4.08.2014

Run Toward the Snarling Dog.


Two philosophical ideas for today. The first is about dealing with fear.  The fear of getting started. The fear of failure. The fear of not knowing enough of whatever it is you want to do. I read a story a long time ago about the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. As a small boy he lived outside his own country.  He would often have to walk with his retainers and entourage past an enormous house guarded by huge, fierce dogs. Most days the dogs were contained behind high walls or fences and the Dalai Lama and his people were safe from attack.

One morning the dogs were loose. They saw the Dalai Lama's group and starting snarling and making belligerent moves. Everyone around the young boy was very frightened, turned and started to run away from the dogs (and running from dogs is probably the very best way to get them to chase you...) but the Dalai Lama turned and ran toward the snarling dogs. He charged at them. And they stopped.
And the entourage regrouped and walked on.

Is it a true story? Does it matter? The takeaway thought is to confront your fears directly. To run toward the snarling dogs. Being in control, or even just having the conceit of being in control gives you power. Every photographer I know wrestles with doubt, anxiety and fear. Do I really know how to create a certain look? Do I have a style? Can I sell my style? Why am I afraid to show my work to potential clients? What if everyone rejects me? Where is the market going? How can I change gears? How can I get part of a new market? What if I am revealed to be a fake?

Most of us try to fortify ourselves (our self confidence) by delving as deeply as we can into the technical underpinnings of our crafts. We learn all 5,000 secret actions in Photoshop or we watch 10,000 hours of workshops on the web to see how everyone else in the world might light a simple image. If we are into video we study every web site and pull apart every movie to try and understand the entirety of the undertaking before we even lift a camera and engage the start button.

We do this because we are afraid to fail. We are convinced that we will get only one chance to enter the field and engage. And because we feel that we have only one chance we want to tip the odds overwhelmingly in our own favor. It's like a man who's been told he will be on Jeopardy (a TV show that tests your ability to memorize facts, names, events, etc.) in five years. For the next five years the man does nothing but study everything he can lay his hands only to find out that he was so over prepared that he had become paralyzed. Unable to answer.  Or that the show had been cancelled...
Or that five years of his life had passed him by and that cost was greater than any reward that winning the show might have gained him...

I watched myself do this with photography. Especially in the transition years between film and digital and I remember how much time I lost and how much useless information I squirreled away. And then the information (not necessarily immutable facts) hit the sell by date and we felt like we needed to start over again with new information. In crafts with a large technical component it's so easy to get stuck in an information acquisition loop and never get out, never actually start producing. It's part of the reason we're always buying something new...

I vowed not to do this with video. I jumped straight in. I'd done my learning curve on the aesthetics and mechanics of telling stories with motion back in the 1980's and 1990's as a creative director and copywriter, and also as a DP on projects for several directors. I was stern with myself this time around. I don't need to know any more than how to tell the story, how to turn on the lights and how to push the "start" button on the camera. All the other stuff is just more stuff. It's not the core of the story telling craft. And none of it is as hard as we believe it is.

My fear was some mythical learning curve. What better way to neutralize this fear than to pick up your camera and your tripod and your microphone and get busy telling your story. You work, you learn. You work, you grow. I started warming up with my own projects. Stuff I do just for me. And I learn good techniques by not being afraid to fail on my own stuff. And everything I learn goes into making client projects as good as they can be. I can sit and "learn" or I can walk out the door with fresh batteries and a fresh mind and look for a fun story to tell. A quick script on a napkin. A montage of visual notes. Something fun to edit together. I get up in the morning and remind myself to run Toward the Snarling Dog!

Part Two: Changing the world.

I always grumble that the world is changing too fast and not for the better. I wish people would put down their cellphones, I wish people would pay attention. There's so much about the world I want to change and all I accomplish by focusing on this angry need to change the world is to become frustrated and upset and push way the good things in the world as well. I think to an extent we all wish some things could be changed. The issue is that everyone feels that different things need to be changed.

I was reading the notes for Stephen Mitchell's wonderfully readable translation of, "Tao the ching" and I came across this passage; this thought:

"Do you want to improve the world?

Wanting to reform the world without discovering one's true self is like trying to cover the world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes."

It certainly made me pause and reflect. And if I print out the passage and put it up on my wall perhaps I'll spend more time working on my own stuff and a lot less time grousing about the state of the world. Now I need to walk the (small) snarling dog...

4.07.2014

On a lighter and less contentious note: My review of the Sigma 60mm dn lens for the Micro Fourth Thirds system.

This is the look I generally get from Studio Dog when I step 
out into the back yard to take a few casual snaps with 
new toys. She seems to be saying: "Really? No fetch?
No chase? No treats? Just gonna stand there with 
that damn, black box pressed to your eye?  Bad Dad!
Bad Dad!!!

So, I pontificated the hell out of the Sony A7s and raised the un-nerving specter of death re: printing in the modern world. Well, maybe it's time to take the angst down just a few notches and remember some of the fun stuff about still photography. Like the happiness of buying a new lens. The joy one feels when the lens performs really, really well and the pleasure of doing all this at a bargain price point. Okay. I can speak to that. 

Sigma's been in the photo news a lot lately because they've been routinely shaking up the big players in the business by making really cool lenses that outperform similar lenses from Canon, Nikon and Sony. Lenses that either outperform on pure technical metrics like sharpness across the frame or lenses that outperform the majors by being "just as good" but at a lot lower price point. A case in point is their new, 50mm f1.4 "Art" lens which is tearing up the competition in early reviews. Seems its only real competitor might be the Zeiss Otus 55mm 1.4 (but I'm willing to bet that there are a few 50mm lenses from Leica that are more than up to the challenge....).  Lots of serious photographers have lots of serious stuff to say about Sigma's 35mm 1.4 "Art" lens as well. 

And just to stay on a roll, they've been rolling out some incredible standard zooms too. 

When I shot with the Sony Nex-7 I bought two very inexpensive Sigma lenses that were made for the Nex cameras and the m4:3 cameras. One was a 19mm and the other a 30mm. Both were very good, albeit they did feel a bit flimsy. But for the prices asked the lenses were wonderful and as good as the bigger brands when it came to raw performance on the sensor.

When I moved on from the Nex cameras I also moved on from the Sigma 19 and 30mm lenses.

Now I've totally committed to the Panasonic/Olympus micro four-thirds system and after I added the (truly nice) 12-35mm f2.8 and the 35-100mm f2.8 lenses I went looking for some little niche petit bonbons to add to the system. One lens that caught my eye was the new style 60mm Sigma dn lens. All the reviews kinda gush about how great this lens is and then the reviewers seem almost embarrassed to mention the price. At $230 I figured it would hard to go wrong.

The lens is a sleek, modern art design. A paean to the new, cylindrical PowerMac? I bought the black one because I like the lenses to match the cameras but on the first day of use it was Texas-sunny and I wondered if I'd made the wrong choice and should have gotten the silver version instead---considering the heat load that is coming down the road into summer.

The lens is simple. No external controls. One giant slippery focusing ring. It's not a speed demon (which might explain why the optics are so good....), it only opens up to f2.8. There's no image stabilization inside. But so far I'm happy with how sharp the images are and how nicely drawn the out of focus backgrounds are when using the lens wide open.

I know I am guilty of grabbing new lenses and walking around in the bright sunlight in downtown Austin making images that can't help but be sharp and contrasty. Sunlight is sunlight....  But today the Studio Dog and I had a different idea for testing out the lens and we applied it. First, Studio Dog insisted we go to the park and try the lens out with some outdoor scenes; tree branches with fresh leaves, canoes, and that sort of thing. Then I suggested that we go back to the house and shoot weird little interior vignettes using a monopod. That way we could do stuff like use the lens wide open and shoot at non-optimal ISO's like 1600 and 3200. We could work with weird light. And generally play around with reckless abandon.

Here, with captions, is my gallery of test images:

My first test is always leaves and trees and the sky in the background. On the original file I can blow up all pixel-peeper style and see the structure of the individual leaves. Shot at f5.6. Works for me and I like the color and tonality. 

Studio Dog was transfixed by this ritualistic stacking of rocks out in the middle of Barton Springs. She was adamant that we go out and investigate but by the time I had my shoes off and my pants rolled up sheer was already newly fascinated by a log full of turtles sunning themselves. 

Old, weathered and scratched up canoes are a timeless favorite subject of mine. These are delicious. I should have used a Zeiss Otus on this shot instead of the 60mm Sigma but I couldn't figure out how to get one for the same price....

Amazing. Shooting stuff with a 60mm lens and a nearly open aperture means that some stuff in the foreground and the stream in the background go out of focus. Who would have thought this possible in a micro sized format....And yes, I like the colors and the, dare I say it? Bokeh. The bokeh is tricky and avuncular, wiry and complacent. With a hint of smoky oak.

Studio Dog saw the turtles and it was like a kid from a far away country walking into Disney Land for the first time. She paced back and forth alternately growling and whining at them. They ignored her which, I think, hurt her feelings. I was a bit put out that they also ignored my shiny new lens. That's just the way it is with turtles. 

 Tree. Large.  

 After our ambitious ramble we came back to the house for a mixed rice and sardine lunch. Yes, my dog loves sardines. It was over lunch as I looked around the house that I decided to test my new lens in the most domestic of settings. I grabbed a small monopod and worked on bracing techniques and zen-like photo-breathing and mostly used the Sigma 60mm lens at its widest aperture, f2.8. Above, my Tibetan stool on a wood floor next to a wall with two outlet plates. 
One of many bookshelves in the house with a tiny part of my Richard Avedon book collection. 

 Here I must ask, have you ever spent time looking at your old thermostat? Fascinating. And now that I've made a photographic interpretation of it I'm not sure I could bear to change it. Ever. It's so 1950's "Space Age." Yes, the lens focuses closely. 

A bathroom window. Looking for flare. Not finding it. 

 The boy's towel rack. Complete with Pokemon towel. 
 Baskets in the kitchen. Kitchen floor. 
When Studio Dog and I ate lunch today I was looking through one of our books on the history of western art. Were the Etruscans really the "bad boys" of the Med? That's what historians tell us. Really spirited trouble makers. 

You can tell this is the home of an "older generation" photographer because there are more framed photographs in the house than there are plasma screens or LED television sets. But I can't judge whether that is a good thing or a bad thing or if it just "is."

And what lens test would be complete without a diagonal shot of a window screen with the background out of focus?

Every day the Studio Dog and I are in battle over who will get the sacred chair. The rules in the family are that if someone is already there you can't move them. The dog seems to have radar to sense the times that I want to sit in the reading chair. I tried sitting on the floor trying to make her feel guilty. She doesn't understand guilt and sees my capitulation as an invitation to nap. Not even a stalemate....

Central Texas Book Case. Mid-first decade. 21st century.

 The grown-ups light switch. 

It was my turn to make the bed. I forgot. 

Playing with focus and the edge of my towel. The 60mm focal length is captivating. I already have the Olympus high speed version but I talked myself into this one because there are times when I want autofocus and program. But I can't recall when...

This old white chair, in this corner, is my favorite reading spot in the whole world. I can read by the light coming through sheer curtains from two, big French doors and I can see all the way down the long hallway to the front door. 

Light switch installed for the boy about twelve years ago. 

The one plant Belinda and I have been unable to kill for more than 28 years.

My assessment of the lens? Small, fast, sharp, cheap and able to do nice tonalities. Get one now for your small camera. If you are still using a monster camera you are out of luck on this front...




4.06.2014

The Sony A7s. Writing about this because it's interesting. Not because I want one. Yet...

Sony announced a new A7 model at the NationalAssociation of Broadcaster's show today in Las Vegas. The camera is called the Sony A7S and it will be a very interesting product for people who: a. Shoot with the Sony Nex FE system. b. Think they might want to shoot nice video. and, c. People who think they might like to shoot under very, very, very low light conditions. After a very thorough inspection of the specs it seems obvious that Sony has still (like the A7r) found very interesting ways to take out their corporate handgun and shoot again and again at their own feet.

What is interesting about this camera? Well, for starters it contains a brand new, full frame sensor that  allegedly does what many have been calling for years---it promises bigger, lustier pixel wells for much better (lower noise) high ISO performance. Instead of 24 or 36 megapixels you can step up to 12 megapixels spread across a 24 by 36 mm sensor. The advertised high end of the ISO range is in line with the newly announced Nikon D4s at over 400,000. Yikes!

If you keep up with video production you probably have heard that a big issue with using traditional DSLRs like the Canon 5D3 and the Nikon D4s or D800 is having to get all of the information off the huge sensors and condense it down quickly into the much, much smaller video files. The cameras do this by binning and by using a line skipping scheme. The issue has always been the image processing pipeline which is optimized for the creation of huge image files with HD video as an afterthought. The problem with the current downsampling schemes is that the files generated don't have the detail they could and are no match for camera with smaller output sensors which are also optimized to be able to dump their entire frame of information without the processing to downsample.

In Canon's professional video line cameras like the C100, C300 and C500 use sensors that have limited the megapixel count to nearly the exact count of 4K HD. These cameras can write frames to memory without too much processing and with no downsampling which allows them to have faster frame rates and to do away with the image degradation of line skipping. Sony is following in their footsteps but for the first time introducing this strategy in a consumer camera. A camera that is affordable to many who want to stick a toe into 4K video with a relatively good assurance of high quality.

One of the benefits of the bigger pixel wells is something more important than high ISO performance, it's a much wider dynamic range. Rumor has it that this sensor will compete with some of Sony's professional cameras when it comes to dynamic range meaning that the camera will have up to 13.5 stops of usable range. The gap between consumer Sony and consumer Canon just got wider....

I was amazed to find that the camera will also come with film maker profiles and the ability to use S-Log curves that also protect highlight detail. In essence, aside from the lower resolution, this will be a noon time, bright sun, desert, swim pool in summer champion. Sounds good so far, right? So why would I say that Sony has their good ole Colt .45 loaded and aimed once again at their own big toe?
And what does this new competitor mean to all of us who've been waiting with bated breath for the Panasonic 4K camera? Will we now drop those Panny plans and rush back to the Sony camp?

Well, let's get logical and read into the specs with reckless abandon.

First off, the big one: Technically you can't use the stock camera to shoot 4K to the memory card in the Sony A7s camera. Wait, I don't get it. This is being touted as Sony's consumer foray into DSLR 4K video but the camera won't record 4K video? Nope. Yep. The camera will record 2K video in a 4:2:2 configuration which means wonderful 1080p files but to actually record 4K you'll need an outboard digital video recorder to make that work. You can pretty much plan on adding at least a thousand dollars and a lot more complexity (and weak, flex points) in production to get 4K from the camera. Hey, be careful because you'll have some wires sticking out and you'll need to attach that new digital recorder somewhere.... So, technically, yes the camera will record 4K video, just not to the internal card or any other inexpensive modality. Yikes! That's big news. The Panasonic has 4K directly to the memory card figured out and ready to go in its GH4.

But once you get that digital video recorder you're pretty much ready to go and put the GH4 to shame, right?  Bigger sensor and all that. Right?

Well, no. Sony has chosen to further cripple their camera with their new consumer codec XAVC S which is actually a smaller frame (consumer 4K) versus the Panasonic's more professional and full frame codecs. The max camera to card output for the Sony is about 50 mps which is less than half the information being lovingly placed onto the internal memory card in the Panasonic.

Yes, the Sony will offer less depth of field than the GH4 but on most other technical video standards the equally priced Panasonic walks all over the Sony.  Both cameras require outboard units for stuff like XLR microphone inputs but where the Panasonic unit also offers SDI output the Sony unit, at this junction is microphones only.

Then we get into issues of handling...both still and video. Sony is using the same NP-50 battery that we first met in the Nex-7. It's a decent trade off of size, weight and endurance for a small, mostly still-intended camera but it's a whole different compromise for a camera that's being aggressively pushed as a nearly "pro grade" video production tool. According to Sony specs the battery will give one a blustery 90 minutes of total run time. Now, I don't know if you've been on many shoots lately but that about enough power for set up, test and few dress rehearsals and maybe one or two takes. Better take along six of the batteries for a full shooting day.

The GH4 gives up about 3.5 hours of run time for a big, fat battery. I feel compfy with two batteries and a little charger (as a safety precaution) for a day of shooting.

The interesting thing to me will be the focusing. The A7 was one of the slowest to focus mirror-less system cameras I ever used (but in full disclosure I haven't retested since they did the big firmware update) while the Panasonic GH3 is one of the fastest mirror-free systems I have ever used.

I guess in the end the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. If you need full frame DOF you might be swayed in the direction of the Sony, and for the price you'll probably get better video performance than any of the other DSLR style cameras out there in the price range (or above it). You will get a nice EVF, a good LCD, and lots of software tools that might make the camera a wonderful imaging tool.  Be advised that there's you'll loose fast frame rates on the Sony when you go to 4K....

On the other hand I think the GH4 product is much better thought out and a real "user" for people who like to work with small, efficient crews. And people who want fast fps. And more battery life.

Good points for the Sony (based on a close read of their specs): 

1. A system approach to still and video imaging in the same form factor as their high res cameras.

2. A better codec then their previously pervasive ACVHD offerings (still on the camera and still 28 mps...).

3. A great viewfinder.

4. Nice body style and low weight, good handling.

5. Lots of video software tools like S-Log curves and cinematic profiles.

6. I presume they will include the really good focus peaking they've had in previous cameras.

7. The ability to use a wide range of lenses from many lens makers

8. *****The big one will be the quality of the sensor (I think it will be fantastic) and all the accompanying benefits: Dynamic Range, Color Accuracy, High ISO/Low Noise Performance.

We've already discussed the drawbacks above. To condense, be sure to get your out board digital video recorder and a pocket full of batteries.

All in all it's good to see Sony come into the market.

FYI, for all of you who think it will take a long time for 4K to flow into the consumer market please be aware that Sony is shoving something like 24 new consumer 4K TVs into the markets this Fall and Samsung, Panasonic and Toshiba are right there with them. When prices fall after the holiday season, and they will, I think you'll see affluent consumers all over the place upgrading at not much higher a price than they paid for a 2K LED screen only a year or so ago. The adaptation will be much more rapid than the original move to flat panel HDs. And the computer market, led by Dell's $600 24 inch 4K monitor is already heating up. It's a brave new world. Thanks a lot, Aldous Huxley.


edit note 4/7/2014: While I may not be an expert in video I believe that Michael Reichmann over at Luminous Landscape would qualify. Here's a very informative discussion thread on one of his forums about the intro of the A7S and a casual comparison to the Panasonic product. Please read it before pronouncing me "dumb as a stump." : http://www.luminous-landscape.com/forum/index.php?topic=88774.0

edit note 4/7/2014 evening in Austin: Here is a very even handed comparison between the Sony and the Panasonic by Andrew Reid at EOSHD. Well worth reading: http://www.eoshd.com/content/12562/panasonic-gh4-vs-sony-a7s-compared-wins-4k-battle-paper

4.05.2014

Interesting idea about the death of print.

"Show me the picture NOW."

In the original Ghostbusters movie, released in 1984, Harold Ramis's character, Egon Spengler, declares: "Print is dead."

Last night I had some nice wine and some very tasty cheese with a photographer friend who is a much better photographer than I'll ever be. We got together so I could quiz him about a recent trip to Azerbaijan that he did for a travel magazine. He told me that the trip was very long in both directions and that he slept the first day he got there, shot for two days and then it snowed. He left on the fourth day. Basically he had two full shooting days. And yet, I sat in front of his computer screen and clicked through several hundred beautiful images. Not just beautiful in the sense that they were perfectly good travel images but beautiful because nearly every image had some subtext, some wry point of nearly disguised humor and an almost encapsulated narrative.

Now this photographer has been engaged in taking images for over 40 years, has done campaigns for Canon, McDonald's, Quaker, CNN, and a thousand other big name clients. He's worked for the best magazines and he's been profiled in Communication Arts magazine. And he currently holds a full time position as a staff photographer at a magazine.

As I was getting ready to head home I asked him his opinion about the state of magazines and print photography in general. That's when he dropped the line from Ghostbusters. I asked him for details and he just shrugged and said, more or less, that the writing is on the wall. We're the last generation for whom magazines and big circulation picture books were a primary medium. We're the last generation to value printed newspapers and we're the last generation who really cares about making prints and putting them on our walls. (And I think his optimistic assessment of "our generation" is anyone over say, 45).

If you are over 50 you are probably in some state of denial and you are waiting for all these media to make their comebacks. Sorry, I just don't think it's going to happen. Going forward I think still image display will become more and more like the trading cards in the first Harry Potter movie. The image will be on the screen until it's replaced by another one. The images of your family and your dog that used to have a place in your real world wallet have been replaced by the same images on your phone, living amongst the electrons that also make up your virtual wallet.

I thought about all of this while I drove home and turning on the radio in the car I heard an NPR story about the retirement of David Letterman. At one point he was the king of late night TV. At one point there was huge market share for late night TV. Over the past six years his audience has dropped by two thirds. And it's not like he is being battered by younger, funnier, brighter new stars. He's still more or less at the top of that game.  It's just that very few younger people are routinely sitting down and watching late night TV. There are so many other options and none of them are really time and schedule constrained. Jon Stewart may take Letterman's place or it may be some other rising star but it won't materially change the trajectory of late night TV watching. TV is now a medium for watching live sports events for a big swath of the TV watching public, and a habit for an older generation with insomnia. There is no replacement audience for what is effectively a continuation of the programming that Johnny Carson invented so many decades ago.

But saying that late night talk shows are dead or that print is dead is not the same thing as saying that photography is dead. I give still photography a few more years....

There is a certain power to stopping time and presenting it in two dimensions. But the point that I think we need to come to grips with is that the actual representation on a flat media has changed from permanent print to ephemeral projection or emanation. We're at a generational inflection point where the momentum favors audiences (eyeballs)  enjoying images on big screens rather than sitting, Buddha-like, reverentially sorting through much smaller boxes of prints.

I am, of course, conflicted. I am 58. I grew up with magazines and in the early decades of practicing commercial photography right alongside my hobbyist passion for photography my immersion in the printed piece (both from the darkroom and the CMYK printers) was complete and seemingly unshakeable. I love the print but at the same time acknowledge that to other less weathered audiences the print is almost at the point of being, "quaint." An affectation of an older age.

We've slid in this direction much more slowly and more comfortably than we did when we transitioned from taking images on film cameras to making images on digital cameras. The ink jet printer craze was a comfortable decade of buffer from the rigor of the darkroom to the immediacy of the screen. Those printers have been a way of easing ourselves into the future without a wholesale abandonment of the trappings of print. And I expect prints from the ink jet machines to have a decades long death slope mostly because many of my generation will continue to use them and my generation seems to be on track to live a long time.

But I don't expect that Ben's cohort will have anything like the same regard for print. I think the younger the audience the more comfortable they are with digital screen viewing of images. And, if you consider still images as the raison d'ĂȘtre of print you'll quickly see why, while Egon Spengler's prediction was decades premature, print will actually die off. The images don't move and the generations entering the markets (and their immediate predecessors) were entirely acculturated in a time when television was the primary, in many cases sole, and ubiquitous medium of their maturing experience.

There will be no nostalgia for a "lost art" by a generation that never really experienced the immersion into that art or the commercial trappings of the still photography construct. All currently powerful art seems to be either retrospective printed work or of the moment moving art and most of it takes place on a screen. We may not like that but we need to remind ourselves, as commercial artists, that the delivery system is the message. Making stills is fun. There will be markets for stills as long as older generations have disposable income and the will to use it on consumer goods. There will be niche marketing as there are now many targeted niche magazines for mature audiences.

But it's a sunset medium now being replaced by electronic stuff that moves and talks. We can emotionally reject the new market or we can adapted, play in it and remain happily relevant. It really is our choice.

4.04.2014

Family portrait of Kirk's Zany Panasonic Collection.

From left to right: GH3 with an Olympus Pen FT 40mm f1.4 (speedy, sharp and competent. My most used video interview lens, so far...). Olympus Pen FT 50-90mm f3.5 zoom (for those times when you need a softer, more, ahem, ethereal look to your photos...reading between the lines...). A G6 with an Olympus Pen FT 25mm f2.8 (perfect for manual focus pulls in video). The Olympus flash (same as the Panasonic flash...). Behind the flash is the Panasonic/Leica 25mm f1.4 ( a darling lens with happy performance). To the front again, the Olympus Pen FT 60mm 1.5 which is wickedly sharp from f2.5 on down and at 2.5 gives one just the right amount of focus control for wonderful portraits...). Behind it is the new, Panasonic 12-35mm f2.8 and right next to it is its companion lens, the 35-100mm f2.8.  Hanging out in front of the 35-100mm f2.8 is yet another Olympus Pen FT lens, the 38mm 1.8. Moving over on to the right is another GH3 sporting the ultra light 45-150mm 4.0 to 5.6 lens and on the far right of the frame are two of the new style kit 14-42mm lenses, one in black and one in silver. 

A fun day. I finally rounded out the m4:3 system in preparation of the arrival of the GH4. I was up early walking the dog and thinking about my typical all or nothing and take no prisoners approach to changing camera systems and re-thinking my whole knee jerk impulse to banish my Sony full frame gear. Once the dog and I got back to the house I went out to the studio and looked at the pile of stuff on the floor and remembered Chad's comment on the site yesterday. I decided to keep a few bits and pieces of the Sony collection aside. It was an easy decision when it came to a99 versus a850. The a99 went right into the going away box. Not because it isn't a superb imaging camera but because it's a mediocre video camera and that was one of the reasons I first bought it. The a850 on the other hand does what it is supposed to do very well....

I also kept back the Sigma 70mm macro lens because I honestly feel that it's one of the sharpest lenses I have ever owned and I used it, in conjunction with the a850, to do a recent job for a museum that turned out very, very well. They are a good team. I didn't want to break up the team. And I intend to use the 70mm with an adapter on the m4:3 stuff.

Another survivor is the tiny Sony 24-105mm f3.5-4.5 which is a rather good performer for the size and price. I kept it as an all around lens and a slow substitute for a 50mm lens. Finally, I couldn't bear to give up the Sony 85mm f2.8. It's a cheap lens to begin with and I didn't think I'd get much in resale so I kept it around for those moments of weakness when I've temporarily decided that nothing will do but a full frame, 85mm portrait. Four great batteries and done.

I bought my two new lenses at Precision-Camera.com and was delighted to find that their prices were as good (or better) than the prices from Amazon and B&H and Precision-Camera.com threw in free shipping from the front counter to my car. In all seriousness it is nice to inspect each lens before accepting it. I've gotten repacked lenses and lenses that came in damaged packing from other sources so it's nice to be certain before you close the transaction.

I'm shooting tests this weekend. I'll let you know how it all pans out.... Now, what to do with those two Pentax K-01's???? That's next. 

Riddle me this, Batman....Will my Canon 9000 printer ever work with Apple Mavericks?


Motorola Guys Making the Wafers. Circa late 1990's.

Or will I need some science people to deconstruct my printing paradigm and reimagine it?

Serious, the ole Canon Pixma 9000 was working all fine and dandy and then I upgraded and .... kapowy!!! Zapp! Slam#, Pow!!! it's no longer recognized. Do I give up and send the printer on it's way or do I persevere in the hopeless delusion that it's something simple that I just haven't figured out yet?

Guide me, oh brilliant readers! Shazammm!!!!

The problem was solved: Here is the solution offered by reader, Phil Lewis:

MAC Print Drivers

You have to remove the new apple drivers and use the older Canon drivers.

1.) Download the  Snow Leopard 10.6 Canon drivers (newest on the Canon website).


2.) Reset the printer system.   This removes most of the files in the /Library/Printers folder; however, there are still hidden files in the folder that had stuff that think contribute to the driver "confusion".

3.) Set Finder to see hidden files.  Opened Terminal and entered:

defaults write com.apple.finder AppleShowAllFiles TRUE
killall Finder

4.) Removed the (now unhidden) canon folder from /Library/Printers

5.) Install the new driver obtained in step 1.   This installs the printer in the Printers & Scanner System Preferences, and the printer will run with the 10.6 driver.

6.) Reset Finder to hide hidden files from Terminal

defaults write com.apple.finder AppleShowAllFiles FALSE
                killall Finder

4.03.2014

Going all the way into a system.

Yeah. This will come as no great shock to anyone who's been following the VSL blog for any appreciable about of time. It's the part in our program where I rationalize switching systems yet again. So, buckle up and lets get started in the big, happy game called, Fantasy Camera Bag rationalization.

Emphatic disclaimer: I have received absolutely nothing from Panasonic or Sony. No free gear. No under the table or over the table money. In fact, the money flows in one direction: from my wallet to their accounts. I am not being loaned any gear, I have not requested any gear. No one is putting a gun to my head to make this switch nor are members of my family being held hostage awaiting the outcome of this anticipated trade. 

As many of you know I started doing video projects back when I owned the Canon 5D mk2 and I upgraded to the Sony a99 because, on paper, it looked to be a great hybrid solution for someone who wanted to shoot both high res stills and very controllable video. By controllable I mean that the interface would be simple and straightforward enough to handle manual control of sound levels from external microphones, focus easily via live view through the viewfinder (EVF) and yield beautiful, sharp files. The Sony a99 does two of those three things very well. The front programmable control meant that I could change sound levels on the fly with on screen confirmation. If I wanted to ramp up my sound control I could ante up an additional $800 and have XLR inputs and cleaner pre-amps. The focusing set up was also good and allowed for AF while shooting or magnified focusing during set up, along with focus peaking (not available during video shooting). But where Sony stumbled was in the visual part of the equation.

The video was fine for interviews with decent head sizes but had a tendency to look soft and detail-less with wider shots. The video was not as good as the video Ben and I were getting out of the $600 Sony a57.....

I struggled with this until last fall when I bought the first of my Panasonic GH3s. That camera was an eye-opener for me. It checked all three boxes and checked them well. The audio implementation is straightforward and the sound files are clean and full. The AF works as well in video mode as the bigger and more expensive Sony and the image files absolutely blow away the a99. It's night and day. Now, I have to preface this by saying that I am comparing what's coming out of the cameras on my memory cards. I understand that I can pull uncompressed files out of both cameras that look really, really good but I am looking for a very straightforward work flow and I much prefer not having to have an outboard digital video recorder in the loop. At all. Much for the same reason that I usually don't use my Zoom HN4 digital audio recorder....too many steps for no enough reward.

I did several projects for Zach Threatre with the GH3 and several for Austin Radiological Associates as well. In each case the GH3 delivered better files than the Sony a99 I had used previously. And, with the Panasonic I was able to use a much wider array of really decent optics from as far back as the 1960's. I am even able to repurpose the Rokinon Cine lenses for use with the GH3.

I recently did three jobs with different cameras and the net results were enough to push me over the edge and make me consider finally dumping the Sony stuff and going fully back into m4/3. One job is a video that I shot here and in Chicago for a technology client. I was able to use two of the GH3s to shoot two different POV's simultaneously. The system packed down so well it fit under my airline seat. The footage was wonderful.

I shot portraits a few days after the completion of the video shooting with the same cameras and loved the look I got with the GH3s coupled with the old, adapted, Olympus Pen F lenses. The raw files were just great! And the footprint was much reduced. Both on the shooting days and in post.

Finally I looked at my perception of Sony's roadmap into the future and I came to the conclusion that, rumors to the contrary, that Sony's support for the traditional Alpha DSLT line of cameras and lenses would waver and then fall of the side of a crumbly cliff. Regardless of what Sony say I believe that they will put all their resources into cameras like the A7 and A7r as well as fixed lens cameras like the Sony RX10 ( which I still love ) and the R1X. Neither solution really made me happy.

I could be wrong and Sony could come out with a replacement that fixes everything but I think it will cost too much and require new lens purchases to realize its potential.

Looking into the equipment cabinets I realized that I had to make too many choices when going out to shoot jobs and I'm still of the mindset that so much of our work will be web res and video going into the future.

Tomorrow the Sony stuff will get boxed up and sent away. The next time I step out of the studio and head off toward the land of super models and caviar it will be with two GH3's, a 35-100mm f2.8 and its companion, the 12-35mm 2.8.  Joining them a bit later in the second quarter (waiting just long enough to see if there are any big gaffs) will be a GH4. Everyone in the equipment drawer (with the exception of the Samsung) will be able to use the same lenses and the same flashes. Joy!!!

Of the Sony collection I'll be keeping some Sony stuff I'm holding on to the Sigma 70mm Macro because it's the single sharpest lens I own right now and the best macro I could imagine. I'll get rid of the 58 flash with the funny shoe but will keep the 60HVL to use with the RX10. The RX10 isn't going anywhere!

The idea of 24-200mm equivalent in a small package is a wonderful thing to savor and roll around on the tongue of one's mind.  One small bag. Many possibilities.

Had I never started shooting video for money I'm not sure I would ever have made the leap. But when I compare even the stills side by side my feeling is that some lenses make more of a difference than even the sensor size or the pixel count. I am ready to downsize.....again.

Let you know how it all turns out. 

4.02.2014

Photographing the Dress Rehearsal for the Gospel at Colonus. The Zach Theatre Production.


I left the studio with a motley selection of cameras and lenses. In a break with my past process I left most of the zoom lenses at home and went to shoot the dress rehearsal of The Gospel at Colonus with a motley selection of ungainly manual focusing prime lenses. Seemed a bit risky as my 58 year old eyes aren't the quickest manual focusers and the screens in digital cameras certainly aren't set up to aid in getting the best focus. But what the heck?

I grabbed a Sony a99, a Sony a850, the 35mm and 85mm 1.5 Rokinon lenses, a Hasselblad 150mm f4 with an adapter for totally manual use on the Sony cameras and, to hedge my bets just a little, I brought along a sleeper lens; my little Sony 24-105mm 3.5 to 4.5. Everything fit snugly in an old, black Domke canvas bag.

From the right spot in the theater the 35mm covers the entire stage. From halfway back in the house the 85mm is great for small groupings and the 150mm is a good focal length for head to toe shots of one or two actors.

I walked into the theatre about fifteen minutes before the doors opened for the audience and spent a few minutes chatting with the person who shoots video documentations of each dress rehearsal, Eric. He's a freelancer I've known for decades and his work is great. He was using a Canon C100 with the 24-105 as a wide camera and a Sony F3 with a long zoom for following actors and doing closer comps. Eric was taking a feed from the sound board into one channel of each camera and on the other camera he had shotgun mics. The shotguns were to capture room ambience should he need to layer that into the sound mix. Always good to have stuff up your sleeve if your primary audio is too good...

When the show started I realized that the 150mm, from my chosen position, was a bit short for more dramatic close ups so I bit the bullet and implemented the clear image zoom for some of the shots on which I wanted a tighter composition. Yes, I could have cropped the images in post and gotten the same effect but I don't always have the luxury of touching every file if we have a tight newspaper deadline so I wanted an in camera solution. It actually worked well.

My biggest concern was the ancient Hasselblad lens but it functioned very, very well. I shot a lot with it wide open and the rest of the images from it are one stop down at f5.6. I missed focus often enough but I do tend to shoot a lot and refocus a lot and my excess of zeal worked to my advantage in covering my butt. In retrospect I should have magnified the focus frame every once in a while just to double check. I'll do that next time.

The 85mm worked exactly as I expected it would. I tried to stay around f2.8 leaning to f4.0 and when I did that I was rewarded with sharp files and good exposures. It's nice to shoot theatre with a click less aperture lens on an EVF camera because you can slide in small exposure changes in a very fluid way and with an instantaneous feedback loop. It's nice.

The hard lens to focus was the 35mm 1.5. There's too much depth of field at the stopped down taking aperture to really nail focus the way I'd like. Again, a bit more time spent with the focus magnification on the a99 would have helped. And, again, there are plenty of sharp frames for each scene to chose from. I'm just used to AF lenses nailing everything you point them at.


I ended up editing down from 1200 images to 580 images to submit to the theatre's marketing team and out of those I gleaned the images shown here. Nearly all of them are from the Hasselblad 150mm lens. Beyond the focal length the tonality of the lens seems very pleasing to me as does (dare I write it? the Bokeh). 





My happy surprise last night was just how well the Sony a850 and the 24-105mm lens play together. I finally got the camera dialed in for theater work. The secret is to turn the noise reduction down to low or off entirely and do your noise reduction in post. It's also wise not to go higher than ISO 800 with this camera. But the trade off is that when you follow these simple rules you can make the sensor produce very, very sharp files. The 24/105 may or may not be a sharp performer on its own but it shines when coupled with the sensor in the a850. I shot the lens wide open or nearly wide open all evening long and was impressed with the files at 100% on my monitor. Glad this lens didn't leave in a recent purge. Today I'm walking around with the a850 and the 24-105 and I feel like I got stuck in a time machine and transported back to a different imaging era....






The play is directly by Zach's artistic director, David Steakley. It's absolutely beautiful. He is a master of directing dramatic musicals and his cast had the audience on their feet more than once. The Gospel at Colonus is an adaptation of Sophocles' original telling of the Oedipus Rex story but this story of forgiveness and redemption is set in a church tent revival. The mostly African American cast includes so many of Austin's finest vocalist that the show is really an embarrassment of riches.

I had photographed a production of the Gospel at Colonus 16 years ago in a smaller Zach Theatre. That production was also directed by David Steakley and it too was a wonderful production, but in a different, more intimate way. When last night's performance was over I mingled with the actors and realized that nearly a dozen had been in that first production so many years ago. It was like a homecoming for us. Many hugs and smiles!

As I sat through the play I realized that most of us, in our own ways, could use a bit of redemption and forgiveness from time to time.

Before closing I must say that the stage design, the costumes and especially the lighting are magnificent. Lighting is a tough thing for production photographers in that the lighting on stage is designed to appeal to the human eye and the dynamic range and color shifts are beyond the sensors in our cameras and our skills to change convincingly sometimes. We do the best we can to approximate the feel of the show but seeing it in person is so much more powerful than photographs can ever be. I look forward to going back again and again to see this play without a camera in front of my face so I can study the intermixed play of light and and expression on the faces of the actors. What a great workshop for anyone interested in the craft of imaging.


4.01.2014

Gearing up for a dress rehearsal.


Can't leave well enough alone. That's me in a nutshell. The above image was shot for Zach Theatre a year or so ago and I absolutely love everything about it so why, a year later, did I sell the 70-200mm lens I created it with? It was one of those weeks where it seemed so logical to purge everything and just commit to a micro four thirds system. And the lens was getting long in the tooth. And Sony was just about to introduce a new one, etc. etc.

At the time I felt certain that I'd fall in love with the Sony A7 or A7r and I'd want the new, native 70-200mm ex lens for its smaller size and newer glass. My brain is generally too optimistic. Either that or I just don't think through things very well.  After handling the new cameras I was pretty darn sure I'd be waiting for at least gen 2.0 on those puppies.

Soon after I sold the big, fast lens I engaged in a bout of small sensor hubris and photographed a dress rehearsal with the new Sony RX10. The client was delighted and I was pleased (overall) with the results but there's something bite-y about the above image that I didn't get out of the small camera. And, so here I am getting ready to shoot another dress rehearsal tonight and wondering what my wandering proclivities will serve up this evening.

The play is the musical, The Gospel at Colonus, and it's filled with great singers and wonderful costumes.

I'm shooting the dress rehearsal with a couple of a99's. I have no doubts about the wider angles. I've tested and tested the Rokinon 85mm 1.5 and the 35mm 1.5 (wide stage shots) and I love em. One or two stops down from wide open and they might as well be macro lenses....

But what about the longer end as represented by the above image? I've been thinking about this since Friday. My first thought was to borrow my friend, Frank's 35-100mm f2.8 and use the Panasonic GH3 but I wanted to keep all the files in the same color and tonality family. I could rent a lens but that seems like cheating to me...

But last night I was looking through the seldom used but much appreciated equipment drawer and I found a 150mm f4.0 Zeiss Sonar lens for Hasselblad sitting near the bottom smiling at me. And, in a sign from the photo gods it already had a Hasselblad to Sony Alpha adapter on it. I didn't want to depend on my last vague memory of the lens's performance so I spent some time this morning shooting around the studio and in the house. I've looked and looked and looked and what I see is a sharp lens with high contrast at f4.0 which becomes even sharper and contrastier at f5.6. Couple that with the clean ISO 3200 on the a99 and I think I'm ready to go. Yay! Focus peaking.

Of course, I could crash and burn but either way I'm sure you'll be reading about the adventure tomorrow.

I am also taking along the new Samsung NX30 and the 50-200mm zoom lens I wrote about last week. I'm anxious to put it through its paces and see how it handles both the focusing in contrasty stage light and the higher ISO's that the slower apertures will require.

Breaking with my traditional process I'll probably shoot the big Zeiss lens on a monopod. Not because I need the extra stability but because the thing is so damn heavy.....

Adventures in mismatched and eccentric equipment continue. Stay tuned.....

Balancing the load.


I'm usually a very disciplined person and I hate it when my personal schedule gets wrinkled but sometimes you have to roll with the course of life. I planned to start the year off the same way I always do: Swim practice in the early morning, office work till lunch, writing or shooting until family supper and then a few hours of reading before bed. It's not necessarily an exciting life but it's satisfying and comfortable.

But right around the first of the year one of my siblings was diagnosed with cancer. My octogenarian parents needed some help and my business inexplicably increased back to the levels we were used to before the great recession. You can't do everything. Something has to bend.

Family comes first. That's a given. And, since I have a kid on a trajectory to a private college in the northeast this Fall it seems important to take full advantage of the income opportunities as presented. That leaves swimming (or not swimming) as a safety valve. I've had to miss many aqua days for travel and for projects that just flat out take time.

But even in that there is some sort of blessing. I've cut my swimming days from six to about three a week. I could use more endurance training but the extra days of physical rest mean that I have more opportunity to recover between swims and that leads to faster swims----while the endurance lasts.

And all of this started me thinking about balance. Life balance. Work/play balance. Responsibility and reckless abandon balance.

There is an anomaly in many freelancers' brains that grew in power during the lean years of the economy. It's an new few thousand lines of brain code that basically says: "Take every job that comes through the door because you never know when the bottom will drop out again!" And this brain code makes it tough to enjoy any down time. I know that when I finish an assignment; any assignment for any budget, a hour later my brain is badgering me and saying: "Hey! Yo. Lazy boy. When are we going to work again? Get on the phone. Move or starve!"  And yes, my brain is very bossy.

But I think the balance is the key. My sibling is making a good recovery and responding well to her therapy. My parents are back at home and doing well. The gracious firehouse of business is mostly unabated but thankfully all the jobs so far are good and creative and fun. I missed some swims. And I missed some walks. But I'm not missing the chance to spend time with Ben or my parents. And there's the balance.

My world didn't fall apart when I ratcheted down my swimming. I know it's hardly a permanent state of affairs. In fact I think I've put the same level of discipline and enthusiasm into learning a new craft (video) and fine tuning an old one (photography). The rewards are different but they are rewards none the less.

I have a tendency toward anxiety and it comes to the fore when I am confronted with change. This first quarter has been rife with change. But I'm happy to find that I am handling it better than I thought I would. Take care to banish Ambiguity, Loneliness and Indecision from your process and everything else seems to fall into place.

Life can be hard work. I have to remember to balance in some down time.