Why, with the right body, Samsung may be a strong and stealthy competitor in the mirrorless space.

Samsung 85mm 1.4 on the NX 300 Body.

Full disclosure: I have received a Samsung NX 300 camera with a kit lens and a 30mm f2.0 lens from Samsung to shoot and test, indefinitely. I am also getting the new Samsung Galaxy NX camera and kit lens in the next few days to evaluate. Samsung has also invited me to Berlin for the IFA show and will be my hosts there.  I'll be shooting and testing the camera in Berlin and posting images and observations about the camera, its new technologies and its more standard camera handling characteristics.  The policy of VSL is to be totally transparent about relationships with camera makers, their public relations agencies and everyone else. You should know what the relationship between a writer and a manufacturer is before you read a blog about a product! While I would never write anything untruthful or knowingly slanted about a product I might also never have had the product show up on my radar without being approached by the maker. 

I really like the Sony Nex system but could any manufacturer have been slower about introducing the lenses that enthusiasts and pros really, really want? I'm a portrait photographer and I've been waiting for a 60, 70 or 85mm fast lens in that system since I bought my first Nex-7.  The 50mm just isn't long enough and the zooms just aren't fast enough. The situation is better in the Olympus and Panasonic camp with the 75mm f1.8 and the fast zooms are finally starting to arrive. But I'd prefer fast glass and a great APS-C sized sensor.

I've be faithful to my Sony DSLT system precisely because I really, really like long, fast lenses. I like the look and feel of the 85mm 1.4 and the 100 macro. I'm partial to the look of the 135mm 1.8 on a full frame sensor. I like the look of the 70-200mm G lens.  I figured I'd just keep two Sony systems going at once and play with their strengths as needed. 

Then I got a Samsung NX300. It's got a great sensor but I'm not totally happy with the idea of no EVF. Recently, Samsung offered to send me a Galaxy NX Android to shoot and test. It all sounded great but I must have sounded a bit churlish when I called back and asked/suggested that they would be smart to send me some more interesting lenses to shoot with beyond the kit lens. They took me seriously and sent me a few. All of them are good. But two of them, for my work, are stunning and exactly what I'd been wishing for in lenses for an APS-C mirrorless camera system. The two lenses that leapt out at me are the 85mm 1.4 and the 60mm Macro f2.0. 

I haven't had time to shoot with the 60mm yet but I've shot some tests with the 85mm and find it to be very sharp, wide open, and a really good performer. I can hardly wait to bolt it onto the front of the new camera with its EVF. The 85mm is big and bulky but there's not a lot you can do to transform the laws of physics. If you want a fast lens you'll need a lot of glass and a big front element. This lens has both.

This lens is a prime example of why Samsung may succeed in the mirrorless market. They are actually providing the stuff shooters want: good glass.  They've introduced a 16mm 2.4 that blows the doors off the Sony 16mm. They have a killer 30mm f2. The kit zoom is, in my opinion, the best of the breed. They make a 45mm 1.8 that's been well reviewed. Then there's the very fast 60mm f2.0 macro I alluded to above. Along with this stout 85mm 1.4. There's a really useful (but huge) 18-200mm 3.5-5.6 lens that seems designed expressly for making videos and then there is the usual complement of consumer style zoom lenses. In other words Samsung is creating good glass that should help drive a professional and enthusiast market with the eye candy they want and at better price points than their close competitors. But they've still got stuff at less expensive price points for more casual shooters.

In my opinion Samsung has the opposite problem, today, of that which Sony has had for the last two years: Sony made a great camera body (the Nex 7) and followed up with another great and less expensive body at a good price point (the Nex 6). But where they stumbled was in the lens category. The 16mm sucked on the 7 and the kit lens had it's share of issues on the high density sensor. While the 50mm 1.8 lens is very good there was nothing in the longer/faster category. One Zeiss 24mm doesn't make a system...especially for a portrait guy.

Samsung has the lenses I want and at prices that I can justify but they need to make a few changes to the range of camera bodies. While I realize I don't represent the entire market demographic for cameras I'm pretty adamant that they need to incorporate eye level viewfinders in every camera aimed at pros and people who love to shoot outdoor images. As a compromise I am A-okay with add on finders. The newest body, the Galaxy NX Android has an EVF and I can hardly wait to test it. But they need a compact shooter's body, like the NX 300 but with the ability to use an EVF if they are to compete head to head in the space with the EP-5 from Olympus and whatever the next iteration of the Nex-7 is.

I am a bit frustrated with the NX 300. It's got a great sensor, a great body, fast focusing and a bevy of nice features but it would be an absolute no brainer if it had a matched 2.44 megapixel EVF you could put into the hot shoe. That, and a microphone input.

If the bigger Android camera makes images as well as the NX300, and the EVF is well implemented, it will be the next leg of the stool for serious photographers looking at the system. Now let's hope they push the EVF's further down the food chain. Oh, and also a microphone input. Add the ability to do professional sound and you'd have a great video production camera. Especially with the giant screen on the back. But the readily available, good fast lenses are Samsung's secret marketing weapon. Once they get the camera body range sorted the marketplace will get a lot more interesting....


So unprocessed that I didn't even spot the prints.

Loving the diagonals. The Blanton Museum on the University of Texas at Austin campus.

There are very few compositional conventions I pay attention to on a regular basis. I try not to cut people's heads off at the top of the frame. When I think about it I try not to crop people at the elbows. I try not to leave big areas of dead space that make a frame look dorky instead of interestingly artful. And I try not to overlay the "golden rule" or the "rule of thirds" on my images intentionally. But one thing that I'm a suck for is diagonals. When I see em in the frame it makes me mash down on the shutter button in an almost Pavlovian way. See diagonal, drool, and then punch shutter.

I like odd compositions but only if they feel right. Diagonals always seem to feel just right.

"If they give you ruled paper turn it sideways." Cervantes.

Self portraits. A by-product of setting up portrait lighting for clients and needing a test subject...

Crusty Photographer.

The days of requiring an assistant in the studio when shooting technically simple portraits is, in my mind, ancient history. Seriously, what is there for an assistant to do in the process that can't be efficiently done by the photographer? Yesterday I did four different portraits. The first was on location at 7am. We shot in the park and used some beautiful in between time indirect light as our main source of illumination. The sun cooperated by hiding behind gauzy blankets of diaphanous clouds giving me soft, directional warm light just where I wanted it. No lights to haul. No modifiers to carry. Just some pre-planning and some good timing.

In the afternoon I did three portraits in the studio. The art director for the website project specified a dark, gray background and simple, directional light. In fact, we were trying to match something I'd shot five or six years earlier. I set up a gray seamless background and lit it ever so gently with a Fiilex P360 LED light, used directly and dialed to daylight. It was just enough to raise the background from almost black to happy gray. For the main light I put three diffused fluorescent banks into a 1/2 stop diffusion scrim on a Chimera ENG panel. I used three so I could modulate the power between the three fixtures and have some subtle variation in light on the subject.

We wanted the shadows to go deep so I pulled in a four by six foot black panel to the shadow side of the face to combat light bouncing back from the white walls of the studio. Having done this before at least a few times the lighting took less time to set up than it would have taken to explain to someone else. And like cooking some of the art is in "tasting" the set up.

I pulled the Sony a99 out of a drawer and put the 70-200mm lens on the front. Set the exposure for 1/60th at f5.6 and an ISO of 320. Now we were all ready to shoot but it would be an hour before the clients walked through the door and I'm always anxious to do a test shot and see how everything works together. In the assistant days we always had a ready stand in but now it's either me or the dog and the dog doesn't really sit high enough on the posing stool to make it work the way it should...

I've been setting the self timer on the camera and doing the tests on myself. It's funny to see myself at the top of every folder. I make a  point to look serious in order to frighten off critics. It's amazing how helpful it is to have a test shot done before the clients arrive. You can find little flaws in your set up and fix them before the dance begins. That way  you don't mess up the flow you should be working to create in the actual sessions. 

At some point I'll have enough of these self portraits to do a show. A very scary show....

I'm setting up right now for a portrait shoot in 20 minutes. See you later.


My friend Andy has a very nice review of the Olympus EP-5 here's the link:


He's really into mirrorless cameras and has been shooting with m4:3 cameras for a couple of years, almost exclusively. He has some fun insights about camera design. It's a nice read.


Taking a break from ruminating about the future of photography to buy stuff...

 Matching the memory to the cameras. A new form factor smacks me in the face.

I've been reading everything I can get my hands on about the new Samsung NX Galaxy Android camera because I need to seem at least competent when I hit the ground in Berlin and start shooting in about a week and a day from right now.  I thought I had a good handle on the whole physical layout of the camera until I saw the dinky slots for memory cards. Far, far too small for my now standard SD cards. What the hell card type is this? Turns out the camera works with microSD cards. See that little black transcend card surrounded by the SD and the CF type memory? That's a micro SD card and it's even thinner than it looks in the photograph. I guess they decided to use it because it's interchangeable with the cards they use in the phones...

As a former boy scout I wanted to be prepared so I ordered two of the little buggers from Amazon. I opted for the Transcend 16 gigabyte versions that come with an SD card adapter. I put one (micro SD+SD adapter) into my Samsung NX 300 and everything seems to work as it should. I don't notice any increase or decrease in write time so I'm guessing the underlying tech is similar enough to be the same....to the camera. Jeez. Those cards are teeny-tiny. When I look at the one gigabyte IBM Microdrive sitting just to the left of the micro I can't help but be amazed at how far memory storage has come in a relatively short time. I'm sure I paid well over $200 for the IBM spinning miracle card when it first came out and I think I paid a whopping $14 for the little card with 16X the memory and I'm certain a much faster write time and, by comparison, infinitesimally small power usage. 

I'm planning to shoot Jpegs and I will have a tablet for back-up so I'm thinking that 32 GB is more than enough for a week of shooting. If I need more space I'll just buy a few more. Amazing to think that I could put enough in an SD case to last a long, long time. 

The rest of my gear (including the Samsung NX300 I'm taking along as a back up) takes SD cards and I've finally settled on the Transcend class 10 SDHC 16 GB cards as my standard. Big enough for a day of shooting and very cost effective. When they go on special I stock up.

I have a crusty, old Leitz Tiltall monopod from the late 1970's that Belinda gave me as a birthday present. I use it all the time and I'm emotionally attached to it. But it's a three section monopod and that means it does not pack down small enough for international travel. I got an e-mail from Precision Camera on Friday and they were touting the little monopods from MeFoto. I like the colors and it took my a while to decide between "titanium" and the cool blue you see above. There are other colors but I'm conservative about my color palettes when it comes to hardware. At any rate I drove out to see the monopod and play with it and I liked it. The leg locks feel positive and well done and the tubes are channeled so they don't turn along with the locking collars when you lock or unlock. There's a hefty matching metal ball over on the screw mount end of the tripod and it has a little compass on it but it's otherwise just a gratuitous design addition. The round metal is dense so I imagine it might be useful, in a pinch, for driving tent pegs or something of that nature. 

I like the way it operated so I bought one. The call it the MeFoto Walkabout Monopod. It's lightweight, fairly practical and pretty cheap at just under $60. I thought I'd stick it in my suitcase in case I get all Trey Ratliff-y and start taking HDR night shots. It could happen. 

We could write about camera bags for days and days and the resulting effect would be one big argument as the prissy Billingham boys squared off against the rat pack-y Domke canvas boys and we argued the merits of carrying everything you own in a big hernia inducing leather steamer trunk on a strap or barely carrying a mirrorless camera and a small sandwich in a bag that, brand new, looks like someone ran it over with a car. I have lots of bags but I've just come to believe that any fun trip is a thinly disguised excuse to buy a new bag. So I did. I bought the anonymous looking Think Tank, fungus colored Retrospective 30. It looks so oatmeal lumpy that no one will think, Wow! I wonder if this guy has a bunch of Leicas in there..." The next aesthetic step down is a Walmart diaper bag. But, the inside is very roomy, the front pockets billow out to take whatever you want to throw in them and the back area holds a big tablet without stress or strain. I thought I'd give it a try. 

The first packing exercise was a success. If I can find a spot for my razor and toothbrush this may be the ONLY bag I take with me. I figured I'd go with the clothes on my back and just buy new clothes as needed for the entirety of the trip. Belinda is trying to talk me out of this....  

At any rate, the bag is comfy, the strap is good and grippy and there's more than enough room for a Galaxy NX with kit lens, 85mm 1.4, 60 macro, 30 pancake, and 16mm pancake; along with chargers and assorted other junk. The Retrospective 30 will fit where I fit...

new Think Tank Retrospective 30 from the top. Good velcro.  And velco silencers.

The Industry Ubiquitous Zoom H4n. Can you hear me now? Without noise?

I've been toying around with doing dual sound on my video productions. I like the idea of having really clean sound that is controllable. I like the idea of being about to plug in two XLR mics and not having to have more boxes attached to the shooting camera. I was torn between the Tascam digital audio recorders and the Zoom products but my friends who do a lot of DSLR video production, almost to a person, have opted for the Zoom H4n and I figured that since this isn't my area of expertise I'd opt for the safety of the herd. So far the sound out of this little box is great. I've been practicing dual audio techniques and slating my stuff but I'm just going to plunk down for the software that syncs video and external audio up automatically and be done with it. 

I decided to pick up the Zoom H4n because I know I want to shoot more video with the NX 300 and I'll want to at least test out the video on the Galaxy NX Android and neither of them have external microphone inputs (I can hardly wait to talk to the engineers about that design decision....). I'll need the recorder if I end up doing some fun video projects with the new cameras...

Azden Pocket Shotgun Microphone. My name, not theirs.
They call it an SGM-990.

I have some cool microphones that I really like. I'm very positive about the Rode NTG-2 and the new Rode VideoMic but they are all too big to drag along on a fun trip. And I don't have anyone coming along to hold the microphone pole and ride levels for me either. I wanted a little, pixie shotgun microphone that could hang out in the hotshoes of cameras and be ready at all times for those moments when I wanted to flop into the video mode and shoot some stuff moving around. But I wanted it to sound decent, run a long time on one battery and have the usual controls. I saw this little microphone in the sound case at Precision Camera and, for less than $100, I thought I'd take a chance. 

When I played with it back in the anechoic chamber in the main bunker at the Visual Science Lab world headquarters I was pleased at its well balanced sound. It's noisier that the NTG-2 and not as transparent but it does a much, much better job in most situations than the built in microphones on the DSLRs, DSLTs and Micro4:3 cameras. And it looks cool. Very important... It has a two setting control for the microphone pick up pattern. It can have more or less side and rear rejection. It also has an on off switch so you can leave the battery in and store it for a few days without coming up battery dead.

I wouldn't use it as a primary production tool but for snapshot mode, street art mode and spontaneous interview mode it does a darn fine job. I want to see how it handles German.

Funny how traveling with a whole new system puts one in the mood to go shopping. Now I'm thinking about new shoes. But I remember buying a pair of shoes in Athens in 1978 that looked really cool but almost crippled me within a day. Maybe I'll just look for some well broken in and very comfortable shoes in the closet...

One week to go before total Samsung immersion. What a fun experiment.

Studio Portrait Lighting


I was depressed today until I re-read this old post that showed up in the stats. When I read the comments they brought happy tears to my eyes.

Would X
The comments reminded me that we all have something to give. Something to donate to the conversation. I'd like it if you re-read this post once more. Just because I think we need to understand how important a well rounded education is... And if you like what we've collectively said would you pass it along to new readers?


West Texas through the eye of an Olympus EP-2.

The upcoming trip to Berlin. Why I'm going. What I'll be doing.

 Blanton Museum. 

In late Spring I was asked to participate in a fun little program to help get the Samsung NX300 some increased exposure. The reviews of the camera are uniformly good but it never hurts to have some additional traction in social media and what not. 

About 25 of us in the U.S. were asked to use the cameras and post interesting images. People in different corners of the country are shooting and uploading some really fun work and it seems like the camera is doing well.  I've done quite a few shoots with the camera and shared a hundred or so images over the last two or three months. One of the benefits I get from the program is to keep the NX300, the kit zoom lens and the 30mm f2 pancake-y lens.

Then, a little while ago, I was asked by Samsung if I would like to try their newest camera, the Samsung Galaxy NX.  If you aren't familiar with the specs it's understandable, the camera hasn't launched in the U.S. yet and just launched in the U.K. this week. Here's a microsite about the product:

While I've always thought of myself as a traditionalist I was surprised at how quickly I adapted to mirror less in 2009. And how quickly I've become interested in the intersection of flexible immediate uploads and social media. The new Galaxy camera is all about two things. One is the always on nature of its wi-fi and cell capabilities. Basically, the camera can upload images from just about anywhere to just about anywhere. If you can get a signal you can probably get to your folder on the iCloud or other service. The second aspect of the camera is one I haven't explored yet. That the Android system and the potential for an open systems approach to creating apps for the camera and apps that will run on the system backbone of the camera.  Not interesting on a 3 inch screen but more interesting, by far, on a five inch screen....  

When Samsung approached me to shoot with the camera before the rest of my fellow American photographers I did one quick check to make sure the camera shot video and I accepted. I couldn't see any real downside and maybe I'd wind up with a camera and some lenses that would be fun to shoot and helpful to my business. Then they presented the "carrot."  Would I like to fly over to Berlin on their dime and shoot my test images over there? I was delighted. I am delighted.

Samsung is bringing in photographers from all over the world in conjunction with the IFA show which is a big consumer and industry products trade show. I have a suspicion that the camera will be "presented" to the world at the show and will start to ship soon afterwards. It will probably be available near the end of Sept. This would be an opportunity for me to see Berlin, shoot fun stuff with the new camera and meet with interesting photographers, bloggers and photo-bloggers from all around the world. 

The camera and some choice lenses are due to arrive in the studio next week. I'll do a training course aimed at teaching me how to operate the camera with an app as opposed to the usual dedicated buttons and dials and then I'll do a few long walks on the boiling pavement around Austin to get up to speed on the interface and the nuances and then, off to Berlin!

I'll be flying out of Austin on the 2nd of Sept. and arriving in Berlin on the 3rd, in the early morning. For the entire week I'll be prowling the streets, cameras in hand. I'll be soaking up all the new inventions and photo stuff at the trade show and wining and dining with fellow Samsung Galaxy shooters. Of course I want to see as much of Berlin as I can before I fly back out and arrive home on the 8th.

In this bold product centric experiment I'll be blogging as much as I can. While I'm sure Samsung would love for me to concentrate on the things that differentiate the camera (apps, Android, always connected) I'll be working harder to see, primarily, how it operates just as a camera. How does it feel in my hand? How conducive is it to shooting fast? In the street? How stealthy can it be? How do the files look? I'll lean on the techie features to get images up for my blog as quickly as possible but that will be in the service of finding out just how good an imaging tool the camera is.

If you've been to Berlin I'd love to hear what you found most visually captivating. I'd also like to hear where you think I should find coffee and if there are any great camera stores left. I want to know what parks are filled with interesting people and anything else you might think of to help me make the trip more efficient and fun. Feel free to clog up the comments. You know I'll read every single one.

I hope my clients have a big pile of work waiting for me when I re-open the studio on Sept. 9th....

Do I get to keep the camera?  I sure hope so!

Studio Portrait Lighting

Today I want to talk once more about fast 50mm lenses. Because I love them.

Ten foot high painted self portrait by Chuck Close.

There are a number of things I like about 50mm lenses. Especially really good ones. I can't afford the 50mm lens I really want. It's the new Leica 50mm Summicron APO and while the price is upwards of $7,000 it may be the best 50mm lens on the planet. If I scrimped and saved I might be able to afford the actual lens but the lens only shines when you have the right body to put it one and I'm not heading down the Leica digital M rabbit hole any time soon. At least not until we're able to get those day rates well over $5,000 and the phone is ringing off the hook....

Anyway, there are a good things about all good 50mm lenses that bear telling or repeating. First, they are generally really good optics that render sharp, contrasty images onto camera sensors. If you are used to horsing around with kit zooms you'll find the difference between a very sharp f2 aperture on a 50mm and a so-so "just good enough" aperture of 3.5 to 5.6 on the zoom. While shooting yesterday in the Blanton Museum I watched the little exposure graph in the camera and realized that a lot of what I shot was snugged in a f2.5 and the shutter speeds were in the range of 1/60th of a second. Even so the images were sharp. Especially in the middle of the frame where it counts for me. If I used a kit zoom I might need f5.6 to get the same kind of quality performance and that would kick the shutter speed down into the handholding danger zone or rocket the ISO up in the negatively charged stratosphere, adding noise and sucking out dynamic range from my work. With a good 50mm 1.4 you get, not just speed, but speed with quality.

If you fill the frame with a subject and you're shooting with a fast 50mm it's easy to use wide apertures to drop stuff in the background out of focus. Really out of focus. And that can be cool too. Because with a good lens the stuff in focus isn't just "in focus" but it's truly sharp.

A good 50mm 1.4 prime is a lot cheaper than a professional quality zoom lens. And it may be better where it counts, near wide open. Sure, a 24-105mm f4 gives you a lot of range but if you look at the images from that lens at f4 and a good prime at f4.0 the primes still have the edge is sharpness, contrast and some almost intangible parameters that just subconsciously make us say, "Wow."  I paid about $399 for my 50mm 1.4 Sigma and I'm amazed at how well it performs. But part of that amazement is that I'm comparing it with zooms I've been using....

Finally, I actually consider the 50mm focal length and the 85mm focal length, on full frame cameras to be just about a perfect angle of view. The wide lenses have angles of view that seem gratuitous to me, almost garish in their frantic desire at inclusion... While the longer lenses, especially above 200mm seem claustrophobic. My eye settles down nicely when we're right in the middle.

Traveling on my own dime these days this is the focal length and the lens I put onto my full frame camera and just shoot with. Happy not to have to make too many choices. Once you have the lens figured out you get down to important issues like where to have coffee....

My favorite shots lately are coming from the Sigma 50mm 1.4. It came onto the market with some issues like front and back focusing with some cameras. It also came with a price tag of around $500.
The price recently dropped by $100 and the lens I got seems to have all the kinks engineered out. I'd buy it again in a heartbeat.

Studio Portrait Lighting