Doing my craft with real craft as my subject. Giving it the boot.

Welcome back to the VSL blog. I've been running around Texas for the last three days photographing food and cowboy boots and now I'm back home in the land of perfect swimming pools and heady post production. I thought I'd jump right in and talk about the job photographing cowboy boots, today. You probably know that there are cowboy boots and then there are COWBOY BOOTS. And the difference is pretty wild. 

Most boots are mass produced and aren't really made for the long haul. The advantage the mass produced boots enjoy is that they are cheap to buy. If you have the time, the money and the inclination nothing really compares to a pair of boots that have been created specifically for your feet. You'll want each foot to be exactly measured (most people have one foot that's bigger than the other...or differently shaped) and you'll want your boots hand crafted out of the very best materials. The icing on the cowboy boot cake, at least for Texans of means, is the ability to specify custom designs, colors and materials that make a pair of boots a one of a kind art piece the inspiration for which springs from you.

I spent the last two days at Little's Boots in San Antonio. My mission was to photograph all the different kinds of boots the company makes and has made over the course of the last 100 years. I photographed current designs and historic boots and everything in between. From boots made of cow leather to Nile crocodile to ostrich. Each pair was unique with different hand tooling, designs and intricately cut patterns. 

(note: The boot images I'm sharing here have not been retouched or post processed to completion. You'll see small specular reflections on the boots and tiny flaws on my background that will be excised in the find images....).

Over the course of two days, working with the owner of a very successful San Antonio advertising agency, we photographed nearly eighty pairs of boots, handmade wallets, belts and some boot accessories. We also photographed the craftsmen who make the boots. Most of the men have been with the company for decades. Little's Boots is a family business with three generations  working in the shop and in the showroom. People come from all over the world to buy boots from Little's but they have to be patient...from the time you are measured until the time you get your boots you might have to wait up to six months!

On this particular project I really wanted to work with continuous light. It was be so much easier to see exactly what we got as we shot. My recent experiences with my oldest LED panels led me to know that I'd finally zero'd in both the filtration for the lights, and the best way to do a custom white balance with my Sony a99 camera, in order to get rich, accurate colors every step of the way. I packed two of my 1,000 bulb panels, three of my 500 bulb panels, four of the Fotodiox 312AS panels and a new addition to the studio cool light arsenal, a Fiilex high output par light that's fan cooled and comes with barn doors. It runs off A/C power and uses very large diameter LEDs in a tight pattern to give me the kind of beam spread we used to get out of focusable tungsten fixtures like the Lowell DP lights or the Lowell Pro-Lights. 

I packed ten light stands, a full set of Westcott Fast Flags and frames, three Chimera panels with a selection of diffusers and nets, background stands, my hand painted (and coffee encrusted) background and a hand steamer.

The Think Tank Airport Security rolling case contained the cameras, batteries, lenses and other necessary tools. I took just two cameras, the Sony a99 and the Sony a57. Lenses included the 70-200mm f2.8 G, the Sigma 70mm f2.8 macro, the Sony 24-105mm f3.5 to 4.5, a 35mm, 50mm and 85mm. The two zooms saw all of the action.  And I have to tell you that at f4 to f13 on the big lens everything is Nirvana. Sharp, contrasty and detailed. The shorter zoom has a bit of veiling flare wide open but it clears up one stop down and by the time you get to f8 it's just as good a lens as the big guy.  The Sigma 70 is very, very sharp but I didn't need the close up capability and the flexibility of focal lengths on the big zoom made it my all the time lens for this job.

We arrived at the boot company's spare building at 8:30am on Thurs. and I began hauling all the gear into a temporary studio space. I could have used an assistant but I also have fallen behind on my weight training program so I practiced doing curls with bags full of light stands as I brought them into the space. I did overhead lifts with the sandbags. Everything else I just muscled in as well as I could. You should see me now. Totally ripped. (kidding).

First thing we did was block as much of the windows as we could with two enormous and crazy heavy solid core doors that were hanging around. Then we set up a shooting table and draped the background that I had painted, specifically for this project, over the table, hanging from background stands. Our key light source was a 1K (LED)  and a 500 (LED) aimed down through a silk diffuser stretched onto a Westcott Fast Flags Frame. We used a frame with a black fabric to scrim light off the top part of the background so we'd get a gradation from dark at the top to light at the bottom.

I added a front light as partial fill. It was a 1k (LED) with a layer of ToughSpun diffusion clothes-pinned to the front of the unit. I use the new Fiilex light as a back light or skimming side light in situations where we needed to add a little more detail to dark boots without sacrificing the continuity of our background look. All the lights except the Fiilex were filtered with a 1/4 minus green (magenta) gel. We buy it by the yard now and it's a great correction tool. The Fiilex was tested two days before we packed, has a CRI of 90 and is very close in overall color to the filtered resident panels without needing any filtration whatsoever. 

Since we didn't need to match any existing light sources we didn't need to worry about mismatches and could just go with a good custom white balance. I used a Lastolite Gray Target to white balance with and then modified the WB setting by adding one step of cyan in the WB menu on the Sony. Their cameras are very, very easy to custom white balance and the custom setting can be further tweaked in the menu. All of the product shots were done at my favorite high quality ISO setting: 100.  If you are using a fifteen pound Series 5 Gitzo Studex tripod do you really need anything higher on your ISO dial?  Our basic exposure was f8 at 1/13th of a second.
Sounds slow if you are used to using flash for everything but it seems just right for stationary boots.

In the interest of practicing best technique I used an electronic cable release and I insisted that no one walk on the bouncy pier and beam floor during exposures. You can have the best tripod in the universe but if the floor it's sitting on is bouncy you lose. I shot two frames of every set up as a superstitious ritual. I wanted to ward off the spirits of file corruption... I also lit candles and burned a little sage just for good luck.

Generally the lights stayed in the same spots and we modified our set by changing angles on our diffusion scrims or blocking errant light with our black flags (see behind the scenes images below). The only light that moved around during the times we were shooting all the pairs of boots and single boots was the Fiilex spot light that I just added, with the barn doors pulled in to form a very surgical slice of light. I could position this light to add just enough light to the back boot, in most cases, to give me adequate separation.

One thing I will mention (and I learned this the hard way in the days of film and polaroid) is that the LCD screen on most (all) cameras is not calibrated in any meaningful way. It is contrastier than you think and tends to oversaturated colors due to its more limited (compared to a good monitor) gamut. With this in mind I decided I could save us all a lot of time in post if I brought along a MacBook Pro 15 inch laptop, recently calibrated with a Pantone Spyder, equipped with a matte screen and set up to emulate what we normally see on the screen of our monitors back in the studio. Then, instead of wasting time trying to make the images look good on the camera's LCD (and screwing up the real color, which would add so much wasted time in post....) we did some tests on the first few files and iteratively adjusted color and tone based on seeing the images on the known screen. 

You can shoot tethered with the Sony a99, it comes with the requisite software, but I find tethering a camera, once you have a test and you aren't changing lights, to be a process slowing encumbrance. We tested, nailed our color and then went commando with the camera.

A master craftsman fine tuning a heel.

We started our product photography in the morning on Thurs. and finished shooting products, including belts, wallets and accessories on Friday around noon. Our only break on Thurs. was to go to an amazing BBQ restaurant and meat market in the neighborhood called, Bolner's. I had the best beef rib I have ever eaten in all of my 57 years. Amazing texture and flavor. I will make a pilgrimage back to Bolner's in the very near future. You should go there too. Amazing.

On friday, after shooting the last of the product images we had lunch at a local restaurant called, Nicha's. The enchiladas verdes were really good and the refried beans were so much better than what we get in Austin....

So, after finishing with products and lunch we came back to take available light images in the workshop and the show room. My favorite part, from a photographer's point of view was a room filled with shelves filled with lasts. Every custom boot starts with a custom last. The older ones were carved from wood while the newer ones are done in resin. I could spend a day making art of the old wooden lasts. The hand making of a good wooden last is also one of those vanishing skills.

The "Last" Museum.

On many shoots I don't have the leisure to step back and make a few behind the scenes documentary photos of how we set the lights up. This time I decided to do so to show the many people who e-mail me asking how we actually use the LED lights for product and still life shoots. It's more like lighting for movies than the traditional (short cut) still photography method of blasting everything with one big softbox and then adding some fill cards to the dark areas....

This is my general set up. The two top lights blast through the 24 by 36 inch white scrim over the top of the boots. Just behind the white diffuser is a black blocker that gives a gradient to the background: dark at the top to light at the bottom. It's a way of building contrast between the background and the product.

To the far left you see another 1000 bulb LED light aimed in at the front of the set. It is flagged off so that it doesn't add light into the darker part of the background gradient but it does add shadowless fill light to the front of the boots, helping to even out the top light. Note the orange sandbag that anchors the light stand holding the heavy, top main light. Safety is good.

On the surface of the table are three white cards (one is gray on the side facing the camera....) which also adds light to the dark leather and other materials without adding appreciable light to the background.

This is a closer view taken slightly over to the right of the set compared to the view above. You can see the Fiilex light just to the bottom left of the main top light. It's adding a bit of separation  lighting to the rear boot.  It is also scrimmed with a black blocker to keep light on the boots but off the background. I think the scrims and modifiers are vital to good photographic work. So many people miss the boat by concentrating on the light fixtures (which can, for the most part, be considered interchangeable) and not even considering the critical tools to control and shape the light. Silly economies, I think.

Here's the back of the little Fiilex LED "spot light" that the company sent  me to test. I'll have a more in depth review of it in the next week or so.  It's one of the first LED lights I've used that throws a tight enough spot to be used as a hard light or a controlled beam light. It was incredibly useful.

When the boots switch direction the accent light switches sides. It's there to light up the space between the two boots. 

The a99 is hands down the best production still life digital camera I've ever used. Live view coupled with focus peaking coupled with no vibration means accurately focused images with no camera movement or vibration at all. What that translates into is amazingly detailed images. I'd bet, with the exception of shooting with fast flash to freeze motion, that the actual resolution of this camera rivals the D800 for this kind of work. The flexible rear screen is wonderful for high tripod, high angle work and for sharing real time images with clients.

The exposure tracking between the rear screen and the exposure parameters I see in Lightroom is the best I've seen. I anticipate ordering a second body in the next few weeks as a peer backup. My clients deserve it and as I work more and more with the camera I want to make sure I have no downtime and no down market time (lesser back up) for high dollar assignments.

I don't have cost figures yet from Fiilex on their LEDs but if they are at all reasonable I'm pretty certain, based on their functionality and great color, that I'll want to end up with four of them to use both in still productions and even more so in video production. Used straight (no modifiers) they are hard and bright; used through a one stop silk they are creamy and still have some kick. Add in a fan to cool the semi-conductors for long life and you have one heck of a professional tool set.

If you are serious about good still life then bring your "A" game tripod. It's the foundation for everything else...

The project was a lot of fun and a pretty intensive two days of work. I feel like I've gotten back into photographic shape and I'm ready for more. Hope everyone enjoys the Super Bowl....I'll be out shooting.

Please consider using the Amazon links below and help support the Visual Science Lab. The kid (always) needs new running shoes....


Moving through space and time.

Barton Creek.

Self awareness is an interesting proposition. I've been writing this blog for about four years now and it somewhat constitutes a daily journal for me. While most people come along for the ride to read about the equipment, looking backwards, the most valuable function for me is a reflection of my ever changing state of mind and spirit as I move through familiar spaces. My other surprise is the extent to which a written record also shows me how we move through time.

When I started my journey in photography oh so many years ago I was like a guest at a Bacchanalian feast. I was hungry to try everything and I was mesmerized by the songs of many older practitioners who held sway and tried to hand down traditions and myths about the undertaking of photography, and of being an artist.

Having worked with huge lights and eight by ten inch view cameras, shooting an indiscriminate catalog of subjects, I can see over the decades a paring down, not necessarily of the equipment but of the things I like to shoot. The paring down of equipment is a related process of attrition and transformation. Like flowing along with the current in a stream.

So, what does my four years of blogging tell me about equipment? For the most part I would have saved an enormous amount of time and money with no real impact on the quality of my images if I had just kept the original Nikon D2X that I worked with back in 2006 and the collection of lenses I had at that time. I've worked with a number of cameras since then, most with higher megapixel counts and supposedly better performance but my style of shooting followed a different path than what the designers of the newer cameras seemed to envision. 

I keep using all these machines at their lowest ISOs for my serious work because my subjects are rarely moving around frenetically and I like controlling the light. With this in mind the image quality performance of the D2x was always just fine. The camera and sensor designers seemed hell bent on making high ISO performance the sine qua non of camera progress.  Just yesterday I shot some interiors at a salon/spa. While I could have used the Sony a99 at 3200 ISO I was using a tripod (gotta keep that horizon level...) and it was just as easy to use ISO 100. 

My relentless buying and selling of cameras of course unmasks a basic lack of self confidence in my own vision. That's why we all keep running to the store. We hope that someone will come up with a piece of technology that, in itself, will be so profoundly good that it will mask whatever our self-perceived creative weaknesses are. We continually hope that there's a magic lens which we can use to make our images sing in a different way. In the end we've spent $500 or $5,000 for a new magic lens only to come back to the realization that we've been taken once again....by our own psychological frailties. 

When I look back farther I can see that a camera like the Fuji S5 was a wonderful camera and made very pretty files of people's faces.  But I believed the hype about more megapixels and rushed to buy the next dose.  It turned out to be the ten megapixel Nikon D200 which is the worst digital camera I have ever owned. Especially for portraits... But boy how I tried to believe in it. Only to dump it as quick as I could for those two additional megapixels in the D2x. 

Reading through the blog shows me the stop and start nature of my conviction to logic followed by my surrender to advertising fueled desire. I can read the more thoughtful blog entries and see that I knew with extreme clarity that the cameras were largely indifferent to the process at large. They were basically as interchangeable as mid level SUV's or smart phones. But our desire to have them reveal some inner magic seems (at least in my case) to be inescapable.

What else have I learned? How about: Light is light. Whether it's expensive light or cheap light it's still just light. I've been interested in LEDs but I'd say that part of my interest, beyond a curiosity about new technologies, has always been centered around finding a style that I could call my own. The LEDs represented a differentiation from the mainstream. A way of being special. But in the end they are just lights that don't flash. Interchangeable with other lights that don't flash. Yes, there are attributes and detractions to every type of light but the lure of the new in lighting is just like the lure of this year's smart phone compared to the one you bought six months ago. Faster? Sure. Slimmer? Sure. But are your conversations any more interesting? Have your texts turned eloquent? Probably not. Probably no more than buying a D800 made all your photographs interesting and special.

That brings us to personal growth and I don't know how you measure that and whether the kind of growth most people talk about is really any better than the growth of one's waistline or that mole on your shoulder. I think what most people call "spiritual growth" is just a growing acceptance of the inevitable made a little bit more palatable by the idea that there's some grand plan. Surrender? A willingness to accept a convenience premise? Real mystical stuff that I don't get?

Reading through the blog shows me that I've moved from a point in my career where I thought I knew everything to a point where every day seems like a brand new invention of photography. Especially the business side of the whole deal. At some point I realized that I'd gotten really good at producing stuff that people weren't buying anymore. You can be angry or frustrated or fearful about the market or culture shifting away from your own competencies but if you depend on what you shoot to trade for what you eat you need to move past any emotional attachment to the way we used to do stuff and pay attention to what works now.

This doesn't necessarily mean a wholesale "walk away" from your style, your point of view or shooting what you enjoy but, it sure means that you might need to change the way you bill, the way you charge, the way you shoot and how you diversify. The thread that should run through everything though should be to honestly have fun with your work. You don't have to love everything but you sure have to like the process. But to fall back in love with the process you have to yield to the idea that everything changes. It's always tough to stomach that change must include me...

How does this work in real life? Work is more fragmented. There are many fewer days of continuous shooting and more small, intense work periods. One CEO portrait done at speed versus a cattle call of the senior staff. The work is looser and less formal. The (self-imposed) technical restrictions on what we have to shoot with have evaporated. Seriously, if you could get the best image of a subject with a cell phone as opposed to a traditional camera I have not doubt that it would be workable and acceptable. Not in every circle but in many.

Everything feels more collaborative now. We're not silo'ed by our expertise as we once were and we're not always driving the train. It's more of a shared perspective. I can see that over time, in my posts. And when I look at my work I see change everywhere. We now light to look unlit. We pose to look un-posed and we post process to make our technical competence yield to a more organic or even photo-primitive look.

It's easy for people who don't make their living through photography to say that they/we don't have to change and we should (moral or ethical imperative) stick to our guns and do what we like but that totally disregards the role that clients play in the commercial dance. They taste wide and far and they taste in the company of their peers. There are trends and there are styles. Just as with food clients get to pick and choose from a rich visual menu. We might personally like pot roast but it might be an increasingly hard sell to a generation of kale eaters.

As I've diversified and re-calibrated my business has recovered from the dark days of 2009 and 2010. Part of the recovery is the reawakening of the national economy but part of the recovery is the re-tooling that I've done to make the product mix work. A re-invention.

But when I look hard and read between all of the thousands of lines I've written I do see one trend that makes me sad. The easier it becomes to take a photograph the harder it becomes to really enjoy photographs. To really like photographs. The ubiquity of images and the lack of friction in their delivery takes away any pleasure of discovery. The instant copying of original work and techniques dilutes the relative value of the originals. We, collectively, have become a giant, automated machine like one of the robotic vacuum cleaners. Our machine rolls through the world at all hours, seconds and minutes snapping disseminating, referencing and feeding back images of everything and everyone without pause and without filtration. We have, in essence, become a million monkeys typing at a million typewriters for a million years. But with a faster feedback loop and more feeder bars (feedback sources) to give us treats for micro-completions.

We've almost gone completely from something that felt handmade to something that reeks of mass production.

There are now only a handful of masters and then there's the rest of us. It's part of the change. I'm not sure 50+ year old artists make big changes in the landscape or even their own landscape. Most ride on their laurels or gracefully retire. It should be interesting to see how the next complete inventory turn of photographers re-invents what they do. I hope we still recognize it as photography.

My goals have changed over the last four years. In the beginning, with the blog, I wanted to comment on the "infidels" of new photography (iPhoners, Instagrammers, etc.) and how wrong they were. Then I commented on the over-share issues wherein people were so enamored of their own buzz or seeing their work somewhere that they were turning the conventional rules of commerce upside down for no discernible gain. Then I wanted to talk about the camera revolution and the working evolution that was driving m4:3 and smaller form factors. In each case I was either identifying and obvious trend or trying to push back against the tide.

Now I'm really only interested in the anthropology and cultural contexts of image making. I'm interested in the idea that there won't be a pervasive style anymore but an incoherent mass of individual threads. Some will be obvious homages or thefts and some will be very banal but some threads will be like variations on core themes that we play over and over again. And it's the variations on essential themes that I'm interested in. Especially as they related to the depiction of beauty.

Oh well, I just had a few minutes and I thought I'd share a few more thoughts. Now it's time to walk the dog and do some laundry. Oh, and to unload the dishwasher. Mindful drudgery.

Why the image of Barton Creek? I've always been publicly derisive about landscape photography. It's a prejudice of mine. But in spite of my critical arrogance I've found myself shooting more and more intentional landscapes. Fodder for a future blog....


Please read this astute article about calibration.

This is follow up reading on my monitor selection and calibration article from last week. It comes from one of my favorite photo sites, www.Luminous-Landscape.com :


The author makes the point that rigid ideas about monitor calibration don't always serve photographers optimally.

If you're that guy who loves to argue with me about monitor calibration and the need for every "serious" and professional photographer to calibrate to within a nano meter of perfection and with our eyes on the studio cesium clock you'll be chagrined to know that, since this is someone else's work, I've decided to disable comments on this post. My intention is to give those interested in the subject a "heads up" about an interesting opinion....

Crazy Lens Stuff. Wide Open and Up Close.

I met my friend, Anne, for coffee last week at my favorite coffee shop, Caffe Medici. Out of native silliness I pulled out my camera and made a cursory shot, from a high angle, of my cappuccino and a luscious chocolate croissant. It was a throw away image. Something I might look at for a few seconds before I re-formatted my memory card in preparation for something else.

Anne looked at the image on the back of the camera and then gave me a wry look. "Really?" she asked. "That's all you've got?"

A bit ashamed at being caught in full on hipster photographer mode I sheepishly grabbed the camera again, set the lens at it's widest aperture, focused at the closest focusing distance and pulled out the LCD screen so I could shoot at a much lower angle than I usually do. I snapped a series of three images and then we put the camera away and had a nice chat.

I didn't shoot much else during the day and when I got home I took a look at the images. I was about to erase them but I stopped and took an extra couple of minutes and put them on my desktop.  I took a good look at the images and, like the nerd I am, started blowing them up on the screen to see what a lens really does do when pressed into its worst case scenarios.

And that triggered a whole train of thought for me about why we buy the lenses we do and what misguided metrics we use to make our selections.

When we look at lens tests we look at measurements that are made of a flat target but I rarely find, in real life, that I have a lot of call to photograph flat objects. When I do need to photograph flat objects I can easily reach for a macro lens that was make to photograph flat objects. But most of the stuff I photograph is three dimensional. This cup shot is an example of "real world." No matter how potentially sharp the edges or corners of the Sony 50mm 1.4 might be at its widest aperture, for the most part we'll never see the potential realized because the limited depth of field combined with the three dimensional nature of most scenes negates our ability to see those imagined results.

At the center point of this image, which is the same as the focal point, the image is generally sharp. Outside of this narrow boundary the sharpness and resolution of the outlying areas becomes immaterial.

This is the bane of most lens buyers. We don't have the ability to model accurately the critical factors of a lens in a meaningful way so we trust sites like SLRgear.com and PhotoZone.de and even DXO for their OCD testing of the lenses in which we might be interested. We also treat lenses as totally separate, stand alone tools instead of understanding their real role as integrated parts of complex imaging systems.

I suggest that we actually shoot lenses in the manner we will normally use the lens and make our choices on the merits of the lens in actual use. How does the image look compared to your initial intentions.

So, with all of this in mind I was in a vulnerable state when I made yet another fateful trip to the lens monger here in town, late yesterday afternoon.

Long story shortened, I bought a lens yesterday. It was an interesting buying adventure for me. I've been stalking this particular lens for a while. I am captivated with wide ranging, normal zoom lenses lately. I bought the much vaunted 24-70mm f2.8 Zeiss lens recently, tested it and returned it. Why? Well, the reason to buy the lens, for me, is the performance of the center part of the lens.  The people part. I don't shoot architecture and I'm not so concerned about corners and edges but I do like a sharp, very sharp inner core. I thought the 24-70mm CZ would be a big step up from the "interim" lens I bought back in early December for a PR job. It was the Tamron 28-75mm 2.8 SP lens for Sony. When I shot the two lenses side by side I found that the Tamrom was at least as good in the parameters I found to be important: Core Sharpness and Good Contrast near wide open. At f4 both lenses were good. Equally good. Why drop another $2000 on a lens that was no better than the lens I had in my hands? Not much. Back went the CZ (always keep your boxes until you are certain).

While my friends are much more impressed by the big Zeiss lens my wallet and my financial advisor are much more impressed with my pragmatic assessment of relative quality.

While I liked the idea of the extra reach of the lens I really wished for another 20mm or so on the long side of the Tamron and I really would have welcomed 24mm on the short end. My biggest beef with the CZ 24-70mm is also the very limited range of focal lengths. Shorter on the long end is even worse for me. Something like a 24-85mm makes a lot more sense in actual PR and event shooting. Even more length would be better.

So, back to the lens I've been stalking since I adopted the Sony Alpha system. It's been discontinued since 2008.  It's a rebadged Minolta lens. It's the 24-105mm f3.5 to 4.5. It's much smaller than either of the two lenses I mention above, in fact it's probably smaller than the Sigma 50mm 1.4. In fact, I'm certain it is.

I looked at it and rejected it back in December in favor of the faster Tamron lens but yesterday I looked at it one more time. But why?

At times I can be a sucker for "finder image."  When I put the small zoom on the a99 in the store and carefully set the camera's diopter I found myself liking the image in the finder. Really liking the finder image. I had two lenses in front of me. One was the Carl Zeiss 85mm 1.4 for the Sony and the other one was the 24-105mm 3.5/4.5. I pulled the 85 up to my eye and focused on some boxes about ten feet from me with the lens wide open. The type on the box wasn't particularly out of focus but it sure wasn't sharp. I chalked it up to AF focus error so I switched to MF and magnified the frame to fine focus. And it still wasn't sharp. Not critically sharp.

I started stopping down and checking and right at 2.8 I started to get succinct, sharp type in the center of the frame. I switched lenses and AF'd on the box again from the same position. The zoom rendered the type much more sharply. Wide open. I tried it at various focal lengths. Same results.

Stopping down one stop gave me excellent sharpness.

I tried the test again with the Sigma 50mm 1.4 for the Sony. It could match the sharpness of the zoom, in the center of the frame at around f2.8 as well. I wasn't seeing focus shift as I was focusing stopped down and using MF with magnification.

Since the zoom had been discontinued four years earlier and had been a shop demo for a long time I was able to negotiate an advantageous price and I bought it.

What does all this prove, if anything? That we tend to overlook many good, medium aperture lenses because they lack sex appeal but, in fact, are very, very good. Many people swear by super fast lenses but I find that they don't really deliver incredible performance at their widest apertures. My take is that our penchant for super fast lenses is based on two ideas, one of which is deeply flawed and the other was made irrelevant by our almost ubiquitous dependance on auto focus technologies.

First of all I think that super fast lenses became popular in the 1960's, 1970's through the 1980's because back then people mostly manually focused their lenses in SLRs and the faster aperture meant more focusing accuracy on the screen. The more limited depth of field also helped us get to sharp more quickly. Now that all our cameras are AF these parameters are rendered more or lens meaningless and further impaired in designs that exhibit focus shift upon stopping down.

The second parameter that comes into play is something that Erwin Puts talks about a lot. It is (according to Puts, a Leica expert) eight time harder to accurately make a lens element that is twice as large. Each increase of one stop makes the chances of creating a great optic eight times harder, times the number of elements in a lens. EIGHT times TIMES the number of lens elements.

I first noticed that some lenses that performed very well were slower than the lenses that were most popular or most used. For instance, I would say that in many regards that the Nikkor 55 Micro f3.5 is a sharper lens at f3.5 to f11 than just about any of the much pricier fast lenses on the market. Recently I purchased a Sony 85mm 2.8 lens and my results mirror those I've read in review sites. The lens is very sharp wide open. So sharp it can excite aliasing even wide open. Amazingly sharp. You hear similar stories about the older Contax 85mm 2.8 as well.

In my experiences with 85mm lenses the two Sony 85's tell the story. The big, expensive 1.4 lens is impressive to look at and impressive to look through. But it's hard to get sharp performance wide open due to the vagaries of AF and the added struggle with focus shift as one stops down. By 2.8 the lens is critically sharp (according to most tests) but then it is just on par with its much slower sibling. The 85mm 2.8 matches (to my eye) the performance of the bigger lens from 2.8 up to the diffraction limits of both lenses.

But the real thing a long term photographer should ask about the tools is, "is ultra narrow depth of field something I'll use a lot?" And then weigh that against, well, weight and price. I find most controlled shoots with longer lenses take place between f2.8 and f8.0. With a full frame camera an f1.4 aperture gives one such a narrow slice of sharpness that it becomes schtick.

Given a choice these days I would rather have a lens that's critically sharp but a little slower than a prestige lens that really only delivers when stopped down. In an odd twist the users of smaller formats may have an advantage when it comes to buying smaller, faster lenses (such as the Olympus 75mm f1.8 I talked about last week) because they use smaller diameter lens elements that can be more accurately machined and polished than optics made for larger circles of view...

So, how is the "new to me" little zoom? Where I use it, at f4 to f8, usually making portraits, I find it to be a fine lens and one perfectly suited for events. Is it so sharp it will call attention to its sharpness? No. But it's a nicely rounded sharpness that seems to work well for people. It's better on the a99 than on the a77 and I chalk that up to the interaction between the resolution limits of the lens and the resolution density of the two digital imaging sensors.

I'm heading out the door to shoot with the smaller lens right now. For a little while it will join the Tamron 28-75 and the Minolta 24-85mm in the equipment drawer. I'm putting them all through their paces right now and the winner will get to stay while the other two will be sent packing. Right now it's neck and neck between the Tamron and the Sony. More to come.

added later in the evening: And the early returns are good. The 24-105 has a unique look to it. Sharp but roundy..... I'll post a few and then we'll test later, in depth...


Mythology versus the Real World. A Painted Background.

The mythology of our business is so darling. Reams of pie-in-the-sky magazine articles from decades past would have every one believe that photographers can quickly get anything they want from a bevy of ready and waiting suppliers and that clients are standing by with their checkbooks open, just ready to satisfy our aesthetic procurement wishes. I wish that it was so. And I'm sure the stories evolved from some diamond studded studio in Manhattan where a kingly photographer was surrounded by anxious-to-please staff just waiting on the kingly photographer's barest utterance before they flung themselves into action and created props, backgrounds, sets and even models to his exacting parameters. I'm equally sure that, in this far off world, jovial (pre-bubble, pre-recession) clients stood ready to toss gold talents into whatever embellishments to the enterprise the kingly photographer might suggest. Happens in someone's world just not mine or any of the worlds of the scores of professional photographers I know.

Let me walk you through my latest project. We haven't done the photography yet but I've already gotten a lot done.

Since I live in the middle of Texas it was inevitable that I'd eventually be asked to shoot a bunch of cowboy boots for a cowboy boot maker's website and catalog. These aren't nasty, cheap boots that are glued together in a factory in some third world country. No sir. These are hand made custom boots done in an august Texas tradition. Fifteen hundred dollars a pair and up. Booked up for the next year already.  I bid the job based on the parameters given and my bid was accepted. That's when the "extra credit" work generally comes to the fore.

The comps for the campaign have a nice, non-descript, warm background and I was pretty sure we could find that in our own selection of backgrounds or from a rental house. But nothing I could find was exactly what we (the art director) wanted. I looked and looked but the fates refused to comply. As the shoot date drew nearer my art director understandably started to grow nervous. He'd no doubt sold the client on the look and feel of a computer created background and now it was kind of imperative that we deliver. No....the budget and delivery deadline didn't include clipping paths and dropping backgrounds into 80+ images of boots...

What does a commercial photographer do? We get ourselves over to the art supply house and get the stuff we need to make our own custom backgrounds. Like a nine foot long piece of beautiful oatmeal raw canvas that's 54 inches wide, along with some tubes of acrylic paint and a handful of wide brushes. I soaked the canvas so it would accept the very dilute paint into the fabric and then I laid it out on the floor of my studio, soaking wet. And then I started painting. And painting and painting. 

I used a high dilution of water to acrylic paint and the background, which appeared very saturated at first, is now drying to a much more subtle color palette. But that's just the first step. Once the acrylic wash is dried in I'll go back and hit the whole thing again with a spritzer filled with strong tea. I am hopeful that the tea will shift the overall color into a more sepia range and give me a look of something like a weathered parchment. Once the entire piece is exactly the color and pattern I want I'll go back and iron the fabric flat and then roll it around a core to transport it to San Antonio. 

Why go to the extra effort? Well, mostly because I am sure that the AD and I are on the same page and this is what we both wanted to see when we started looking at the comps and talking about the overall feel of the shoot. Would I have loved to pick up the phone and called a set maker in LA, spent some time giving him my vision, having him do some comps and send them back to me before meticulously hand painting a final background? Well, I guess so but I would worry that the background may not work and that by the time we receive his work it might be too late to punt.

As I'm writing this I'm watching the first application of paint dry and I'm loving what I'm seeing. Of course I don't have a studio entourage here to "ooh" and "ahhh" with me. No one to get me a plate of fancy Twinkies and an espresso... No one to fire up the hot tube. And clearly, no one to do the "behind the scenes" video.

I guess I really do suffer for my art... :-)  at least by the standards of the media/internet/photographer's mythology....

A few more hours of dry time and then we'll be ready for the tea....


My Albert Watson Phase.

I've been talking about my favorite lenses lately and I thought I would be remiss not to mention my all time favorite portrait lens, on that I may re-buy and have adapted to the Sony a99, if possible.  That lens is the 90 mm Summicron for the Leica R cameras. Sharp and yet flattering, it is a chameleon of a lens. I used it almost exclusively when I (rarely) shot 35mm film portraits back in the 1990s.

The initial images were wonderfully detailed on film but the overall look of the file was of lower contrast that some of the other system lenses, like the 80 Summilux. The images from that lens (especially portraits) came into their own when printed on slightly contrasty papers. Now, in the age of scans and digital optimization I find the lens's rendition the perfect starting point for portraits. The slightly lower contrast does a great job retaining both highlight and shadow detail and, as you build constrast it reveals a strong set of bones under the surface. You can go a fair distance in raising contrast without blowing out highlights or blocking up details.

And for me the 90 on a full frame is just heaven. Perhaps it is having used a 90mm focal length that keeps me from warming up to the 85s as portrait lenses. That may be why I like the old 60mm so well on the Nex cameras.  I think that by the time we are photographers we've developed an unconscious predilection for certain focal lengths and our allegiances forever lie there. In situations where commerce and profit are removed I have no desire whatsoever to shoot with a 35mm or 28mm lens. Wider is less appealing still.

While I come back again and again to the 50mm lens for situations that reward context the focal lengths between there and 90 are like "no man's land" for me. Vague and fruit-less.  Ah, but 90 to 135 is so sweet. I often fantasize about a future time in which I'll retire and walk the earth with a camera and a small back of lenses. From 85 to 135mm. Nothing wider, nothing longer. Because, that's the way the world looks best to me.

A psychiatrist and I discussed this very issue over coffee one day. He suggested that wide shooters were unable to commit. Commit to a framing. Commit to essential elements and to commit to a disciplined use of space. Longer shooters, he suggested, were decisive and loved cutting down a frame to the essentials. Whether he said this to ease my fevered brain, knowing my choices, or whether it was an epiphany of his years of practice, I take it to heart and now harbor yet another photographic prejudice.

Doesn't matter. No one is keeping score. Just thought I'd trot out my favorite...

Soft Core Lens Porn. The Thing Olympus Gets So Well.

Okay. I've been shooting with Sony stuff for almost a year now and I'm pretty happy with it but.....every time I have coffee with my friend, Frank, he (unintentionally?) brings along some little Olympus jewel, the allure of which is absolutely undeniable. Yesterday it was the absolutely, drop dead gorgeous, Olympus 75mm 1.8 lens, If you shot in the 1970's or the early 1980's one of the lenses that everyone had and used frequently was the 135mm focal length on a regular 35mm camera. That focal length, coupled with a fast aperture, does some really nice stuff. It compresses compositions so you can "stack" stuff in the frame in a very pleasing way. If you are focusing on subjects in the 6 to 10 foot range and using apertures faster than f4 you get a deliciously sharp subject and a background that is wonderfully soft and devoid of distracting detail.

This lens is about 10% longer, relatively, than the 135s on 35mm but it's certainly in the ballpark.

I've owned the Pen 70mm f2 for years and used it on my Pens and now on my Sony Nex cameras. It's a very useful focal length and an antidote for all the endless wide angle crap that seems to be today's over riding style.

From all reports the new lens resides in a whole different world than the older optic. Sharp wide open and sharp right down. Silent and speedy focus on a Pen OMD. And since it's sharp at f1.8 you get the same basic look that we used to get with our big, heavy 135mm 2.8's but without all the dimensional sturm und drang.

If you are a Micro Four Thirds user you might want to read what DXO says about this lens. Spoiler alert: It beats the Leica 25mm in their tests!


If only Sony made lenses like this available. The Nex system would be an incredible value proposition. As it stands now the bodies are really great but the lens selection? Not so much. This lens, along with the 12mm, the 25 Leica, and the 45mm 1.8, goes a long way to cement Olympus's ascendant position in the new world order of cameras. Every other camera maker should take note.


Time for a photography refresher blog. The most popular one I wrote in 2011.

33 Variations. Beethoven, Theater, Photography. Always learning new things about Music and my Sony a99.

The place: A new Theatre on the banks of the Colorado River. The play: 33 Variations. My purpose: Get great images from the play for use in public relations and advertising. My primary tools: Quick reflexes and the Sony a99+70-200mm f2.8 G lens.

The premise of the play: Musical publisher, Diabelli, comes up with the idea of composing a small piece of music (four different note to begin with?) and then having the best music composers of the day create variations on the theme. Then publish the variations in a book of music. The other thread of the play revolves around a musicologist who is dying from Lou Gehrig's disease and has been studying Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, in the present. The play is funny and warm and dramatic all at once. And woven throughout are renditions of various segments and pieces of Beethoven's 33 Variations played by world renowned concert pianist, Anton Nel.  So here we go.....

There was a "family and friends" audience in the house for this first, post dress rehearsal, performance. I guess the restaurant business would call this a "soft opening." I wanted to be in the orchestra area, center, about five rows from the front of the stage. This would get me close enough to capture some intimate groupings while giving me enough leeway to go wide enough when I needed to. As the house last night was "open admission" I asked the house manager to reserve me five seats across the middle of the row and to block the two seats directly in front of me. I did this so no one would be disquieted by the noise of the camera shutters, or my movements, as they tried to enjoy the show. The added benefit of not having the two people directly in front of me, combined with the rake of the seats, was not having heads in the wider shots.

I got to the Mort Topfer Theatre about forty five minutes early, checked the seats and dropped off my camera bag on the middle seat. I went to the first floor bar and acquired a very nice cabernet sauvignon in a plastic cup, with a lid and a straw, and then went back into the theater to go through my camera pre-flight.

I don't know about you but I make it a point to zero out the things that routinely change in menus on my cameras and then re-enter them. I never want to take settings for granted only to discover that I've been shooting small, normal jpegs at 3 megapixels when I really need something else. Ditto with focus settings, ISOs, etc. I start at the left side of the Sony menu and work my way to the right.

I set the camera for super fine jpegs @ 24 megapixels. I turned on steady shot. I presumed it was already engaged but as soon as I entered my pre-flight routine I remembered that my last use of the camera had been on a tripod and the SS had been turned off. My camera will (with the help of an eyepiece sensor) toggle between the back screen and the EVF if you bring the camera up to your eye or bring it down from your eye. Since I could read all the menu items in the finder and never like to push bright light into a theater setting I turned off the auto select and manually selected the EVF. I usually keep the review on and set it to 2 seconds but it slows down the process when shooting theater so I turned it off entirely, knowing I could rely on pre-chimping just as well.

Here's an interesting thing I learned about the a99: The camera is capable of making 14 bit raw files. In fact some experts say that the camera has one of the truly great raw files on the consumer camera market. But here's the rub. It is only available in the single frame mode! If you set your camera to single frame shutter release you get 14 bits of wonderful color and detail. Set it to 3 or 6 frames per second and you get 12 fps. What did I care? I was shooting Jpegs. But it is interesting to know how you can operate your gear for best effect, when necessary.

I'd worked on some video for this show in a dress rehearsal on Sunday and knew that the prevailing stage light was neither daylight balance nor tungsten (3200K) so I looked back in my little camera bag Moleskin notebook at my color settings from before. The optimum for most scenes was 3900K with just a nudge of magenta correction. I set that manually. The final menu setting adjustment was to set the high ISO noise reduction to "low." 

At this point I formatted the 16 gigabyte SD card in the primary shooting camera and then turned my attention to my back-up/wide angle camera and duplicated the settings on that menu as well. That meant I could pick up either camera and shoot with the need only to change exposure settings or, in limited situations, ride the color balance a bit.

Next I turned my attention to the function menu. All the parameters get set here. I used ISO 1600 all night long. That generally got me 1/200th @ f3.4 or f4. Just the way I like it. I used the "standard" creative setting but I dropped the contrast down one click. Stage light is contrasty. Honest. I set the focusing to AF-S and used (creature of habit) the center AF sensor.

Since I was pre-chimping I never considered bracketing. And really, in fast moving situations and when doing portraits I don't think you ever should because Murphy's Law will bite you on the rear. The expression you love most will be in the lightest or darkest of your brackets. But because of Moore's Law than blown out frame will at least have gobs and gobs of resolution.....

When I go to the theater to shoot I take along a few little things to make my life easier. I take chewing gum because it's actually a goud cough suppressant. I talk laundered, cloth handkerchiefs, because a gentleman should always have a clean one to offer to a beautiful woman.....(day dream sequence), to blow his nose with and.....because a freshly laundered hanky can be pressed into service to clean a lens. I also take a tiny flashlight with a deep red gel taped over the front. It puts out just enough light to help you find that dropped memory card on the dark floor without ruining your night vision or annoying everyone around you. Finally, I bring a lead lined bag in which to drop my cellphone after I turn it off......just to be certain that I am never that person! (goes with the tin foil hat...).

While I shoot a ton of images I don't do any of them in bursts. I try to see and time every image I take. It's a good exercise because it helps you create your own luck instead of trying to get lucky. Besides, not much changes during 6 or 8 or 10 frames per second. It really doesn't.

The a99 tossed off about a thousand frames last night and did so with one battery. The battery had about 39% power left on the meter when I wrapped up the cameras and tossed them into the old, weathered, black canvas Domke bag. What would I do differently next time? Not a damn thing.

It all worked fine. The files look good to me and the client was thrilled to get them this morning since live theater has a definite marketing shelf life. The images you see here are my quick and quirky selections, I am sure the people at Zachary Scott Theatre's marketing department will make a different set of choices.

If you are in Austin you should definitely go and see this production. The music is wonderful. It's the first totally acoustic show in the new theater (no sound amplification) and the venue has a sweet sound. The lighting is wonderful and more than enough to keep a photographer engaged. If you love piano music you'll probably already have your tickets in order to see Anton Nel in such a  different styled performance. If you love a good musicology story the play is also for you.

Go here to see more: http://zachtheatre.org/

Finally: Could we have done this with an Olympus OMD system? A Nikon D6oo? A Canon 6D? or some other kind of camera? You bet. We have for years. But the pre-chimping is especially nice for stage lighting and the 24 meg chip yields some good files for those (frequent) times when the theatre gets into its "banner" thing and starts printing really large. The camera that yields the best results will be the one you enjoy having in your hands. 

What's up tomorrow? No new blog tomorrow. I'm spending the day making portraits for a healthcare company and I'll be using LED lights. I'm wrapping this up now so I can go back into the studio and cut fresh gels and then pack. Hope everyone is doing well. And doing good. -Kirk