2.08.2013

This post is for the pros and aspiring pros. If you don't need to show a portfolio then reading this is optional.

A shot from Esther's Follies. Funny, silly, essential Austin Entertainment.

Golly Jeepers! Photographers are from Uranus and Art Buyers are from Venus...

Belinda and I got invited to a nice dinner at Lambert's last night. An fun, upscale BBQ restaurant right next to city hall in downtown Austin. We were guests of the Austin Center for Photography and the local chapter of the ASMP. The occasion was the kick off of the Texas Photographic Round-up which will feature presentations by photo stars like Dan Winter, Andrew Hetherington, Adam Voorhees and others. 

For a lot of professional (advertising and commercial) photographers one of the big draws of the show is the opportunity to sit down with an art buyer, photographer's rep or magazine editor and show a portfolio of your work. The Photo Review.  The idea is to get a critique that will help move your career forward.  You sign up for the review, pay your money and take your lumps (or get well deserved strokes from a tough industry insider = you win).

I'm sure portfolio reviews have value but I feel like I learned a lot by having dinner and drinks with five of the women who flew in from places like New York and San Francisco to do the reviews. And I'd like to summarize what they told Belinda and me last night in an hour and half's worth of wine fueled honesty and good food.

These are not my local-yokel opinions. They are the nuanced opinions from the top facilitators and gate keepers of the industry we all work in or want to work in. I'm going to paraphrase but I'm trying to be very accurate about the content of what they said (and unanimously agreed upon).

1. "We do not care about what camera or brand of lights you used. We never ask. We never want to know. We don't care. All that matters on that front is how the image looks and how it's presented. (and I would infer from their collective body language that you supplying a running inventory pisses them off. Big time. And it makes them understand that you really don't get that the subject is more important than the toys...)."

2. "We do not want to know what technique you used; either when shooting or when post processing. If it works for us we'll like it without you having to give it a name. If we don't like it we also don't need to know what you call it or how you do it. Period. The discussion of how the sausage was made seems to always curb the appetite."

3.  We don't...... mind.....iPad presentations but they (iPads, physically) are so unpersonalized. Quote: "Flick, Flick....now who's book am I looking at again???" If you show work on an iPad there are two things they (the buyers and reps) want you to know: 1. The work better stand out. 2. They feel as though the image inventory on the average photographer's iPad presentation is.....endless. And not in a good way.  Many sighs around the table and unified nostalgia for big, beautiful, printed portfolios....

4. "The impression of the photographer's fun quotient and fun to be around quotient is at least as important as the work. One magazine art buyer said, "If they are wonderful, happy personalities and easy to work with I don't care what their book looks like." (interpretation: if you are a self-centered ass you probably will lose more jobs than you'll gain with a personal portfolio show)."

5. "We've all seen thousands of presentations that are copies of really good photographers and we've seen lots of commercial work. If we want a famous person's style we'll try to hire them. What we want to see in a book is what makes you, the photographer, excited to shoot. Personal work. Wonderful personal work."

So, by having dinner with the reviewers we were entertained and learned what the big fish are really thinking. It all boils down to this:

We don't care about cameras
We do care about personalities
We want the presentation and the work to be memorable
We don't want to hear how the sausage was made
The thing you are selling us is your style. That's it.

Sounds like good advice to me. And the brisket at Lambert's was really good. None of the guests did anything embarrassing and everyone seemed to be having a really good time.

Now, you'll have to excuse me, I'm frantically trying to narrow down the images I have on my iPad, print a new, sexy portfolio and review my dog eared copy of "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie.  Good luck out there.




2.07.2013

Crazy Photographer buys Wacky Off Brand 85mm Lens. Why? What was he thinking?



 I've been around the block long enough to know that there's no free ride. But I've also racked up enough lens purchases to know that there's also a lot of wiggle room between quality, branding, features and price. So you'll have to forgive me for going off the reservation and purchasing a wacky newcomer to the 35mm lens market, the 85mm 1.5 Cine Rokinon lens.

A couple of weeks ago I did a test with the 85mm 1.4 CZ for the Sony. While I'm a sucker for cool lenses and I would definitely toss one in the bag is the price was right I was also very underwhelmed by the center performance of the lens wide open. You may want a homogenous sharpness across the full frame but I'll trade some corner performance for center sharpness any time. Like it or not, the important and juicy stuff usually winds up in the middle of the frame. (Please don't be too literal, I'm talking about the inner 70% of the frame not the little 10% chunk right in the center...).

While I am deeply and irrevocably in love with the cool little Sony 85mm 2.8 lens I have found a few situations (mostly in video production) when I'd really like to use a decent 85mm 1.4 lens at its wide open aperture. So when I started having second thoughts about the venerable Zeiss offering I also started to look around at other options, like the Sigma. That's when I discovered this particular lens. The Rokinon 85mm t-1.5 Cine version of Samyang's well respected and inexpensive 85mm 1.4 still photography lens. I'm increasingly interested in the intersection of still photography and motion so this lens caught my attention for several reasons. First, the basic design is based on Samyang's latest permutation of their still lens and countless reviews have made it pretty clear that its optical performance is competitive. Secondly, the lack of click stops is a great thing for quiet interviews and other video situations where you might need to compensate for a light shift during a live take. Finally, the lens looked cool in the product advertising and it was dirt cheap compared to everything but my little 2.8. I figured I could compare it to what I saw with the CZ and if it wasn't as good I could send it back for a no hassle refund. A quick test with no harm done.

Short story: It's not going back. Long story? It toasts the Carl Zeiss lens for center sharpness wide open.  And to my eyes it's at least as good at the rest of the f-stop range as well.


The 85mm t 1.5 Cine mounted on a Sony a99.

As you can see in the image just above the lens has it's t-stops (actual light transmission stop as opposed to theoretical f-stops) running down the side of the lens when the camera is in a normal position. That's because filmmakers tend to prefer apertures on the side because there are so many attachments that loom over the top of their full configured cameras that getting to the ring and seeing the settings can be....challenging.  You'll notice that the focusing ring is rotated into this position as well. 

The focusing ring is deeply scalloped and it's done that way so it will mesh with most of the follow focus units that are on the market. Those are the units that use a geared attachment to the focusing ring so that accurate focusing can be done by rotating a knob. The focusing ring is also a long throw, linear ring so it's harder to overshoot your mark.

So, the lens is solid, the focusing ring is smooth as butter, the aperture ring is click-less but has enough resistance to stay put when you engage it and the whole package looks very professional. Optically, the lens is constructed with 9 elements and includes an aspheric element. I used the lens yesterday at a product shoot and stopped down to f16 without much perceptible diffraction effect on the Sony a99. Below are a couple of studio illustrations I did before I sat down to write this.

My favorite, older ball head. The Leitz Ballhead. This was shot at f4.

I wanted to see what the sharpness of the lens looked like in the center at f4. According to all the tests I've read this is where most 85mm's shape up and become bullet proof in their performance.

Here's what a 100% crop of the center looks like. 

But, if you are going to pay for a fast aperture you've got to be curious about what you're going to get as a result of your investement. With that in mind the next photo down is in my studio as well and is shot at the full 1.5 t-stop. First the full frame:


And then the 100 % crop (see below).


I'm happy with that kind of performance. But what are the downsides of a great performing but dirt cheap ($350) fast lens? Since Samyang/Rokinon didn't scrimp on image performance what got left out of the mix to hit this price point? Well, it's totally manual focus. The Nikon version has a focus confirmation chip but the Sony and Canon versions are bare-bones. That's okay for Sony users because we have focus peaking and it makes using this lens in most situations fast and accurate.

The lens also has no aperture automation. When you move the dial to a smaller aperture the lens stops down. Always. In a traditional OVF camera the finder gets darker and darker until (varies by camera) the finder gets too dark to be useful. For a number of situations it's useful to focus near wide open and then stop down and that can be a real pain in the butt. There's a reason people like automation.....

Their are two other glitches but neither of them shows up anywhere in my list of deal killers. I'll mention them anyway. First, the lens hood, while included ( take that, Olympus), is about as flimsy as it comes and most ham fisted American users will have theirs in small pieces in short order. The same sentiments for the lens cap. Look to the aftermarket market if these things bug you. I'm presuming most video users will be using a filter holder or compendium bellows shade on the front of the lens anyway and most of us still shooters have so many 72mm lens caps floating around from yesteryear's wonder lenses that it won't matter.

For studio shooters like me, and photographers who set up lights and work with maximum control, there are no real deal killers with this lens. It's a great value for us. If you do a lot of sports the long, linear focus ring will screw you up. So will the lack of automation in exposure.

My most anticipated use? Portraits. Wonderful portraits with vaporous backgrounds. I like the look of the files I'm getting enough so that the lens has not come off the front of my camera since I first got it. Your mileage will vary depending on what you'll be using the lens for but you won't be able to complain about image quality. This lens delivers that.

It is available in Sony Alpha, Sony NEX, Canon and Nikon mounts. 




2.05.2013

Healthy Lunch.


I've really enjoyed photographing food lately. The new cameras hold onto such incredible detail in the highlight areas when shooting raw. The LED lights provide a great light source for food. You can see what you are doing and you can work without the heat of tungsten or the one step removed from reality reality of flash. On the last several shoots I've found the longer zoom lens in my collection to be the most flexible.

I love the look of clean, white plates on white tablecloths.

2.03.2013

Where did I put my guidebook to relevance?


I was walking around downtown today with a Sony a57 and it's wonderful 35mm DT 1.8 lens. I felt playful and used the "toy camera" setting on the camera's menu. Then I felt so dirty....

But seriously, I think photographers in the digital, massively-shared age are mostly looking for a feeling of relevance. What does my work mean? What is my real context? What difference does my point of view really make? Stuff like that.

I was looking at these two cranes and understanding that the left crane was helping to build the counterbalance for the right crane which would then be used to build yet another high rise which, in the grand southwestern American tradition would be used for 20 years or so and then knocked down to make room for another temporary structure. None of us will really stand the test of time. So what is our relevance as photographers?

I guess we're the little bitty building blocks that are part of the temporal photographic foundation that will anchor the next generation in their incremental journey toward somewhere else.

Ed Koch, "I can explain it to you, but I can't comprehend it for you."  Love it.




A series of interviews about 33 Variations at ZACH Theatre.



A couple of Sundays ago I spent an afternoon at ZACH Theatre shooting interviews with the artistic director, the lead actor and the featured pianist in Zachary Scott's production of 33 Variations. The theater's digital expert, David Munns, took the raw interview footage, edited it and created this web PSA for the play. Colin Lowry shot the footage of the actors on stage.

The interviews are shot with the Sony a99 and the Sony 70-200mm G lens. The microphone used was a Sennheiser wireless lavalier. Lighting was a mixture of ambient light supported by small LED panels for fill.







Ice Cream and Bread Pudding. Sony and LED lights.


I'm so happy I took a refresher course in food photography by buying Nicole S. Young's book on food photography. It was easily my most effective purchase of continuing education in all of 2013. The underlying principles of the craft are pretty much the same as they've been for quite a while but Nicole did a nice job explaining them and reminded me to use certain techniques that just make food look better. The printed book is a whopping $14 on Amazon. And it's useful even for people who don't necessarily shoot food. Just buy it and put it in your library. Pull it out next time you plan on cooking something great and you just want to show off your culinary chops to your friends.

So, why was I re-reading Nicole's book? Because I'm working with a gifted marketing guy on a restaurant project. My part of the project (as I'm sure you've guessed by now) is to make heroic and tasty shots of the food. The image above is one of many we shot last week. Right before my immersion into boots.

This image was lit by two big 1000 LEDs above and behind the food. The two LED panels are scrimmed or modified by a white diffusion panel on a 24 inch by 36 inch frame. They are color corrected with 1/4 minus green gel filters. While they are called minus green filters they are actually magenta. The magenta cancels out the green, hence minus green in the name. I get them at a movie supply house here in Austin called, GEAR.

The backlight is reflected back into the front of the food by two big, white reflectors. The reflectors are used as close to the food as I can get them and still keep them out of the shot.  I love the way the back lighting makes the green mint leaf translucent.

I shot this wonderful combination of ice cream, drizzled caramel and bread pudding in a hurry to I could catch it before it all melted into itself. But at least the melting process was slower than it would have been with tungsten lights. Even the tungsten lights in electronic flash modeling lights.

Before the dish arrived on the table I did a careful custom white balance using a small, collapsible Lastolite gray/white balance target. Getting the color balance nailed down in the shooting process means more consistent files in post production and, by extension, more consistent exposures. Get one of the targets and stick it in your bag. It will improve the technical quality of your work. Really.

I used my Sony a99 camera with the 70-200mm f2.8 G lens to make this image. I used the lens near 180mm and as close as it would focus, cropping a little bit to get the exact composition I wanted.

We wrapped our Austin food shoot around 6pm and I was in San Antonio by 8pm to get ready for the next day's shoot. The economy seems like it's really thawing out. I'm busy and loving it.













2.02.2013

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....















1.29.2013

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....














1.27.2013

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 :

http://www.luminous-landscape.com/techniques/beyond_calibration.shtml

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...