop in the middle of a shoot and recalibrate itself for 10 seconds or so that convinced me to put it into a bottom drawer, along with its battery charger and four batteries and let it rest next to the Kodak DSC 760 which it had all but replaced. Until the day before Thanksgiving 2012.

This is what a digital camera file looks like when it gets corrupted writing to a memory card. In the old days (around the time of the DCS SLR/n) this used to happen to many camera and card combinations and was random enough to drive photographers crazy.

Mired in my indecision about whether or not to throw more resources into the ongoing battle for good images (when I and my clients are already very satisfied with my current imaging production) I decided to revisit the Kodak and see whether full frame shooting is what's missing from my quiver of imaging arrows.  I didn't remember the camera being so big! It's rock solid and substantial. For those unfamiliar with the SLR/n it is a full frame camera with a 14 megapixel sensor. It was the first digital camera made with no option to use and anti-aliasing filter of the the sensor. Because of this exclusion it is much sharper than its 14 megapixels would imply, in the same way that the sensor in the Leica M9 is sharper than its 18 megapixels would lead one to believe.

The SLR/n was made to take Nikon lenses. Sadly, I've sold off all of mine save for a nifty fifty, some older, manual focus lenses and a macro lens. I made my way over to Precision Camera and went straight to the used cases. I was directly attracted to an ancient zoom lens, the 70 to 210 AF-D f4-5.6.  Even though the lens is an early D lens from the early 1990's it looked as though it just came out of a box, brand new. I paid $115 for it and headed back out into the world of potential iamges. I did a little research when I got back to the studio and discovered that I'd done well. The lens has a cult following and is widely reviewed as "wicked sharp." It is the first zoom lens I've seen in a long time with a push/pull zoom instead of having a ring to turn. Very cool. Very different.

So, yesterday I ventured out to better understand the lure of full frame and, more importantly, why I had originally abandoned the Kodak DCS SLR/n for cameras whose color, contrast and rendering I liked less. And these are the images I took.

I've come to understand that many of my images will never be used larger than the screen so I've been shooting and processing smaller. The Kodak camera has the ability to write RAW files as either fourteen, six or three megapixel files. I chose to shoot all of these as six megapixel files.

The camera is quirky. It likes to recalibrate itself when the temperature changes. It's finicky about memory cards and sometimes hesitates to write files until prodded. Sometimes it just stops and calls the cards, "defective!" But turning the camera off and turning it on generally makes the problem go away; at least temporarily.  The screen is a scant two inches and not very visible in any sort of strong, ambient light. But the buffer is fairly deep (offset by painfully slow processing and write times) and the meter is dead accurate nearly all the time. The RAW files are 12 bit instead of 14 bit. But none of that really matters.

The bottom line is that the files are more film like (in a good way) than any other digital camera I have used. And in my mind that's the ultimate plus.

The 70-210 Nikon was wonderful to use. Its small size and high sharpness makes me wonder why the majority of shooters punish themselves with the enormous, and enormously expensive, 2.8 zoom lenses.  Yes, I understand the need to shoot wide open in dark conditions but so much imaging is done on nice days, in bright sun. If you shoot Nikon and you like the idea of a 70-210mm that's bite sized and around $100-$150 you might want to search one of these out. It's pretty delicious.

I moved through Austin in the late afternoon unaided by niceties like image stabilization and sensor shaking dust defeaters and I was able to muddle through. In most images with blue sky I thought the images even trumped the famous Olympus blues. I'm confident that the camera is sharper (but not as detailed) than the Canon 5D mk2 that I used for a year. In short, it's competitive in the fields for which I use cameras. And then some.

Ultimately I could of course see the aesthetic advantage of the full frame in the way the image's fields of focus are rendered. That's a given. But in all other regards it's the more subtle aspects that make the Kodak different from what's in the market today.  And maybe those differences are what I like very much about it.

The camera seemed to sense that this day in downtown was a re-audition because it was so well behaved. I worked with only one battery for the entire afternoon though I had two in my pocket, just in case. The card mishaps were fleeting and the focus, exposure and other operations of the camera came back to me quickly. In fact, other than file size and few other parameters there are very few things to set. The selection menus are quite limited with the presumption that you'll do your heavy lifting in the raw conversions.  And make no mistake, because of the slow speed at which the camera writes Jpeg files, this is a raw-only device. The camera is relatively quiet and has a very effectively dampened shutter. I'm pulling some friends into the studio to see if the camera is as good as I remember it to be.  Here's a portrait sample from years ago:

This image was done with a tungsten light source and an older, one hundred and thirty-five millimeter, manual focus lens.

The convenience and modern touches of the Sony cameras I currently use will probably overwhelm the aesthetic preference I seem to have for the Kodak in my everyday work but the camera is most tempting for images that I want to look different from the mainstream. Essentially the Kodak has what I can only describe as an authentically American palette of tones and colors. And it's one I'm acculturated to like because of my years and years of shooting Kodak film. People raised in photography after the uprising of digital probably won't have the same prejudices about color and tonal presentation. I see it especially in portraits and images with various skin tones.

Now I really want to see how the camera works with LED lighting. Will its auto white balance live up to the challenge or will I toil away in RAW trying to make it all work? We'll know soon.

Are modern digital cameras better? The answer is "yes" if what is important to you in an "all terrain" device that's easy to use. Faster to focus, more adaptable to low light levels and so on. The answer is not so obvious if your parameters are less about operation and more about the actual look of the files. It's almost the same argument I would make in regards to shooting medium format film versus shooting state of the art (affordable) digital. While a Nikon D800 might resolve more details and give one a much wider technical dynamic range is there something missing from the recipe that makes it different and in some ways inferior to an image done on the best kinds of color negative films? I'd say yes. And I would argue that it's about non-linear characteristic curves, the unpredictable action of chemicals and silver particles and the random distribution of grain. I'd also say that it just looks different.

Most digital cameras now seem to be designed to measure well and be accurate as opposed to be pleasing or mellow or to have any flavor at all. I would say that one of the big advantages of the Olympus cameras is now and has been (since their first foray into digital) the almost romantic color palette and tonal rendering of the images. The engineers have found a tweak for the blue rendering that resonates with users. The highlights always seem to be more "protected" than other digital cameras. In the same way the Kodaks have always seemed much more film-like than anything else on the market. And why not? Kodak always understood that "pleasing" is easier to sell and more important to most end users than "accurate." It's just human nature.

Many (most) audiophiles will tell you that analog recordings and very high bit digital recordings always sound better than MP3 files. Everything works but everything works differently. I wish we had more choices in digital photography. The measurability of sensor output seems to be moving every company closer and closer to a monopoly color rendering in which all cameras have the same thumbprint. Yes, we can change the surface attributes in post processing but the underlying DNA has its own influence and momentum. Just my opinion. God knows I've owned enough different cameras to form one..

In the end all of the camera we use to do our work function pretty well. It's a luxury to dissect the nuances. 

Look at the aliasing in the bottom windows. Exacerbated by the smaller file size...

But the thing I come away with from all this is that the last eight years of technology in digital cameras has been aimed more at convenience and technical extension that in sheer, unalloyed pursuit of beautiful files. And that should be a comfort to those immune from being dashed on the rocks of materialism and peer pressure. You can do good work with a good camera = even if it was made 8 years ago. And some lenses from twenty years ago can still hold their own in the age of plastic craziness. Don't write off the old tech too quickly, everything is a trade-off.

What did I finally decide about the a99? Will I rush out and spend yet another $2700? Where will it stop?  What I found out was that of all my cameras the one that can make sharp and contrasty files with color I like, after the Kodak, is the Nex 7. I'm thinking I'll just slowly transition the bulk of my shooting gear in that direction and keep the a77's around for the telephoto heavy lifting. Makes sense. Find a camera you love and stay with it....

And, as the sun sunk over the hill country I walked back across the river and rejoined the studio car. I walked into the house as the last glow of twilight ebbed away.

If you are up for some holiday shopping please consider using the link to Amazon here on the VSL site. It helps keep me in coffee and by extension, in front of the word processor. If you like what you read here every little purchase helps. Or, you can save up and buy the novel. Coming soon.

Also, take a look at the LED book. I think it's a technology that's here to stay and I think the book is a great primer.  See the link below.  Thanks. 


The final name on my list of the top five photographers of the 20th century is......

Of course, it's Arnold Newman. While there were a large number of great portrait photographers working over the course of the century Arnold Newman was prolific and strong willed. He kept recreating styles over and over again. I like the work of Phillipe Halsman and, of course, Yousuf Karsh, Newman's work is more modern and even post modern while maintaining the sense of a privileged point of view.

His image of Igor Stravinski is both compelling and beautifully designed. His work encompassed so many famous and unfamous people for a span of over 50 years. He would be my choice for the 5th person on my list because of both his rigorous seeing and his ability to present his sitters.

Sadly, I've had to leave out several of my favorite fashion and advertising photographers, like Bert Stern (caution: music on website!!!), Chris Van Wagennheim, Arthur Elgort, and Albert Watson.

My tiny list also left out Susan Meiseles (brilliant multi-media documentarian) and Mary Ellen Mark.  And so many more.  I guess over the next month or so I need to compile a list of the top 100 influences, from my point of view. A list of driven, amazing people. And that's probably the one commonality that intersects within all of these people. They are or were driven to photograph and they did it relentlessly, not just for a lark on a sunny saturday afternoon....

Here's a link to a group of great books about Arnold Newman

Here's a link to an archive of his photographs:


And here is a link to my all time favorite Arnold Newman portrait:

My Favorite Arnold Newman Portrait.

Go see my own portraits on my 500 px gallery: 


What is the single best camera of all time? That's easy...

It's the Leica M3. And I was going to write a long and passionate review of that amazing rangefinder camera but in the process of doing a little research I came across a really wonderful review of the camera by none other than Mr. Ken Rockwell.  Yes, yes, I know Ken can be zany and self contradictory and bombastic but this is a damn good overview of a camera that had an important part in the maturation process of photography. If nothing else his opening photograph of the M3 is gorgeous.  You have to give him credit for that...


Have a different idea of what might be the best camera of all time? Feel free to post your opinion in the comments. We can argue long into the night.....

Number four in the top photographers of the twentieth century.

Downtown Clouds. 

This is so hard. There are so many great artists that came of age in the previous century. There are the obvious ones like Alfred Steiglitz whose "Equivalents" really made photography of abstracts and enhanced landscapes into a respected subject matter. He was a ferocious champion of photography as art and introduced Americans to a host of great, European painters as well as a generation of American photographers to the the gallery scene. As much as I admire his work and his drive to legitimize art photography there are few images of his that really intrigue and move me. Maybe his wonderful image of O'Keefe's hands or the Flat Iron Building in a Snow Storm in NYC.  If you are curious about Alfred Steiglitz (who was married to famous painter, Georgia O'Keefe) you can get a great sampling of his critical and photographic work in this book:  Alfred Steiglitz: Photographs and Writings.

A whole generation of photographers seems to be obsessed with the work of Walker Evans but to my mind he seemed to be the first photographer to embrace the idea of having an art historic manifesto to accompany his black and white images. While he worked for early iteration of Fortune Magazine, and his black and white images of walls and old houses and depression era (largely unpopulated) street scenes have much art historical merit on some levels it reminds me of the atonal  and experimental music produced by 20th century music composer,  Karlheinz Stockhausen.  Heady stuff, intellectually, but practically speaking: unlistenable. Would I call is 'aloof'?  There is no single work by Walker Evans that comes into my head and my imagination even though I've seen his work over and over again. His most important work, in my estimation, is the work he did for the FSA during the depression. His portraits of tenant farmers and the unemployed from that era are iconic and powerful; it's his more cerebral, personal work that leaves me cold. He's an important fixture in the pantheon of 20th century photographers but you'll have to decide for yourself. This book is widely considered to be one of the best looks at Evans. :  Walker Evans: American Photographs: 75th Anniversary.

People who read the Visual Science Lab have been guessing all week that one of my five top photographers of the 20th century would be Elliott Erwitt. Not so. While I've enjoyed his work and collected his books over the years I really like the work the way I like the old Seinfeld show on TV. Every week you'd get some sort of wry insight into modern, urban culture. It's the same with Elliott Erwitt. There's tons and tons of wonderful, gracious, poignant and comedic work. Clever and well seen juxtapositions. But my sense is that it's all very good but not earth shattering. Elliott Erwitt is an ultimate practitioner with a depth of intelligence that, because of its relative paucity in general culture, is elevated in our estimation into a pantheon in which he just doesn't fit.  He is, without a doubt, a photographer's photographer but my sense is that his real genius is being able to spend the greater part of life having fun with his Leica, walking the streets and sharing his visual sense of humor. A wonderful contribution to our collective enjoyment of well done photography but not epochally breathtaking. Here are some of my favorite Erwitt books: Elliott Erwitt SnapsElliott Erwitt Paris, Elliott Erwitt Personal Exposures,  and Elliott Erwitt: On the BeachYou should at least own his thick but inexpensive book of Dog photos....Dog Dogs. It's a whopping ten bucks...and there's more good work in there than most photographers will get to in a lifetime.

One of my readers presumed that we had similar tastes and suggested that William Eggleston would be on my list. Nothing could be further from the truth. While a favorite of museum curators and gallery owners I can think of no 20th century work (other than Stephen Shore's) that leaves me with the feeling that I just saw ten episodes, back to back, of Masterpiece Theater's rendition of George Elliott's novel, Middlemarch. But not even the good episodes...  Our modern equivalent is probably Andreas Gursky....  OMG, COLOR !!!!!! And suburbia writ large....  Yawwwwwwn.
If you find you usually disagree with me vis-a-vis aesthetics you might want to embrace Eggleston.  William Eggleston's Guide might is as good a place as any...

So, who do I think is another one of the five important photographers that strode like a colossus over the world of 20th century photography?  Well, I think it would have to Josef Koudelka.  Don't know Koudelka? You should. His work has echoes of the images of HCB but with a hell of a lot more edge. His black and white book of Gypsies is the most powerful single book I have ever experienced. He shot close, intimate and powerful. While not as prolific (by a factor of thousands...) as People like Elliott Erwitt he is like the ultimate reduction.  The work is distilled down and made concentrated. And his backstory is an important one for a generation of soft and hazily committed photographers. Why? Because he lived this.  If you own five books of photographs by masters this should be one of them:  Gypsies (the collector's edition) This one is pricey.  Here's a version for the rest of us: Gypsies.  Here's a good sampler of his work from all over the world: Joseph Koudelka.  And here's one I'm just about to order for myself: Chaos.  It's a departure from his earlier work. Landscapes with a panoramic camera but with a very different approach to landscapes.... challenging but brilliant.

Joseph Koudelka is one of my favorite photographers of all time. But putting together a list of the top five, while a fun exercise, is also a silly undertaking. There's so much good work out there to discover. I have a "B+" list with nearly 100 photographers on it. Every one of them has shaped my generation's visions as photography makers. Everyone of them is an important part of the mix.  You don't see the foundations of a house but all the material you don't see is as important as the material you do...


One of the five greatest photographers of the 20th Century.

Go here to see some of his iconic images: http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL53ZMYN

The book that shoved photography from second class citizenship into consideration as true art was a revolutionary book that rumbled into the world and shook up editors, magazines and every photographer with a pulse. It was Henri Cartier Bresson's, The Decisive Moment. It's impossible to say, without sounding saturated with hyperbole, just how dramatic the impact of that book was when it hit the bookstores in 1952.

In the U.S. at the time, most journalists were using larger cameras like twin lens Rolleiflexes and bigger single plate cameras like the Graphlex. Most portraits were lit and meticulously controlled. Amateur photographers were at war with grain and most images were tinged with a vague romanticism. HCB walked into the party and turned it upside down.

He was one of the pioneers of the genre we now call street photography but he practiced it all over the world, from Alabama to China. He carried a small, screw mount Leica camera with which he was ultimately fluid. He favored the 50mm focal length but kept a 35mm in one pocket and a 90mm in another pocket. His camera was, of course, a completely manual rangefinder and no one ever saw him use, touch, or hold a light meter. He learned exposure through experience.

He never used flash. He once was quoted as saying that "Using flash is like bringing a handgun to the Opera."

But what about the images? This collection contains over 150 very well printed images. The book weighs in at 6 pounds and is 338 pages in all. The images chosen are both his best work and his greatest hits.

The core of what HCB did was this:  He was inconspicuous, his camera was used quickly and discreetly, his exposures were pre-estimated, he watched for the decisive moment when all the elements in a frame came together perfectly, when the energy of the frame hit a peak, and he would bring the camera to his eye and snap.  He captured a world in transition. From the second world war, to peacetime and rebuilding and he documented transitions in societies into modernism and into the post industrial age.

But he was much more than a documentarian. He was an artist. He was trained as a painter. He came from enormous wealth and he left a legacy that changed our visual world.

I remember back to 1977 when I  was working hard at being an electrical engineering student at UT. I went to the Fine Arts Library with a girlfriend and I browsed while she worked on a paper. I stumbled across a copy (now nearly priceless) of the first English edition of The Decisive Moment and sat down in one of the study carrels to glance through it. Over the course of several hours I looked through the book again and again. Trying to tattoo the images onto my retinas. In one moment of library Satori I'd discovered a master who was responsible for me buying my first real camera (a 35mm rangefinder) and embarking into a passionate study of photography

Looking through my collection of HCB books I am still inspired and can still see the influence of this Frenchman's vision poking and tickling my images. He taught us that photography was about motion, about design and about being aware enough to know exactly when to hit the button and save a concisely framed moment in black and white amber.

He, along with Avedon and Penn, is one of the five greatest photographers of the 20th Century. In my mind he is the precursor to the current, modern age of image making. A loner, an artist, a sensualist. Buy the book at your own peril. I've met many photographers who were lured into this passion during an unguarded moment with a book of Henri Cartier Bresson photographs.

Can we talk about microphones for a second?

I know every time I write anything about video or microphones almost everyone tunes out and it kills the blog for a couple of days. But I can't help it. I bought my Sony cameras partly because they are good, efficient video tools and microphones are generally one of the cogs in production that make a difference. Miles of copy have been written by video professionals about really good microphones and, without a doubt, you can get a really good microphone for $600 and up. But how many of us really need to sport the absolute best if video generally plays second fiddle to our still photography? While I'd love to be booking the kinds of video projects that require perfect sound recorded at the time of shooting the reality is that the market I find most welcoming for video productions are the same smaller ad agencies and small businesses that buy my photography.

Most of the work I've done in video for the past few years has ended up being targeted directly for the web. Sound quality is important but there really is such a thing as "good enough for the web." For a lot of what I do I need more microphone flexibility than raw excellence. By that I mean the primary goal I have is to use a microphone that I can position off the camera and as close to the subject as possible without having the microphone in the shot. My secondary (but still important) goal is that the microphone not obviously color the sound with glaringly inaccurate reproduction.

I have a set of Sennheiser wireless microphones that are complex, expensive and give very, very good sound. But they are a pain to set up and calibrate. Just like people who have both a big DSLR and a small mirrorless camera I find myself, more and more, using more traditional, straightforward microphones that are hooked to my camera with a cable. And I find that my mid-to-low priced units can sound almost as good as my more expensive microphones if I use them well. I hate to say it but to some extent it's not so much about the gear but how you use it that counts.

In this blog I'm going to talk about the three microphones in my sound box that I use all the time but I want to  issue this caveat: I am not a sound expert and when the budgets are ripe and succulent I always hire a sound person who brings along his owner mixer, microphones and sometimes a separate digital recorder. My microphones make their appearance when I'm shooting for a web video or an "in-house" presentation for a company. Where big stake are involved I tend to dial-a-pro.  You should consider that too.

The microphone above is a nice, plastic microphone from the Australian company, Rode. It's called a VideoMic. It's monoaural, shock mounted and runs off a 9V battery. It's fairly directional but not nearly as directional as a true "shotgun" microphone. That's okay by me because a wider pattern means I can be a bit sloppier in placement.  Too might a pattern and being off axis makes for poorer, not better sound. This microphone is pretty inexpensive at around $150.  I use it to record sound on sets where I can't show a microphone in the scene.  If I use it within two feet of a speaker or actor and aim it correctly the sound is very good.  Ben and I both have one of these and we count on it for most stuff. When you put a wind screen over it (dead cat) you can make good use of it outdoors. This is my first line tool for projects where I have someone who can hold this microphone on a pole and position it and reposition it while we shoot. 

The microphone just above is Rode's inexpensive stereo microphone. I use it a lot in the studio when I can use it close to my subjects because it's a pretty nice voice microphone. It has a stereo plug that goes straight into my camera's 3.5mm plug.  It records a left and a right channel and it's best use is as an all around documentary mic in a small, quiet room where you are trying to mic two or more people in conversation but have only one mic and one set of eyes and ears with which to monitor said mic. There's a lot of usage cross over between this mic and the one at the top of the article. From time to time, if the venue is quiet enough, I will mount this mic on a fishpole and use it the same way I would use a short shotgun microphone to record dialogue.

If there are no operational caveats; if you can use this mic as close as you want and at the angle you want, you can get amazingly good sound from it. It's not a high decible level performance mic. I don't think you'd want to use it with a rocker who screams. But for general work it's a champ. Not as directional as the VideoMic but that can be a blessing. Around $249. If you are working alone and fast, off tripod, it's great to be able to stick the StereoMic in the accessory shoe of your camera and put the audio recorder on ALC and just go. At least you'll have good "natural sound" to use in your edit...

Finally I want to tell you how I use my "kit lens" of a microphone, the Olympus ME 51S.  This is the microphone that Olympus sold in the SEMA-1 kit that contained an adapter to plug into the port on the back of Olympus Pen cameras.  You could plug the microphone directly into the adapter and use it as a better "on camera" microphone or you could attach it to a stereo, 3.5mm to 3.5mm cord and use it off camera. The whole bundle is well under $100 and the SEMA-1 adapter is the only way to get off camera microphone audio into your camera when recording.

The microphone consists of two omni-directional microphones so in a live room it tends to pick up every sound with very little discretion. But most lavalier microphones also happen to be omni's and they work very well in isolating the voices of speakers and actors when the lav microphones are position on a lapel or shirt plaque, close to the speaker's mouth.  And, not surprisingly, the little Olympus works well in those kinds of applications too.

I helped a friend with a video for an association over the weekend. We had a lot of microphones to choose from but we chose to go with one of these. We clipped it to our interview subjects' shirts and cabled it back to a Sony a77. Even though we did not use one of the mixers that emits a non-audible tone to over ride the ALC of the camera the microphone was surprisingly un-noisy. And the camera managed to intelligently work it's auto level controls so that there were no big, fast spikes in spurious noise. We reviewed the sound this morning on small monitor speakers and it was actually quite good.

I've started to think of microphones the way I think about lenses. The cost is not always a good determiner of their usability. While an L series 50mm 1.1.2 costs somewhere in the $1500 range an enormous number of people swear by the 50mm 1.8 EF lens (the nifty fifty) and do very good work with it. Under certain circumstances the L lens might shine but for everyday work and everyday budgets the nifty fifty is a perfectly workable compromise.

We've also found that slower aperture zoom lenses can routinely outperform faster, more expensive zoom lenses in the same focal length ranges. In the Sony line the Sony 55-200DT is an excellent performer and, if you never need fast, you'd probably have a hard time distinguishing files from it (at $199) and the 70-200mm 2.8 Sony G lens (at $1995). Same thing with microphones. Use a high end production digital audio recorder, perfect microphone placement and an acoustically optimized setting and you'll get amazing sound. Videotape in a mall with a lot of background noise and non-optimum acoustics and you may find the microphones are equally challenged.

I mentioned that I have a wonderful set of Sennheiser's wireless microphones and they do sound great. But I've compared them to the big ME 51S and they are both better than my current talents or ability to make one appreciably better than the other.

Our video project worked well.

Side note:  All three images were shot with one small, Fotodiox 312 AS LED panel positioned about a foot and a half above the microphones, shining straight down. The rest of the light was just fill from windows around the studio. A quick and easy set up. No filters required.


Saw these things on my way to work last night.

So, I was working the evening shift for the Visual Science Lab last night. I checked into the lab, took an iodine tablet just in case I'd been exposed to any random radiation during the course of the day (the Homeland Security people are flying planes filled with radiation detectors over the city to  try to measure pinpoint hot spots that may be linked to terrorism aimed at the big event) and then grabbed my job sheet from the dispatcher's desk. I drew hazardous duty. My assignment was to brave downtown with the projected 300,000 Formula One guests and then do photography for a private investment bank. I left the studio an hour earlier than I usually would because I was concerned about traffic and parking. I needn't have bothered because there was no traffic, plenty of parking and a number of half empty restaurants and bars right in the middle of downtown. The hordes? Many fewer than a typical day at South by Southwest. The one thing that was different was all the cool little cars being displayed at some of the local venues. This one (above) is kind of round-y and reminded me of a Volkswagen Bug. I might look into getting one as a run around or delivery car for the Visual Science Lab. I haven't seen a dealer yet in Austin so I'm a little hesitant about committing----but if they're a bit cheaper than a VW I might just get one. And maybe one for Ben as well. They are really cute.

I didn't think I'd be able to get in the door at Caffe Medici since all I'd been hearing for weeks was that 300K people would be arriving into the downtown area with bags of money ready to spend on everything from coffee to mink lined, diamond studded cowboy boots. According to the owner of Austin's premier coffee shop it had not been a particularly busy day. Most of the seats and tables were open even though the day's festivities at the big track had been over for hours. The few out of towners were huddled outside huffing and puffing on their cigarettes.

I photographed these artfully arranged flowers in front of the W Hotel. Yes, the Formula One Grand Prix is tomorrow but there are still vacancies today. Just give them a ring. Whatever. The flowers were nicely arranged over an array of LED panels. They looked cool. And stayed cool.  I made the photos (Above and Below) with a Sony Nex 7 camera and an older, Olympus Pen FT 40mm 1.4 lens. I think it's a lovely lens. I've stopped believing in the magic of focus peaking for wide open high speed lenses and prefer to confirm focus by hitting the magnify buttons a few time....

I finished my assignment before 10pm and headed back across downtown to the area where I'd parked the VSL staff car. Many of the streets were blocked off. I expected (based on the press speculation that the elite of EU car racing would be in attendance) that I would see dazzling glamorous beauties in the latest fashions accompanied by men who dressed more like James Bond than Homer Simpson but it was not that way. The whole milieu resembled mostly the 1990's street carnivals in San Antonio that spring up around that city's Fiesta. Lots of Kettle Corn and vendors selling cotton candy. An impromptu outdoor beer garten with the usual assortment of wide characters wearing ubiquitous car oriented Members Only style jackets over their XXL logo'd white t-shirts.

I headed back to my car, less than a quarter mile walk from downtown, and was pleased to find both that it was still there and intact and, that it was on a street with dozens and dozens of open parking spaces. I'm sure the race on Sunday will be a lot of fun for those attending. But downtown was comparatively a ghost town. If you want to see what crowded looks like you need to come to a home grown event like any Halloween evening on Sixth St.

Added to on Sunday evening: Here's the first news story about the economic impact of the race on local, downtown businesses:


It was my intention to spend part of all three days downtown documenting the crowds but after my direct observations on Friday evening it was pretty clear to me that the only excitement was at the track and that the expected boon to the local economy was anything but. I chose to stay home and read a good book.  So this is the European version of NASCAR? Right....