4.21.2013

Ultimate Lighting Minimalism.

Come to my "One Light" workshop.
We'll start at Lowe's Hardware Store
Where we'll buy four under the cabinet
fluorescent light fixtures for $12 each.
Then we'll buy some packing tape to tape 
them all together with.
We'll add a bungy cord to 
anchor them on the fence post
"light stand."

Then we'll take a picture,
pat each other on the back 
and go home.

And the whole time we'll wander why 
the hell we just did that when we 
have a ton of lights on the shelf just
to the left.


A very busy week means a quiet blog...But I still wanted to thank you for the 13 millionth pageview.

Sculpture. San Antonio Museum of Art.

I'm sitting in the studio making clipping paths for thirty or forty still life images I made for one of my clients on Thursday and Friday of last week. In the same week I also shot some video interviews and also a video shot with scores of people all yelling out one sentence in unison. I wrapped up another job for a joint venture capital company (mostly portraits) and had pre-planning meetings for a handful of video and photo projects for next week. Once you factor in swim practice and walking the dog there just wasn't a lot of time to water the blog. Too many hats?

I have a few observations for anyone who wants them: If you know you're going to have to do clipping paths it sure is a good idea to get as deep a focus as you possibly can so you don't have to mess with diffused (airy, feathery?) edges. When getting into the Zen of clipping paths you should  have a really good, calm music mix you can listen to so your brain doesn't fry. You should get up every hour and look out the window so you don't get vision cramps.

In the pool, if you are swimming with young people in your lane (say 26 year old triathletes and the like) it's important to let them go first so they can wear themselves out while you draft off their wake. In this way you'll be able to keep up for the first half of the workout while they tire themselves out. If you are good at pacing you'll have the stronger second half of the work out.

Another pool suggestion: If you've been pounding away at work you probably should take it a little easier than usual in the pool. Anything more than 4500 yards in a workout is just garbage yardage if you are already worn out.

A few observations about video: Even if the clients say they know exactly what they want make sure to do a pre-production meeting to go over the details. You might find you need an extreme range zoom to get the kind of shot they describe as "not a big deal."  Bring your own microphones! You might find that the ones they swear they have on hand and ready to go never materialize and you don't really want to be that guy who had to use the in camera mics, right?
Video tripods with fluid heads are nice and all but few of them go really tall. Need to shoot someone who's six foot five from above eye level? You'll be happy you had your conventional Gitzo 8 footer in the trunk of the car.... And a hard Pelican case to stand on.

One more point about microphones: If you are running the signal from the microphone directly into your camera be sure to pack extra cables and adapters. Borrowed or supplied microphones are probably XLR plugs and might need phantom power. At the least you might need an XLR or quarter inch to 3.5mm adapter or two.... Don't be that guy.... (Been there..).

Wanna make photo-life easier in general? Custom White Balance All The Time! Custom White Balance All The Time! Custom White Balance All The Time! Custom White Balance All The Time! Custom White Balance All The Time! Custom White Balance All The Time!

My location shoot on Saturday reminded me of the importance of checking the local events calendar when you discuss a location with your clients. We wanted a fun shot of the downtown skyline with the lake in front and my client in front of that. We've shot that shot before and there's a perfect spot down at Auditorium Shores in Austin. As we headed there it became clear to us that this was also the spot of the weekend long Reggae Festival and the attendant 100,000 people. Thank goodness we had a "plan B." 

It's also a good idea to bill as you go. The end of every job should mean having you sit down and bill right then. Nothing worse than looking up after three weeks of work without having time for bookkeeping and realizing you're about to suffer "check lag." A nasty reality of the one man band business model....

Good stuff this week? The a58 is a great little camera and the files are good enough to interchange with the a99 for a lot of critical work in the studio and around town. The new kit lens is good but unless I'm wanting to travel as light as humanly possible I'd rather use the 16-50mm 2.8 DT just for the faster f-stop.

The new fluorescent lights are good. Again, CWB!!! But actually a pretty good balance in with diffuse sunlight. More when I slow down.

We logged our 13,000,000th pageview last night. Thank you for reading and taking time to comment. I routinely just edit out the people who are difficult but I appreciate everyone else's input. Hope you're out shooting while I'm sitting here listening to vintage Rolling Stones and working the Wacom Pad.

Don't forget to bill for usage.  And have a great week. At the end of next week.......Eeyore's Birthday Party at Pease Park. Wear a costume if you are coming. A khaki vest and a heavy bag of old school voyeur cameras doesn't count......

4.19.2013

Celebrating your successes. A record of happiness and fun.

Many years ago I was the director of an advertising agency. It was an interesting time in the business. This image comes from a shoot we did in 1983 or 1985. Our crew had just finished shooting images for an ad campaign for a retailer who had upscale flower shops that also sold good Champagne and chocolate, as well as fresh blooms.

We we're photographing models doing explosive openings of Champagne and trying to capture the moment bubbly wine came rushing out and spraying all over the place. I can remember that we were shooting on a couple of Pentax 6x7 cameras and our lighting consisted of a bunch of Novatron power packs with their cheesy plastic heads.

Back then we capped every shoot by celebrating. We'd all have some Champagne at a shoot like this one, then we'd assume the "Jet Pose" and, if we were still reasonably coherent we might all go out to dinner at one of our favorite Mexican food dives.

Somewhere along the line photo sessions seemed to become more and more routine and we started only celebrating the big budget shoots. But when I looked at this image I was instantly reminded of the words of the CEO of a 1990's telecom company. His mantra to his "troops" was always: "Celebrate Your Victories!!!!" His company succeeded in "celebrating" through over a billion dollars of stock holder's cash in a little less than 18 months, so you know he took the idea of the morale building party seriously. And I was thrilled to be along for every mile of that sybaritic journey. :-)

I've decided to re-institute the idea of celebrating our victories and the victories represented by good shoots for my clients. Obviously, it's now a different time and the celebrations will be a bit more low key. But now, while I'm visualizing success, I'm going to remember to stock my refrigerator with a case or two of good Champagne. I'm just starting to remember that this is supposed to be a really fun career. Screw the recession. Raise a glass.

Celebrate your own victories and successes. There will be more than enough time to ruminate over the bad stuff...

Friday. Thinking about intersections between gear, new synergies and portraits.


Derma by Kirk Tuck (kirktuck)) on 500px.com
Derma by Kirk Tuck

When you take the burden of flash out of the mix portraiture seems to be easier for everyone involved. I've recently added more continuous light sources to my inventory. In one case are five large LED panels. Just under that case are two, new V-Lights from Lowell (compact tungsten halogen instruments) as well as a couple of Lowell Tota-Lights. But the newest and, so far, the funnest new additions are the three Fotodiox Day Flo Max fluorescent fixtures. They all use Osram Dulux tubes and seem to have master most of the spectrum issues that plagued earlier fluorescent lights.

I'm using them with the Sony a99 and that's where the idea of synergy comes in. You probably know that the a99 has an electronic viewfinder. You probably also know that to work with studio flash in a productive way you need to turn to a setting where the image in the finder is amped up all the time. It makes sense. If you set f8 at 1/125th of a second ISO 100 for the flash and you leave the camera in the "Setting Effect On" setting (meaning that what you see in the finder is exactly what you are going to get) you'd get a dark, dark finder while working in the studio under 100 watt modeling bulbs. Change the settings to let in more light and then the flash exposure is wrong. But when set to "Setting effect Off" you are basically working with the camera the same way people with OVFs always do...with your eye compensating for the various brightness levels in the studio.

Switch over to continuous lighting and you never need to turn off the "Setting Effect On" setting in the menu. You are always operating in a mode of the camera showing you exactly what you will get. It's showing the effects of your settings.

So, in the portraits I did with the new flo's on Wednesday I set up a six tube fixture and pushed the light through a layer of diffusion. Nice and soft.  I added a second light to illuminate the background. You could see the effect immediately in the finder. Then I added a little bit of backlight from the smallest fixture with only one tube live and my set up was complete.

The second synergy comes with the way the a99 handles lower light. I have no hesitation at using ISO 400-3200 in making portraits. I'm old school so I really like to work at ISO 200 when I can. But it also means that I'm using slower exposures and that can introduce lack of sharpness due to camera shake. The elimination of the moving mirror goes a long way toward stabilizing the camera at 1/30th of a second, or really anything under 1/125th of a second. If I want to be hand held the combination of the fixed mirror and the image stabilization means decent handheld work with impunity at 1/30th of a second. Very nice.

The final synergy in working with continuous light and the Sony a99 is the electronic first shutter. Not only does it also reduce overall mechanically induced unsharpness but it also takes away the somewhat startling (for people not usually in front of the camera) noise of a typical DSLR camera's operation.

For me it's a much more pleasant way to work than with a moving mirror and flash.

Today I'm doing still life work and the idea of the synergetic interplay is the same. The continuous light allowing the use of any combination of shutter speed and aperture while the camera dutifully shows me exactly what I'll get before I even push the shutter.

In fact, if I were a conceptual artist I could forego the push of the shutter button and just describe, within the context of my manifesto, exactly what would have been in the frame and how it made me feel. Further, what it meant in the time line of the history of conceptual art. Maybe I just did...

4.18.2013

Cameras are fun. Working with them is more fun. Making good portraits is the most fun.

Amy by Kirk Tuck (kirktuck)) on 500px.com
Amy by Kirk Tuck

I've rarely heard a person, when looking at a portrait, exclaim, "Oh, I wish that were sharper so I could see the details in my pores. And I'm disappointed that my wrinkles aren't more prominent." When they complain it's usually because I spent too much time geeking out on the gear and not enough time trying to unlock the secret of a person's great beauty. Never proud of myself for figuring out how to make use of all those pixels if it means living outside the moment where you engage with your subject...

4.17.2013

My new camera is pretty damn good. Not better than the ones I already have but really good for $599. It's called a Sony a58.


I bought a new Sony camera yesterday afternoon and I've been using it non-stop ever since. It's small, light, radically cheap to buy and it came with its own kit lens for a whoppingly small $599. I could have waited for Amazon to get them in stock, they're showing on their website that they'll have cameras to ship to people on their waiting list on April 21st. I thought I'd shorten the process and just drive up to Precision Camera, shoot the breeze with my sales guy, Ian, and pick one up while I was there. That's exactly what I did.

Lots and lots of photographers who use Sony cameras are lining up to buy this camera as a back up camera or a secondary camera. And, of course, there are the usual contingents of "Sony experts" who are throwing themselves into impassioned denouncements of the new model claiming that it's ten evolutionary steps backwards from one of the two cameras it's replacing. Are they right? In one or two regards, sure. In toto? NoNo.

Now that we're well over a decade into the digital age what exactly does $599 buy you in a camera? Let's start with the sensor. Sony is the sensor maker of the moment. What they've chosen to offer in their cameras is not necessarily the least noisy sensor but the result of a different outcome in the typical design compromise. Seems you can have detail, saturated color, accurate color, low noise and wide dynamic range but, like everything else in real life each engineering choice in sensor design tugs at some corner of this inventory of attributes. If you want the ultimate in high ISO low noise you may just have to give up color accuracy and wide DR. If you want the highest amount of detail in your files  you may have to put up with a bit more noise. Etc.

Sony seems to be designing the sensors in their camera line to maximize two attributes, color accuracy and dynamic range. The sensor in the a58 is a new one with 20 megapixels. I've shot two portrait sessions with it so far and can report that the image is very sharp which might point to a weaker AA filter, given that one would be less necessary as the number of pixels rises. There's none of the "rounding" effect that many cameras seemed to suffer from several years ago.

I'm not through shooting all my tests but I do know that this camera is one of the first cheap Sony's to use the adaptive noise reduction feature that debuted in the a99. I don't have any deep knowledge about adaptive noise reduction other than what I've read but it seems that the camera applies varying amounts of noise reduction based on the detail concentration in different parts of the image frame. Almost the way a Jpeg algorithm is programmed. The areas with lots and lots of fine detail work better with less noise reduction since the noise reduction also reduces the impression of fine detail while fine detail hides monochromatic noise. Large areas of low detail like skies and some renderings of human skin inherently have much less fine detail so when noise is present there is nothing to mask it. It stands out like a sore thumb. I don't know if that's what I'm seeing in the a58 but the rendering of fine detail is at 3200 and even 6400 while the noise treatment in flat areas is much improved over the a57 and even more so over the a77.

The camera follows the new Sony program of replacing moving mirrors and expensive, and heavy, glass pentaprisms with electronic view finders. People who've been in photograph for a long time seem to have a knee jerk reaction against changing viewing methods but among those with open minds it take about a week of using a full information viewfinder before they start saying things like, "I'll never go back to an optical viewfinder..."

The finder in this camera is better than the one in the a57; one of the cameras the a58 replaces. The a57 used an LCD screen with a resolution of 1.44 megapixels but the new camera uses an OLED screen that seems much more transparent and color rich.  Neither is as detailed as the EVF screen in the a99 or the screens in the Nex 6 and 7 but it's a clear improvement over the LCD design and one of the major reasons I bought one of these new models.

The main reason I wanted this camera was to have a third video camera at multi-camera shoots. I tend to use my a99 as the primary camera and I actively operate it for interview and content work but as I learn more about editing and programming I'm finding that it's always great to have alternate angles and alternate magnifications of the same scene so that I can cut away from the main shot in editing and make my programming less boring. The a57 and a58 can each be set up on their own tripods and all the cameras can run as we shoot a scene or an interview. We can generally sync up using the sound we capture on each camera's microphones while using the audio from the a99 (through external microphones) as our main sound source.

The Sony's look best to me at 1080p 24fps in mp4. If I'm editing that's what I normally shoot. I am much less interested in stuff like 60fps (although we have that in two of the three cameras mentioned if I want it...) than I am in getting good, sharp content. Since I've had the best luck so far with mp4 files I tend to set them all to the same settings and go with 24fps at my standard.

This camera is slightly dumbed down in video setting choices. Sony have eliminated the AVCHD 60p setting from this camera and left it with on 60i (interlaced). I'm sure we can see the difference on moving objects but I'm not so sure we'll see much difference on stuff that doesn't move very much.

When it comes to video one of the main advantages of the whole Sony line comes with the combination of full time, phase detection AF and the always on EVF. You don't need to mess with add-on finders to see what you are doing on bright days or reflect-y interiors. Look through the finder as the photo-gods intended and you're ready to shoot. Add in focus peaking and manual focus becomes joyful and fulfilling.

With all the mirrorless Sony cameras I have you might wonder why I felt like picking up another Alpha SLT camera. I guess part of the reason is that I've acquired so many good, cropped frame DT lenses (like the 35mm 1.8, the 50mm 1.8, the Sigma 10-20mm and the surprisingly good and cheap 55-200mm. I originally bought these to use on the two a77 bodies. I've since sold them and replaced them with two full frame bodies. When I go to use the DT lenses on either the a850 or the a99 the cameras automatically default to a setting in which they crop down and deliver an APS-C file with only about 10 megapixels on it. I wanted a companion camera for the a57 for the times when I want to travel light.

And let's be honest, when you're walking around outside, using a camera handheld, you'll probably find (as I have) that there's very little difference in image quality between a $600 camera and a $3000 camera. So why carry all the extra weight?

I decided to buy one of these when I found myself looking at cameras like the Sony RX-100 and the Fuji EX-2. I wanted small and light but at the same time I wanted a good  EVF and the use of lenses I already owned. The a58 seems to fit those parameters.

So, on the plus side:

-20 good, clean megapixels.
-A totally familiar and easy to navigate menu.
-A standard flash hot shoe.
-Loads of gimmicky programs that can be useful (one of my favorites is the "smile shutter." You can ask the camera to fire when it sees a smile. Many times these days I'm setting up portrait lighting in the studio or on location and I don't have an assistant or a handy stand in. I set the smile shutter, sit down and smile. The camera focuses and snaps a picture of me. I can use that to progressively dial in my upcoming shots. A big evolutionary jump forward from the ten second self timer.)
-5 full size frames per second.
-Same standard battery as all my other Sony DSLT cameras. Yippee!
-Multi-frame noise reduction.
-Small size and easy to master exterior control interface.
-Cheap as dirt to buy.
-Well done EVF.
-Inclusion of time tested Focus Peaking for manual focus.
-Continuous live view with fast and accurate focusing.
-Battery life, energy management improved by about 20%.
-3.5mm microphone plug.

On the down side:

-Smaller buffer than a57
-Slightly smaller viewfinder but still 100%
-Slower frame to frame drive. ( since when is five frames per second slow? The present "holy grail" camera, the Nikon D800 only does 4 fps; unless you add a bulky battery grip, then it goes to 6 fps. Big deal.)
-You lose one setting in video. 60p.
-Smaller rear screen at lower (461,000) resolution. )More than adequate for setting menus. And that's what those screens are really there for.....).

I like it. It's a good camera and works well. The whole interface is very familiar to me know and Sony doesn't seem to be changing it much from camera to camera. We're finally getting back to the time when we can say, to some extent, that the camera is just a box to hold the sensor and the lens together in parallel. The cameras all have good image quality. This one seems just right for a lot of stuff I do. For sports where I need a high frame rate I'll probably pull out the a57 and party with the 10fps. But in the studio and just walking around this one is perfectly sorted. And cheaper than a much less virtuous Fuji X-20 (yes, that was also on the list...).

It's been a busy week. The rest of the fluorescent lights finally came in and I've started shooting with them. Kind of a fun way to go. We've got more video to shoot tomorrow and again on Friday. I'll try to get some behind the scenes images to share. I know a lot of people are interested in the lighting...

If you shoot Canon and Nikon then thank you for wading through this Sony review. You needn't switch. The newest, modern cameras are all good now and I'm predicting that Nikon and Canon will have their EVF cameras ready to go to the next big trade show. Really.



Sony a58 "Glamor Shot."


















4.14.2013

Taking a break from a tough week to walk around Austin, get some exercise and work with an now obsolete camera and lens...

It was a tough week last week for personal reasons. I've been working non-stop for a while and I decided to take a couple of hours to get some exercise and fresh air with a walk through my favorite city, Austin, Texas. Had it been cloudy and gray I would have stayed at my desk and worked on stuff that has to get done. Because it was bright and clear and warm I decided to time shift the work till later this evening.

Kids Getting Ready to Jump into Lady Bird Lake from the Lamar Bridge.

In keeping with the spirit of not caring about perfection all the time I decided to take a favorite camera that's about to be obsoleted by a new model. I've been using a Sony a57 for about a year and I really like it. It's being replaced by a Sony a58 somewhere around the 20th of this month and, as any expert on the forums will tell you, the older model will stop working and start decomposing the minute the newer camera hits the market. As I've done some fun projects with the a57 I thought I'd take it out for spin. Given its creaky longevity in the market I thought it only fitting to equip it with an equally antiquated lens, the Sony 24-105mm.

New Condo Construction just north of the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge.

In the new spirit of capricious non-caring about technical stuff I set the camera to it's toy camera setting, adjusted it to "warmth", dialed in auto-exposure and headed to Barton Springs to celebrate Austin Spring in full flourish and then off to downtown.

Two Women Throwing Themselves From the Bridge.

The a57 and the small zoom lens hang gracefully from a Tamrac shoulder strap and have a graceful countenance that makes them pleasurable walking companions. They don't seem altogether serious and I've come to see that this is part of their charm.

White and Black Dog at the Barton Springs Spillway.

I made a conscious effort to approach the camera with the innocence and naiveté of a beginner. No twiddling of the dials and no adding a little "top spin" to the camera's decisions. It would succeed or fail on its own merit.

When you channel the mind of a beginner even your Avia track shoes are interesting.

Meanwhile, back at the spillway....

Shooting through the fence that divides the people who want to pay to swim and frolic at Barton Springs from those who just want to get wet.

Springs and ink.

The cyclists bring their dogs.

At this juncture it's in the low 90's and I've got my shoes off and I'm wading through the water with everyone else. I'm carrying my camera and lens and nothing else. No backpack. No camera bag. No water bottle or any of the other baggage that slows one down. My only concessions to uncertainty are an extra battery in my left pocket and a couple of hundred dollars in my right pocket. Not even a cellphone to intrude on my perambulations. 

Barton Springs Pool. Re-opened after six months of maintenance.


Looking across to the south shore.


The toy camera setting pumps up the colors and vignettes like all hell. Good, clean fun.


Narcissism rears its head once again...


I head across the pedestrian bridge going north. I'm heading toward the intersection of 2nd St. and downtown which, in my mind, is the center of the city. Everyone in Austin seems to be out running, cycling or walking but I know that's not exactly true because I see lots of people stuck in cars in traffic.

But no major traffic jams on this part of the lake.



I got to Jo's on 2nd too late for whatever party happened here... 

New stuff everywhere. No slow growth here. Just full speed ahead.

After an hour of walking I reach the far point of my journey and I take a seat at Caffe Medici for a classic cappuccino. I ask the barrista if he'd mind being photographed. "No Problem." Cool.




Leaving Caffe Medici I spy the makings of moving pictures. A classic interview in front of Congress Restaurant. Those video guys are snappy dressers...

Ahhh. The Austin Photographic Adventure Meet-up Crowd. A host (gaggle? flock? pride? coven?) of photographers waiting for two "models" to show up. They shoot as a group. Amazing. Not my style.

would it be a sunday walk without at least one image of the Frost Tower?

This is photographer, Stephen Elledge. He's shown standing next to his Crown Graphic 4x5 film camera. He uses it to make tintypes which he hopes will be a viable career undertaking. Good luck to Mr. Elledge. A fun rig and a fun idea.


edit 4/15: Here's a link to Stephen's Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/StephenElledgeMobileTinTypes

And here's a sample image he sent me: 
©2013 Stephen Elledge, All rights reserved. 



The models have shown up and the members of the Austin Photographic Adventure Meet-up Group jockey for position in the hopes that their images will be "unique."

The fun story this afternoon is one that I have no idea about. I was walking past the Austin Ballet headquarters when I noticed about eight white Chevy Tahoe SUVs with type on the side announcing, "Federal Protective Service. Police. Homeland Security. In each Tahoe, between the front seats, was an AR-16 or M-16 but there wasn't a uniformed or even un-uniformed agent anywhere in site. They also had this mondo big truck with big antennas sticking up. I took a bunch of photographs but no one ever came out and the drones didn't get me. I wonder what was going on. It was just a block from the federal courthouse........

 I headed back toward home with a quick stop at Whole Foods for a pint of Centennial IPA and then I retraced my steps. Another day wasted with a nearly obsolete camera and a substandard lens. Maybe I should have stayed home and watched sports on TV.
Oh well. Back to work.

Camera: Sony a57
Lens: Sony 24-105mm  3.5-4.5
Setting: Toy Camera...warm.
User input: none.



















Gary Friedman's Book on the Sony a99 transcends a mere manual on steroids. It's actually a great read.

I make the same mistake so many people in my age group/demographic/education level, etc., make: I think I am smarter than I really am. Like most people I'm sure I'm pretty close to the middle of the IQ Bell Curve but my ego keeps prodding me to believe that I must be nearer to the more valuable end. Every once in a while common sense wins over ego and I relent and actually do something beneficial for myself rather than presuming I already know everything already. (See how convoluted that paragraph is? Proof of my argument...).

When I bought my Sony a99 I presumed that my Vulcan-like intellect (often disproven) would make mastering all the nooks and crannies and crevices of the camera's potential child's play. And so I labored in blissful ignorance until yesterday. Only yesterday did I really start to unlock the secrets that are making that particular camera even better than I thought it would be. How did this happen? How did I break through the dam of ignorance in order to start realizing the potential of my $2800 purchase?

I took the advice of some people on the internet and bought a book by a guy named, Gary Friedman. He writes books about Sony cameras. If the a99 book is an typical example then he writes very, very good books about Sony cameras. I figured he would cover a lot of filler stuff and that I'd have to pick my way through a junkyard of trivia to find a few gems but I was smacked in the face by how good and how well aimed toward more advanced users the book is.

I've read some sections in their entirety and some I've skimmed over and will come back to. There were two areas about the camera that I hadn't really mastered. One was the use of the flashes that are available from Sony. And, especially, using the flashes in wireless modes and with groups. The second area is in setting the right autofocus combinations for best results. And I'll admit that, with my growing interest in video I read that section twice.

In just those readings I came away with a much enhanced understanding of how to get the best out of the a99 system. The e-book is over 600 pages. It contains lots of color illustrations and Gary gives it to buyers in three formats: a very nicely designed and indexed PDF format, a mobi format and an epub format for Nooks and other readers. Wow. Across all formats. Generous and amazing. Can you say, "Customer Service?"

He writes in a very fluid and humorous way. His understanding of every little detail is obvious. I have never been as happy with an e-book on so many levels. The design is superb. The layout and functionality (at least on an Apple computer, iPad and iPhone) is so good as to be invisible, transparent and buttoned up. I grabbed the information I was originally thirsty for and then went out for dinner. Now that I have the book loaded on my iPad I'll be settling in over the next few days to read it cover to cover like a novel.

The book is best read on a device that has an active connection to the internet. This is because Gary has provided numerous links about subjects you might want to dive into in more detail. Or he provides links to resources like Kurt Munger's excellent lens tests for Sony and Minolta lenses.

I can only recommend the e-books as that's what I've experienced. I wish I could put an affiliate link right here and benefit from his writing genius but I can't. You'll be best served to go directly to his site and order his book directly.  It's right here: Gary Friedman's Excellent a99 book.

Don't shoot with an a99? Browse his site and look at all the other books available. As soon as I digest this one I'm moving on to the Sony Nex7 book. Sorry to the Nikon, Canon and Olympus Shooters....I wish we had someone who writes this well covering those brands. But we don't.






















Using the Sony DSLT cameras as "Hybrid" production tools.


The typical mindset among photographers, when considering cameras, is to always go for ultimate performance, damn the cost. I've been having different ideas lately about video. While I reach for my Sony a99 when I know I'll be locked down on a tripod and needing to record controlled sound, I've found that there's a joy in handholding a camera and shooting with less need for control. I'll explain it like this: In the early 1950's the cameras of the day for "smart" and "professional" photographers were the twin lens, medium format cameras (as a minimum) and various larger format field cameras as a norm. But two photographers reject the idea that the "need" in their imaging was the highest quality they could achieve. They valued a fluid handling and relative discretion above lines of resolution and detail. Both Robert Frank (See: The Americans) and Henri-Cartier Bresson (The Decisive Moment) went out into the streets, honky-tonks, diners and fields of real life to capture the flow of existence in a way that never lent itself to perfect technique.

I'm feeling more and more like that's something I want to do with video.

Recently, in the world of video, I've done interviews with cardiologists and oral surgeons. I've interviewed artistic directors and a National Geographic photographer, and I've created video content for advertising and for giant projection in live theater. In all of those situations I've followed the standard production norms of the day. I shot in 1080p at 60fps. I lit the scenes and the subjects. I used off camera microphones in the proscribed way while monitoring their sound through headphones and riding levels via manual controls. And while this is the proscribed way to make technically good video it can also be a good way to make boring video.

As an antidote to the structured feel of my commercial video work I went out recently with my "non-professional" Sony camera, the a57. You can pick one up right now, as they are being discontinued, for around $500. As far as video goes even the cheapest Sony's are easy to use and produce really good files. The a57 offers settings that even some of the big boys from other companies do not. The two biggest advantages being the electronic viewfinder and the full time, phase detect (fast, very fast) autofocus. What's so great about those two features? Well, a clear and well done EVF means you can view your video shots right through the eye level finder even in the brightest sunlight. That means no more switching to slow-as-molassas live view and then strapping a Zacuto or Hoodman loupe to the rear LCD sreen of your camera. In even the top of the line cameras from Canon and Nikon, once you turn on Live View you can pretty much kiss autofocusing goodbye. The cameras switch over to a contrast detect autofocus mode that's pretty much primitive, not fast and sassy like any number of compact or mirrorless cameras.

If adding on a separate loupe while loosing any sort of focus automation doesn't sound like a deal killer for the hand held use of a video camera then you've probably never tried it. But believe me the Franken-Rig is a sucky way to do something that could be fun----using your camera as a street shooting video rig.

If you need fast focusing you can use the Sony cameras in AF mode but you will be limited to f-stops of f3.5 and faster. If you want full control you can disable AF and then go into any of the other modes: A, S, and M and use the camera almost as you would a still camera.  "Ah-ha!" you might say. If I want control over all the settings I lose AF. Well, that's true but it's hardly as big a deal as it would be on a Canon or Nikon camera because Sony has included a very well done focus peaking feature. It's like having a full screen range finder. As you focus the areas in sharp focus become outlined in a bright color. It's visual and it's relatively foolproof.

You know that I've sung the praises of the EVF for a year or more but this is another situation in which I find it irreplaceable. You see, the project I'm working on for myself: Shooting in the streets and around town in black and white video, is set up so that I'm shooting everything in black and white. But I want to see the subjects in black and white as I'm shooting. That's no problem for a camera with an EVF. I turn the creative function to black and white and the finder shows me black and white. Instant visualization. I'm not longer seduced or distracted by luscious colors or color contrasts. I can concentrate on the movement and the tones.

I've been shooting a lot of material in this fashion. And I've been using the camera overall in a less than ultimate way. I'm forgoing AVCHD MTS2 files and shooting in 1440x1080 mpeg4. It's easier to ingest the clips into any system and to edit it on just about any machine out there. Am I missing large chunks of quality? Not really. In fact, the only thing I'm really giving up is shooting at 60fps. And I'm okay with that. I come back with files that work instantly on the web, on my iPad and they work equally well in Final Cut Pro X. But working more simply means less work and less time spent on the part of video I like less, the back end. The processing and editing.

I'm writing a motion poem of life in my city. Everything from the sway of leaves in the wind to stolen kisses at the bus stop and disaffected  workers sipping coffe and checking (for the millionth time) their text messages on the other side of a Starbuck's window. I'm capturing sound only with the built-in microphones because I know I'll want to overlay a different song to the finished collage. I'm not the only person doing this but it feels different than stalking the streets looking for the still image. It has a different kick for me, a different charm.

Here's how I did it last time. I grabbed my a57 (I chose it instead of the a99 because all the bigger sensors get knocked down to the much smaller video size, ultimate quality of the sensor may only matter at extreme ISO's and probably not at all for black and white....). I put my sharpest lens for that camera on the front, the 16-50mm f2.8 Sony DT. I set the camera to MF. I set the camera to mp4 at 1440x1080.  I set the ISO to 100 unless the light gets low. If the light gets low I try to work at ISO 400. When the light falls apart I stumbled into the nose bleed territory of ISO with no fear.

I know I should be working at 1/50th of a second to match my 24p setting but I don't really give a crap about what I should be doing with the camera. All I care about is how it ends up looking. So instead of messing around with lots of neutral density filters to try and stay at that shutter speed I use whatever shutter speed I want and incorporate the different look into the blender of looks I'm working with for the project. You know what? It doesn't matter.  So, most of the time I'm working outside with the middle apertures and shutter speeds in the 1/125th to 1/250th of a second range. Inside I can lock myself at 1/50th for as long as I've got light and work with wider apertures and higher ISOs. That's the way it's supposed to work.

Purists decry the electronic image stabilization in video but I embrace it. Sony uses the same motion sensors as they would to move the sensor for the still implementation of IS but instead of moving the chip they crop a little bit of the image and compensate for your motion buy electronically moving the frame around. I've looked. It works. And you can see the effect in the EVF. Very cool.

The bottom line is that I'm being thrust into video with my work. It's shoring up the parts of still imaging that we've lost to iPhones and "good enough." Anyone CAN shoot video but it requires more skills to get good sound and good images and even more skills to imagine can capture good content. Hell, sound alone is enough of a barrier for most clients to not want to deal with.

I just figured that I got good at taking stills for business by making photography my hobby and passion as well. I decided that if I'm really going to be any good at video I'd have to immerse myself in the same way. And this time around I decided to ignore the little voices in my head, on the web and elsewhere that chant the mantra, "This is the best practices way! You must do this like everyone else. You must have Red camera. You must have a crew. You must shoot 4:2:2. You must etc."

I want to focus on making the images and telling the story. Not on getting every pixel perfect. We already know how to do that.

So, why do I have an image of a Sony a58 camera on the top of the page? Because I'm buying one on April 21st from Precision Camera to add to my toolbox. It's a 20 megapixel camera, with a state of the art sensor, that comes with a very decent 18-55mm kit lens, and costs only $599. Compared to the a57 I've been using as a general purpose image hammer it improves on the EVF by replacing an LCD based monitor with an OLED version. The new camera keeps most of what I like about the a57 in terms of handling, uniform battery across most of the DSLT product line, microphone in plug, and creative modes. In order to make it less expensive than the camera it replaces it's equipped with a plastic/composite lens mount ring and it loses a bit of buffer for continuous raw file shooting. It's adds the adaptive noise reduction technology introduced in the a99.

I figure that every generation of sensor design yields pretty clear improvements in image quality and I'm sure this will be no exception.

For months I'd been looking at fun carry around cameras like the Sony RX100 and the Fuji x20 but for my uses I couldn't really mould the cost/benefit ratio into a pleasing rationale for letting go of hard won currency. Comparing the a58 to those cameras (and camera design mistakes/mishaps like the Canon EM and the Nikon Coolpix A) the Sony a58 and kit lens is an absolute bargain. A combination of what I expect to be great imager performance with all the video enhancements (EVF, Phase Detect AF, in finder B&W, wide choice of files, microphone input, big enough body to hold comfortably, full use of Sony's entire lens line, ability to use MF Rokinon Cine lenses) makes this a great second camera for Sony pro users, an interesting secondary camera for people interested in a "throw down" street camera with great video chops for people with hobbled Nikon and Canon pro systems and a lot more.

I'll pass my current a57 along to Ben. He'll have two cameras and that's nice since he's doing some documentary projects at school that would benefit from a two camera system. This generation and price range of cameras is very interesting to me. The parallel in the film days was the introduction of the FM and FE cameras to the Nikon camera line of SLRs.  Since the film and lenses were the same as those being used on the flagship cameras the IQ could be identical, the only differentiators were feature sets such as the ruggedness of the bigger bodies and the ability to use faster motors. I think we are at an embarrassing moment for the big cameras manufacturers. With the exception of full frame sensors we've hit the point where the $600 cameras, for all intents and purposes, provide image quality on par with the $6000 cameras, and the $3000 cameras. The differentiators are things that most people are indifferent to such as hard core weather sealing or dense menus full of different auto focus sensor settings.

The hard, cold reality is that there isn't any more barrier at all, in terms of imaging parameters that most people use, between the entry level cameras and the most expensive cameras from the same companies. Sure, the Nikon D800 or Sony a99 might resolve a bit more detail at higher ISO's or at giant enlargement sizes but for mainstream video (not uncompressed video into HDMI recorders) and mainstream work, even professional work, you'll be very hard pressed to see any sort of difference. And that means we really do need to showcase our creativity and ideas rather than work on technical stuff.

A young photographer entering the market today, doing web video, head shots, events and other day to day work, as well as more creative imaging could be well served with a couple of bodies like the a58 and a couple inexpensive but very good lenses. The kit lens for the standard focal lengths, the 55-200mm DT lens for the longer end and one of many superwide zooms for the wide angles. Those could form the basis of a professional capable camera kit with a flash thrown in, for far less than $2,000. Small and light but packed with a lot of crossover tools that would allow a photographer/videographer to do good, sellable work. Nice.

It's hard to over-emphasize how much of a game changer Sony's cameras are. Even if they shoot themselves in both feet with bad marketing they've given us a taste of how good a cheap, hybrid still & video camera can be and how usable the EVF makes the camera. Once consumers experience shooting video with a well sorted tool like the a58 they'll demand the same kind of performance from whatever brand they'd like to support. The writing is on the wall for Canon and Nikon and they'd better take notice. It's all coming quicker than they think.




















4.12.2013

Changing business practices to reflect a changing marketplace.

Markets change over time. Destructive market forces destroy existing paradigms and allow for the establishment of new ways of doing business while also opening up the potential for new businesses to fail. In the past markets would remain stable for decades or centuries which gave innovators a life time or at least a good amount of time to profit from their new ideas and their destructive re-imagining of their markets. Not so anymore. Innovation and change occurs in ever compressing cycles. Businesses, it seems, are more interested in volume and being the first mover than in margins and sustainable practice.

In the world of photography stock was one of the first shifts in an established market construct. The introduction of pervasive stock photography sales, with declining cost to consumers roiled the status quo of the maturing assignment markets. And drove down the cost of an image.

The closing of 4000+ portrait studios (mostly in Walmart and Sears stores) is an indicator of a shift, caused in part by the pervasive penetration of foolproof digital cameras into the hands of the lower middle class demographic of the buying public. And the near universal use of viewfinder screens on phones, tablets and televisions has eviscerated the market for printed images at nearly the same speed with which e-books and on-line reading are devastating the market for printed books in many categories.

If you created a business as a portrait photographer and your pricing model was based on the wide spread concept that the portrait session itself (your time, expertise, taste, and technical skills) was to be offered as a loss leader or a break even proposition while the profit from each consumer portrait job lay in the sale of prints you are about to either hit the wall of a new reality or you are already out of business.

Very few consumers surveyed have an interest in buying a print (as a value-added artifact) from a professional photographer. That doesn't mean that those consumers no longer want the intellectual property that come along with the artifact, they just aren't keenly interested in the artifact itself.

The old pricing model built in margin for the cost of doing business and heaped profit on top of that number. Clients in previous generations rarely had secondary viewing opportunities that were as compelling as a good print. To view an image on a television screen, pre-flat panel and pre-HD meant looking at an image with a net resolution of about 525 lines of interlaced information. The gamuts were extremely limited and color uniformity nearly non-existant. There was no peer-to-peer electronic sharing. Sharing meant having additional prints made and, as the original negative remained in the hands of the creators, that meant consumers HAD to pay for each individual use.

Now it's rare to find customers who constitute both a sophisticated visual market (taking images should still be creative and fulfilling) and who are constrained from wide spread sharing. Their hierarchy of needs has shifted in ways that Maslov could not have predicted.

If our local market is an example then technology-forward, affluent clients are much more interested in having unlimited personal use of images created of them and for them, on all manner of electronic devices, then they are in having single physical artifacts in their homes. They understand the fluidity and ease of the process of having acceptable prints made, understand that the actual costs of good prints continues to drop and that a good physical reproduction can be made from files that they possess. There are no barriers to keep consumers from ordering their own prints and paying wholesale. The mystery has been drained from that "scary swamp" (consumer's previous perspective about printing).

The new customer still wants (for now) the art of the image as it relates to lighting, posing and post processing creation but now, instead of being satisfied with a few images they want to possess and control the digital files. They want to be able to make the canvas print or wrap the face of their toddler around a coffee cup. They want to order the thirty-nine cent, five by seven inch print from Costco without paying an additional $50 or even $100 to have the same print mounted a piece of board and presented in an embossed envelope. And can you really blame them for not understanding the business model? They've been told for years that they should go to a professional portrait photographer for the artist's vision. But they end up paying the lion's share of their budget for the product, not the IP.

What's a business poised on the edge of uncertainty to do? Obviously, we need to re-examine every angle. According to studies of the current, ascendent generation they are much more interested in buying and sharing experiences than they are possessing treasures. So, now owning a house and scrimping and saving for a down payment becomes a more prolonged period of rental and the savings are spent hiking in Nepal or following Formula One racing around the world. Or just taking time off from work to pursue passions. Can we make the actual portrait sessions more fun and interesting? Can we turn a portrait session into a mini-workshop and dinner party as well as a venue to create great work? I know a lot of amateur photographers who've expressed an interest in being photographed or having loved ones photographed so they can experience what a "real" session is like. Why not package the experience?

We can also create very interesting and desirable styles of lighting and camera work in order to give consumers something they can't get anywhere else. That might mean shooting on medium format film or shooting with medium format digital camera for a more interesting interplay between tonalities and focus falloffs. It might mean lighting styles that would difficult to mimic with speed lights and tiny soft boxes. And it might just mean working at  high levels both technically and aesthetically.

Pricing in the consumer world needs to take into consideration the customer's desire to "hold" the potential images in their hands and on their machines. So, instead of anticipating selling physical product down the road pricing needs to be changed to reflect the fact that it's the IP that has the value, not the artifact. This means that to be profitable one must charge much higher session rates.  If you charge a sitting fee of $200 and your average print sales were $650 per customer, you might want to consider making the sitting fee something like $650,  then working with the consumer in a proofing process to select the final images and then charge a standard (profitable) fee to "complete" each image via post processing. That might include sophisticated retouching and file preparation for a number of different output scenarios. So, in effect the post production becomes the printing.

One could still offer large prints since some people will still order large family portraits for display but you'd probably be better off offering photo books since the market seems to lean more toward personal coffee table books of multiple images rather than larger, single display prints. The big sellers will be disks full of images to playback on consumers ever growing and ever improving TVs and monitors. Parenthetically, we used to sell a batch of five by seven inch prints along with every corporate head shot. It was a good profit center. We haven't sold or had a print ordered for a commercial client in probably seven years. That went away. We raised our session prices to compensate for income that's never coming back.

The benefit of making your money upfront while, for all practical purposes, jettisoning the extra labor and costs of selling, printing, shipping from labs, mounting, etc. is the certainty of good profit at the time of shooting, or shortly after. That's when consumers have the highest motivation and desire to transact.

Look, if you are a professional portrait photographer you know that the portrait you just made is going to end up on the sitter's iPad or Surface tablet and that's where it will have it's dominant "residence." You might as well get paid for that use. Because, remember....it's the vision that has value, not necessarily the paper it's printed on...

When markets shift you have choices. Sooner or later your customers will decide for you.