Who would have thought that the victors would be the companies with open standard lens mounts?

No doubt about it. Canon and Nikon have spent decades making really good photographic products. And Kodak spent 100 years making better and better films. But in the case of the camera manufacturers it looks like the long term spoils will go to the camera companies that succeeded in creating the defacto open standards as they apply to lens mounts.

I've written for nearly five years now about the critical benefits of the EVFs with their instant and credible feedback loop for photography and we are now seeing that the tipping point has been reached and the trend makers in our industry are consistently reaching for the cameras that give them instant and effective live view on a full time basis. This delivers lots of benefits for most photographers with very few detractions.

Traditional mirrored DSLRs can be used in live view modes but those modes are still archaic, first gen. manifestations of real time live view that cripple the shooting and handling performance of the cameras. And, in every instance the operator must use the rear LCD screen to compose, focus and shoot with instead of being able to make use of a high resolution EVF. The traditional DSLR is quickly becoming synonymous with the idea of a hampered photographic experience because it can only be used in live view mode in a very basic and very unsatisfying way. One only has to try to shoot moving action with a DSLR in live view mode with his back to the sun in order to see, vividly, the limitations.

So the thing that mirror less cameras really brought to the table and the reason I use them in my work is not the smaller size and bulk of the systems but the fact that they have the most advanced and informative viewing system of all the tools available by dint of having a fully functional, real time feedback system. I'm found, over the years, that once you embrace the joy of "pre-chimping" a scene with a great feedback loop construct you'll never willingly go back to the optical finder with its inherent lack of information and immediacy.

For me, the size difference of the competing systems is a remotely secondary parameter in choosing between the different cameras.

But that's the draw for me and for generations of photographers who grew up dependent and happy with eye level viewing methods. That doesn't really speak to the reasons that many more people are embracing the mirror-less, compact cameras that are advancing in the market (with the exception of north America). No, I think an enormous number of ardent amateurs, semi-pros and wild artists are drawn toward the mirror less options because the shorter film plane to lens flange distance allow for easy adaptation of millions and millions of existing DSLR lenses that can work remarkably well on these cameras. In many (most?) instances you'll lose some niceties like auto focus and advanced program modes but you'll gain an almost infinite range of optical options, many of which have been available at bargain prices. It's the first really open standard lens mounting opportunity of the digital age!

I imagine that buyers of the Sony A7 variants will buy them as much for their ability to (with adapters) accept the best lenses from every competing system. With the purchase of just two adapters you'll have the run of the entire Canon and Nikon lens catalogs. Think the Nikon 105 DC lens is the best portrait lens ever made for full frame 35mm cameras? You are only one adapter away from using it on an A7. But do you also need a nice, 17mm tilt and shift lens? Of course you can adapt Canon's one of a kind 17mm T/S lens with ease.  Have you held onto a bag full of Leica R or M lenses? With the right adapter you'll be able to re-integrate (what many believe to be) the world's greatest glass with the addition of an inexpensive adapter.

The same applies to the micro four thirds cameras. Just about every optic made for photography in the past 50 years can be pretty well adapted to the Olympus or Panasonic cameras. In many cases the adapter rings can be as cheap as $25.

Having two systems that represent open lens standards effectively eliminates the one barrier to system entry that makes people so loathe to change to better cameras as technology evolves. The closed standards of traditional DSLR lens mounts held people with big investments in "glass" into systems that may have been leapfrogged by competitors who created better camera bodies.

I remember in the middle of the first decade of professional digital photography that many of use were locked into Nikon because that was a system we'd shot for years and years. In one sense we wanted to be locked in because the lenses were, in many cases, demonstrably better than competitive lenses in the same ranges. But we were stuck with the D2H and then the D2X APS-C cameras as our only real choices for camera bodies. The D2X at 12 megapixels was Nikon's highest resolution camera and everyone who ever owned one would tell you that you really couldn't shoot the machine effectively above 400 ISO because the noise quickly became unmanageable.

At the same time Canon was launching full frame cameras with more and more resolution and the ability to shoot at much higher ISO's without the unwanted Jackson Pollack Effect. Many of us would have loved to have incorporated a Canon body into our systems and to have been able to use one effectively with the lenses we knew, loved and had depreciated.

And then Nikon flipped the tables and came out with their D3, D3s and D3X cameras and I can only imagine that the Canon shooters would have loved to slap some of their better glass onto the Nikon, full frame cameras----mostly to take advantage of a wildly successful generation of fast, high ISO shooting tools but also, in the case of the sports photographers, to take advantage of a much more reliable focusing sports camera. And in fact many did switch over time from both sides of the aisles.

The introduction of the Sony Nex 7 offered a delicious taste of freedom for Leica M users who could, for the first time, get great files from their investment in M lenses, albeit with a cropped frame. The Sony A7's will mean that the M users (and the few R users) will get to use their lens investments on a full frame camera with equally good imaging performance but at a quarter the price of the Leica M body.

If you are not operating in the lofty heights of Leica lenses the micro four thirds offers so many choices that it must be embarrassing for their more traditional rivals. And the idea that I can buy a Panasonic GH3 because I want the great video performance and then I can buy a OMD EM-1 for the image stabilization and possible improvement in jpeg images SOOC but still keep to one line of lenses is equally seductive. For my Panasonic system I can opt to cherry pick each companies line of lenses. Say the Panasonic 7 to 14mm for the shorter focal lengths, the Olympus 17mm 1.8 for a quick PJ lens, the wildly good Pana/Leica 25mm lens for everyday wear, the high performance Olympus 45mm 1.8 for discreet portrait work, the 35-100 f2.8 from Panansonic for stage work and so on.

If Olympus comes out with a better video body then....adios Panasonic but without the usual disruption and financial loss of having to re-rationalize the lens collection. It all seems so logical.
Wide open standards so you can optimize your systems for the way you shoot. That trumps the arguments about size and price and puts the focus on the stuff that focuses....

Nikonians love Nikons and Apple Computer users love their Macs. But the reality is that the market rewards companies that offer products which feature open standards. And that means millions of people are trying Android systems or buying Linux machines, using Java and opting for open standards even within Microsoft OS environments.  And for good reason....the consumer gets to choose the best "apps" for their use. And they get to hang on to their investments as they upgrade their platforms.

It's not about mirror less cameras, per se. It's more about open standards in the most expensive aspect of the hobby/vocation, the collection of good lenses. Just as it's not about camera size as much as it is about the convenience of use that comes from EVFs and more mature and useful visual feedback loops. Feedback loops that don't require iterative test shots.

It's only a matter of time before Canon and Nikon follow Sony, Olympus, Fuji and Panasonic into mirror less cameras. They will make short film flange to sensor plane cameras if for no other reason than to compete in the open systems market. It's all about the most efficient ecosystems, even if that's harder for consumers to articulate in surveys. And it's all changing right now. 


A "First Blush" review of the Panasonic G6 budget super camera. Plus a bonus lens review....

Occasionally a member of my family will ask a logical question like : "You already have two Panasonic GH3's, why in the world would you go out and buy a G6 ?????"  And I'm not really sure they want the literal answer as much as they want to voice their incredulity at my spendthrift ways.  But no one asked this time even though the box was sitting right there on the front step Weds. night when we came home from dinner at David Garrido's fun restaurant. Maybe it was the afterglow of great Margaritas and pork tacos or the joyful, spicy fried oysters that Garrido's is famous for...but no one even batted an eye. If they had asked I had my answer ready.  "It's all about the focus peaking!!!" I was going to say. And now I am disappointed that no one did ask because I'm excited about it and I really wanted to share....

The G6 is less a replacement for a big, interchangeable lens DLSR and more a dramatic upgrade to all those fixed lens, smaller sensor cameras like the Canon G series or Panasonic's own LX-7. At least that's what I thought before I started using one. Now I'm thinking that it's a great, light, cheap and resourceful machine for all but the most demanding types of photography.

For a whoppingly small $500 I got a camera that features: A very decent 16 megapixel sensor. An extremely lightweight camera body that has enough square inch-age to feel just right in my hands. A very competent and useful electronic viewfinder. A more detailed movie making mode. with much more detail, than the $3,000 Sony body which I bought mostly for its video capabilities. A camera with a full positionable LCD screen. A camera with a highly logical and useful touch screen. A camera with a 3.5mm mic input.  A camera that uses all sorts of micro four thirds lenses and is adaptable to just about every lens on the market today. A camera with a conventional hot shoe. An absolutely silent electronic shutter mode (silent, not even a demure click).  And, the main event...... a camera with focus peaking.

When you mix all of this together along, with a very capable, new formulation zoom lens that gives me a 28 to 84mm equivalent (35mm FF) range, complete with in lens image stabilization it pretty much seems like the bargain of the season to me. If you already have a big Nikon or Canon or  Sony and you want a smaller camera with big performance that you can take anywhere without feeling like you're dragging a chubby brick around with you this might be the one. And the image quality is much closer to your big camera (almost embarrassingly so) than it is to your favorite cellphone. 

But the thing that cinched the deal for me (in addition to the price drop....) was the brilliant (at this price point) inclusion of focus peaking. I like using the GH3's and their one button magnification allows for quick and easy fine focusing with manual focus lenses from across the catalogs, but there is something quicker and more fluid about seeing the image quickly shimmer into sharpness in the EVF of this little camera. A discreet cyan shimmer outlines in focus details and that tells you without multi-step interpretation that you'll be in focus. 

Here's why it's important to me: I bought the GH3s to do video and commercial work and in my testing I came to realize that my collection of Pen FT manual focus, half frame, prime lenses from Olympus's past were not just "usable" on these cameras---many were actually superb. Now, most of the time when I work I have ample time to fine tune manual focus and it's easy enough to push a function button and pop up a part of the frame in the GH3 LCD or EVF to 5X or 8X and make precise adjustments. And when we're shooting video it's pretty much the same thing. Plus, we mark the focus on the distance ring of the lens or on a focus follow device and then mark any other focus points we intend to transition to before we start rolling. Then we can effect focus without even looking at a screen. But---when you are walking down the street, see a gorgeous Austin girl whose face is covered with a Darth Maul tattoo, and whose pink hair appears to be on fire, and you've just got nanoseconds to make the shot before she fades from view ---the focus peaking is a magic feature. Bring the camera to your eye and, if you haven't forgotten your manual focus techniques, the focus peaking will help you nail the shot faster than AF and with more certainty. And it automatically holds the focus where you set it, shot after shot.  I first started using this feature in the Sony Alpha cameras and became addicted to the quickness and to the ease with which I could nail focus on manual focusing optics like the Rokinon Cines lenses.

Now one of the reasons I feel like a cat in a swimming pool when I pick up a traditional OVF camera is the paucity of good viewing feedback. Yes, the scene is like looking through a window into an optically imaged chunk of the real world but you won't know until you chimp whether you paid attention to proper exposure, color balance or even fine focusing. The traditional OVF is to the EVF what the plastic finder on a Holga (even clearer than an optical finder because all you are looking through is air....) to an OVF on a current DSLR.  It's like an aspirin compared to morphine. 

And now, in this small, inexpensive camera I get one more layer of feedback and control: I know where the focus lies.

If you can live with 16 megapixels on a sensor that's a generation older than the one in the GX7 you'd pretty much think that the G6 is the ultimate, affordable, portable pro camera body (no, it's not weather proof or alloy-ishly rugged) but there is one little gotcha that disappointed me. There is no constant preview in manual setting. And what that means is that no matter what exposure you have set in manual the camera will still pipe an image into the viewfinder that it presumes is correct for viewing. Your exposure combination of 1/4000th at f11 indoors at ISO 160 will probably give you a black or almost black frame but the camera will stupidly and heroically try to give you a perky and bright image in the finder for your compositional pleasure. Much to your control oriented chagrin. 

I'm not happy with that missing feature since I use it all the time on the GH3 but I've decided that I'll work around it and work in "A" mode instead. I'll go to "M" if I need to but I'll be chimping and watching the meter like a hungry dog watches the beef sizzling on the BBQ grill. But for day to day fun stuff the Aperture mode is just right for me.

And there's one more thing that makes the A mode even easier. There's a little toggle/slider switch on the top of the camera. It was put there when Panasonic and Olympus started making lenses with motorized zooms for shooting video. I don't have any motorized zooms so rather than letting that darling little control go to waste I repurposed the button and made it the exposure compensation toggle switch. Push right for plus compensation. Push left for negative compensation. When it's neutral a bigger +/-  graphic pops up in the finder and you know you're in the null zone. Once learned it's a priceless control. No more pushing in on a button and moving a dial or diving into a menu. One dedicated button, logically connected with visual feedback, that makes automatic mode shooting nearly as virtuous as manual exposure settings. Sure, go ahead and toss in a live histogram if you are uncomfortable making a totally visual confirmation of good exposure. 

Of course none of these little niceties would matter if the camera didn't perform. If it didn't deliver the files you commanded it to. And I have been impressed at what I've gotten from it. The image above was shot on Thanksgiving. The camera was handheld and the ISO was 3200. I looked at 100% and I could see very tight, fine black noise in the petals of the flowers but for the most part the file was competitive with the files I've been getting out of cameras four and five times the price of this one. The image above was done with the type II kit lens, wide open and I think it's great.  

OMG! Is this unprocessed file exhibiting "Olympus Colors?"

Sadly, the pool was closed yesterday and it's closed again today so we had two days of enforced non-swimming to get through. Couple that with three hours of driving and two big meals yesterday and you'll understand why I was up and out of the house early this morning. I wanted to get in two hours of brisk walking before getting into the office to construct this vital blog post and to shore up arrangements for three fun shoots next week. I tossed the kit lens into the center console of the super high performance studio car (stock Honda CRV) clamped the Olympus Pen FT 60mm f1.5 lens onto the new camera (which, if you price out separately from the kit lens equals a $300 to $350 camera body...) and headed downtown for a wild walk and a moving morning of manual focusing. I tried to use the lens in its sweetest sweet spot at around f4 but every once and a while I'd hit the shutter speed ceiling of 1/4000th of a second and have to stop down to f5.6. 

For a lens that is as old and experienced as this one (the 60mm f1.5) I am continually amazed at how well it delivers images, both in bright light and on the edges of light.  It resolves plenty of detail and its only concession to modernity is a slight lack of contrast. But that is one parameter that's easily and transparently resolvable in post processing.  This lens, on the G6 and the GH3's is quickly becoming a favorite portrait lens for me because of its combination of resolution without the biting contrast of today's better lenses....

Another point I'd like to make about the Jpeg files I was getting out of the G6 today: If you read the forums, and especially the Olympus forums, you'd be forgiven for believing that Olympus is the only camera company on the face of the globe that understands how to get good color, in Jpeg formats, out of current camera sensors. We hear constantly about the legendary Olympus blue and about the perfect blend of thick, rich colors. It almost sounds like Ricardo Montelban's description of the "rich, Corinthian Leather...." used on the Chrysler car seats of the old days. Well,  I'm pretty convinced by the color palette that Panasonic is supplying in both the GH3 and the G6. And they also provide fine tuning controls that, with a tiny bit of effort, can pretty much mimic the color profile of most other cameras. Get your color balance right and most cameras can deliver very accurate color these days. Don't want "accurate"? Then we open up a whole can of worms. Tweak the blues and add a little contrast and you're pretty much in the Oly ballpark. 

But camera ownership shouldn't be about us versus them, especially when it comes to m4:3. Why? because it's all in the family. With the interchangeability of lenses you get to live in the context of an interesting paradigm: You buy the stuff that's more or less permanent (lenses) and hold them for a longer term. You can then mix and match the bodies to get exactly the look you want----and it's okay to have more than one brand of body in the toolbox. In my world it's also okay to own multiple tool boxes and have more than one lens system. 

From my experiences shooting this morning I would also call attention to the metering of the G6. It is very accurate. The highlights in the image above were hanging on by their fingernails but the camera took the file right up to the edge without loosing control of the highlight detail. I've found that the camera is pretty uniform in exposure and rarely underexposes either. Again, I've owned plenty of much more expensive cameras whose proclivity for routine (and cowardly) underexposure to protect highlights was so over done it was almost embarrassing. Yes, Nikon, I'm looking at you!

The journey of a thousand miles begins not with the first step but with the proper tying of one's shoelaces.

And sometimes a rock is just.......a hat on a giraffe. 

Cranes Dancing. Sometimes we experiment with the "mono" mode in the cameras.

Bottom line? I wish the camera had "constant preview" as in the GH3. Other than that I think this is a perfect, carry everywhere, interchangeable lens, EVF-supercharged, wonderful camera. For less than $500? Amazingly good.

Studio Portrait Lighting


A wild evening of camera craziness and fun theater. A collage of Sony and Panasonic images...

It was a cold (for Austin) night this past Tues. I was commissioned to shoot the dress rehearsal for the Zach Theatre rendition of, A Christmas Story, and I was in an experimental frame of mind. I've been using the Panasonic GH3s for a lot of different stuff but I hadn't yet plumbed the depths of high ISO performance with the smaller sensor camera and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to compare the Sony a99, the Sony a850 and the Panasonic GH3 cameras. On the other hand I always like to throw in a few wild cards and, since I have few high speed Panasonic lenses I reaching into an ancient bag of tricks and used some older, Olympus Pen FT manual focus half frame lenses for the smaller camera. 

I'll dispense with the suspense and let you know right now that the Sony a850 was the loser at the high ISO stakes game. While it's a great ISO 160-200 studio camera it's not even a contender when we start ratcheting up the sensitivity boosters and head for darker regions. The 850 is a beach camera. It loves light so much it's got to be the George Hamilton of cameras. Even with an f2.8 on the front the noise reduction over ISO 800 just wipes out the detail like a cheap, vaseline covered UV filter.

The clear winner for sharpness, clean files and high detail with good color----under stage light conditions----at ISO 3200 was the Sony a99. Hands down. I used it mostly with the Sony 70-200mm f2.8 G lens and the combo was doubly effective. While not many people have used the 70-200mm (think of the relative size of Sony's market compared to N and C.....) I'm here to tell you that even wide open it's a sharp and effective lens. I used it mostly at f3.5, just to give it some extra advantage. 

But the interesting combination of the evening, for me at any rate, was the performance of the GH3 coupled with an ancient and unstabilized Olympus 150mm f4. It's a 45 year old, single coated lens, hand held by a nervous coffee drinker at the end of long day and it still pulled out some fun images. When you scroll down you'll see a series of images done in a 4:3 format. Those are the GH3 images. Most of them are done with the ancient telephoto. A few were done with the 60mm 1.5.  I had to make allowances, not for the camera (which performed flawlessly) but for the older lens systems. It's not that they aren't capable of good performance but they lag behind the big Sony lens in overall contrast and ultra-fine contrast and so need a helping hand; which I gave them in the mid-contrast range.

I like to see comparisons like this because, even though I am comparing apples to watermelons, I can see imaging differences between the lenses that help me understand some of the stylistic considerations from decade to decade. People's styles evolved from their use of different tools. In an age where high contrast lenses can produce an endless number of sharp and "correct" photographs the coloration, contrast range and general "look" of the older lenses lends its own character to the images produced. The images from the older lenses look smoother and in some sense more three dimensional to me.  In a sense they seem more "expressive" of the fictional time frame of the play...

Much as I love using the a850 for luscious portrait work I've resigned myself to retire it from theater duty. It's just not the right tool for the stage. And, in the company of the EVF-enabled cameras, it showed off the weakness of the OVF. It takes more time to meter and check and meter and check than it does to just look at the (95% accurate) EVF in the a99 or GH3 and shoot, shoot, shoot. The visual feedback is immediate and ongoing and it makes for a much quicker handling package in changing light. After using the EVF for tens of thousands of images in the last year and a half I can say that most of the corrections I make while shooting are done in real time and without conscious thought. The visually cued corrections have become part of the muscle memory of my shooting. And my hit rate is much higher for it.

These images are from the first dress rehearsal and from what I remember of the play (as divorced from what I remember about shooting the play) it was pretty well polished and I had more than a few "laugh out loud" moments. In fact, I left the theater with the idea that I'd bring back the family for one performance and perhaps a group of friends for another performance. It's really a good, nostalgic, heartwarming and funny production.

There was one strange moment in the evening though. You'll have to understand that I've been shooting images at dress rehearsals for the theatre for twenty years now. I've sat through hundreds of productions and shot well over 100,000 images for the theater. But this has never happened to me before.....

I came in a half an hour early. A section of seven seats had been reserved for me and the theatre staff had placed signs on each of the chairs that read, "Reserved for Staff Photographer."  I spread out my four shooting cameras and two bags over a number of the seats and I went through the preparations that I usually go through. We had a small, invited audience. These are friends and family of the theater who do not pay for their tickets. The ushers and staff were informed that the staff photographer would be taking images during the entire show.

Everything went swimmingly for the first act. Then, during the intermission, a very solemn man with a Zach Theatre volunteer name badge came walking down my row and got up very close to me. He stood so that his face was about 18 inches from mine and he said, "You CAN NOT take photographs during the show. You have to PUT THOSE CAMERAS AWAY and not take them out again!!!!" I thought he was kidding. His affect was quite stern and when I laughed he inferred that not complying would result in my.......removal from the theater.

I reached into the pocket of my camera bag and pulled out my official Zach Theatre name badge which very clearly states upon it: "STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER." On seeing the badge the official mumbled something about how photographers usually shot from the sides..... I had to correct him and let him know that, since I'd been the photographer at EVER show we've done in the new theatre I could assure him that ALL the dress rehearsal images have all been done in exactly the same way.

It was so wacky. But I get it. Some people in the audiences feel endlessly entitled. The cellphone is sometimes too great a temptation for some and occasionally an audience member tries to take a surreptitious cellphone image during a peak moment in the action only to be laid bare by the white LED flash that they never seem to anticipate.....

The two images above are from the GH3 coupled with the 150 Olympus lens at ISO 1600. It's a totally different look and feel from the Sony. Next time out I'll take friend, Frank up on his offer and do a real comparison. Camera to camera. f2.8 lens to f2.8 lens and we'll see how they both handle the world at ISO 1600. I have a feeling it will be closer than Sony fans will want to admit. 

Have a Happy Thanksgiving and don't try sticking your tongue on a metal lamppost. 

If you get bored after too much turkey and too many political arguments with 
the in-laws, don't forget that Craftsy.com is offering a portrait 
course for free by yours truly. It's probably even better after a glass 
or two of good red wine.....


My Free Portrait Course has been live on Craftsy.com for two weeks and already 14,000+ people have taken it.

Victoria. From my first Craftsy.com class: Studio Portraits.

I've been having a lot of fun with the people at Craftsy.com. They are an online education platform that's making fast inroads into photography and I've been along, as on camera talent, for the ride this year. 

Right now they are offering three courses that I helped to concept and create. One of them is being offered free of charge in order to promote what is for them a new category. 

If you are interested in sampling their style of on line teaching I would encourage you to give the free course a try. It's an almost two hour program which you can come back to again and again. I don't get everything just right but I think that adds to the reality factor of being a full time, professional, working photographer. 

The class level may be a bit "entry level" for many of our readers but you probably know a lot of folks who are just starting out in photography. The ones who call and bug you for free advice all the time.....  Please pass along the link to them and free up some time for yourself.... They'll probably thank you.

Here is a link to one of my paid classes: Family Photography: Candid Moments & Storytelling

If you want to try the paid class there is no risk as Craftsy.com has a money back satisfaction guarantee. If you take one of the classes I'd like to hear your feedback. I know I'm shorter than I write and my voice is funny....but what are you going to do?


Amazed at just how good digi-cam video can be. The super power of the GH3.

Out of long habit I believe that any camera worth having as a work tool should
have an identical or nearly identical back up. Buying GH3's as a set means
only having to master on video menu at at time.

The Panasonic GH3 is a good still camera. The quality of the files is not quite as good as that which I get from the Sony a99 or, at lower ISOs, the a850 which are both full frame cameras but the Panasonics do quite well when compared to a large range of cameras I've owned in the past. But as good as their still imaging capabilities are I did not originally buy the GH3s as replacements for my full frame Sonys for still use, I bought them because I had seen some quick video work done on one by a close friend and I was impressed by how much better detailed the files looked and how clean the overall feel of the video was. 

I was busy to the point of being overwhelmed when I bought the cameras so I didn't immediately test the video. Oh, I shot some stuff in the office and made a few available light tests but I didn't really do the kind of test that would emulate the work I would normally do with the camera in the field. 

Yesterday was my first chance to do some real, on location work with the GH3 and I want to tell you that I was very, very impressed by what I saw on my monitor this morning. Very impressed. If you have no interest in video you can stop reading here because I'm going to talk more about video.

As an aside I want to mention that I purchased both GH3s from my local, "bricks and mortar" retailer for the same price as any other customer. It's the same price you would pay for the cameras at B&H or Amazon.com.

Further, no one at Panasonic offered me anything of any value to shoot, test, buy, enjoy or write about their products. I am writing this because I am impressed by what I consider to be a very inexpensive tool with a very high value to purchase price ratio. No past or future promise of consideration from Panasonic or their assigns was proffered. 

Here's the story from yesterday: I was hired by long time client, Zach Theatre, to concept, shoot and edit together a public service announcement video (commercial) for one of their holiday plays based on the movie, It's A Wonderful Life. I'm sure you know the movie, it's the one with Jimmy Stewart and it takes place in Bedford Falls. Jimmy Stewart's character, in a moment of suicidal crisis is given the divine gift of seeing what life would have been like for his family and friends if he had never been born.  One of my favorite actors, Martin Burke, does all 37 major parts from the movie in a one man play.

I wanted to shoot Martin doing some of our favorite characters' lines. I went to the theater and set up on the stage. I wanted to shoot pretty tight. Just a little looser than head and shoulders. We set up a GH3 on a Manfrotto tripod, topped with a 501HV fluid video head and established a "mark" for Martin and worked out a good camera height for the feeling we were trying to convey.

Martin was lit by a few of the white stage lights (all overhead fixtures) and four of the Fotodiox 312AS LED panels I bought last year. Two of them were used as back lights, one as a main light from camera left and the other, used much further back, as a fill light. All of them were set halfway between tungsten and daylight using the rotary color temperature control knob on the back. All four light units pack nicely into one small Pelican case, require no power source other than their own batteries and have the stamina to shine on for hours. Of all the lighting I've bought over the year these have proven themselves to be very flexible light sources and useful in a range of applications. 

I keep trying and buying various micro four thirds cameras because I have a large number of older, manual focus Olympus lenses that were originally made for their line of (film) half frame cameras in the 1960's and 1970's. The lenses are beautifully made and, in many tests, mostly hold their own with even some of the best lenses on the market today. I keep looking for the perfect cameras to use them on and I think I'll be pretty happy using them on the new Panasonics. If I get further into the m4:3 world I might pick up an Olympus em-1 just to see how the lenses work with the five axis IS... but that's a whole different story. 

I took along a range of current Panasonic lenses but I was leaning toward using several of my favorite Pen FT lenses and I did end up shooting almost all of yesterday's footage with the 40mm 1.4 Zuiko lens. In the video mode just touching the rear screen brings up a magnified window of the image and allows for very sure fine focusing. Additionally, once the magnified window appears you can use the touch screen and your finger to move the magnification window anywhere on the screen. Very convenient for situations where the important feature which needs to be in focus isn't centered.  I used the lens two stops down from wide open at f2.8. 

The camera, in movie mode, was set to manual exposure, the .MOV mode (for much easier editing) and it was working at 1080p, 1/60th of a second at 30 fps. My basic ISO was 640. I was able to do a custom white balance for the mildly mixed lighting and achieve perfect flesh tones and a perfect over all exposure as confirmed by the onscreen histogram. That part being set we moved on to designing the audio.

I used a custom microphone stand to hold the Rode NTG2 shotgun microphone in position about eight inches above Martin's head and about eighteen inches in front of him. The microphone (with foam windscreen) was aimed just slightly below Martin's mouth. I used a transforming cable to match impedance and connector types for the camera's standard 3.5mm mic input and I set the levels so that Martin's voice, in character, caused the meters to get close to pegging red but not quite. Additionally, I was able to monitor the levels and change them on the touch screen, even while recording. If something was a bit hot I could see it, adjust and then have Martin run the line again.

We were able to monitor the audio that was being written to the camera's SDHC card via headphones. There's a software switch that allows you to monitor the live sound or the recorded sound. I suggest that you'll want the second option so you can really hear whether or not hum or other noise is being added in your recording.

Since the camera position was outside the circle the lights were illuminating and no stray light was hitting the rear LCD screen the art director and I thought we could see very clearly that we were getting really good quality video..... but you never really know until you get the footage up onto a large monitor and you can really pixel peep it. We shot what we needed in our allotted time yesterday and then I came home for a dinner and movie date. It was only this morning that I first saw the raw footage on a big, calibrated monitor for the first time.

I was so impressed I came back into the house to get my son and have him look. Ben is an accomplished film maker, has logged a lot of hours shooting and editing in FCPx and I value his opinion (and his younger eyes). He too was impressed by the look of the video. Even with the standard color setting on the camera the image wasn't too saturated and the colors were right on the money. Equally impressive was the level of detail and the sharpness of the files. And all of this was without any post processing whatsoever.

I have perhaps two or three days of post production to do on this project over the course of the next week and I am looking forward to it. These .MOV files go straight into Final Cut Pro X without the need to transcode. With a few very minor color tweaks this footage will look fantastic. And the bonus in this project is just how good the audio is. It's clean, natural and coming through at appropriate levels to make sound sweetening pretty simple.  In my book that's pretty darn cool for a camera that cost me less than $1,000.  Happily.....or sadly (depending on how you look at it) this camera, as a video production tool, blows the Sony a99 AVCHD format footage right out of the water.

One more check on the plus side of the column for the GH3 is that fact that it's still imaging performance is really good too.

The Panasonic GH3 with the 40mm 1.4 Olympus Pen FT lens.

Below are a couple shots from the side show part of the Formula Une weekend we lived through earlier in the month. The cycle riders where there to promote the "X Games" which are coming to Austin in 2014. The air brush painting commemorating the F1 GP was just a nod to Kitsch...

As soon as we have the "Wonderful Life" video cut together and approved we'll toss it up onto the VSL site.

In the meantime remember that Craftsy.com is offering one of my classes for free. Head to the site and take a look around....


Social Photography: Old School.

Sony a850 with HVL 58 flash and Rogue FlashBender.

Every year I volunteer to cover a banquet at our local Four Seasons Hotel that is a fund raiser for the Appleseed Foundation. Appleseed is a non-profit that gathers up attorneys and convinces them to donate time and money to address inconsistencies in the law that effect segments of our citizenry who cannot afford to fight back. They've gone toe to toe with the Texas Department of Corrections over kids detained with adults, they've battled discrimination and they've fought for equal access under the law. The attorneys come from both sides of the political spectrum because what unites them is a respect for the Constitution and a belief that all people in the U.S. are entitled to equal protection under the law. Here's the website for the Texas organization: http://www.texasappleseed.net

I have photographed this event as a volunteer for 12 years now and every year what the organization wants is the same. They need good, candid images of couples and small groups socializing at a pre-dinner cocktail party.  Each year we have more people to photograph.  This year we had nearly 400 people in attendance! Once people sit down for dinner (really nice crab cakes and beef filets) and the speakers start in earnest I am up and own photographing the program, making images of the speakers, award winners and honorees. This year also featured a live auction with three items and a call for cash challenge. The organization was able to raise an additional (over regular contributions and table sales) $105,000 in about ten minutes.

But none of this is probably of much interest to photographers. What interested me was the gear I used to capture the function, as well as the evolution of my equipment choosing process....

Over the years I have used every sort of camera, from rangefinder, film Leicas to Nikon and Canon DSLRs to Sonys and even a few years with Fujis. The venue is dark and the light is almost all from ceiling cans so it's harsh, downward facing and very directional. The ultimate camera is not one with the best ISO performance or even the fastest focusing but the one with the best flash performance. Shooting four or five hundred shots in the space of three and a half hours, all with flash, means that one really gets to see just how that automation is working for us.

The contrast detect AF in the micro four thirds cameras is an issue for me. It can work if I enable the auto focus assist in the GH3's or comparable Olympus cameras but I am loathe to have the green or white light shining in people's faces as part of my "candid" photography practice. I want my cameras to do a decent job focusing under this kind of marginal light without any extra help and without creating their own pyrotechnic side show.

Last year I did the job with the Sony a77 and I wasn't happy with the variable performance of the a77 and the HVL-60 flash. I spent my evening overriding the "hot" flash and I finally gave up on the automation altogether and started shooting via guide number. The a99 is a little better.....but not anywhere near perfect. Over the last few years I found myself longing (just on this one event) for the solid flash performance I used to get with the Nikon system....

Yesterday morning I tested two cameras that I thought had potential. The GH3 and the Sony a850. With the GH3 I used the most practical of lenses, the 14-42mm kits lens. It was okay but not fast and sure under subterranean lighting conditions. The next camera I pulled out ended up being, hands down, the best digital camera I've ever used for interior, after sunset, event shooting to date. It was the old Sony a850. As old school and traditional as a digital camera can get and still be of this century.

I set up the camera to shoot medium sized (13m) fine quality Jpegs which gave me the potential of shooting thousands of files on a 16gb memory card. I set the preset to Standard with no custom nudges. I used the central focusing zone.  I set the camera on Manual exposure, f5.6 and 1/30th of a second at ISO 320. I used the flash on TTL with no compensation. My lens of choice for all of the candids and small groups was the 50mm Sigma 1.4 which I had just calibrated to that particular body the week before. I set the white balance at 5600. The flash was the HVL-58---the one just previous to the current top of the line. The big difference is that my flash of the a850 is one of those with the funky Sony shoe.

Since the camera's AF sensor was working with a calibrated, wide open f1.4 lens the AF was quick to lock on and gave me very sharp images. f5.6 would have covered any small discrepancies and, in the particular lens, is so sharp it's amazing. The huge finder does nudge out my current EVFs in the kind of low light in which I was working and every single exposure was perfectly exposed by the flash. Everyone. It certainly made me re-think my approach to event shooting that revolves around the necessity of flash for main illumination. I can replicate all of this exposure perfection with manual flash but it takes brain power and sometimes I've run through my quota by the time I get to an evening event. My boss has really laid down the law about excessive napping in the afternoons.....

This year I used a large FlashBender as a modifier to the flash. It added a bit more roundness to the light, especially when I used it up close. My experience last night (and in post processing this morning) leads me to consider rounding up another a850 as a back up to be used for years to come just for "old school" events like this one. I can't imagine a better matched event and tool.

No, this doesn't mean I'm suggesting that you go right out and buy the same system. Nor have I abandoned my other cameras to use this one exclusively. It's just that sometimes, in a narrowly defined application, one tool proves itself to be exemplary.

offer: Watch me make a fool of myself and watch as we go through the process of making fun family images.

The class is free and I would love to see some strong support from the VSL crowd. Take a minute to go and watch. Then let the comments fly!