12.09.2012

How to drive yourself crazy as a professional photographer.

This is an old 4x5 inch photo (transparency)  of chips on a wafer.
We used to do hundreds of these kinds of shots, day in and day out.
Now most everything is a CAD rendering.
That's okay with me, it was boring work.
I came across the film this afternoon and wondered what would happen
if I laid it down in the light path of the Epson V500 Scanner and
Scanned it. The scanner only does up to medium format.
This is what happens. And then it dawned on me that I could make a 
template and do two scans and put them together in PhotoShop.
A new way to scan and stitch some older, bigger film.

I've got a job booked this coming week that is four days long, very taxing, lots of different image requirements and very, very high profile in terms of being front and center with a CEO and a world class celebrity. I even got to select and hire a second photographer to cover all the stuff I couldn't schedule. The job is a conference for large corporation. There will be thousands of people attending from all over the world. The client needs coverage from the first meet and greet through the keynote address and even down into the breakout sessions and cool product unveilings. Lots of segments require some fast turnaround times.

You can imagine that the pressure is on but what's making me nuts is the equipment end of the equation. As most of you know I just bought a Sony a99 and since I like the files very much, and the camera is the best high ISO camera I've ever used (It's kind like the high ISO quality of a Nikon D700 but with twice as many pixels...) I want to make sure it's front and center in my camera bag. But I'm in the process of backfilling the Sony systems in a transition from a focus on cropped APS-C cameras to a new focus on the full frame camera.

My first realization was the I'd need a mid-range zoom for a lot of grip and grin stuff as well as the fast breaking celebrity meet and greet. I have a 16-50mm 2.8 lens that's very good but it's made for the APS-C cameras so I started the search for the right lens for the bigger camera. I played extensively with the Carl Zeiss CZ 24-70mm for the Sony and I was going to buy one until I came across a set of lens reviews by a guy named, Kurt Munger, who is a long time Sony expert and tester. He put the older Tamron 28-75mm f2.8 for Sony  up against the CZ in a very detailed review/test. The Tamron was superior for the kind of work I do and a much better value.  Both are f2.8 all the way through the focal range but the CZ is $1895 while the Tamron is......$499.  I bought a Tamron and spent hours testing it this afternoon and it's really very, very good.  The center sharpness at f4 and smaller stops is outrageous.  Better than the Carl Zeiss. And I'll need the money I saved by getting the cheaper lens because the new Sony a99 uses a different flash hot shoe configuration than all previous Sony digital cameras (except the Nex 6).  That means I can go into multi-adapter mode or I can bite the bullet and buy the new HVL F60 Sony flash which comes with the correct dedicated shoe.

When I found out that the HVL F60 has a powerful set of built-in LEDs which provide an alternative light source my decision was made and I kiss goodbye to another sturdy packet of money.  Many lattes. Now it remains to be seen whether Amazon really can get it here to me in Austin by end of day tomorrow... And whether I can read and understand the manual tomorrow night. I called the local dealer but Sony hasn't shipped them the new flash yet....


The long end of the equation is covered. I have the 70-200mm Sony G lens and it's wonderfully sharp even if it does weigh a ton and happens to be a carpal tunnel incident waiting to happen... It also works well on the back up a77 body and gives another 100mm of reach with the same basic resolution on that camera.

If I need to go wider than 28mm with the a99 I have the Sony 20mm 2.8 lens in the bag. I can also default to the Sigma 10-20 on the a77.  Or I can throw any of the APS-C lenses on the a99 and it will use them at the appropriate focal lengths but will only deliver 10 megapixels of resolution.  With many of the images it might be a workable solution but I think I'll stick to doing the wides on the a77 and sticking with a higher resolution standard throughout the shoot.

Of course, this all needs to fit into one camera bag which I will carry around with me all day, each day, for about ten hours at a whack. Oh yes, I also have to add a laptop to the baggage for one of the days for a fast breaking turn on some timely images.

But the biggest source of anxiety as regards the shoot is my irrational desire to shoot most of the show (not any of the long shots) with the two Sony Nex cameras. They are so small and elegant and everything I shoot with them seems to turn out to be sweeter than candy. So what I really want to do is go back and forth between two systems.

But packing is already getting nuts. I have to bring two speed lights with me. Not just because no professional should commit to a big job without appropriate back up but because one speed light has a shoe for one series of cameras while the other speed light has a different shoe for the other cameras. I'll have adapters that allow the flashes to cross over in each direction but I like to work with made for this camera type flashes and not have to depend on workarounds.

So, the bag already looks like this: Sony a77, Sony a99, six extra camera batteries (Thank you! Sony for making them all interchangeable). 70-200mm for stage shots, 28-75 2.8 for most grip and grins with  flash. A 16-50mm for back up coverage for grip and grins on the a77. Two big, heavy Sony flashes that cover the situation in either camera direction. Plenty of extra Eneloop batteries for said flashes. The 20mm for wide on the a99. The Sigma 10-20mm for ultra wide to wide everywhere but dedicated to the a77. Gobs of SD cards.

I may have to compromise and just take along one Nex with one cool lens for those times when I want to be, well, cool. But I'd like to take both of the Nexi, the two Sigmas and the 50mm 1.8 lens. I already know it's a dumb idea but I'm kind of stubborn.

I'll need to take along a tripod since there is always someone who will want the stage look and signage all shot, along with special lighting effects. Those shots usually require deep depth of field.  But I'll make sure it's an older one that I can leave backstage and not cry over if it runs away from home.

If I were a risk taker I'd just schlep along the a99, the 28-75mm, the 20mm and the 70-200mm. Toss in the new flash and the batteries and be done with it. Easy as pie.  But when I play for high $takes I tend to be conservative and cover the bases so that's not going to happen.

But these are the pitfalls we go through when changing systems, and then changing systems within systems.

When you add the details of scheduling and people management to the mix, as well as arranging for a dog sitter for the duration of the show, you can see that things just pile up. Then there's the famous Austin downtown parking. And the infamous rush hour traffic, amplified by an additional three or four thousand new visitors all heading for the same locus.

Oh, and some parts of the agenda are good with business casual wardrobe while several little segments will require coat and tie. Do I need to shine my shoes tonight? Wouldn't hurt.

All of this means that today and tomorrow are the test and charge days. All the batteries get topped off. The new flash gets used over and over again with the manual open on my desk. The camera settings get double checked and, over the course of the day tomorrow I am certain we'll have more than one phone-in conference to go over new and ever expanding details. Ah well, handling the stress is what we really get paid for. I'm looking forward to a fun and challenging job. Now if only I can settle on some camera choices...














12.08.2012

There's something therapeutic about photographing live theater.


I love photographing dress rehearsals.
They are over in about 2 to 2 and a half hours so you have to be finished.
You get to listen to live music as you work.
People don't want to sit next to you because of the camera noise (++)
The actors and the costumers and stage crafters make you look better than you are.
Intermission is a great time to go out onto the balcony and snap a shot of the LED sign.
Sometimes, when there's a VIP reception, you get to have the good red wine.
You get to feel like an artist who works with other artists.

If you shoot with more than one camera on a regular basis and a lot of what you shoot is fun, personal work, you often get ready to do a paying  job with one of those cameras and realize that you have lots of little, fun stuff already resident on the memory card inside. A case in point: I shot a dress rehearsal of White Christmas at Zachary Scott Theatre last week and the cameras below are the ones I used to document the show. The one on the chair is a Sony a99 with the spiffy 70-200mm G lens an the one in the bag is an a77 with the really nice 16-50mm f2.8 lens. 

Also featured in the image is one of the first really nice holiday presents that Belinda bought me when we were first dating; an authentic, original Leitz monopod. I got it as a gift in 1980. Although it is now thirty two years old it works as well as it did the day I got it and the patina of age makes it seem almost as cool as I really think it is. I have a Saunders quick release plate on it in this photo but it usually has its matching Leitz ball head on top. ( I put release plates on the big lens and on the a77 body and I use them when the light gets dim but most of the time I just depend on my technique and the quite good image stabilization in both cameras.

But of course, if these are my two shooting cameras I must have used something else to take the image. It was the Nex 6, which I have fallen for hook, line and sinker.  The camera is tiny and, when coupled with either the Sigma 19 or 40mm lens, it little bigger than a regular point and shoot camera. But I am finding the files to be tremendous and the feel in my hands to be as good and comfy as its big brother, the Nex 7.

I was out shooting portraits today and pulled this camera from the little backpack to use (in a professional, paid job) and the images in this blog were already waiting for me on the card.


Since I've been taking the 6 with me everywhere, wearing it around my neck like a necktie, I've been documenting all kinds of stuff that seems fun to me. I walked out of a Starbucks the other day at sunset and looked up at the sky to see the image below. All I had to do was reach down, grab the camera, bring it to my eye and shoot. Then I got in the car and drove off. Freedom. Light weight. Everything in one bag. It's one way to go....












Quick and easy light in a very small space.


Added 12/09/2012: Background dropped out. No color corrections other than lightening Lauren, overall. I'm not sure what background the designer will finally use on the web but taking the blue out totally changes my perception of flesh tone, etc.

I often end up shooting quick portraits in tight places. For most of my career I carried around heavy monolights or pack and head flash systems for even the simplest of shoots because that's how we did it. Six or seven years ago we started doing smaller shoots in smaller places with portable, battery powered camera strobes but even that is more complicated than it needs to be. You've got to have flash triggers and a modeling light to be able to really see what you are doing.

Today I needed to go back to a company I'd worked with last month to photograph the last few people for their website. These were folks whose schedules precluded them from being at the first shoot. I'm using this garish, blue background because we'll be dropping out the background altogether and putting a solid color in behind the person, so we just needed some color to separate the subject from the background.

This is a one light set up. I have a 60 inch softlighter umbrella set up over to the right hand side of the frame. I was originally going to use a flash to do this shoot and I brought a Fotodiox 312 AS LED panel along to use in the dimly lit room we were put in as modeling light or set light. I stuck it on the light stand with the umbrella for some extra illumination while I was setting up. But when I looked at the quality of the light from the panel, bouncing off the umbrella, I decided to forego the flash altogether and use the light as I had it set up.

I filled the light from the LED panel and umbrella with a white reflector just out of the frame on the opposite side from the light. Two technical things make this work for me. One is that I brought along a tripod. That let me go as low as I wanted to in order to get a good exposure without any camera movement. The second technical thing, which I'm concentrating on more these days, is making a custom white balance.  Once my one light was set up and positioned I pulled my white diffuser into the frame and made a custom white balance measurement directly from the white fabric. The camera set a value of 4300K temperature and +2 M (which is a very, very small adjustment away from neutral to compensate for the very, very slight shift to green caused by the LED light profile). I did not use any sort of color correction filter on the light or the camera.

I used a custom white balance because I am becoming more aware that changing WB in raw has the effect of subsequently changing the exposure of the image file. If I had the perfect exposure with the wrong WB I would then have to compromise exposure and fiddle more with the basic parameters of the image to get back to neutral. The proof is in the tasting of the pudding. The file above has no color correction or exposure correction applied, and it is a jpeg.  To my eye the file is just a little bit "cold" but I think when I drop out the blue my perception of the skin tones will change.

That the scene was lit by a $149, battery powered LED panel still fascinates me. Everything is a trade off but this set up is one I'm happy to take. Every piece of gear I used was hand carried in one trip from the car.

I used a pop up background on a single, centered stand. The reflector was on a small stand with a clamp. I shot with my Sony Nex 6 set to Jpeg fine/large. The creative style was set to "portrait." ISO 800. Exposure setting f2.8 at 1/30th. I photographed six people with this set up this afternoon and the batteries in the LED panel, after over 150 exposures, still showed 75% full. And remember, I could shoot as fast as I wanted to without concern for recycle times because the LED panel kicks out continuous light. 

I used Sony's 50mm 1.8 OSS lens and since I was on a really good tripod I turned off the image stabilization. I think the lens is great. It's sharp enough but has a nice look to the out-of-focus area of the background. After looking at the files I decided I needed to order just one more panel from Fotodiox so that's on the way.

Below is how I have the LED panel set on the umbrella. 

Had I been using the a99 I might have shot at ISO 1600 or even 3200 and used a higher shutter speed. Not that it would have mattered much. It's so much easier to focus and see in a darker space when you add a good continuous light as opposed to trying to do it all with small flashes. The LED panels are perfect for applications like this. And they've become much more color neutral even within just the last year.

Thanks to Lauren at the Spa for graciously allowing me to use her image in the blog.













12.07.2012

But is the Sony Nex 7 sharp? I mean, really sharp?


It was a nice, brisk day in Austin in late November. I needed to deliver some image files to the college of Petroleum Engineering at the University of Texas. Good luck finding parking anywhere near the side of campus that contains the Petro complex, with 50,000+ students looking for parking every day you may as well be looking for $20 bills scattered on the ground. I used to teach at UT so I know the drill: Take the first open space on your journey in that coincides with your comfortable ability to walk. But when you walk a mile to your final destination be sure to bring along a camera in case you see anything that you need to photograph.

I had a Sony Nex-7 with me and it had an adapter that let me use "A" lenses from my bigger DSLT Sony cameras. I had on one of the cheap Sony 50mm f1.8 DT lenses because I anticipated doing some casual portraits later in the day. With a 75mm equivalent focal length it wasn't quite the "standard" lens for shooting a bit of architecture.  But as artists, sometimes we have to make due.

After I delivered my flash memory stick to the right person I turned around and headed back towards the car. I walked down a street called Speedway and I was amazed at how many new buildings had popped up since my last walk through campus. Some of them looked quite striking so I set the camera the way I wanted it for a sunny day and started snapping away.

I was using the sharpest, middle apertures of the lens and trying to hold everything steady. I think the files are fun and that the Nex 7 is really a sharp camera when used correctly. While the kit zoom is reasonably good prime lenses are even better. 


I'm equally happy with the performance I'm getting out of the Nex-6. So yesterday I spent some time packing a small Nex kit to use for most of my fun work. It consists of a Nex-6, a Nex-7,  the kit zoom (mostly for the widest angle), the Sigma 19mm, the Sigma 30mm, the Sony 50mm 1.8 OSS and the lens adapter for Sony "A" lenses. I've also added a Metz 36 flash, dedicated to the weird and proprietary Sony hot shoe. I've got four extra camera batteries and four extra 16 Gigabyte Transcend SD cards packed as well.  All in all it seems like the perfect little travel system when it's all packed in the little moss green Tenba backpack I bought earlier this year.

When everything is packed together I can just grab it and go. It's the counterpoint to a more extensive system I'll be using most of next week...

















12.06.2012

The very serious business of making portraits.


I love to make portraits. I love that not all of my subjects are required to smile. I love that we can spend time talking about life while we're making portraits. I love to work in black and white but I don't fear color. I love light that can be both dramatic and flattering. I love the contrast of dark shirts against light skin. I love longish lenses and continuous lights. I love going back and looking at old contact sheets to look at the "paths" not taken and then re-scanning and reprinting to see if my tastes have grown or changed since we last peeked into the contact sheets and made our choices.

I love feeling the day slip away outside my windows while the slow and comfortable process of making a portrait unfolds. I love to hear the snap (with miniature Mercedes Benz door closing sound added in) of the shutter and feel the waft of photons fly through the room.

But the part of the portrait experience I like best is what I did half an hour ago. I sat down with a stack of contact sheets and went slowly through them, looking at every frame. And then I found something I'd never really seen or paid attention to before and I zero'd in on it and scanned the negative and worked the file.  And now, regardless of whoever else likes the image I have made a little gem of art for myself. Something special and intimate and non-repeatable.

The same day never happens again.

I count myself lucky that I can still make a living doing the work that I love. Not every client wants to step outside of tradition and popular taste and embrace a distinct style, and that's okay because I can switch gears and become a traditionalist for at least the duration of a shoot. But there are enough people out in the brave big world who like new, different and bette and they are the bread and butter of what we do.

While I guess it helps to learn  how we did it in the bad old days I think we should embrace our own vision and press it forcefully into the world of commerce. How else will the paradigms change?

12.05.2012

More thoughts about the a99.


It's hard sometimes to write stuff for the web and to also show meaningful photographic examples. No matter how you upload stuff for mass consumption on the internet it will be crunched, compressed and artifacts will occur. So when I write about a camera and then show images from the camera it's frustrating. The qualities in the samples is never what I see on my office monitor.  In many ways the real litmus test for image quality is still the act of making large prints and looking at them under controlled conditions, but we can't really do that every day for thousands of readers. The best thing I can suggest is to read the words and also look at the images but-----if you are looking at the images on an old laptop or the screen of your phone you might just trust the words over the images that you see in front of you.

When I looked at the image, above, on my screen I was looking at Sony's extra fine, full size jpeg which (I can tell by the original file size) doesn't get radically compressed in camera. So I was seeing some good tonal range and a high degree of sharpness and detail. Having slain all dangerous business dragons in the early hours of 6 am to 10 am today I gave into temptation and profiled a version of the above for a print out at Costco, on glossy paper. The image was printed at 12 by 18 inches. When I picked up the print (and some batteries, and 50 rolls of toilet paper and a shrink-wrapped package of 12 jumbo sized cans of tuna...kidding...) I glanced at it under the store's florescent lights, thought they'd done a decent job staying on top of their paper profiles and drove home.

Once I got back to the studio I pulled the print back out, flicked on my big OTT light for print viewing, grabbed my most authentic pair of reading glasses and took a better look. Absent was any hint of noise or file grittiness. The detail was pretty amazing and the colors looked rich and believable. It was a totally different evaluation experience than the one I usually do out of laziness, which is to toss the file into an Apple computer and then pop the file up to 100% in Lightroom or Photoshop and looking at it on a 27 inch, calibrated monitor. No matter which files we're looking into at 100% there's always something we don't like about them.

In printed form the file from the a99 Jpeg was about as good as a print gets. How would I know? I've been making prints and ordering prints for large commercial clients and magazines for about a quarter of a century now. It gives me some perspective.


Today I used the a99 to do a holiday card image for a very creative advertising agency. I'd show you the image but it's top secret until it goes out in the mail. I used the a99 with the 85mm f2.8 at f 5.6 until we all (two creative directors and an art director) looked at a few test files together and all agreed that the lens was too good, the files too detailed and the look too clinical. I pulled a Minolta 24-85mm f3.5 to f4.5 (long since discontinued and forgotten) out of the bag and we shot with that instead. It had a different look; a bit less clinical, and the agency liked that. We banged out 125 shots against a white background and here's how we did out post processing:  I sat down at the art director's desk and downloaded the files into her MacBook Pro via the SD card slot. We put the jpeg files into a folder on her desktop.  Then she picked up her computer and everyone followed her into the agency's conference room where she hooked up her computer to the 50 inch HD TV and hit "slideshow" in Preview.

The images popped up onto the screen and we all laughed at the funniest ones and made the intern mark down the frame numbers. I packed up my few lights, the backdrop and the camera and left. That was the extent of my post production on the job. 

I did have the images on my SD card when I came back into the studio and I was curious what ISO 125 looked like so I put them into my computer and started blowing things up. And blowing them up.  And blowing them up. Now I can say a few things about the Sony a99's low ISO Jpegs.  1. Zero Noise. 2. Perfect color (thank you, custom white balance). 3. Some of the best files I've seen for technical goodness.

It's been a busy couple of days here and I'm doing a lot of pre-production for another spa shoot on Saturday and then a three day marathon for a giant computer company that starts next Tues. (warning, probably a very sparse time for blogs from the 11th to the 13th....) but I do have the whole day to myself tomorrow and I'm going to be doing the next critical camera test. I'm going to shoot and process some raw files and I'm going to break out the weird shoe to normal hot shoe adapter that comes with the a99 and see if it does a better job with  shoe mount electronic flash than the a77.

If the tests go well I will share them with you. If they go poorly I'll just sit on the floor and pout.

One of the challenges for any camera is radically mixed light. The kind I hate is sunlight on one side of a person's face and florescent or tungsten on the other. You can see in the image above that the people outside the spot light are lit mostly by coolish tungsten balanced light (approx. 3660K in this example) while the people seated at the table are in a pool of cool daylight (6200K, approx.).  Since the main action is the interplay between the lead actors at the table I quick set the color temperature for their position and let the chorus actors go blue. Very blue.  No camera in the world will make the color any more uniform since that's not the role of stage light. I do find it interesting that the color balance of a scene is intimately tied to the final exposure of a scene. Many times I'll correct for color and find a scene going much lighter or darker than it had been, either in camera or on the monitor.

The biggest example is in warming up an image that's too cold, light-wise. The exposure can change by up to a stop in some situations. I guess my point would be to color correct first, then set exposure, then fine tune the color balance a little bit more. I mention it here because I shot several frames in mixed light before I decided what I would emphasize and I watched again this morning as the exposure rocked around during color corrections. The Sony a99 will store three or four custom WB presets. The way to make theater photography easier is to come in early and have someone go through the major light cues while you set up custom white balances for the two or three predominant ones. If you know the lighting on the stages you normally shoot on you could keep those balances locked in.

An example might be daylight in preset one, 4400K in preset two and 3300K in preset three. With an a99 or a77 or OMD you'll be able to make the changes while keeping your eye on the viewfinder and you'll be able to pre-chimp the effect of each WB setting. Since the presets are all right next to each other in the menu you won't waste precious time scrolling through the menu.


My nemesis are the big optical spotlights that the theater is using as follow spots. They seem to have an almost cyan/green cast to them that doesn't seem to bother the lighting designer or anyone else in the theater but, when juxtaposed with the tungsten stage lights, they have a distinct color cast that drives me nuts. The correction in Lightroom is the addition of 24 pts of magenta and a bit higher than 5800K temperature correction. It's actually the one compelling reason I've come across to use raw files when shooting in the new theater. Let's me do tightly constrained color correction with the adjustment brush before I make the final conversions. 

Breaking in a new camera can be like learning to drive a new car. Everything is not where you expect it to be. But drive it to work everyday and you figure out all the important stuff pretty quickly. And really, most cars and cameras are more the same than they are different.

Final note. Battery life with a well used (but not too old) battery was much better than the battery life I experienced with the camera and it's brand new battery.

Thanks for reading. 

Be sure to order some books for Christmas.  Or get yourself one of those really nice a99's....











A first peek at my Sony a99. White Christmas?


I'll admit it right off the bat; I had the Sony a99 for three days before I really pulled it out of the box and played with it in earnest. I was too busy enjoying the heck out of the swell files I was getting from the new, little Nex 6. But I figured I'd spent the money on the bigger machine so I might as well de-box it and give it a go. I'm excited by the concept of the a99 but truthfully it looks so much like my a77's that it's hard to get worked up over the physical actuality of the camera. 

I always buy tons of extra batteries when I buy into a system and I'm happy that all three of my DSLT cameras from Sony use the same battery. I popped a fully charged battery into the a99 and when through the menus, preset the camera and immediately went off to shoot a job with it. (No, I did not go all in. I carried along an a77 and the Nex 6-------just in case).

Yesterday evening's job was to photograph the dress rehearsal of Irving Berlin's, White Christmas, at the new Topfer Theater at the Zachary Scott Theatre Complex. The bulk of the images I shot were done with the Sony 70-200mm f2.8 G lens. It's big, fat, heavy and bulky. A real, all American lens aesthetic. But it's very sharp and handles well in spite of its bulk. I figured I bought the camera for its image quality and it's ability to shoot under low light conditions so I didn't mess around. I set the ISO to 3200, the noise reduction to low, and over the course of the evening shot around 979 big, fat, x.fine Jpegs.

If you think I write too much I'll just cut to the chase and tell you what I think. Look at the image above, shot all the way out at 200mm, handheld. Now look at the image just below which is an approximate 1:1 enlargement of the center guy in the frame. Now click on it so you can see it bigger in a separate window. And remember that it's been resized down and compressed for the web. That's really all I needed to know about the camera. It just works and works well.

100% Crop.

Since most of the AF points are closer to the center of the frame than in the a77 I changed some of the ways I work with the cameras. I chose to use the center grouping of focusing points and to use C-AF instead of S-AF. The camera focuses quickly in low light and nearly instantaneously in good light.

During the shoot I kept an a77 in the chair next to me with a 16-50mm 2.8 lens mounted on it and I would pick it up and shoot wide stage shots from time to time. When I compare files I was pleasantly surprise to see that the a77 was not that far behind the a99 in overall quality (of course I kept the a77 at ISO 800....). In fact, it made me re-appreciate the a77 because that camera handles very well, has the same fast focus and the EVF is also really good.


None of these files has been hit with post processing noise reduction and I included quite a few that transition to black or heavy shadow so that the compulsive among us can peer into the low end of the Zone System scale and look for outrageous noise. If you are looking at the green uniform in the image above please be aware that the weave of cloth material is a different thing from noise...

a77 image.

In sober retrospect I'm asking myself this morning if I really needed to go ahead and buy an a99. While the camera is fun and solid, and I'm liking the files so far, I was very happy with the work I had been doing with the a77 and feel as though I could have continued along with those cameras for some time. But there are a few things I'm looking forward to with the a99.  One of those is the look of a high speed 50mm image with the full frame camera. Another is working with an 85mm in its ultimate visual comfort zone.

 a77

Like everyone else I fall into the habits I've been developing.  I had the Sony a77 and a57 menus pretty well figured out so I didn't stray much (or have to re-learn much) with the a99 but since I haven't practiced with the potentially cool front silent control dial I didn't mess around with it while on the job. Having done some more experimenting over the last month with the electronic shutter curtain I found that shots done with relatively fast lenses, used wide open and at fast shutter speeds, could potentially show edge blurring in shots with high lighting contrast. Especially scenes with light against dark. And it's an effect that can be accentuated in theater phtotography with deeply saturated, colored lighting.

Very few of my shots have been affected but it did happen from time to time and the effect is different from either flare or potential mirror reflections. Last night I made a point of setting both cameras in the mechanical shutter mode and I was happy to see that every frame was free of any sort of shutter induced aberration.  If you use electronic first curtain in any of your cameras you might experiment to find situations in which that is a non-optimal setting.  Not every tool works for every job in the same way.
a77.


When I opened up the frames I shot with the a99/70-200mm combination I was happy to see that they were crisp, not blocked up in the highlights or the shadows (beyond what would be natural in dramatic theater lighting) and that they blew up very well. I tried to help the jpeg engine along by setting the creative mode to "standard" and setting a minus one for contrast. Most of my exposures were in the range of 1/160th to 1/250th which helped freeze action while the constant ISO 3200 allowed me to stop down the lens to a more optimum f4.5 to f5.6.  The 70-200 Sony G is as sharp wide open as any of the competitors but they all look better one or two stops down, if you have the leeway to get there.



The a99 camera felt natural in my hands. I've been using the a77 for almost a year and the feel of the cameras is pretty close, if not identical. The finder seems more neutral and less contrasty than the a77 finder and the only thing that's really different is the size and distribution of the green AF squares. I am hard pressed to tell the difference between the EVF and an OVF in most lighting situations. Just for fun I took an older Nikon F4 out of a drawer and compared the cameras in the studio. I much prefer the Sony finder. Your mileage may different. Just be sure it's not all emotional mileage before you start to argue about it.


Did the files knock me off my seat with their breathtaking quality?  Hey, it's just another camera. It did what it was supposed to do and it did it well. It's possibly that there are other cameras (Canon 1DX or Nikon D4 corrected a day later...) that have a bit better high ISO performance but not enough to justify the massive difference in price. I took a few shots of Belinda this morning at ISO 100 and in that instance I was very much impressed. As much as we (as a collective) like to use performance at high ISO's as a metric of overall quality I think that every improvement in technology in these machines also give us the ability not just to be flexible but to create files that are the BEST that files can be. That always means: using the native ISO of your shooting camera to get the lowest electronic noise, the highest dynamic range and the best color purity. But to do that right your basic technique has to be good.

Unlike some of the competitors Sony visibly rewards you for shooting at the camera's optimum settings. The flesh tones on the images of Belinda, taken with soft window light and accurately white balanced, are among the best I've ever seen from a digital camera and that includes D800s and several medium format digital cameras. I need to do a lot more controlled studio shooting with the camera but I'm close to declaring it the ultimate studio portrait camera----where tonality and color are concerned.


Love the indulgent poke at 1950's modern dance. Love the tones.

Be sure to click on this one because I absolutely love it. Can't believe how good the 70-200 2.8 G is at its longest extension.

The camera is far less cumbersome, in terms of size and weight, than it's direct competitors, the Nikon D800 and the Canon 5Dmk3. It's far smaller and lighter than the Canon 1 series or the Nikon D(single digit) series. The battery life is nothing to write home about. I shot 979 images during a two hour show with this camera and the battery read 23% remaining when I checked it at the end. That's okay but not quite in the territory of it's competitors.

Like most semi-pro and pro cameras these days it has two card slots, both for SD cards, and the interplay between slots is highly flexible. Raw on one, jpegs on the other.  Movies on one, stills on the other. And my favorite: Images on one and the same images backed up on the other. Good to have should you be in a shoot where you absolutely have to get the images to the client with no excuses.




So, my bottom line, after one two hour shooting session is: The camera is quite good, the files are outstanding, and, I want to shoot more with it. I have a studio shoot for an ad agency this afternoon and we'll be working differently that we di for the show last night. I'll be metering with a hand held meter and working in raw. I'll be shooting at medium apertures and at low ISOs. This the way to really test a camera or a camera system; by shooting real jobs in real life for real clients and then evaluating the results in comparison with the tools you were using yesterday.

And now the question you've all been waiting to have answered--------How was the show?

It was fun, nostalgic, spirited, musical, funny and in parts a feel good tear jerker. The stage craft was exemplary and the actors uniformly wonderful. I've gone, over the decades, from being a regular guy who likes movies where things blow up to a person who really enjoys live theater and musical theater. I blame Zachary Scott Theater for that. I'm not pushing the play too much because it's largely sold out right up until Christmas Day.  That's how good it is.  Grab a ticket if you are in town and you can get one. It's a great way to usher in Christmas and get your holiday spirit going.

Almost as much fun as buying a new camera...











12.03.2012

A quick visual report of the use of an Alpha Lens on the Nex 6. Part of the episodic review of the Nex 6


When I did my first test of my new Nex 6 I was very pleased with the color, contrast and resolution of the 16 megapixel sensor. I think Sony does a lot of things just right and the balance of the colors and tonality, even in jpegs files seems very well balanced to me.

The one gaping blank spot in my lens inventory for the Nex cameras is in the realm of long telephotos and I'm not anxious to run out and spend more money if I can make due on my seasonal and lightly used focal lengths by using simple adapters and scavenging from the drawer of Alpha DSLT mount lenses. While it would seem churlish to buy a small body like the Nex 6 and then bolt on a hernia enducing 70-200mm 2.8 there's another lens in the drawer that makes a lot more sense. It's the 55-200 f4-5.6 Sony DT. It's made to match the smaller sensor and it's very light weight and (compared to the fast glass) well sized for a carry around lens choice.

I used the LA-EA1 lens adapter to attach the lens to the Nex 6 because I wanted to maintain as much automation as possible. The downfall of the Nex-to-LA-EA1 match up is the excruciatingly slow autofocusing (and often non-focusing) of lenses that were designed for a much different AF design philosophy: Phase detection as opposed to Contrast detection. I don't consider it a problem as I default, without a second thought, to using manual focus with all non-system lenses on the Nex cameras. Having focus peaking makes it so easy.

I will say that any unsharpness in these images stems from my inability to successfully handhold the lens at the long end. Most of these images are shot at near wide open or wide open and I consider the performance to be really good. Some credit I give to the camera and an equal measure I give to the lens. The new, cheap lenses from Sony are surprisingly good. 

It was a quick walk so, by extension, a quick test. To my eye the combination from the two Sony systems seems to work very well, with good exposure, color and sharpness. Nice to keep it all in the family. It gives me some extra flexibility while downsizing the argument that there aren't enough choice optics available for the Nex system.













Request:  Anyone out there read my book about LED Lighting?  I'd love some more reviews on Amazon if you have the time and energy to write something.

Here's where to book lives: http://www.amazon.com/LED-Lighting-Professional-Techniques-Photographers/dp/1608954471/ref=la_B002ECIS24_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1354567751&sr=1-1

Thanks!  Kirk




12.02.2012

Let the Nex 6 episodic review begin !!!


disclaimer time. This is the start of a series of blogs about my impressions of the Nex-6 camera and some of the lenses you can use with it. I paid full price for the camera body at Precision Camera in Austin, Texas. I was not offered any financial or product consideration or quid pro quo from either the retailer or from Sony or any party related to Sony. I am answerable for my purchase only to God and my wife. If you don't like my opinions about the camera or the review, go write your own.

Let's get the critical stuff out of the way first and that would be: Why did I buy a Nex 6 when I already own a Nex 7, and how do I like the way it feels and handles?

Many years ago, in a moment of extreme photographic hubris, I took a trip to Paris with Belinda and brought along with me only one camera. It was a Leica M3. I'd bought it a couple weeks earlier from a well known camera technician and Leica specialist who told me he'd stripped the camera all the way down, and restored it to "like new" condition before thoroughly testing it. I also brought along one 50mm Summicron lens and a freezer baggie full of film.  On our first night in Paris a screw came loose somewhere inside the camera and got itself wedged into the film advance gears and that was the end of that Leica's usefulness for the trip. Since we would be there for two weeks and one of the main reasons for our  trip was to take some fun and interesting photographs it seemed obvious to me that I had only two choices: Find a trustworthy camera repair person in Paris and convince him to repair a Leica overnight for someone he'd never met before and would probably never see again, or, go to the FNAC store and buy a suitable camera to use for the rest of the trip.

I chose the second path and bought a Contax Aria with a little Zeiss zoom lens. A nice camera but nothing special and soon divested of when I got back to Austin. (The Leica was repaired and returned to me within an hour of presenting it to the original seller with my critique. We are still friends and still do business together. Everyone deserves to be able to make one non-fatal mistake....).  The point of my long story is that it's never a good idea to leave home for a wonderful trip, excursion, event, job, etc. without a back-up camera. A redundant tool that can be instantly pressed into service should your primary tool become unresponsive.  No one likes an unresponsive tool.

As most of my readers know I bought a Sony Nex 7 earlier this year and have been thoroughly enjoying it. It's a great camera. But as I continued to accrue lenses for it I started to think it would be wise to have a good and very similar back-up for the original, just in case. And, as I'm planning some out of town trips in the next few months for the express purpose of photographing I figured I'd go ahead and commit to a second Nex body. Logic says that it's good to get two identical cameras and it makes perfect sense: afterall, you bought the first camera for a reason. I bought a second Nex 7 which developed a problem and I sent it back to the dealer. I had the choice of having them refund my money or having a new body shipped to me. At the time the idea of also buying an a99 was percolating in my head so I just had the seller credit my card for the camera.

I went out to buy the Sony a99 yesterday and, as I was waiting for everything to get sorted and written up I made the mistake of asking to play with the store's demo Nex 6. It was great. It's so much like the Nex 7 but it feels and generates files that seem a little crisper (but we'll get on to that...). The finder on the model I fondled was identical to the one on my Nex 7 and the menus, not counting silly stuff like wi-fi and apps, were nearly identical to the ones I've become accustomed to on the 7.  You only live once I thought and added both the Nex-6 and the Sigma 19mm lens for the Nex cameras to the total tally. I'd purchased the 30mm Sigma just the day before.

If the Nex 6 tested out to my satisfaction and the files were good and rich and sharp I would have satisfied my photographer paranoia and I would be ready to do some day trips and weekend trips for the sole reason of shooting images with the comforting thought that I was as prepared as any boy scout. If you are tired of reading I'll skip right now to the conclusion: Based on my half day of shooting and then looking carefully at a hundred or so files at 100% in Lightroom I would say that I am very, very pleased with the Nex 6 and am glad to make its acquaintance.  It complements the Nex 7 and they overlap each other in very complementary ways.  For more detail, please read on.

This image of the Nex 6 was taken with a Sony a99 camera and the Sigma 70mm Macro lens. It is a direct, out of camera Jpeg. It was shot in the studio at ISO 6400. I've included a 100% (unretouched) crop below for your  pixel peeping pleasure....

The 6 looks a lot like the 7 everywhere except in the material of the body covering and the switch of the Tri-Navi dials to more conventional mode and concentric control dial. I worked with both during the day and didn't have problems changing back and forth. Both cameras are more comfortable in my hands than any of the micro four thirds cameras I've used except for the the Olympus Pen EP 3 which is the prettiest and more ergonomic Pen camera that company has ever made.

Part of my newfound prejudice in favor of the Nex 6 is the fact that I coupled it with the 30mm Sigma lens. It's a lens that comes close to my all time favorite focal length of 50mm on a full frame camera and, I've come to find out, it is exquisitely sharp. It may be the best cheap lens I've ever purchased. I haven't had time to test the 19mm Sigma yet but if it has the same DNA as the 30mm lens I will be delighted. You can judge for yourself from the photos presented below but I will tell you that, looked at large (100%) it make the original 18-55mm Sony kit lens look a bit anemic.

While the system performance is important, and is the only set of parameters that can be objectively measured, I find it difficult to use a camera whose feel I don't enjoy. Here's where everyone is different. What I like in a camera others may not, and vice versa. I'm right eyed so the finder on the top left of the camera feels just right to me. I have small to medium sized hands and if you have large hands you may find the button placement too tight and the grip too small. But for me these cameras are functionally well imagined. The bigger DSLT's are a whole different ballgame and evoke a different way of holding and working that has its own feel and structure. Not better or worse, just different.

This is a 100% crop from the shot just above, included to show the performance of the a99 at ISO 6400 with no retouching or post process noise reduction.

What are the things I like about the Nex 6?  Well, first off the less dense sensor in this camera is better at doing files in low light and at higher ISOs than the Nex 7. How much better? How about a stop and a half. While I'm sure that some of the improvement comes from a newly redesigned 16 megapixel sensor I'm equally sure that Sony is catching up with Nikon on figuring out how to introduce in camera noise reduction that is less smeary than the last generation and also has more monochromatic noise and less chroma (color splotchy) noise. Both of these things give us files that appear less noisy and more detailed and, for the most part, that's a good thing. So why not just get rid of the Nex 7 and get another Nex 6? Good question but I have the suspicion that the Nex 7 files are better at the other end of the spectrum; at the lowest ISOs.  Both cameras are really great imaging machines. If I needed the most resolution and detail with the  widest dynamic range I think the Nex 7 will be the leader. I'll test them head to head someday just to see but for now I'm happy to own a low noise camera and an uber-detailed camera. As I said, they cross over each other nicely.


I came into the kitchen last night and one small halogen can light was on at low intensity over the work table. I hand held the camera with the 19mm lens on  it (no image stabilization) and shot a few frames using the auto-ISO function. The white balance is very, very good for a low intensity halogen source while the  exposure, using manual metering, is both right on the money and exactly as I saw it (pre-chimped) in the electronic viewfinder. See the image below for a 100% crop.

100% crop of the frame at ISO 2000. Nex 6 and 19mm Sigma.

While this generation of Sony Nex cameras (the Nex5R has the same basic sensor) is not going to kick sand in the face of something like a Nikon D4 it certainly is as good as the Nikon D7000 or any of the other Sony chip toting APS-C cameras and perhaps better than a number of them. I'll say right up front that I found the files to be relatively noise free up to 800. Very good up to 3200 and usable even at 6400 (albeit at smaller sizes when in the nose bleed territory). But as a general, all around town camera, working at sane ISO's like 100, 200, and 400 it is the IQ equal of any APS-C camera on the market today at just about any price. That's pretty darn good.  So, good noise handling and good hand handling. Let's go on.


It was a lovely day in Austin. A bit overcast but not too warm and not too cold. Belinda joined me for a Sunday walk around downtown. I carried the 6, equipped with the 30mm Sigma and old a spare battery in one pocket.  Here's what I observed as we walked and I stopped from time to time to shoot a few images:

The camera seems to wake up slower than the 7. Some have conjectured the slow start may be lens dependent, and since I bought the camera without the new kit lens and have only use the Sigma I can't be sure. But I know that from the time I flip the "on" switch till the time the camera is ready to shoot can take four or five seconds. With this in mind I rarely turned the camera totally off but preferred to let ut fall asleep. When the camera was awake it focused very quickly. A bit quicker than my 7 and not much slower than a typical mid-level, conventional DSLR. 

In many daylight scenes the camera seems to like to underexpose by 1/3 to 2/3s of a stop in order, I suppose, to protect the highlights. I liked most of my daylight scenes best with a +1/3 stop adjustment. Of course, when I'm shooting in manual I mostly judge the exposure by the look of the image in the EVF and what I'm seeing in the live histogram.


A few reviews have nicked the 6 for not being perfectly white balanced under artificial light conditions but I think this is mostly ramped up criticism coming from writers who feel hell bent to be "balanced."  And by that I mean they feel that they have to come up with some negatives in a camera review to balance out any analysis of a camera that's overwhelmingly good. My experience with the camera, both under florescent light and tungsten light is that it is exceedingly good at coming to a convincing white balance. Probably better than a number of regular DSLRs, with the added benefit that you can see what the camera is choosing for a white balance in the EVF as you are analyzing the scene, even before you shoot it. It's a simple matter to dial in a more accurate WB in real time. But hardly necessary. All of the images in this report were done with AWB in Jpeg and they are as accurate as I can remember.



While I know that most advanced photographers like to shoot raw I tend to shoot my casual photographs in Jpeg. I usually set the camera to the largest file size and the lowest compression (highest quality) and rarely am I unhappy that I have foregone the ritual RAW dance. I am beginning to think of RAW files as something that only needs to be done on very critical shoots and by owners of OVF cameras who don't have the luxury of both pre-chimping their shots and having a good, reliable review/preview image to view. The screen on the backs of most cameras is rarely reliable because of all the ambient light falling on it. Rear screens are really only usable for reliable file review if you both to carry along and use something like a Zacuto or Hoodman loupe. With an EVF your view of the image is sheltered from the ambient light and different light color temperatures giving you a much more accurate rendition of how the scene will look on your monitor back in the studio.


I've been using the Nex system since mid Summer and I have two real complaints, one which is solved by spending more money and the other time will be solved by time and the building success of the system. The first is the meager number of exposures you get per charged battery.  With batteries that have been charged three or four times I'm getting around 500-600 exposures. I'd like to get more because I'm a pretty promiscuous shooter. That problem is solvable by buying more batteries. I have six between my two Nex cameras and that more than enough for a comfortable weekend of shooting or a long commercial job.

I take off Sony points for making 6 owners charge their batteries in camera with one of those silly-ass USB chargers. But my work around was to buy two aftermarket batteries, complete with their own charger so now I can charge two batteries at a and still be able to shoot. Yes, the batteries seem to all perform exactly the same.  

The second problem really is a paucity of fun lenses with which to shoot. But those seem to be dribbling and drabbling onto the market at a quickening pace. The new wide angle Sony zoom is a great addition which I'm sure I'll buy at some point but what I really want are more fast, long lenses. I'd love to see a 70mm 1.8 and maybe a 90mm f2.0.  In the meantime I am very happy with the 50mm 1.8 OSS and I am happy with my brief experiences with the Sigma lenses.  Additionally, I've had mixed success with Olympus manual Pen FT lenses and Fotodiox lens adapters. All the longer lenses work well at wide open to middling apertures but the shorter lenses (20 and 25 mm) seem to have magenta patches that start around f8 and get worse and worse as I stop down. It probably has to do with the angle at which the light strikes the sensor lenses. I don't really know.

My recommendation to anyone buy one of the Sony Nex cameras is to pick up the primes.  Pick up the primes. I don't have first hand experience with the 16mm, but that's mostly because I've heard so many complaints about it. I can vouch for the two Sigmas, the 19 and the 30mm and I've heard great things about the Zeiss 24mm.  Again, if the system proves to be a marketing success I'm sure that the third party lenses will begin to arrive, en mass, in a short amount of time.

In the meantime I'm also having good success with the Nex 7 and regular series Alpha DSLT lenses, via a Sony adapter.  I use the 35mm DT, the 50mm DT, the 85mm 2.8 and even the longer zooms on the Nex 7 (and soon on the Nex 6) without any fringing or discoloration. I like using the LAEA-1 adapter since it adds no mirror or glass between the camera and the lens but I do find that particular adapter might as well give up the pretention of providing AF because it's slower than third world mail and hunts more than Cajuns. I take advantage of Sony's well implemented focus peaking and focus all of the adapted lenses manually. It works very, very well. In cases where I'm making important shots I use the focusing magnifier to fine focus at much greater magnifications and this makes the process dead accurate. 


Using auto-ISO in Aperture preferred priority the 6 does a good job of matching up ISO with shutter speeds that I can handhold with great sharpness and I like that. On the Nex 6 the auto-ISO goes all the way up to ISO 3200 and even there the camera makes really good files. What good is capping the ISO at a lower ISO if unsharpness from handholding the camera ruins the image anyway?



 The image above and the three images just below were shot at the W Hotel this afternoon. Most of the images are from the conference and event spaces on the second floor and are in low light. The camera was set to f4 and, via auto ISO, set shutter speeds of around 1/60th and ISO of anywhere from 1600 to 3200. All of the images were perfectly exposed by the camera. Pretty cool. I'm not so thrilled with all the white furniture in the space or the really forced modernesque paintings, loaded with lots of sharp angles and diagonals. Seems like a blend of 1999 and high school art class at the Star Fleet academy but I can't blame the W's bad taste on a little Sony camera...




So the real question that seems always implied when people get carried away and start buying these little cameras is--------Why would you buy these when you already have camera bags full of real cameras that can already make amazing images? Why buy a slower, less featured camera?


It's not just fashion. Really. These cameras do some things that we used to value in the days of yore. They are small and light which makes them easy to pack and carry around. A significant value is that they don't look like big professional cameras so no one really pays any more attention to them than they do to a cellphone camera. Advantage? I spent a half hour rummaging around the W Hotel and was never stopped or questioned by the staff. They saw the small camera and just assumed, "tourist/guest." That in itself is extremely valuable. I'm betting I could get into places which would be off limits for "pro cameras" and still be able to make convincing and technically good images.

The cameras a visually and aurally quiet. There's still some shutter noise but it's a fraction of the noise that conventional moving mirror camera make.


But it's mostly because, when used properly, there's no difference in the files between these small, easy to use cameras and their best lenses and the images that come squirting out of the slamming noisy V8 "professional" cameras----just a lot less drama and chaos. 





Absolutely freaking good automatic color balance under an avalanche of mixed lights. And darn nice candy.

The bottom line is that cameras and photography are changing faster than we ever imagined. All the things we thought were prerequisites to good photographs are dissolving in the proof of new technologies. The sensors in the Nex 6 and Nex 7 may be the very best on offer in ANY APS-C camera on the market today. The EVF finder is a powerful tool for both still photographers and (even moreso) for video makers. And I haven't even touched on the glitzy stuff like the built in HDR or Multi-Frame Noise Reduction or the ten frames per second mode, or the 60 fps full HD video modes, and the wonderful color rendering from these cameras.  We'll do that on another blog. 

For now I give the Nex 6 my highest award:  I bought one for myself. Yes, I could run an imaging business with it.  Optimally? Maybe not. Successfully? Better than with the tools we had for ten times the money just five years ago, and we made a lot of people happy with those.

Oh look. Out of coffee. I'm off to see a dress rehearsal. A different kind of scouting.


More to come.

Amazon current has the Sigma 19mm and 30mm lenses for Sony on sale for $149 !!!