As Long as I am in a "re-posting" jag I thought I'd remind you that: "The Passion Is In The Risk."


By Kirk Tuck ©2010

Yesterday was Thanksgiving.  We had a houseful of people.  My parents were here and Belinda's parents, too.  Nieces and nephews and new additions to the family.  Belinda and I teamed up in the kitchen and put out some nice food.  My mom brought some fun wine, even three bottles of my favorite white wine, Conundrum, from Caymus Vineyards.  Everyone was happy and the day went smoothly.  I was so proud of my kid, Ben (you've seen his photo many times....).  We have a three step drop from the kitchen to the dining room and we were serving buffet style.  My dad is in his 80's and walks with a cane.  Ben waited until my dad filled his plate and then walked over and quietly offered to carry his plate to the table. 

Most of our family lives in San Antonio and everyone headed back home in the late afternoon and early evening.  Ben got invited to go surfing, down in Port Aransas, with family friends and he was gone by 6:30 pm.  Once Belinda and I finished washing pots and pans and dishes we decided to watch a movie from Netflix and we settled on a mindless romantic comedy called, "When in Rome." 

Near the end of the movie the female protagonist is trying to decide if she should take the risk and marry her new boyfriend.  Her father threw out a line and I grabbed for a Post-It (tm) pad and a pen.  It's a line that resonated with me like a bell.  He said,  "The Passion is in the risk."


That's pretty much the culmination or distillation of what I've been trying to say here for the past two years.  The magic dust that makes art work is the passion you bring to it.  And the passion is proportional to the risk required.  I've included two photographs to illustrate my point.  In the top photo I'm photographing life in the Termini train station in Rome.  I'm determined to get a shot of the baggage handlers.  I go in head first because I know they may (and did) object and I'd only get one chance.  Before I started I thought that there might be a heightened chance of confrontation.  There's a certain risk in a direct, "looking into the eyes" presentation.  I had to be quick with my technique.  I could be embarrassed if they got pissed off and made a scene.  All that stuff that goes thru your mind when you're out of your own neighborhood, out of your demographic and out of your own culture.  But you move forward because you embrace that level of risk and deem it acceptable for the potential reward.  That being said, this isn't my favorite photo.  But each time you risk you get more comfortable with the risk and you understand that something moves you to do this thing that's beyond a staid calculus of accrual.

In the arts the passion is never truly about money.  It may be about fame and with fame may come money but in reality the arts are about the passion.  When I step out the door I'm looking for a photograph that makes me feel something out of the ordinary.  Art is never a reaffirmation of the value of the ordinary.

The second photograph is passionless.  We make these all the time.  It's a quick, furtive shot that shows nothing but the back of one person and the profile of another.  There's no engagement.  There's little passion.  And when you look at this image you tend to pass it by because it's something you've seen a hundred or a thousand times before from every photographer who shoots in the street.  There's little reward because there's little risk.  And without the risk there's no passion.  And the passion is what gets transmitted to the viewer.

But the idea that The Passion is in the risk goes way beyond street shooting or even just the practice of the arts.  In fact, I think the slow building of passion comes with taking multiple levels of risk that correspond with access to the passion.   An example.  If you want to create great work in any art it takes constant practice.  I've used the analogy of competitive swimming as an example.  If you want to be a great surgeon you have to use those brain and hand skills all the time or you get rusty.  I have many friends who are doctors and when they need to have a surgical procedure done they never settle for the guy who's done a couple hundred successful procedures they search out the guy who's done thousands of successful procedures because they know that with practice comes expertise.  The guy who's done 2,000 procedures has dealt with every permutation.  In art parlance, he's become a "master".  By the same token I don't think photographers can be at the top of their art unless they live it with the same "hands on" intensity.  If they pick up the camera every once in a while they just aren't fluid enough to make great art.  And it's not just knowing where the buttons are and when to push them....for a people photographer it's also about knowing how to work with people in a fluid way. 

So, that means that it's almost impossible to do photography at a passionate level and still have the time and energy for a real job.  And there's the risk.  Freelance photography gives you the time but it also delivers risk.  And if you can accept that risk and move forward even with the knowledge that you may end up hungry and poor, but you still feel compelled to move that way then you may be driven by your passion and that passion may reward you with art you can love.

Beyond that, risk also means removing yourself from a comfortable situation to an uncomfortable situation that elicits responses in a photo which in turn make it interesting to you and your wider audience. 

The ultimate risk is working when you are the only audience.  When you stop caring what other people think about your work and you make work that is uninflected by the subtle pressure of others.  In this arena the risk of total isolation is so strong that only the most courageous passion will drive sane people forward.  It's a level I've not achieved and I'm not sure I can.  I have too many responsibilities.  I have too much to lose to risk everything.  And yet it's something I am jealous of in other photographers.

The person who finds a $100 bill on the street is just a bit richer.  The person who pulls a diamond from the jaws of a pissed off, deadly dragon has a story to tell for the rest of his life.  And he creates a legend.

That's what the few real artists in our lives do.  They battle metaphorical dragons that come complete with real risks.  They've already signed a blanket waiver with life and they're ready to strap in and take the ride.  They're the test pilots and we're waiting for someone to come along and pressurize the cabin.

So.  Why have I decided to work with LED lights in the last few months?  Do I think the results will be technically better than what I can get with state of the art flash equipment?  No.  But I know the results will be different.  I know that some stuff will be riskier (like subject motion and color correction) but I know that intangible and tangible differences in the way portrait subjects respond and react makes the photographs different and it's a risk with a return.

If I know how to do a technique forward and backward why do I constantly abandoned the safe techniques and try new stuff?  Because the risk of maybe failing makes the process more exciting.  If the risk pays off I have something that's new and maybe closer to my vision of what an image should be.  If I fail I learn and I come back and try again.

If I never try then I master one technique and use it, safely, over and over again until it's so stale and old that no one ever wants to see it again and I've squandered years and years when I could have been investigating and playing and failing and succeeding and doing new stuff.

The turn over of gear is open to many interpretations but unlike most amateur practitioners I seem to go from the highest iteration of equipment to the lowest instead of the other way around.  I'll start with a Canon 5Dmk2 and slide down the product scale where the risk is greater because it's more fun to work without a safety net.   Buying better and better gear is a way of trying to manage risk.  And managing risks is the perfect way to suck the absolute passion out of your art.  Perfect risk management means sitting in a bunker with the air filters on high.  But nothing moves forward that way.

Here's an odd thought.  One posited by a character in Stephen Pressfield's magnificent book, The Gates of Fire,  "What is the opposite of fear?"  The eventual answer?   "Love."

We work through the fear that everyone feels.  Fear is a very uncomfortable emotion.  Most people feel fear and move away from the thing that made them feel fearful.  Or they work to contain the process or action that caused the fear.  Some work through the fear to feel the love.  The work is the love.  The process is the fear,  The fear is the risk.  And the risk is the thing that artists embrace.  And that's what makes the best work work.  Knowing that you might fail.

Someone asked me the other day if being 55 and in a field that seems to be falling apart and crashing and burning scared me.  Yes.  I'm as scared as I can be.  But not because I won't make money.  I'm scared that I won't have the time and the courage to keep going out every day and doing something that rational people don't do.  Every time I go out and shoot it scares me.  And every time I go out and ignore the fear I get into zone and the photos get better and better.  When I stop getting scared the work falls apart.

The scariest moments for me are the days when I wake up and I've lost the determination to go out and try it all over again.....as if for the first time.  When I'm working from a "playbook" of greatest hits I know that it's over.  The passion is gone.  It's time to stop.  But the scariest thing of all is that all the inspiration and vision and passion comes from a well within.  There's no way to inspiration other than to wake up and want.  And  to be willing to accept the risk that creates the passion.  And that's why it's worth it not to copy anyone else but to create your own art and take your own risks.  Because:


The passion and the risk are different for everyone.  And so are the rewards.  And that's why people talk about gear instead.  Because it's so hard to say why you do what you do.  And it will be different for you.

added at 5:22 pm.
I never did get around to explaining why I took the image of the guys in the train station.  Let me go thru that process and see if I can put it into words.  We really don't have a train station here in Austin.  The closest we have is an airport and it was built in the last ten years and doesn't look much different than a nice strip mall with a bunch more chairs.  I have a romantic nostalgia for train travel.  But even more to the point, I  have a bittersweet memory of a time when travel was civilized and special and much, much less stressful.  The guys in the top photo are remnants of that earlier time.  It was a time in which you and and your family could travel for weeks  with multiple suit cases.  You would have suits and ties and nice shoes to wear to fancy restaurants.  Hiking boots and heavy jackets for romps through the Alpine plains outside of Chamonix and you would have also packed some casual clothes for evenings wandering through the old neighborhoods of Rome.  You'd find a nice cafe and have hot chocolate while your parents enjoyed a few glasses of wine and some savory treats.

And it was all made possible by men like these in the train stations and airports who would take care of the logistics of moving your heavy cases from the train to the to taxi's and back again.  And you were pretty sure they worked for tips and they worked hard every time a train came in.  They were freelancers like you are now.  Somedays no one would want to pay for their help.  Other days the work would be non-stop.  There were no guarantees.  No safety net.  But it was what they knew how to do.

And slowly all these men have have faded into oblivion as wheeled totes and "carry on" only became the vogue.  And now we  travel with only what we can carry and we're more like overnight visitors than real travelers.  But at the same time these guys were brusk and sometimes unlikeable, with a street smart cynicism that put you on your guard.  And there are now no more young porters.  It's a dying art.  Like dye transfer or black and white darkroom printing.  And it's sad when an era passes.

And they know it's only a matter of time before their knees give out and their lungs protest the decades of smoking and they won't be able to lift the heavy boxes that often replace the luxe leather suitcases and trunks.  And they're pissed.  And resigned.  And how can I get all those emotions and all those thoughts into something as insubstantial as a photograph?

I look over and see the scene come together.  They are resting on the cart, looking for customers.  They are smoking.  I walk closer.  I've already set my Mamiya 6 camera to the exposure I think the scene offers.  I bring the camera to my eye to fine tune the focus with my rangefinder.  The man raises his hand and as he starts to wag his finger I click.  Then I drop the camera down and gesture that I get it.  I understand.  I won't shoot another frame.  I'll hope I have what I want and spare them the indignity of overt and obvious study.  Young life swirls around them.  One man smiles in a resigned way.  Two others continue their conversation, oblivious of my transgression.  And the man with the wagging finger follows me with his eyes, just to make sure I got the message.  Yes.  I did.  I got the whole message.

When I develop the negative I wish I'd gotten closer.  Much closer.  But cropping is not the same.  I wish I'd gotten closer and wider.  The 55 instead of the 75.  But I got what I got and I learned that my reticence to walk in closer with the wider lens is like a slap to the face and I know next time I'll take the risk or not take the photograph at all.

the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions:

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A re-post of an article that I re-read every time I find my work/photos looking like everyone else's....

Why you shouldn't shoot like everybody else.

Let's face it,  I don't think any of us woke up one morning and said, “The thing I love best is taking pictures of strident brides putting on yet another cookie cutter,  antique ivory white dress with the annoying little buttons down the back.....”.  We didn't.  We don't.  We do many of the annoying little jobs we do because they pay the bills.  The wedding profits pay for the mortgage and the car payments.  The bridal portraits help pay for new gear.  And the PR photos of “guys in ties”, done with the same old soft box and grid light on the background,  pays for dinners and electric bills.  But you are way off base if you think we buy for a moment that you shoot these things because you are driven by your “inner muse” to do your “Art”.  (That's capital “A” art.....).

We're not all wired the same way so if you really get a thrill running a business and making a profit and that's all you want out of your photography then I get it and we'll give you a pass on the art thing.  But the rest of you aren't getting off so easily.  Most of us got into this field because we loved taking photographs of people, or landscapes, or life on the streets.  I certainly didn't pick up a camera because I saw a cool product photograph in a catalog.

I picked up a camera because I loved taking photographs of my friends.  I wasn't drawn to images that were lit in a particular way, I really loved the stuff that was black and white, available light and relatively unposed.  When I had done this kind of work for years as a pleasurable hobby I found my self at loose ends after my partners and I sold our advertising  agency.  I had some money in my pocket and a bunch of people kept hiring me to photograph them or their loved ones in the style I'd done.

But.....as soon as the art moved from hobby to business there started a subtle erosion of the essential point of view that made my work different from everybody else's.  I learned that there was an established style to shooting business head shots and so I learned that style and began to offer it.  I had to buy lights and drag them into the mix.  I learned the “right way” to do an executive portrait and I started to incorporate what I learned into the mix.  

And if you think about it, the convergence of digital imaging and the photo sharing sites on the web has quickened a process of homogenization that now seems relentless.  How many of you think that a reportage style of wedding photography is wonderfully unique?  Really?  Even though every wedding book I've seen in the past three months has exactly the same stuff in it?  The close up of the fingers trying to button five hundred annoying buttons on the back of an antique ivory wedding dress?  The edgey images with the razor thin slice of sharp focus that just screams out, “Hey, look at me.  I got a Canon 5D and a fast 85mm lens...”  You know the drill.  We all know the drill because we presume that these are the images and styles that brides want and we want to deliver them so we can make the car payments and buy dinner.  And in the corporate world we know that the standard head shot is generally a boring piece of crap that doesn't move the game forward any more than music on your website.

I think we homogenize for a variety of valid anthropological reasons.  We have a subconscious  desire to please our tribe.  We fear striving for originality and excellence because we have a suspicion that these things aren't valued by our clients and showing different work might cause them to reject our services.  Which we then interpret to be a rejection of our selves.  We might fear the hostility that will inevitably come from those who are practicing the status quo.

But here's the nasty reality statement that I'm sure you've known was coming from the minute you started reading this:  The people who populate the top 1% of the art world don't really give a minute of thought to what might “play well in Peoria”.  They pursue their vision.  Their own vision.  And they do it in a way that basically welds them into the longer view of art history or photo history because it introduces aesthetic game changers that the rest of us will buy into decades down the road and work to homogenize into our collective offerings while some where a new generation comes knocking with the real goods.  But we won't understand the value of those goods until it's just too damn late.  Think Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.  Both of whom were incredible pioneers as opposed to the Chase Jarvis and Michael Grecco types who understand a trendy, contemporary use of the tools, and the power of good, pervasive marketing.

It's like Avedon invented Haute Cuisine while Jarvis added an extra strip of bacon to the cheeseburger.....while Grecco introduced pink mayonnaise and convinced Ludacris to put it on his bacon cheeseburger.....really, it is apt.

Consider this for a moment...two companies sell 90% of the cameras used by professionals today.  Both have the identical format!  Your choice is really sensor A or sensor B.  Processing algorithm A or   Processing algorithm B.  Can you imagine the photographers we truly admire from the film age being constrained to choose between just two different films?  Where is the differentiation?  Where is the rugged individualism?  How did this all happen?

Some postulate that every move toward convenience decreases overall quality.  That every wave of mass acceptance creates an inertia to consider whatever the masses have embraced to be the “standard”.  By that measure, clothes from Walmart are the new standard, and if you are truthful you'll acknowledge that you'd never get your wardrobe from Walmart...

So, what do you do? If you are a business person, first analyze your business carefully, and if you find that selling your current product, no matter how commodified it is, is going well and your market share is growing, then continue on your path.  But if you feel like you got into this field to do something unique and different but you have the queasy feeling that you let the weight of life and money drag you into some compromised stasis then start pushing back and re-connect with why you wanted to be here in the first place.

When I taught at The University of Texas at Austin I had a student who came to me and complained that she couldn't possibly fulfill her promise as a great fashion photographer unless she had a Hasselblad and a stable of good, Zeiss lenses.  But she whined that she could never afford them, so she was doomed to failure.  A week earlier I had overheard her telling a classmate that her parents had just bought her brand new, turbo-charged  Volvo station wagon. ( in the early 1980's this would have been viewed as radically indulgent within the student class---now, who knows?).  

I suggested that she sell the car and buy the dream.  She thought I was insane.  The money trumped the art.  The comfort quotient kicked the crap out of art.  I caught up with her two decades of “life lessons” later.  She has become a gifted artist.  She pursues her vision with a Holga camera.  She lives on the edge.  She doesn't own a car.  But here's the news flash, she's happier than she ever was because she's very clear about what she wants.  And what she wants is to pursue the vision she had in the very first gestalt moment of loving photography.

So, how do you change?  How about throwing away all the trappings and offering what you really feel compelled to offer as art, and the hell with the rest of the market.  After all, would you rather be the next Avedon or a watered down/ tarted up version of Olan Mills.  You have the “Art” with a capital “A” in you or you would have never chosen this business.  Owning a McDonald's franchise is a much more secure way to earn lots more money.  So trade down on lifestyle, if necessary, and trade up on artistic integrity.  I can almost guarantee that you'll spend less on therapy and Xanax.  And people may grow up wanting to be just like you----instead of wanting to have your lifestyle.

I know you might think this sounds preachy and high handed but it's really a synopsis of the journey of self discovery I've been on lately.  I've opened the files in my office and dragged in a big ass trash can.  Anything that doesn't feel good, special and all about my work goes into the can.  All the event negatives from the 1990's.  All the executive portraits older than three years.  And I've started showing only the styles I want to shoot.  Not everything I could do in a pinch.  It makes me feel lighter.  Like I'm freeing up mindshare.  But that's something for another month.

In the meantime my prescription for change is to go back to using your very first camera for a month.  If you learned on a Canon AE-1 or a Minolta Maxxum 7000 or a Holga, go back and get one and load it up.  Shoot the way you once loved for a month.  Live with your style for a month and see if it doesn't feel better. 

I could give you more advice about shooting with little strobes but it would all be bullshit until you figure out why you shoot, and what you want to have coming out of your camera.  Customers?  If the work is satisfying to you then you'll find the market you want.  It may not be the market that supports your BMW payments but remember, you trade you life for money and you'll never get either back, so you might as well start doing it on your terms right now!

Thanks, Kirk

(really, two totally separate books with annoyingly similar titles.....)


How do you design light?

What does your light say? Direction, quality and the motivation of the light are all much more important than the kind or brand of instrument you use. To get it right, use the light. 

My friend, Will, likes to light portraits with one light. If given the choice I will always use two. I think the background usually benefits from its own source of illumination. 

Three lights are generally too many for a single portrait. The more lights you use the more complicated production gets and it's almost always a case of diminishing returns. 

Fun on a Sunday Afternoon. Sony RX10. Kirk Tuck at the Wall. No, not that wall...

I am fascinated by two things lately. One is the Sony RX10 and the other are the giant walls filled with ever changing, legal graffiti. One fascination led to another today as I grabbed the RX10, an extra battery, and a microphone and headed over to Baylor St. to document the wall and grab some interviews with some of the artists who come by to work on their art. 

When I finished with the video shooting (so much fun) I decided to give the still side of the camera a work out because it's still very new to me and (uncharacteristically) I haven't photographed very many people with the camera and I've withheld my opinion about the camera's portrait ability until I have more total data points to integrate.

The wall of graffiti is a great thing to shoot because I can look for tiny details as well as bold concentrations of saturated colors. 

I shot the video in the best light and I will tell you that I have already reviewed a lot of the footage and to say that the video files from the RX10 are sharp and detailed while still appearing natural is an understatement. This may be the best video camera I've ever shot with. Ever. But take that with a grain of salt because the Sony Beta SP cameras I used in the 1990's were not HD and I haven't really touched a dedicated video camera since then. I know the Sony F55 is much better but it's 25 times the cost and....well it's 25 times the cost! I'll get some video up as soon as I edit it in but I'm trying to figure out a bold work around. 

I used an Azden mini-microphone in the hotshot of the camera, didn't bring headphones, and just trusted to the fates that the audio would be fine. After all, it was perfectly good the last time I stuck a Rode microphone on the camera. Well, my hubris was smacked down by the gods of audio and they rendered by Azden mic mute. Narrator track here we come...

Back to the stills. I used all the focal lengths on the camera and then some. I engaged the digital telephoto setting and occasionally cheated by going off the reality end of the zoom and into the highly magnified, made up area of the zoom. I'll note which still is an example of that below.  

Here are my observations: The camera handles well and with the "active" setting that incorporates physical I.S. along with digital I.S. the camera is rock steady and easy to handhold at its longest focal length and at shutter speeds down below 1/50th of a second. Here's an interesting operational note; the zoom will not operate as long as you have your finger pressing on the shutter button. The EVF works well in full sun and the images on the monitor in the office match what I was seeing on the EVF on site. 

The files have really good detail to them and the flesh tones (where relevant) are neutral, non-splotchy and very pleasant. "Yes." I can use this camera for portrait work. 

Have a gander though the images below and take note of particular images which are samples of some effect or another. 

A wider shot in open shade. 

Medium shot in open shade.

Nice, neutral flesh tones and good skin rendering.

She was moving and he had paused. The slow shutter speed was enough to render the guy sharp but too slow to render the movement of the girl sharply. 

An embarrassingly awkward stance for a "fashion" photographer. But I liked her pearl necklace. And I noticed that she was shooting her images with a Sony R1 camera. What are the odds?

Here's the close up so you can evaluate skin tone (and rolled eyes) while the image below is the full frame. 

I'm not sure the clothes are a good match for the outsider art. 

Here is an image from the camera at the full 200mm equivalent setting. 

The image just above is a 2x mag of the longest setting via the miracle of 
digital zoom (and active image stabilization).

I am thoroughly satisfied with the RX10. I'll keep shooting with it until I run into some sort of technical road block but I can now recommend it whole-heartedly because it works very well and the video also looks superb. Inventory for the next out of country shooting trip? Two of these (one as a back up) and a pocket full of batteries. Plus a full on sound check with headphones for external microphones. Live and learn. Again and again.


Photo of Ben working diligently at his computer back in 2000.

Like millions of families before us we've come to that time when we are looking at colleges and universities for Ben. He'll be graduating from high school at the end of May and we're anxious to make some final choices. I was thinking about that today when I came across a little, black and white 4x6 inch print (above).  Tempus Fugit !!!

I still have the blueberry MacBook. It still works. 


Hanging out in Austin? Go have dinner at Garrido's.

Here's my favorite current chef photo. I took David's photo for his restaurant's web site. In fact, I took all the images on the website. If you can't make it for a great Mexican style dinner at least drop by the website and look at my portrait of David:



Charles Allen Wright by Kirk Tuck for Private Clubs Magazine.

This is an image of Charles Allen Wright, a very famous Texas Lawyer. I shot it in his office at the University of Texas at Austin Law School. I used several different cameras on my editorial photo assignment but this image is from a Rolleiflex twin lens camera with a 2.8 Planar lens.

The camera could shoot twelve images on a roll. 

I used an old, manual, Vivitar 285 flash in a small white umbrella. 

I connected it with a cable because we didn't have inexpensive radio slaves at the time.

In a strange role reversal my most important mentor, Wyatt McSpadden, came along with me as my assistant. 

After we finished up we headed back to the studio to unload and I went into the darkroom and developed the ten shot rolls of 120 film from the shoot.

I made contact sheets and sent them, via Federal Express, to the magazine. 

The art director at the magazine circle one image and sent that contact sheet back.

I printed three or four variations of the image on fiber based, double weight paper and sent the resulting prints back to the art director via Federal Express. 

The image ran as a half page illustration in the magazine.

I was thrilled. 

A few years later I was showing my portfolio to someone at an outdoor cafĂ©. 
A well dressed woman walked past, saw this image in the portfolio and stopped. 
She said, "He was the greatest influence in my entire life." 

The art director I was showing the portfolio to was surprised. 

Will revisited.

Pity my dearest friends because I've subjected them to unscheduled portraits far too often. This is Will a few years ago, caught mid-statement, at lunch. The image was taken with a Pentax 645 camera and a 150mm lens. I love the way it goes out of focus. I really like the glasses. I am indifferent to the Pentax's bokeh. 

Once On This Island. With a Hasselblad....

I can hardly believe that we used to shoot show promotions in the studio with a Hasselblad. We'd shoot ten or fifteen or twenty rolls of 120mm film to get the images we wanted. If you look at the background of this image the curtain on the right side of the image had its own lighting while the three colors on the far background were made with three more flash heads covered with filter gels, firing through tight spot grids, and we had several lights on the subjects in the foreground. 

Twenty rolls of film with development would cost about $400 if you threw in the cost of Polaroid test materials. Wow. That's real skin in the game.

What did it buy us? At the time it was the only way to do the process and it bought us marketing impressions and ticket sales. But looking back and seeing the images again I can see that it (shooting medium format transparency films) brought us smooth, deep and believable skin tones, the likes of which I rarely see today. 

What have we lost? I'll leave that up to your imagination. The race to the greatest economic efficiency doesn't always have clear cut winners...

Getting comfortable with the Sony RX10.

After a stressful weekend I finally got time on Tues. evening to take a walk through downtown Austin with my Sony RX 10 and put it through its paces on a bright, sunshiny day. The camera exceeds my expectations in a number of ways. Quick reviewers complained about the speed with which the zoom operates. I find it to be just right in that you can make extremely fine adjustments without the zoom mechanism overshooting. A slow and steady turn on the zoom ring gets you from 24-200mm in just 2.5 seconds and unless you are doing zoom whips (shades of 1960's comedy movies) the pace seem appropriate. 

The real story with the RX10 is about image quality and the combination of features which makes it such a good "hybrid" camera. Hybrid seems to be the predominantly used term for video and still capabilities in the same box. And the RX10 is a low cost exemplar of that conjunction. Why do I call a $1300 camera "low cost"? Because it is. The closest competitor to the RX10 is either the Panasonic GH3 or the Olympus EM-1. But each of these cameras is roughly the same price as an RX10 without a lens!!! When you buy an RX10 you are also getting a hell of a lens included in the total price of the package. To get the same reach and the same speed with the Panasonic or the Oly you'll need to add the Panasonic 12-35mm f2.8 and the 35-100mm f2.8 which triples the price.

While the sensor is smaller in the Sony it's not that much smaller and unless you are shooting everything with very limited depth of field it hardly matters. Based on the stuff I've shot with the Sony so far, in decent light, I'd call it a pretty even playing field. Turn the lights down a bit and the bigger sensor may have some advantages but.....we might be talking low single digit percentages. 

I always smile when people come out against smaller sensors. Many act as though there's some sort of dividing line of square millimeters that signifies a barrier between cameras that can be used professionally and cameras that can't. I thought about this yesterday as I was having coffee with a very good friend. I mentioned that the fourth book I produced for Amherst Media called, Photographic Lighting Equipment, was primarily shot with a Canon G10 point and shoot camera. 
I never mentioned it to the publisher because of the stigma that small sensor cameras seem to have but we've subsequently sold thousands and thousands of copies of that book and no one has ever complained about the technical quality of the images in it. The images I used the G10 for were all the illustrations of the gear. Not the sample images. 

That camera used a small, dense sensor with 14 million pixels. If you tried to shoot it at higher ISOs it didn't look great but if you worked on a tripod, exposed well with 80 ISO set on the dial and paid attention the camera worked great. And for still life images the live view and deeper depth of field were both convenient and positive. 

So, Tues. I walked through the city and snapped away at whatever I wanted. I wasn't doing great art. In fact most of the images will get tossed and not archived for anything. It was a therapeutic walk as much as it was a "break-in" session with the Sony. I could tell by looking at the monitor that the camera was doing what I expected it to. It locked onto subjects quickly. The exposures were all very good. I'd chosen "A" mode and vacillated between wide open and f4 for nearly everything. I dropped to f5.6 when I wanted deep focus.  I was satisfied with the ergonomic side of the camera but I generally wait on judging overall image quality until I can toss the images up on the monitor and really peek at the the fine details and the edges of the frames.  I noticed one thing that bothered me a bit. At 100% I could see a few sharpening artifacts. I went back to the camera and looked through the settings. I had increased the sharpness in the Standard profile by +1 based on someone's observation that the camera files in their test had been a bit soft. Now I see that it's not so. At "0" the sharpness is very well done in Jpeg. +1 is too much. I can only think that the person who suggested the sharpness needed to see his oculist. 

One area of performance for the Sony RX10 that I haven't seen mentioned much is the performance of the image stabilization. The camera has two levels of image stabilization. Normal and Active. In "normal" you get routine lens based image stabilization and you can see the effect in the finder. When you bump the control to "active" you combine the physical I.S. with computed I.S. and while you lose a bit of image area around the edges you gain a level of I.S. that is almost on par with the legendary I.S. of the newer Olympus OMD cameras. When you couple that with a sharp (wide open) 200mm equivalent lens you have a really powerful imaging tool.  One that preserves sharpness well.

I've learned the menu and I'm re-mapping my brain to more quickly discern which function buttons control what. There are enough external controls to make typical operation of the camera straightforward though I've come 180 degrees and wish it had a touch screen on the back like the Panasonic cameras I use...

And I guess that brings us to video. While the zooming of the lens slows down in video mode the focus doesn't. I'm pretty good about setting a focal length and sticking with it through a short sequence and the slower zoom is less obvious that a faster one but it would be best if the camera offered a variable speed zoom. One sad aspect of not having a touch screen is not having the ability to do "focus pull" by just touching a different area on the LCD screen. We never had that before the Panasonic GH3 cameras so I can live with it. 

Here's the interesting part for me. At high quality codec settings the Panasonic GH3 makes wonderful video. It's better than the Sony in most ways. When you bring down the throughput to something more manageable in editing the Sony catches up. And then, at a certain point you can compare apples and apples. Either camera is a step up from the previous generation of even much more expensive DSLRs when it comes to nearly every parameter of image quality. While a D4 gives you lower noise in a file that's just about all it gives you. It's important to remember that no matter how many pixels you have in your D800 or Sony A7r they are all still being down sampled to 1000 x 2000 pixels. That's why they call it "2K."

But the full time live view in the Panasonics and the RX10 provides much better image control and autofocus. And here's where the RX10 races ahead of the bigger DSLRs and even the Panasonic, it's got the things that make making video easier. The ability to set zebras at various levels is even better than having a live histogram because you can program the point at which the zebras manifest. The focus peaking is great and works well in video mode (hello Panasonic GH3...). That makes focusing on the fly quicker and better than all the rest (shared by the Panasonic G6). When you combine all those attributes with manual audio controls and a headphone jack and then overlay very impressive image quality I think you have a package whose feature set brings much greater value to the table than most other current cameras out in the market. 

It's not possessed of the highest res but at 20 megapixels it's more than most of us will ever need. It's not the quietest camera at high ISOs but is certainly professionally usable to 800 or 1600 ISO (depending on lighting conditions).  It's not the smallest camera on the market, but I rarely try to put my Sony a850 in a trouser pocket either.  For what they've combined inside the size is perfect.

So, who is this camera targeted at? How about a whole new generation of image makers who demand both high quality stills and pro level video in one package. How about any photographer who needs to travel light but still have a great lens range, with great speed in one small package? How about videographers who need high performance and great zoom range along with the features they are used to getting on dedicated video cameras (sorry, no S-Log)?  If you understand that camera size is becoming less and less important and that small sensors can be made to be high performance imaging "film" then the camera shouldn't come as much of surprise. 

The biggest feature to my way of thinking? The absurdly low price for the bundle of capabilities. 

I need to spend a lot more time with this camera in order to really get to know it but what I'm seeing right now is pretty cool. A week or so ago I posited the question about whether or not a person could functionally run a medium to high end imaging business with this camera. I'm not ready to issue an unequivocal statement on that just yet but it is the only camera I'm taking out on assignment this afternoon to do an interior group shot around a conference room table in a downtown office building. The depth of field will certainly come in handy! 

I have three or four pocket knives that people have given me over the years. Most knife enthusiasts tease about it but the one I keep in my pocket is the Swiss Army knife. I probably couldn't do much combat with it but it does everything pretty well and when we need to open bottles of wine on remote locations the "knife experts" come to me for that service. I like having the well made scissors in the SAK as well. The Sony RX10 is an imaging Swiss Army Knife done really, really well.