Making a conference fun? Just do the math.

One of the things I love about my job is the enormous variety of people I get to meet and work with. This is a photograph of Stan and me. Stan is a professor of mathematics in California and a reader of the VSL blog. Stan recommended me for an assignment here in Austin. It was a conference about math education and we just wrapped up our third and final day a little after noon today. As you might infer from the images above and below part of the assignment called for me to set up a "studio" in one conference room and spend part of yesterday making portraits of organization's board members, officers and other VIPs. Most of our efforts were much more serious than these shown and I tried to be on my best behavior for most of the event. I even wore socks.

Here's how this event worked. The framework was something like this: start each day with a general session in the main ballroom of the AT&T conference center (on the UT campus) and hear presentations from distinguished speakers. Then each day gets divided up into series of short and direct "break out" sessions where speakers work in 15 minute cycles and share best practices, new methodologies and insights with their colleagues. Interspersed at wide intervals are meals, snacks and the occasional, large joint session. My brief included getting at least five good shots of every presenter (spread across four rooms on two floors and running concurrently...) as well as casual images of the attendees networking, sharing and hanging out.

The organizational portraits were another layer.

On the first day I arrived in the parking garage and loaded up the cart. If you work on location and you don't have a good, four wheel cart to haul your light stands, lights, tripod, cameras, posing stool and half case of Red Bull (kidding) then you are just wearing yourself down and you should stop reading right here until you've ordered a good cart. Mine is a Multi Cart, I've had it for at least 10 years. It's indestructible and folds down enough to fit gracefully in the back of my car. Since I wanted to basically bring along a complete portrait studio I packed: four Elinchrom D-Lite 4it 400w/s monolights, extension cords, reflectors, umbrellas, grids, and  diffusion scrims. Along with a background and background stand system, a pneumatic posing stool and some extra tungsten lights that the production company mentioned they might need. Not an unreasonable amount of gear but maybe five or six trips back and forth to the car if you don't have a cart...

Of course I can never decide what to bring, camera-wise, so I brought an assortment with which to play. The most used camera/lens combination was the Sony a99+Sony 70-200mm 2.8G lens because it gave me just the right amount of reach for close podium shots and high sharpness even when shooting wide open and fully zoomed out to 200mm. Noise was very, very well controlled at ISO 3200 and perfectly acceptable (and usable in dark rooms) at ISO 6400. The "big two" camera makers don't have a lock on clean, high ISO files...

The next most used camera for the first two days was the Sony a58, coupled with the Rokinon 85mm 1.5 Cine lens and it was amazingly fun to use. I'd put the camera in manual exposure mode, have a preset custom white balance for the podium of the main room and I'd bring the camera up to my eye with the manual aperture ring wide open and then I'd roll the aperture down toward f4 until the image in the EVF was perfect. Then I'd shoot. The whole procedure takes much longer to write but effectively gave me absolutely perfect exposures every single time I hit the shutter button. 

The external, manual aperture ring was like magic. You could see the exposure firm up as you watched and you knew just where to stop. I also liked working with the manual focusing, coupled with focus peaking. As I racked the ultra smooth (not fly by wire) focusing ring I could see little glistens of red come into being on the edges of a subject's glasses or even in the reflection of the highlight in the subject's eyes and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the camera and I were both focusing on exactly what I wanted to have in focus. Once I started working this way with the 85mm and got such rock solid fine focus results I also took the 70-200mm off AF and worked with it in the same way. Control is a wonderful thing! Especially with very narrow DOF.

I brought along a few other lenses, including the Rokinon 35mm 1.5 Cine lens, the Sony 20mm and various wide to medium focal length fast zooms. But the 85 and the 70/200 easily saw the most use.

Before I started using the LED EVF cameras I was always torn about which way to go for file format at events. I am a.......promiscuous shooter and I figure that if 500 frames in a day is good then a thousand must be twice as good. At least it gives me a statistical advantage vis-a-vis overcoming blinks and awkward facial expressions. So, in the days of 6 megapixel sensors and so-so Jpeg performance (along with bad LCD monitors) there was always the motivation to shoot raw. The cameras back then didn't give you enough fast and accurate feedback to nail color and perfect exposure every time and it was comforting to be able to rescue miscues and mistakes with raw converters.

Since acquiring and testing both the Sony a99 and the a58 I've abandoned that philosophy and put in the extra work to get the images right in large, superfine jpeg format. (The a58 has only "fine" but it's "fine" is much better than the jpegs I've gotten out of other brands I've used so I'm pretty happy).  The jpegs from my cameras clock in between 6.5 and 10 megabytes apiece while the raw files from the camera range in the +/- 25-30 megabyte range and that's enough of a difference in storage and processing to make a big difference when confronted with the need to edit 2500 to 3000 files from an event.

Since I had my cart and a safe spot to leave gear I also brought along the Sony a850 which I am perennially testing out with the 50mm 1.4 Sony lens, along with the newest addition to the family, the Samsung NX 300 and it's happy kit lens. That camera and lens combination does really good image stabilization and it's 3200 ISO is also quite usable. Better by a long shot than the same ISO setting on the a850.

As I was learning the light in the four main rooms I'd be shooting in I worked with an old Leitz Tiltall monopod with a Leica ballhead for added stability but I tried not to forget that camera movement is only half the equation and subject movement (which punks both camera support and IS) is the other half of the equation. I found that, with IS in the a99 enabled, I could mostly get sharp exposures with the long lens at speeds down to 1/30th of a second, reliably but the movement of my subjects effectively limited my lower shutter speed to around 1/125th and, with highly kinetic speakers (hands waving and constantly moving) 180th or even 1/250th worked better. I could have used more flash but I find it intrusive at conferences and I'd rather go up on the ISO and grapple with noise, if necessary. Fortunately only one of the four rooms required me to either go beyond ISO 3200 or use flash.

Since I use a lot of LED, Fluorescent and studio flash lighting in my usual business routines I hadn't done much in the way of testing out the combination of the a99 and the HVL 60 flash but I did use it in one of the rooms to overcome the sheer lack of light and the overall color balance and exposure worked flawlessly. At one point I finally had to deal with the temperature shut down issue with the flash. I'd cycled it at full power to bounce it off a far wall and a ceiling that was a good 25 feet high. After a cumulative series of 20 flashes the unit shut down and showed me a thermometer icon on the back panel. Of course I had an HVL 58 in the camera bag, with the adapter for the a99 on the foot and all ready to go but I didn't need to reach for it. The 60 came back on line in a matter of a few minutes and worked the rest of the day (with me using it under the conditions that Sony recommends) without any other incidents. I am reading Gary Friedman's book on the a99 again to come to grips with the remote flash capabilities of the combination of flashes and cameras I own and I'll write about that in the near future.

While the conference kept me moving and busy for two and a half days we were well treated by the event committee. (by "we" I don't mean the "royal" we I mean me, the photographer; the sound man and the videographers who were part of the AV team helping to make the conference a success....). We ate our meals with the academicians, took breaks when the attendees took breaks and generally enjoyed a very collegial atmosphere. The food was great, the venue gorgeous and the exact opposite of frantic, and the sense of purpose for the general good gave the event a positive vibe that made the work more enjoyable. It's wonderful to understand that probably every single participant at the conference was there to help teach, or learn to teach, our children advanced math in new and better ways. I'm more used to conferences that are about how to profit from technology so this point of view was refreshing, to say the least.

In the end I shot around 3000 shots and edited down to 2000. About 20 minutes after the last speaker concluded and the event broke up I handed Stan a 16 gigabyte thumb drive with all the images on it. Ten minutes later I handed another one to the production company and a third to a strategic partner for the show. I'll still need to back everything up and make an archive but I'm happy that everyone has materials in their hands for immediate use.

Once I said good bye to the new friends I'd made I headed back downstairs to break down our makeshift studio, load up the cart and trek back toward my part of town. I'll chalk this one up as one of the most fun conferences I've done this year. And one of the least stressful. And that's a wonderful thing. One bonus: absolutely no "pie" jokes. So I'll write one now: 

A Texas Aggie (student at Texas A&M University; alma mater of Gov. Rick Perry) went home to visit his parents. His father asked him about his studies. "What did you learn at that fancy school?" His son beamed and said, "We learned pi r squared."   The father looked a bit frustrated and shook his head. "Son, " he said. "Jalapeno cornbread are square. Pie are round." Bada Boom. 

A big thanks to Stan and all the Mathemateers. Thank you.


Leica Swings. And misses? All depends on what you want from a camera...

Leica X Vario.

So, what photographer in their right mind pays $2850 for a compact camera with no viewfinder? Probably the same type of person who buys a Sony RX1 (also with no viewfinder...). This is the kind of camera offering that will drive the rank and file camera buyers nuts because it's hard to quantify within the various niches of the photo gear world.

I'm going to give Leica the benefit of the doubt on three fronts. I'm going to presume that they've created a simplified and straightforward menu system for the camera just as they've done for the full fledged M cameras. I'll presume that they've sourced a really good 16+ megapixel sensor that's perfectly optimized for the lens system and I'll assume that the lens system (while afflicted with very pedestrian maximum apertures) is sharp and contrasty and wonderfully embue'd with luscious micro contrast over it's entire range.

But since it's a contrast detect AF system I'll have to guess that the focusing speed is less than stellar and that continuous auto focus is nearly non-existent, no matter what the comical brochure they've produced says.

If I decided to buy this camera I'm sure all of you would know that my very next purchase would be an EVF (plug is there for the accessory) finder but before I plunked hard for the Leica version of the Olympus version of the Epson technology I would want to test the new Olympus VF-4 to see if it worked with the camera at half the price. If that was a "no-go" I'd pick up a VF-2 for around $200 and work with that.

The Leica brochure of this model shows lots of studio shots with studio lighting being used. There is one particularly campy image that shows a photographer straddling a model, who is lying on the ground, and the photographer is pointing the camera at the model's face. Tacky shades of the movie, "Blow Up." I can't imagine that this camera would be the first choice of a studio fashion or portrait photographer. The lens' maximum focal length isn't long enough and the handling, without an EVF would be atrocious for studio work illuminated by modeling lights.  I'm sure that the camera would produce the same kind of image a Nikon or Canon would make with a similar lens attached because the positive effects of the studio lighting would mask most quality differences and, if we compared them all at the Leica's maximum telephoto aperture of f6.3, they'd all be operating in the sweet spot of their designs.

I still believe in the West German fairy tale of the last 2% of production perfection so something inside me says that if all three brands were shot side by side and all the images were blown up large and printed that the Leica would out art the other two. More micro contrast? Maybe. Maybe just better color. But that's my prejudice from the times in the past when the differences were demonstrable. 

So, if the Leica X Vario isn't for commercial studio photographers then who is it really for? I'd wager to say that there are some artists/photographs who routinely work in good light and in the provided focal range who will buy the camera because, in the category is may provide the ultimate image quality. Think of a small camera version of Andreas Gursky for whom more depth of field is nearly always better and who has a slow and deliberate working methodology. This might be a good camera for the diminished "Gursky" effect. 

If I never needed to sell an image and I wanted a beautifully designed and relatively burden-less camera to carry everywhere, and if I had unlimited funds for eccentric gear acquisitions I would probably pre-order one right now.

But suppose I'm not being kind enough to the camera. imagine if the lens is the "second coming" of zoom lenses and every image is special and marvelous. I mean really marvelous in the same way that the 90mm Apo Summicron was when compared to just about any lens on the market when it was first launched. What if the lens is as good as the Leica R 28-90mm lens that is currently fetching $6000+ from photographers in the know who are converting for use on Canon 5Dmk3's and other cameras whose optics don't quite reach the same stellar heights? Nikon, Canon and Sony Alpha users are currently tossing down $2,000+ for big, fat zooms in the same range and Canon is pushing the price up into the $2500 arena. If the performance of the Leica is demonstrably better...or just as good...but you also get a body for just a couple hundred dollars more, is that a convincing argument?

I guess the target buyer is someone who wants a small camera with very high imaging performance, has no interest in conventional sports photography (and I'm in that particular camp) and doesn't mind paying a higher price for better performance from a camera with a simpler interface but fewer bells and whistles.  Just like the purchaser of a Sony RX1 with the exception being that the Leica buyer understands the value of additional focal lengths.

I personally think that Leica blew one part of this camera. I think people would be more motivated to buy it if the camera had a built in EVF. Or, if the accessory EVF was included in the purchase price. Most savvy buyers understand that the slow max. aperture is part of a size and weight trade off and I'm sure many are okay with that. 

The real question is would you rather have this combination of features and compromises or, for less than half the price, the same basic camera in a Fuji EX1?  I haven't held the X Vario but I'm thinking the EX1 might be the front runner. It has the one missing feature that the Leica does not: It's a high IQ camera but with a price that most of us can afford...

An afternoon of "mixed media" shooting by the Visual Science Lab executive staff. On location with toys!

Film maker, Ben Tuck, shoots behind the scenes video on our Clutch Creative adventure.

Some shoots are just drop dead fun. Yesterday's creative shoot for a small ad agency (filled with big brains and even bigger ideas) was one of those really fun and satisfying jobs. I was hired to shoot photographs to be used on their website revision and Ben got hired to shoot the behind the scenes video of the sessions. As always he packed his trusty Sony a57 camera with kit lens, his Rode Videomic and his Gitzo tripod with a small, Manfrotto video head. That and a small bag containing a few batteries, memory cards and miscellaneous stuff.

I went all crazy and took a break from the Sony DSLT cameras in favor of using a bag full of Nex cameras. I packed two Nex 7's and one Nex 6, along with the 19mm and 30mm Sigma lenses, the 50mm 1.8, the image stabilized 18-55mm lens, and an assortment of Olympus Pen F prime lenses, with adapters, as support tools. My favorite non-Sony lens is still the Pen 60mm 1.5 lens which, when stopped down to f2 and beyond is just unreasonably sharp and snappy.

I'm not sure the Nex cameras make absolute sense in this kind of situation if you use them solely as available light systems but I decided to shoot with electronic flash and a big umbrella so the usual caveats about handholding and slower apertures really didn't apply. And given the right glass (like the 50mm or the 60mm Pen) these cameras are as state of the art (image-wise) as just about anything else.

My lighting consisted of my Elinchrom Ranger RX AS pack with one head firing into a Photek 60 inch Softlighter 2 umbrella. Worked very, very well.

Ben and I ate lunch at home and then we filled up the CR-V with our toys and headed over to the agency offices. Ben is learning to drive this Summer so he was piloting the craft. I was trying to both pay hyper-vigilant attention to all danger and also seem casually uninterested and unperturbed so I wouldn't undermine his confidence. We made it with no close calls and no father hand prints permanently embedded in the arm rests.

Ben rolled about an hour's worth of good, clean video and I shot a bunch of expressions and different set ups. It added up to about 700 images. I'm editing them down today. I decided to use the Nex cameras because I made the mistake of venturing over to one of the online discussion forums at the world's biggest website about photography and was overwhelmed with all the useless misinformation about what constitutes "professional photography." Their focus was all about "pro gear."

Where do the rubes get all this stuff? It's like a Spanish Inquisition about cameras. There's a whole deviant theology about how things can and can't be done (professionally) and most of the correspondents in the groups seem to be in lock step agreement about the liturgy of equipment. To wit: All professional cameras must: 1. Be large, bulky and bulletproof. 2. Be able to withstand a monsoon or breaking waves at Wakiki. 3. Be able to shoot frames almost as fast as a movie camera. 4. Must be able to focus almost entirely automatically and at the speed of light. 5. Must be frightfully expensive. 6. Must have an optical viewfinder. 7. Must come with lenses that range from 8mm fisheyes to 1200mm, f4 telephotos. 8. Must be able to transmit images wirelessly at the drop of a hat. 9.  Must help you build muscle mass by providing impromptu weight lifting substitutes. 10. Must be either Nikon or Canon branded.

As I've said many times before, this kind of rigid adherence to the idea of how the business must  have been run in the olden days is laughable. I'd go so far as to say that if you can't make a good image with the cameras you want to work with it's not worth pursuing the career in the first place. The inventory of gear is becoming more and more meaningless by the day. We don't need Arriflex movie cameras in order to make good videos for Vimeo and YouTube. We don't need Maseratis for an afternoon, rush hour commute and we sure don't need any stinking DSLRs to make great images for websites. Or anything else for that matter.

Ben's generation gets it. I offer him more esoteric cameras to shoot with but he routinely produces better programming than I can in video because he understands how important story telling, editing and catching the right action at the right angle is. While camera "A" may be marginally better than camera "B" it's all the intangible human talents that make something watchable or horrifyingly boring. And it's the same in still photography. If I were still working at an ad agency I think I would have come, by now, to fear the photographer in a khaki fishing vest who has the requisite three cameras and the requisite three lenses. Three Nikon D800s or Three Canon 5Dmk3s. The optically mundane 16 or 17mm to 35mm f2.8 lens. The  beastly, large, ponderous and wallowing 24-70mm f2.8 and the OMG, everyone has the identical 70mm to 200mm f2.8 zoom lens. All of them in lock step. Everyone producing safe and boring images that all look alike.

Oh, I almost forgot; the nod to shallow depth of field....the 85mm 1.4 or 1.2 behemoth. Can't leave the studio without the fast glass bling. It's all so mundane and predictable. The supporting script is that somehow all the advertising professionals and magazine (which ones are still left?) photo editors are consumed with only using people who use an approved inventory of gear. My art director friends and my favorite graphic designer of 28 years are amazed that photographers buy this line of insanity for even a minute. They (the ad people) hire because they see images that they like in your portfolio and on your website. The cameras are meaningless to them. Totally irrelevant. If you show great work they believe you can deliver the same for them, and that all technical considerations are the responsibility of the artist. Almost always. There are exceptions but they are damn few. 

Personally, I'd say that your presentation of post production skills trump magic glass every single time. But so do all the intangibles, like imagination and gesture and timing.

We can go both ways here. On the days I need to feel the ego life preserver of over the top gear I can borrow a Leica S2 and some Leica glass from one of my photographer friends. I can rent a Red One camera from GEAR. I can rent a Bentley from the specialty car rental place in town. But you know what? I've never had the need. And neither have my clients.

I like the images I produced for the ad agency. And they must like my work because they keep asking me back. We've shot for them with Fuji, Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus and Kodak cameras. We even did a project on the old Sony R1 for them (which was gorgeous...). Same with lights. At the end of the day the most powerful tools are the ability to get along with people, the ability to see composition and lighting solutions clearly and emphatically, and the ability to make it fun.  Yeah, fun. We purposely avoided getting jobs in cubicles or behind cash registers. The reason we did was to be able to make a living creating stuff. Walking around. Meeting people. Sharing ideas. Sharing visions. Telling a marketing story. We don't make our living as an all purpose rental house. And I don't think real clients want that either...


What's working and what's not...

 Life is always interesting. I've been playing around with a new camera and it usually doesn't happen quite this way. Usually I'll become interested in a camera because of the anticipatory buzz on the web and I'll get in touch with the camera brand's public relations company to request a test sample. Sometimes I bond instantly with a camera and sometimes it takes me a little while. Sometimes I never bond with a camera. Example? I could never get used to the Leica M8. The way it showed frame lines was a bit confusing and the impact of the shutter going off felt like a weight lifting chipmunk trapped inside the camera body throwing its weight against the side in an impassioned attempt to escape. Sometimes I'll get a camera to review and I'll think, "Why did they bother to make yet another one of these?" and I'll box it up and send it back.

There are some cameras I desperately wanted to love. The Leaf Aptus 7i comes immediately to mind. The folks at Leaf sent it along with a normal (80mm) lens and an $8,000 Schneider 180mm 2.8 lens that was so beautiful I almost cried. But the camera had it's share of failings. The battery life was almost non-existent, the AF might as well have been non-existent and the camera was ultra-kludgy to carry around and operate. When I sent it back I breathed a sigh of relief but I still have pangs of regret when I look at the several stunning files I was able to make with the system. When the stars lined up that medium format camera could be be breathtaking.

And that brings me to the Samsung NX 300. When my friend at the PR agency asked me if I wanted to test the camera I was hesitant. I thought that it was basically a copy of the Sony Nex 6 but without the grace note of an EVF. But, of course, I was wrong.

When I unboxed the camera and started playing with it I was impressed at how easy it was to learn. I intended to take it out from time to time and shoot it out of a vague sense of blogger duty but I was pretty sure I'd still spend most of my time with a Sony firmly in hand. But I was wrong. Once I took off my "water wings" (my need for an EVF at all times) and started (metaphorically) to swim along with the camera's current I found it to be an addicting little camera. Now, a week and half onward I am taking it everywhere. It's sitting on my desk waiting for my afternoon walk. It will be in the camera bag (alongside the Sony a99) for a shoot tomorrow at one of my favorite, boutique ad agencies here in town.

And I'm questioning why.

But it's really all the little stuff that I find I like. It's almost like a human designed the interface instead of a Cylon engineer hell bent on torturing earthlings. I like the deco/disco rounded amoeba shaped hand grip on the right side and I'm now fond of the files. But mostly I'm impressed by the performance of the sensor and metering. Someone just a day or two ago mentioned that the files looked a little flat from the NX300 and I thought that was quite a compliment for a consumer oriented camera. I can easily add as much contrast and saturation as I want during post production but it's hard as hell to scrape that stuff off a file when you camera starts out too over the top.

I read all kinds of crap from people who equate the big bodied cameras of yesteryear with "professional" photography. They dismiss really great image making machines like the OMD, the Fuji EX1, the whole Sony Nex line (but especially the Nex 7) as amateur "tools" just because they don't conform to the design aesthetics that had their genesis in the film days. It's also amazing to me that most people seem to think that a camera has to excel in the capture of fast moving sports to even be considered for professional work. Yes, that's about 1% of the professional market and wildly, in the minds of hobbyists, it comprises the entire big tent of paid photography.

It's all so much BS.  For decades the image makers I admired most worked with single sheet view cameras that shot at one frame per minute and focused, at times, in a couple of minutes (with some hard work and eye strain). Of course I am talking about the 4x5 and 8x10 cameras of ultra high dollar professionals like Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. And all my favorite fashion photographers who came after them were cranking film through their Hasselblads at the rate of maybe one frame per second and with slow going focus. The idea that we can't realize our unique visions with the whole continuum of mirrorless digital cameras (or even good point and shoot cameras) is patently ridiculous.

So, what have I posted below? These are images of Colin and his associate making psychedelic patterns on an overhead projector so they can record them on high res video for a stage production at the theater. I posted them because I was pretty amazed at how the NX handled the bright faces in the middle of blackness (metering) and the skin tones on a scene lit by only an overhead projector (color balance).

Additional plus points are: low noise at 1600 ISO and pretty darn good image stabilization.  Does this mean I am now in love with yet another camera system? Whoa, slow down there, dude. I like it. It's really good. But it's one member of a rich community of new cameras that seem to deliver great results in spite of not following camera design dogma. My respect is for the whole category of mirrorless, EVF enhanced cameras. So there.


Life is like a rocket. Only the pictures show us the parts we forgot or glossed over on our way to somewhere else.

Kirk And Belinda 1988.

Somewhere in the mid 1980's I just gave up and kept the gray seamless background paper permanently set up in my studio. It seemed like every day there was someone I knew who I wanted to photograph. Part of it was my enthusiasm for making portraits but I'm convinced that an equal part had to do with the fact that we were so much younger and nearly all of our circle of friends and acquaintances were young and beautiful and living with health and vigor. Every image was a "best case" scenario of what it meant to be alive and affluent in the bosom of youth culture.

Now (with the exception of Belinda and my swimming, running, triathlon-ing, marathoning, competitive biking friends) everyone around us has grown older and larger. Entropy is circling over us like Texas Buzzards over roadkill. When I put my friends in front of a camera I see that one eye droops more than the other, that the bags under those eyes are more obvious and less fashonable than those of Louis Vuitton; that, through some quirk of human construction chins have become more plentiful and, that everyone seems to occupy more and more of the frame...

C'est la vie. I'm certain that twenty years from now the portraits I'm making of my friends right now will seem filled with sprightly and agile people....by comparison. I imagine that I'll cherish my own image at 57 far more than I'll look forward to seeing how I fare at 87.

I'm re-committing myself to an ongoing documentation of everyone around me. I'm bringing them into the solemn confines of the studio and aiming lights at them and I'm documenting the war wounds of everyday travail as well as the hard won trophies of accomplishment that shine in their eyes. I'm discovering a new topology that's more interesting than hard abs and air brushed complexions. I'm discovering real people with real stories. And they've done their "time in the water." They are now full fledged sharks. Who knew that raw experience could be so intoxicating?

This is a project I can do for the rest of my life.


Couple of food shots from Thurs. At the Austin Food Bloggers Event.

I like to photograph food almost as much as I like eating it. I was wandering around the city when I stumbled into this event. I vaguely remember having been invited but who can keep a social calendar totally straight these days?

I didn't have the right gear with me but I thought I'd just browse all the different food booths and see what was being offered. The top is a tomato and fruit salad and I love the way booth geography and time of day conspired to give me some nice backlighting. The same with the wafers, flowers and fruit. I only wish I'd gotten to their booth before the small flowers started to wilt.

There's something magical about having the Whole Foods Headquarters and flagship store in the center of Austin. Something is always happening there and I am rewarded again and again when I bring along my camera. (If you are a sport or BIF shooter your mileage will vary....badly). On this particular day I chose to make Whole Foods my mid walk destination. I was happy to savor their air conditioning after walking for a couple miles in the afternoon heat. When I cooled down enough I walked around the store, just looking at stuff. The wine department was sampling two really nice Pinot Grigios and a white Bordeaux (which was wonderful and refreshing). I also asked the barman at the adjacent bar if I could taste the claret I'd seen displayed all over the store. I could. I did. And I made a note to come back the next day and buy a case.

On my way out of the store I saw a sign announcing free yoga every Wednesday evening in June, out on the second floor plaza. I sent a note to Belinda about that. As I got a cup of water and washed my hands at the hand sanitizer I ran into three different clients. We chatted and all promised each other to have lunch. Walking and business intermixed; the ultimate in social efficiency. It was just after my networking encounter that I noticed the sign for the Austin Food Bloggers Event and headed upstairs. One could sample a dozen different wines, a handful of local craft beers and small tastes of food from many of the city's popular caterers and restaurants.

That's when I ran into entrepreneur, John, who is now working with CookingPlanet.com. We caught up for twenty minutes and were surprised how elegantly our recent food experiences complimented each other and how much our businesses might need each other. Oh my gosh, more hot walk networking!! Then I looked at my watch and realized I'd have to hustle to get back to my car and get home. Belinda was planning a 7:30 pm dinner and I try never to be late.

It was then that I realized I'd committed a rookie error in attaching my NX 300 camera strap. I'd left out one step in the over and under process and I was seconds and a few Planck units of gravity away from a classic disaster (the kind that was rampant in the early days of the Black Rapid straps) wherein the camera and strap divorce and the little brick of optics and semiconductors gets permanently bricked by its sudden deceleration upon interfacing with the surface of the sidewalk... With a combination of brute luck and shaky skills I was able to catch the camera just milliseconds before impact and I was able to do so without spilling any wine from the little plastic cup I was holding in my right hand. Good, clean living.

I made it back to my car and headed west, into the setting sun. My camera and I had done good work, gotten good exercise and I had undone all the good effects of the exercise with an abundance of curiosity at the food stalls. Ah well. That's the way some walks go.


Some more images from my new "test" camera, the Samsung NX300, and a few thoughts about the state of cameras.

The Lamar Bridge.

 Looking East from the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge.

Looking North on the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge.

The intake for the old (decommissioned) power plant.

The curvy side of the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge.

The old Power Plant with downtown Austin in the background.

I shot the images above yesterday afternoon as part of a nice, hot walk from Barton Springs Pool to the downtown Whole Foods store. I used a small, nimble camera with a fairly big (APS-C) sensor, and an inexpensive kit lens. I wound up using the same camera in a dark theater this afternoon. My friend, Colin, and his friend, Noel Gaulin found an overhead projector, some food dyes and other paraphenalia and they were doing pyschedelic, kinetic art (which they were recording to video on a Panasonic AF100) to be used enormously large for an upcoming play about Janis Joplin that will be staged at Zach Theatre. I was there and decided, in an impromptu way, that we should also have a behind the scenes video about some of the lengths to which our technical staff goes to in order to make great looking  live shows.

This little exercise in the dark showed me just how far camera technology has come. The camera was able to automatically correctly expose for the two faces surrounded by total darkness. Walls painted matte black darkness. The camera's image stabilization worked as well as the in-body stabilization in my Sony's and the focus stayed locked on while I moved.

All of this got me thinking about the nature of the business of photography and the rather rude intersection of camera design and art. We can lie through our teeth and talk about how important top notch cameras are or we can admit that just about every camera over $500 in the market place today can be pressed into professional service to make great images, the primary target for which is now the web.  There are still many situations where a long, fast, telephoto lens is critical and there are probably an equal number of situations where a good ultra-wide angle is a an imperative tool, but the camera bodies themselves have been, across the board, ready for prime time for years now.

The mirrorless cameras don't focus as quickly as DSLRs but when they do focus they are more accurate. It's just the nature of focusing on the same chip that also records the images. The metering on mirrorless cameras seems more accurate than the metering on entry level DSLRs as well. And for me the grace note is that every mirrorless camera is also a permanent live view camera, and that means every image gets pre-chimped, which makes the feedback flow of seeing and image correction much more fluid. 

I know it's generational and I know it's because I wear reading glasses now, but I wish every mirrorless camera....oh, what the hell!?...every camera came standard with an EVF. I really like the files I'm getting out of this little camera (NX 300) very much I just wish I could hold it up to my eye like a real camera without having to resort to a loupe for comfort and convenience. To my kid? No big deal. To me....hmmm.

20 really good megapixels on a sensor with wonderful color goes a long way to make up for a feature set that's one check box off for me...more later.

Canoes were hot property at Barton Springs yesterday.

Barton Springs Canoe Rental. Samsung NX300.

Yesterday morning was busy, busy but after a decent lunch with my first assistant for the summer and some monotonous paper work in the office I made two phone calls I had been dreading and then I packed up my new little camera and went off to Zilker Park. I parked the ultra-high performance Honda CR-V in front of Barton Springs Pool and took off for a grand walk through our downtown park.

After an almost ritualistic nod to the rogue swimmers who swim and frolic for free in the spillway downstream from the actual pool I walked on to the canoe rental stand. It was a hot afternoon, school is out for nearly everyone and the place to be was in the water or on the water. I liked the repeating form of the canoes (above) but I knew when I shot the frame that I'd want to see it in black and white. Sharp, snappy, contrasty black and white.

I am getting comfortable with my new, casual shooting system, the Samsung NX300. I have the kit lens which is an 18-55mm, and I have my Hoodman loupe for those times when the surrounding light is too bright to make composing naked fun. I have two or three things to say about the new camera. First off the files seem archly neutral in the "standard" jpeg setting. By that I mean the colors are very neutral and almost unsaturated in comparison to other consumer-targeted cameras. The same with the contrast range. I find myself tweaking up the contrast by 10% or so in post but when I do so I find that I nearly always like the rendition of skin tones in the more neutral settings. The other thing I notice is that the Samsung does a great job making files look very sharp on my monitor. Not sizzly sharp like you see on a lot of websites but detailed and micro detailed. In fact, the sharpening works so well for me that when I try to add sharpness it nearly always makes the images seem brittle and overdone.

I hadn't paid much attention to Samsung until now. I didn't have an opinion about their cameras and I never used on before but I will say this: Sony and Olympus should rush to Samsung, do some industrial espionage and find out who is producing their online owner's manuals and who is programming their camera GUI and menu system and then kidnap them, pay them cajole them and beg them to do the same for their cameras. I've learned the Nex menus and I'm good with the image quality and the hand/camera interface but it really shouldn't take weeks to feel comfortable with a menu. Two days, tops, for an experienced shooter. With the Samsung NX 300 I looked through the online manual once and I've never looked back. Nor have I been unable to quickly find and change any parameter. I don't know if that's the make it or break it for any camera choice but it's a comfortable way to present and leverage whatever benefits your camera might have.....

I will also say that the implementation of the touch screen is very good and the screen is mostly responsive. I prefer buttons but I know a whole generation of photographers who are being raised on iPhones will find it an almost transparent accommodation to their current system interface.

I read in one of the forums yesterday that I am being short changed by only having the kit lens but I disagree. I happen to be a big fan of kit lenses. I was happy when my Sony a58 came with a new and improved kit lens and I've made good use of it. I think if more people spent time really working on their fundamentals they'd see that the choice of lens and the quality of the lens might be, in most situations, the least of their photographic handicaps....

Why black and white canoes when there a beautiful people out in the world waiting to be photographed? Well, when I was in fifth grade I went to a YMCA summer camp and we had an overnight canoe trip. I took a number of black and white photos with an old, zone focusing Argus A-3 camera. At some point on the return voyage my canoe tipped over and many of my possessions, like my sleeping bag, my clothes and my fresh copy of the first Marvel comic book to feature the Fantastic Four, slowly settled to the bottom of the lake but the camera miraculously found it's way to my right hand and emerged unscathed as I treaded water. I tossed it into another canoe and then worked with my camp councilor to right my dodgy craft. The film went to the drugstore after camp and six or seven images of canoes, among some badly done images of marshmallow roasting, found their way back into my hands as 3.5 by 5 inch, deckle edged, black and white prints. It was an exciting time and the canoes triggered some memory ripple of a simpler time somehow faintly connected to photography. And there I am.

 Canoe 2. Samsung NX 300. Converted to black and white in Aperture.


Ben and I go out on an early assignment.

Early. At the Pool.

Can't get away from the pool and wouldn't want to if I could. Usually, at 7 am, I am over there in lane three or four trying to keep up with the other people in my masters program and the boy pictured above is out running with his cross country team, but this week is the down week after school lets out and we needed to shoot this project so I convinced Ben to assist me for the morning shoot.

We were commissioned to make individual photographs of the Rollingwood Waves Summer League swimmers and then do four big group shots of the different age groups. By the end of the morning we'd photographed 85 swimmers and the aforementioned groups and we were ready for iced tea and a couple of Las Palomas Restaurant combination plates.

We always like to show the pool in the background so we set up beside the pool deck, under a high canopy that would block most of the direct sun. My lighting was simple: I used an 1100 watt second Elinchrom Ranger RX AS power pack and one head. The head fired into a 28 inch Fotodiox beauty dish modified with a white diffusion cover. The metal reflector never seems to have the kinds of problems with wind that umbrellas or softboxes have and the light was between hard and soft. Mostly perfect for young swimmers.

I set up the light for each swimmer so that the bottom of the beauty dish was slightly above their chin line and that made for flattering illumination all the way around. The only technical aspect was to keep the look of the background (pool in full sun and pool with cloud cover) the same with changes in cloud cover and sunlight. Nice thing about cameras that pre-chimp is that it's so easy to see the background change. With an OVF your eye makes instant accommodations but no so (at least for me) with the EVF. It shows me the background getting lighter or darker in a very real way.  I adjusted the shutter speed of the camera to compensate.

Ben assisted me by handling the paperwork and the payment from parents. We're primitive on these shoots. The parents fill out the name of their kid on a sheet of paper and we have the kid hold up the sheet for the first shot, zoom in and make sure we capture a face and a name so that I have a clear identification of the child when I do post processing and order prints. Silly simple. A constant reference.

Also, Ben is better than I am at turning down  any unreasonable requests or parent drama (of which there was none).

I used a Sony a99 camera with an older, Minolta 24-85mm 3.5 to 4.5 zoom lens. Why? I like it just fine and the focal length range is just right. The flash was triggered by a set of FlashWaves radio triggers. I used the camera at it's 10 megapixel, highest quality Jpeg setting. The biggest prints will be the 5x7 inch group shots and the main lighting was unerringly consistent so it really wouldn't have made any sense to shoot RAW or even bigger. How much more time do you want to spend in post? How many pixels do you want to throw away?

We wrapped around noon and headed off to our favorite, neighborhood Mexican food restaurant and settled in for a nice meal. Another job, another notch on the tripod leg. 

Hello readers. I hear you loud and clear. You are not interested in hearing about video. We'll try to keep it to a minimum. Really.

 This is NOT a grab frame from a video...