10.05.2014

Am I working on Sunday? You bet, I'd hate to get behind for Monday...

Young Ben working in the studio on his first laptop.

One of my favorite medical practices here in Austin got in touch with me last week and asked me to update an environmental portrait of one of their doctors. We had done an entire campaign photographing each doctor doing what they loved to do in their off time. Hobbies, sports, crafts. You name it. The campaign was fun and I got to write the copy as well which meant that I really liked the entire package. 

We searched for schedule openings for both the doctor and myself and the only intersection that could happen quickly enough was to shoot this afternoon. We'll be meeting out on a soccer field to take the portrait. I'm taking the Elinchrom Ranger RX AS pack and a couple of flash heads with me to use. Since we'll be out in the middle of a big, remote field I'm pretty certain I won't be able to count on A/C current and I'd like a big pop of light in order to balance out the Texas sun.

The Elinchrom Ranger RX AS system is my go to "portable" electronic flash set up for stuff like this. With it I can be in  the middle of nowhere and still count on pounding out 1100 watts of flash power, through a huge soft box, at least 125 times in a row (before changing batteries). A lot more times if I set the recycle time to "slow." The pack is hefty. It weighs 18 pounds and it's not something I really want to carry very far. Today I plan to use it with a 28 inch beauty dish, covered with a white diffusion "sock."

I've used the Elinchrom Ranger for nearly five years now and neither of the two battery packs I have for it show any signs of slowing down or losing their charge. It is also the most reliable set of lights I've owned. While the initial purchase price was high I have used the system for studio work and in hundreds of remote locations over the last five years to produce dozens and dozens of jobs. In fact, I used the system for a week long, location intensive, annual report project just a month after the initial purchase and it paid for itself on the very first job. 

While packing for the project I was struck by the contrasts in equipment. The Swiss made flash system is stout and heavy. Made to handle years of photographer abuse. It's cumbersome to carry but nothing beats that big blast of clean light when you need it. Especially when you are hellbent on taming the Texas sun. On the other hand I'm packing tiny cameras. I'll be using the OMD EM-5 camera today and I think I'll try using it with the 75mm 1.8 Olympus lens that I'm still playing with. 

The camera seems so tiny next to the beefy flash generator. But I guess that's the new nature of the business. The cameras have become almost an afterthought compared to the discipline of lighting. At least that's how it seems to me. 

The only painful thing about working outside with big lights is the need to sandbag them. My favorite assistants are both out of town so I guess that means I'll be dragging a couple of 30 pound sandbags across the soccer field to anchor the light stand. Oh, the sacrifices we make just to get a good image...

editor's note: Kirk has been summoned for jury duty on Monday, Tues. and Weds. He may get out of it but he may not. That means the blog might be a bit spotty for the next few days. The following week is mercilessly over scheduled with wall to wall photo shoots right up until the minute he and Belinda head to New York on Thurs. to visit #1 son, Ben. It's a "parent's weekend" event at Ben's college.  We should resume full on blogging enthusiasm around the 20th. In the meantime, if the web gets too boring, you might consider buying either the paperback version or the Kindle version of his fun novel, The Lisbon Portfolio. A big dose of Kirk's writing in a concentrated burst. Thanks for tuning in. Stick around to hear about the vagaries of jury duty and remember, if he gets dismissed the blog will return to normal this week. 

10.04.2014

Wall to Wall fun in Austin. Kinda? Maybe? All depends on how you define fun...


It's another full bore weekend of fun events in Austin. Tonight is the triple whammy or the perfect storm or something. We've got the first full day of Austin ComicCon in downtown, about 70,000 UT football fans, who love to come and watch the longhorns get trounced by small teaching college football teams, just a half mile north of downtown, and then another 70,000-100,000 people sitting in the dirt or in lawn chairs just south of downtown for the first weekend of our giant, homegrown, Austin City Limits music festival. Good lord! Can we cram anything else in??? It's already turkey leg and funnel cake mania.

What does this mean for an intrepid, local photographer? Well, you can get out of town, shoot concert shots for free for the concert promoters,  work in your garden or catch up on all that image post processing you needed to get to. I think I'll just do some billing.

So, how did that shoot with three OMD EM-5 cameras go?



Funny, if we go out and shoot stuff like skateboarding and concerts we can rush right home and add the images to our blogs as proof of concept and completion. Professional photographers don't have the same option with work pictures because even if the subject is A-okay with you using his or her image more than likely the marketing people who are part of the equation have strict rules about embargoing your use of the images until they launch their advertising campaigns or websites first. This is especially true with images of minors. 


On Thurs. I shot images for new marketing pieces and a new website for a very nice private K through 9th school in a tony neighborhood in West Austin. Nearly every image was one of the kids. Very recognizable images of the kids. They are 95% candid images. I've gotten really proficient at coming into classrooms and immediately becoming boring and mundane to the kids. I was happy to be so bland that five minutes was all it took before kindergarteners and ninth graders alike forgot about my presence and focused on their work. But what the kids' ages and the nature of the assignment mean is that I can't immediately share the images with my readers. But I can share what I experienced in my use of the all Olympus, three camera deep, documentary style shooting in which I indulged.

If you read the previous blog post you know I got my hands on three used Olympus EM-5 cameras over the last two months. I spent less than $500 on each body. I bought three bodies because I was intrigued about the prospect of getting back to the way we used to shoot documentary assignments in the film days. Something that got lost in the early days of digital when camera prices were so incredibly high.

When we went out in the film days there were many reasons to use multiple bodies. You could have color film in one and black and white film in a second body. If you were shooting all the same kind of film you could have your three favorite lenses at your instant disposal; one each on its own body. If you were in a fast breaking situation three loaded cameras meant that you would not have to stop and reload film when you came to the end of your first 36 exposure roll. 

I learned the three camera/three lens shooting technique when I was shooting corporate events with Leica M series rangefinder cameras. They didn't have fast zooms (or any real zooms) for these wonderful cameras, just the world's greatest prime lenses. Most Leica shooters had a "holy trinity" of lenses that they depended on for the majority of their shooting. I never liked really wide lenses and chose to use the 35mm Summicron, the 50mm Summilux and the 90mm Summicron lenses. The Summicrons were both f2 while the Summilux was an f1.4.

We even got to chose the bodies that would work best with the lenses. The 90mm lens went on an M6 ttl  body that had the designation, .85  (point 85) and that meant that the finder had a higher magnification and showed frame lines for 35, 50, 90 and 135mm lenses. The higher magnification of the finder helped make focusing longer lenses even more accurate. The 35mm lens generally ended up on a .72 (point 72) version of the M6 which has frame lines for 28, 35, 50 and 90mm lenses. They also made a body with a .55 magnification viewfinder but I was never interested because the wide viewfinder window showed too much of the actual lens in the bottom right hand corner of the optical finder. 

Having the three cameras and the three lenses set up and ready to go was a blessing. It reminded us absentminded shooters that most of our designer clients and magazine editors wanted a wide establishing shot (the 35mm), a tighter working shot (the 50mm) and a bunch of detail shots with the 90mm for their articles or brochures. Any longer or shorter focal lengths fell into the specialty category...

I've always been partial to the 50mm and 90mm focal lengths but I have a legion of photographer friends who seem to love the 24, 28, 35mm lenses for their work. I think it's because they have trouble committing to what should end up being in their frames and so they default to putting everything including the kitchen sink in...On the other hand they think I have tunnel vision. 

In the times of film one could do the same thing with three inexpensive bodies as well. Say three OM-1 film cameras (small and light with great finders) and a 35mm, 50mm and an 85mm. But when digital lurched into the picture the need to buy an expensive body just to get enough megapixels to keep editors happy meant that most of us could only afford one workable body. At $6,000 to $8,000 for a flagship body there wasn't much left over to plunk down for a second body and none of the manufacturers really made less expensive bodies that could replace the big one in a pinch. This cemented the all-zoom era. The holy grail became the one zoom that was fast enough and had enough range to take care of the traditional focal lengths. My favorite of the era was the Nikon 28-70mm f2.8 which was a beast when it came to size and weight but which performed very, very well. This changed the way we shot because the fast primes with good performance fell by the wayside in deference to one camera convenience. 


Well, say hello to 2014. And say hello to the power of used cameras. The Olympus EM-5 is a monstrously good camera. It's one point of slight weakness is the lower resolution EVF compared to the newest generation but it's hardly a deal killer. The sensor in the camera kicks butt and the selection of small, fast, light and amazingly sharp lenses is wonderful. When I realized that I already had all the lenses I wanted/needed, and that I could get the EM-5's used for under $500, I decided to put together a documentary style shooting system that would take me back to the efficiency of the three camera past. 

The assignment from the school was to come and photograph the kids engaged in everything from worshipping in the chapel to creating killer robots in the robotics class. One fourth grade science class was busy learning how to make ice cream in plastic bags and the art teacher was trotting out some fun Andy Warhol work to motivate her class in their creation of collages. Wonderfully cute kindergartners were using some Apple TV apps to do their work on huge Smart screens. Another class was doing reading assignments on their iPads. And on and on. Guitar classes. Gym class. Even a couple of group shots. 

I've decided that I shoot stills almost like video. I don't shoot careful and precious, parsimonious bursts of images. I am not cheap with frames. I like to shoot and move and shoot and move until I know I have the perfect selection of both expression and composition but also that the action is just right. Might take five shots but it might take fifty until everything lines up just right. I came home with 2,600 shots. Yes, it takes a bit of editing to winnow the take down to the best stuff but you can see lots of frames that were close (but no cigar) and they really make it clear, by comparison, when you come across the shot or shots where you really nailed it. 

When I started the day out I had a camera with the 17mm ( think=35mm) over my left shoulder, a camera with the 45mm 1.8 (think=90mm) on my right and a third camera with the 25mm 1.4 (50mm equiv.) around my neck, hanging down on my chest. This is basically the same configuration I used with my old Leicas so I was almost immediately at home as to which camera offered what coverage. I kept the ISO for all three at 800 and would occasionally change up to 1600 in a dark space or drop to 400 for outdoor shots, like group shots.  While the lenses are reasonably sharp wide open I wanted to be sure of the image quality and tried not to go below f2.8. For the most part this gave me shutter speeds in the range of 1/60th to 1/125th. When you toss in the five axis image stabilization the only thing you really need to worry about is the subject movement. And kids do move. Timing the peak of action works with classroom shots the same way it works for sports. 

I got to school at 7:45 a.m. and got right to work. My motif is to enter a class, nod a greeting to the teacher and them fumble with one of the cameras until the kids stopped paying attention. Sounds time consuming but generally we're only talking about a couple of minutes. I'd start taking images just as though it was the most natural thing in the world. If a child started aping or clowning for the camera I would keep my facial expression neutral and just stop photographing and turn away. It worked every time. 

There were two considerations that I should mention about the modern classroom. One is that there's more screen and projection technology in classrooms that every before. The projects and large TV screens still work with moving raster lines on the screens or in the process. If your camera is set above 1/60th of a second you will get bands of color instead of a nice, white composite image of a screen. The bands of color are unattractive but that's the nature of scan lines. You'll have to experiment but you probably need to stay down under 1/60th to make the images work and to be able to show consistent work on the large screen or projection area. The prevalence of screens means that flash is a no-no as well since the illumination from the flash tends to wash out detail on the screens. 

The second consideration is the inevitable mixed light. Fluorescent fixtures overhead and the standard bank of window all along one side of the classroom. If you stand with the window to your back you get one color balance, if you shoot from the other direction you get a different color balance. If you shoot right down the middle you might wind up with different color casts on each side of a face. The only real solution is finding kids who are positioned in one direction or the other.

My client is a return client and we've worked on a lot of these details before. One thing they requested this time is that we use no flash or supplementary lighting at all. Setting up light stands creates a danger zone for fast moving young children and the flash is disrupting in a class room setting. In fact, I enjoyed using the OMDs because their shutters are quieter by a big margin than the shutters and mirror recharging on any of the mirrored cameras I have used. Multiple that by a factor of two for full frame cameras. 

I've used Canon, Sony and Nikon full frame cameras and the images from them are gorgeous. But guess what? So are the images from the latest sensors in the M4:3 cameras. I was so happy to work with cameras that have decent EVFs on Thursday. The last time I shot at the school I was using the Canon 5Dmk2 cameras. Having the instant assessment of the preview at my eye level finder meant so much less interative work to get images I really liked. I used the built in level when necessary and it was great. But to me the biggest revelation in using the EM5 is the camera's ability to do really good automatic white balancing and to really nail exposure. When you get those two things right everything else just falls into place. 

Another aspect of contrast detection AF mirror-less cameras that thrilled me was the focusing accuracy. You may think that the super quick focus of mirrored PD AF cameras is a wonderful thing until you've struggled with focus shift. I used an 85mm 1.4 Zeiss lens on my Canon cameras on the last go around and if you focus wide open and then the camera stops down to expose you'll get focus shift. It's part of the lens design. It's also tough as nails to hit sharp focus on the Canon screens that are optimized to give bright viewfinder images at the expense of visual focus acuity. In order to be certain I'd gotten the images I needed from that 85mm I really needed to be on a tripod, using a loupe and the camera's primitive live view function. 

When you switch to mirror-less cameras one of the first things you notice is that you don't have focus shift and you don't have front or rear focusing issues. If you nail focus on an eye then that's where the focus actually ends up. If nothing else the focusing accuracy of the mirror-less cameras will probably be the nail in the coffin for mirrored DSLRs. What good are 36 megapixels and high DXO scores if the damn camera doesn't nail focus. Doesn't happen to you? Lucky. I've been shooting the Nikon D7100 and the Samsung NX 30 side by side with their respective 85mm lens and it's heart breaking to get a great expression with the Nikon rig only to find, on closer inspection, that the focus is just a tad out.  The Samsung is a much less expensive camera and comes with its own issues but focusing accuracy is not one of them. If Samsung has the focusing speed for moving objects figured out in the upcoming NX-1 I'm pretty certain that it will smoke the category for professional APS-C cameras in such a way that Canon and Nikon will have a major game of catch-up on their hands. 

But back to the OMD EM-5 experience. If you chuck the battery grips and use the cameras "naked" the weight is barely noticeable. You can port them around all day long and never miss a beat. Someone asked me if I was using Black Rapid straps with these tiny darlings. I wouldn't think of it. The straps would end up weighing as much as the cameras and the criss cross of three sets of camera straps across my chest would be confusing and ultimately entangling. Stick with the regular straps on your cameras and you will be quicker, more comfortable and richer. My take on Black Rapids is that they are for people living in the early century paradigm of carrying only one brutally heavy and expensive camera. The BR straps are ill designed for people who want to carry multiple small cameras. 

On to files: I did a number of tests in offices and other areas that had fluorescent ceiling lights and found that the Olympus cameras do a great job of nailing white balance. Exposure is easy because you can see the effects of your choices in the EVF even before you commit to the shutter release. Toss in a live histogram and you really have no excuse for not nailing exposure on every frame. Some small tweaks might be required in post but nothing big and dramatic. 

I also compared raw and SuperHighQuality Jpeg files side by side. The lightly compressed Jpeg files are meaty and wonderfully balanced. This is a camera (the EM5) that I would use in superfine jpeg mode over RAW for just about all of my day-to-day shooting and never blink. And what that means is net savings on memory card space and increased battery life. Plus much quicker post processing.

So, let's talk about batteries. I bought a bunch of extras because, well, they are small and light and the reviews told me to expect about 400 shots per battery. I did have to change on battery on the body I was using the most at about 2pm. The other two cameras soldiered through to the very end of the shoot. Take extra batteries but you might be pleasantly surprised. 

The three camera shoot worked. I have gotten lazy though. About two hours in to the shoot I switched out the 45mm 1.8 for the Panasonic 35-100mm f2.8. I just found that I needed/wanted something longer and I relished the flexibility of that zoom. I used it mostly wide open and it was a good match for the two other primes. It worked well with the in body I.S. of the camera.

So, to sum up: Small, light, quiet, unobtrusive, sharp, great color, perfect exposures. No lens changing. No flash. Files very malleable in Lightroom. Great tolerance for shadow recovery at ISO 800. No need to carry a camera bag with me at all during the day. One fat memory card per camera with lots of headroom left over at the end of the day. 

On Monday I'll deliver about 1800 files or about 15 gigabytes of stuff to my client. It fits on an $8 memory stick. I'll write up an invoice after I finish this blog. It's a happy story of tools that work and files that play nicely. No sore shoulders but my thigh muscles are a bit sore from all the squatting down to get on the little kids' levels to shoot. Also, a bit sore from genuflecting in the chapel at successive sessions with different grades. Nothing to do with the cameras.

I brought along one extra lens that I didn't use. It was the 7-14mm Panasonic. I brought it along in case my client needed some exterior architectural shots. It staying in the bag. That's okay, I'll use it next week on an architectural assignment. 



I stuck in a shot of my Nikon F4 as a reminder to myself of just how hard it was to get the same level of photography in the film days. Painstaking work to put the right combination of filters on the camera for fluorescent lights. Nothing usable over 400 ISO. 36 frames between reloads. And that one camera and lens weighed more than all three of my little digital cameras combined. Paying our dues back then was a whole different ballgame but there you have it. Now that I've been able to go back to a three camera style of shooting I am loathe to ever buy another overweight, oversized camera. Goodbye Nikon D7100? We'll see. 


I'm tired from a long week. It's mostly the swimming that wiped me out. We've been building up our "base" of endurance with longer sets of longer distances. This morning we hammered out nearly 4,000 yards in an hour and a half. I hear a nap calling my name......

10.01.2014

Someone brought up the topic of used cameras recently. What can I say but, "Yes. Please."

Remember when we thought $1995 cameras with 12 megapixels and 
great ISO 400 performance rocked our photographic world?

I was just thinking about this the other day. One of our readers suggested writing a guide to buying used cameras. I think the market is too chaotic to write a piece that will stay timely for very long but it sure got me thinking about how far we've come and how cheaply one can buy a really, really good camera these days. 

My experience as a digital camera buyer might be much different from that of an amateur because in the early days of the crossover we really did need to spend significant cash to get usable cameras for professional work. I remember that the new price of a Kodak DCS760 (six megapixels) was around $7,000 while the newer Nikon D2X I bought brand new was right at $5,000 for 12 megapixels. It shot fast and handled well but if you ventured over 400 ISO it was noisier than a UT football game. 

The first camera from Nikon that had wide appeal, both among struggling pros and whimsical amateurs was probably the D100. For your $2,000 you got a six megapixel camera with a four frame raw buffer and nice performance all the way out to about 250 ISO. Yes, you could use Nikon lenses and flashes and yes, thought it was a pretty good back up camera. In its time...

The first sixteen megapixel camera is another one that I've owned. It was the Canon 1DSmk2 and it clocked in with a breathtaking new price of almost $8,000. But just look what you got!!! A massive camera that would shoot a real SIXTEEN megapixel file. And it was able to shoot those files at a whopping 4 frames per second!!!! It was actually a very good camera for its time and collectively it was a model of camera that was responsible for many full page magazine spreads and wonderfully detailed, printed brochures. Plus, you could hammer nails with it. You just couldn't really shoot with it over ISO640 if you wanted images without technicolor snow in them. 

I guess my point is that we were able to make wonderful images (as long as we took the limitations into consideration) with lots of previous technology cameras---if we were willing to pay the price. 
But I'm now officially tired of paying more money for a camera body than I have to. I get that lenses are pricey but they can be more or less permanent as long as you stay in the same system. Not so recent models of digital cameras. Now I want to pay about what I used to pay for good, solid, middle of the road film cameras and I want great results. Not ultimate, bleeding edge results, but really good results. Image quality that would have seemed magical just a few years ago. And to re-emphasize, I'd like to be spending between $400 and $600 on a camera body. That would be so cool because we could revert back to the way we shot cameras in the film days----a different prime on three different bodies. All with the same controls and set up. Imagine it... a fast wide angle on one, a fast short tele on the second and a longer, fast telephoto on the third. Or, one camera set up for color and one for black and white! The world of $400-600 camera bodies opens up more opportunities for us as shooters than you might imagine if your world camera view has always been about having the one (expensive) camera that has to do everything.


So, I am sure you read my blog where I mentioned buying a couple of the EM-5's recently. I would have loved to go straight to a brace of EM-1's but the price isn't dropping on those yet and, with the exception of one of the most beautiful EVFs on the martket, the actual I.Q. of the EM-1 isn't much different than the EM-5. I know, I've tested them. 

I've had a good run of being able to buy used EM-5s for around $400 to $450 in really good condition. With low mileage. And one of them came with the HLD6 grip!!! (Thank you kind benefactor). Yesterday I was at Precision Camera and I couldn't help but notice (diagnosis: hypervigilant) a used EM-5 with a battery grip sitting on their used shelf. It was marked at too high a price but a bit of lighthearted haggling meant that I left the store with a pristine, chrome, EM-5 with grip for a little over $600. If you factor out the grip price it adds up to another $450 camera body for me. 

Now, the way I figure it, I've essentially got three wonderful shooting machines for the price of one current EM-1. Give or take. 

I have a job to photograph kids at a private school tomorrow. It's an all day gig and there's lots to cover. The school will use the resulting images for their new website. They hired me because I've worked with them before and they love the images I make of the kids. They said something about my emotional maturity being a good match for the younger students but I don't know what they meant. 

The way I like to jobs such as these is much the same as the way I like shooting jobs like the math conference I was lucky enough to shoot this Summer in Denver. I work best when I go in three cameras deep and no swinging camera bag over one shoulder. In Denver it was all Panasonic but this time I'm going all Olympus. All identical camera models. All set up exactly the same way. (Yes, I have finally mastered the menus!). 

I'm putting the 17mm f1.8 on one body, the 25mm f1.4 on a second body and the 45mm f1.8 on the third body. I've also still got a loaner 75mm f1.8 and I'll keep that in the bag along with the Panasonic 35-100mm just in case (the bag stays in the office until needed). This gives me a nice variety to work with and the ability to interchange cameras without stress. No lens changing required. 

I would never have spent $3600 to buy three EM-5's at once, new. Maybe if I'd been starting from scratch but as disjointed as I am in camera inventory it just never pans out that way in real life. But used? Over the past two months? No brainer (and you can decide how to take the "no brainer" label...).

Right now the EM-5 is in the same I.Q. ballpark as nearly every APS-C camera but it gains an advantage with the really good image stabilization. It's not full frame we have fast lenses for it that work very well nearly wide open. At $400-$500 at two years old, used, they are a  bargain for people who actually want to use them to, well, take pictures. 

With prices like that we are now in the ballpark that we used to play in during the days of film and cameras like the Nikon FM, the Olympus OM1,2,3,4, the Pentax Super ME and MX, and quite a few more. I can hardly wait to start photographing tomorrow. We'll all have a great time!

And that starts my series about buying used digital cameras. It's even more fun that buying new. 

(Props to Precision. Their policy is a 10 day return on used gear. Buy it. Use it. Test it. and if it doesn't work as specified, return it for a refund.)


Stock up on extra copies of the novel, The Lisbon Portfolio, the holidays are just around the corner!!!!!

9.29.2014

Public Dogs.



I wouldn't think to take Studio Dog to a downtown event with tens of thousands of people. I don't think she'd like it and I think she might be overwhelmed by the stimuli. But apparently there are many people who love to bring their dogs with them anywhere they can. I get it. I love my dog, even more than any camera. But terriers seem to have minds of their own.

At any rate I was enchanted by some of the dogs I met as I walked through the downtown festival yesterday. I was just cruising with a Samsung NX30 camera and cheap 50-200mm Samsung zoom lens but it turned out to be the perfect combo for dog watching and (photographic) dog catching.

After watching the owners and their even tempered canine friends I decided that I need to take Studio Dog with me on my adventures more often. When the temperatures moderate I'll see how she likes the Sunday "route" through the downtown area. I wonder if someone makes a small camera bag for dogs?






After the gold rush. Where is photography headed?


Almost a year ago I wrote a piece called, "The Graying of Traditional Photography." It has been one of the most read articles I have ever written and along with lots of page views came lots of comments from photographers who insisted that nothing has changed, that big, DSLR cameras would continue to sell to "serious" photographers in record numbers and that I just didn't get the market. Well, I'll admit one thing, I underestimated just how quickly the market for traditional cameras, and the penchant for making traditional photographs, would erode. 

I am convinced that the market moves like huge schools of fish. The vast majority of the market travels together in a tight pack and when the direction of the pack or school changes it does so almost instantly and dramatically. It's not like market acceptance that follows a certain curve. In embracing new products or new product categories there are early adopters who live to discover the next cool thing. Then there's the group of cool kids who start the buying process. They are followed by the bulk of the market and trailed by late adopters who are careful and good at resisting change. 

But what we're seeing in photography right now is not really the adoption of a new standard or product. People are not just moving from one type of camera to another they are moving to a new mental space about personal imaging and they have just done it en masse. 

The market for traditional, stand alone, cameras started to fall off a cliff last Fall and the evisceration of the market has just continually accelerated. I contend that this precipitous drop is NOT because the market for cameras as "one purpose" appliances is saturated but because it is being abandoned by an overwhelming number of the (non professional) buying public. They have met their phones and they are now in committed relationships with their phones. 

It's not that new cameras aren't filled with great features it's just that they only do one thing. They just take photographs. With your Samsung or Apple smartphone you can shoot stills, switch to video, send and receive images, check the weather, call your boyfriend, get a stock quote, pay for your coffee, shoot amazing slow motion videos, call your mom, group text your friends, watch a movie or read a book. Once you take a photo you can share it instantly, post process it right on the spot and directly upload it to Instagram or another of the thousands of sharing sites spread across the internet.

Here's my anecdotal evidence supporting my contention that the bulk of people are no longer interested in buying stand alone cameras or pursuing "serious" (non-social) photography anymore: Every year the City of Austin holds a festival on east Sixth Street. It's called the Pecan Street Festival. There are blocks and blocks of tents and booths selling arts, crafts and crap. More turkey legs and gorditas and assorted fried food than you can imagine.  And, of course, this section of Sixth Street is famous for it's concentration of bars and night clubs. It's the long time center of the day to day Austin music scene. It draws a huge crowd.  I drop by most years to enjoy the weird crowd vibe. 

In the last five or six years the photographers who descended on the festival nearly outnumbered the regular audience. Everyone had a Canon Rebel or a the equivalent Nikon. When Strobist flash craze hit its peak nearly every other photographer had at least one flash in their arsenal and a friend to hold it far off camera. Collectively the photographers worked the crowds like tuna fishermen with huge nets. It was not uncommon to meet up later at a favorite coffee shop to compare greatest (photo) hits from earlier in the day. Many times the same subject would come up over and over again. The musician wearing a fake wolf head, the dog in the guitar case, the enormous woman shoveling funnel cakes into her mouth, the guy with the big sombrero. 

In the two years previous to this one the video craze hit full blast and every fourth or fifth photographer was now accompanied by a "sound man" who held a microphone on a boom and they waded through the crowd looking for people to interview and performers who would perform for the cameras. Every festival downtown looked like a media event.


That brings us to yesterday. Same festival, new year. The weather was great with temperatures in the low eighties and the humidity mild. The Austin economy continues to be robust. The festival attracted a huge audience. So what was missing? Well, the traditional cameras. And the mirror less cameras. And the high end, cult, point and shoot cameras. In the two hours that I walked through the same eight or so blocks filled with people I saw, at most, five people with cameras.  Of the five four were well over fifty years old. The fifth was a father with a young family. He had the camera strapped across his chest and his focus was on his kids. 

Of course I am not making any statement to the effect that all of a sudden ALL photography dried up and went away but I will contend that the vast, overwhelming majority of images taken throughout the event were selfies or groupies taken with cellphones. The "school" of casual photographers followed the pilot fish and turned on a dime. And now they've headed in a different direction. 

Am I full of crap? You could get all scientific and ask for statistics from the camera industry. Thom Hogan posts numbers from CIPA and other industry sources all the time. What do they say? They clearly say that sales of single purpose cameras (traditional cameras of all kinds) are falling and have fallen over the edge of a steep cliff and they continue to decline. There may be a few bright spots in the numbers but mostly these bright spots are occurring at the high end of the market and not at the lower end or the middle. Leica sales are up! All point and shoot sales (with the exception of Leica) haven fallen so far that it's shocking. And it's not just that camera sales are down (or views on major photo sites have dropped) my day to day experience is that people are no longer carrying their conventional cameras with them as everyday tools. Non-phone cameras are drying up in the living urban landscape

My feeling is that photography in it's traditional form, when practiced as a hobby, has changed permanently. The emphasis is now (for the masses) on recording the experiential high points in everyday lives. The snap of your lunch. The snap of you and your bestie shopping. The snap of just about any event you happen to live through, from concerts to minor surgery. The difference between this kind of imaging and the work we did before is that it's the sharing that matters and not the actual form. Content? Yes. Rules of thirds and high dynamic ranges? Not so much. The vast majority of imaging is no longer even shared on computer screens it's consumed on phones. On small screens, in various locations. The photo is no longer an artifact or a historical residue it has now become, fully, an instant consumable. Each person seems to be creating their own personal, day by day advertising campaign----for themselves.

So where does that leave all of us who love the idea of creating a lasting visual artifact. A piece of art that can stand alone away from the commentary of its original creator? I'm going to say that your guess is probably as good as mine. 

But I will echo something I've been hearing from people who are on the business side of photography: the market for paid assignments is starting to improve and budgets are starting to improve. The overall market for imaging content seems to be regressing to its normal state. The huge success of digital imaging in popular culture in the last decade created a boom in the industry, the likes of which we hadn't seen since the easy-to-use SLR started showing up in every college student's backpack in the early 1970's. Everyone wanted to be a National Geographic photographer until they saw the movie, "Blow Up." and once they saw the movie the real desire was to be a fashion photographer. Photo programs at colleges and high schools blossomed, no ERUPTED at the time and the professionals of the day felt the press of endless new entrants to the market. But eventually the novelty wore off and the reality of the work sunk in. 

I think we have just gone through a similar period in which everyone was amazed to find that the new cameras took away a huge chunk of the technical impediments to doing sellable photography. With the ease of photography increasing at the same time the overall financial markets devastated the jobs market for a whole generation of college students many who couldn't find jobs tried to make a go of various freelance oriented professions. Since photography (on its surface) didn't seem to require a proficiency in either math or writing it was a natural for people with a low portfolio of general skills to at least try. 

At the same time beleaguered companies who could have benefitted from original, branded imagery got scared and fell back on an ever cheapening collection of stock images. At one point in the not too distant past it seemed as though photography as a career would disappear, except in the most specialized niches. 

But we seem to be in the middle of a course correction. Clients who need inventive product images that require good lighting understand the value. Clients who need great shots of their people have come back to request expertise in lighting, posing and getting the right expression. And a generation of people have found that they much prefer a steady paycheck to the wild gyrations of being self-employed in an arts field. 

I think there is a sense of some sadness amongst those of us who liked being part of a global love affair with photography in that the core audience for our images is shrinking and changing. The love fest on Flickr and other share sites is less effusive and feverish. The loss of a massive audience also means that product introductions are slowing to a crawl from our traditional camera makers (see the recent Photokina...) and that has an effect on a nascent industry built on the breathless anticipation of the next technical breakthrough. It almost feels like someone let the air out of a balloon...

Me? I'm still just working. I'm reminding clients of how much expertise my company has in providing lighting for still and video imaging. I'm reminding decades loyal clients of how at ease we help make their people feel during portrait sessions. I am reminding agencies of the skill sets we've developed to do larger production shoots with many moving parts. And I am showing new clients who are making a first time move from "good enough" cellphone imaging providers fun things like just how much difference a tripod makes on an architectural shot. How much sharper and better an image can be when you use the right lens, etc. We're also showing them that we can give them repeatable results and that a cohesive look is critical in effective branding. 

So, is the decline of popular popularity of photography a worrisome thing? No, not really. The general population now uses imaging as a kind of language. That's the nature of the kinds of working images they want and use in their personal lives. It's a living language. As professionals we do something different. We translate creative concepts into two dimensional images. In video we don't just show how things look we create visual narratives that tell a complete story. 

Where does that leave me as a hobbyist? Actually, it feels nice to have a hobby, love, appreciation, desire for a field that is undergoing diminishing popularity. The flood of endless stuff seem to have slowed down. If we speak a different language than the other 99% of image makers (mass culture) then there's more signal and less noise in the marketplace for our vision. 

It's a sea of constant change and I won't pretend that I understand it better than anyone else but so much of what's been done in the last decade was really about the creation of a new visual language that the man and woman in the street could speak fluently and own. It's been assimilated. But that doesn't mean that other art forms in photography can no longer exist. The cameras that people cut their digital teeth on were predicated on the last century idea that images would be printed, large. The reality is that they are shared, small. That's another reason for the shift in cameras and camera sales. 

It doesn't mean there is NO market for a Nikon D810 or an OMD it's just that the people who need and want those cameras are speaking a different language from the majority of users who are happy to share on a five inch screen. Nothing wrong with that. 

What happens when the "gold rush" is over? Um. We get back to living our lives and adjusting to the new realities in the market place.  



An editorial note: I've discontinued my use of Facebook and Twitter. If you've used those platforms to communicate with me in the past you might just want to e-mail me. Otherwise, leave a comment. Everything changes!  Thanks.


9.28.2014

played with a camera yesterday that really captured my attention. I want it just for the finder....



I bought the Sony RX10 last winter and loved it. A really great concept, well executed by Sony and capable of handling a wide array of professional work. That camera has a "one inch" sensor, a Zeiss 24-200mm f2.8 lens and a fairly robust set of video features. And for a long time it had zero competitors. With no one to challenge the category it sold for the princely (but worth it) sum of $1299. 

Then along came Panasonic with a pretty compelling answer: the fz1000. It gets a lot of stuff right. But the truth is that neither camera is perfect and if someone could meld the features of both product together they'd have an amazing product to sell. 

Here are the basics of the fz1000: 

On the plus side: 

1. One of the best, clearest and most enjoyable EVFs I have ever looked though. Almost twice the resolution of the Sony RX10 (or Olympus OMD) finder and it shows.

2. Sony has a Carl Zeiss designed lens. Tit for tat, the Panasonic has Leica designed lens. Sony chose to keep the aperture constant by limiting the long end of the zoom to 200mm (equiv.) while Panasonic chose to use a lens that goes all the way out to 400mm (equiv.) but sacrifices the constant aperture. In reality, most of its range settles for f4.

4. The Panasonic camera features consumer 4K video while Sony settles for 2K but with, perhaps, a better (via a firmware update) codec in that space. (I'd call it a draw except that you can grab 8 megapixel still frames from the Panasonic...)

5. While both cameras are designed to be formidable video machines the Panasonic's one flaw is the lack of a headphone jack that would allow you to monitor audio. One clear + for the Sony RX10.

6. While the Panasonic looks and feels bigger than the Sony it's mostly mirage. Both are as large as any of the m4:3 pro-ish cameras on the market and the long, fast lenses make them appear even bigger. But when you hold each in your hands the Panasonic feels best and the extra real estate makes the control interface feel less cramped.

On the negative side: 

1. The Panasonic feels....cheaper. That shouldn't bother any of us because experience indicates that most buyers will use the camera for two seasons and then move on to a new, flashy model afterwards. The camera is probably equally resistant to wear and tear as compared to the Sony, it just feels plasticky. 

2. The lack of a headphone jack riles me because it was intuitive to include one and it seems like a cynical upsell ploy not to include it. The overt message is: "You want a pro machine?  Buy our GH4..."

3. The camera uses the same battery as the G5, G6 and GH2 and while it's not a bad battery it has a shorter useful life in the 1000. It's rated to provide about 350 shots. The bigger battery in the GH4 gets me closer to 1,000 shots. And the camera is big enough so that engineering in the larger battery should not have been an issue. 

But putting all that aside let me tell you about my half hour experience playing with the camera at Precision Camera. I was handed one at the counter and spent half an hour walking around their very well lit store, sitting on one of the big, leather couches going through the menus and controls (so close to the GH4 as to be nearly interchangeable) and shooting. 

The camera sits so well in my hands it's as though it was made for me. I switched on the five axis image stabilization and did multiple test shots. The camera was amazingly stable. If I stayed in the middle focal lengths or shorter I could (with trial and error) get exposures all the way down to 1/10th of second that were reasonably sharp. The lens is obviously being corrected in camera software because it made all the straight lines I aimed the camera at stay straight. 

In Jpeg the camera can shoot up to 15 frames per second. Yes, it locks focus and exposure but it also provides a nice, long burst. Set the camera to a smaller jpegs size and switch on the electronic shutter and the frame rate can be more than doubled. 

In all I liked the camera and I thought the lens was cool and well done. But for me the high point of the experience was to meet such an incredible finder (EVF) in a relatively inexpensive camera. It gives me hope that successive generations of finders from all the camera companies that are smart enough to implement EVFs in their cameras will use screens of this quality and better. It will go a long way toward laying to rest the debate between the EVFers and the OVFittes. 

Will I buy one? Hmmm. That's a bit tougher. I've heard recent rumors that Sony will leapfrog the Panasonic in late October (PhotoPlus East announcement?) with an RX20. It's reported (rumored) to have 4K video and a much improved finder as well. The headphone thing is the crux of my hesitation since I'd only want to own one of the two. With several Panasonic GH's in inventory I'm not in a rush to adopt more wayward cameras (especially those with yet another battery type) so I guess I'll wait and see what Sony launches. 

In all though, for a person who wants a good video camera with a lot of reach, good codecs for 1080p and a pretty darn good still feature set the fz1000 is an interesting camera to look at. 

I've always liked the idea of a single "Swiss Army Knife" of a camera that you could pack for an extended road trip or adventure instead of dragging around a couple of bodies and a small collection of lenses. If I were a "telephoto" guy and wanted a single product package for my work this would be a useful choice. 

I've used the Sony RX10 on magazine assignments and in commercial video projects and, with the exception of the headphone jack, the fz1000 would be totally interchangeable. 

I was glad to finally be able to handle one in the flesh. It's always different when you read the product reviews. It's hard to ever really know if the camera will fit your hand or if the interface will mesh with your personality. If meteors destroyed all of my cameras tomorrow I'd probably rush out and buy one of these as a stopgap while I come up with a brand new road map....

Update to original article: I bought on in Fall of 2015 and like it very, very much.







If you were waiting for the printed edition of "The Lisbon Portfolio" you are in luck. The novel is now in stock at Amazon.com


I stayed up all last night re-reading the novel. It's a different experience reading it on paper. If you were waiting for the trade paper back edition it's HERE NOW.  It looks great and it reads well.
466 pages of action and adventure in a 5.5 by 8.5 inch package. Stock up now for the holidays!

9.26.2014

Red Flowers in the Hill Country.


Stop and smell the flowers?

It was an unusual day yesterday. I got up and went to swim practice. Had breakfast with Studio Dog and did little webby things. Then I went to the noon swim practice and afterwards had lunch with one of the young star swimmers. We were talking about the direction that "enterprise" seems to be taking. We each had anecdotal stories to tell of efficiency over humanity. Plans by major companies to eliminate as many human jobs as possible, replacing, for instance, retail clerks with iPad-based ordering systems, robots, consumer self-order software and the like. The gap widens.

We also looked at his iPhone 6. Specifically at the still camera and video capabilities. Suddenly, a thought jumped into my brain. I looked down at my Olympus EM-5 and what I saw, clearly, was a typewriter. Or a Burrough's data entry console.

I went home and took a nap. It's been years since I swam a double. I was tired. But recognizing social shifts also takes it out of you.  It's clear to me at this moment that we're going through a structural change. If you are smug about it then it just hasn't hit your area of expertise or your industry yet....

Typewriter. Do they even make the ribbons anymore?


9.25.2014

Connection. Collaboration. Creation. Realization. Sharing. The five steps of creating portraits.


Connection is the first step. Out in the real world you find people who look interesting to you. But that's not enough. You then have to engage with them and convince them to be a part of your project. Which then because "our" project. Connection can be tough because it can cause you to need to step out of your comfort zone, out of your neighborhood and out of your demographic. You have to approach the person for whom you feel the connection. There is a very big (and ego deflating) possibility that they will turn you down. Then you have to move on to the next person with whom you feel a connection. It's a process.

Once you've made a connection you have to bring them into the realm of your ideas. Your vision. In making them an ally you may need to compromise. You give. They give. They try your idea and you try theirs. By working and sharing over time you can create an understanding and unspoken agreement that makes the process of creation flow.

The creation is the process of making the ideas real and tangible. The creation of a portrait is about lighting matching mood which matches pose which matches props and costumes. It's the process of working together until the expression is just as you imagined it would be when you started the collaboration. The light is important. The emotions are important. The camera is less important.
You have to capture the essence of your ideas and visions during this phase because you really can't fix much after the fact. Unless you decide to become an illustrator.

The realization is everything above with the added ingredient of editing. And by editing we mean choosing just the right image from everything you've created together. First you find the image that most closely matches the best outcome of your initial concept and work and then you distill it down by working with the file until it fits happily into or onto the medium you want to use to share the image with your audience. It can be different if the images is destined for a print than if it is destined to be viewed on a small screen. But the medium must be conducive to sharing. Both your connection and your realization will be examined via whatever avenue you choose. A big print demands quality. A small image demands impact. There is a sliding scale of subtlety and nuance.

Finally you get to share. What you are asking your audience to do is to step into your shoes and see a person as you see them. Or as you and the subject both saw the subject in collaboration.

What do you hope to get when you share? Insight into how different everyone's ideas of portraiture are. How different we are when it comes to selecting our collaborative partners. How different our engagements. And how much alike we are when confronted by one or another idea of what is beauty.

I think the person in the image is very beautiful. I want to share my feeling that there is beauty everywhere for us to find. Happily, what is beautiful is subjective. Sadly, what is beauty is subjective.