10.09.2014

Kirk stumbles on numbers in a previous post!!!!! See the corrected numbers!



I've been playing with the 5600K Lighting Evo kit (two cool, HMI fixtures and accessories) for over a month now and having a blast. Continuous daylight capable lights are the sweet spot I enjoy most because they enhance the advantages of the "always on" live view of EVF enabled cameras and, well, the light just looks so good. I'd been putting off sending them back to the folks who own em because once you've had great light it's hard to go back to good light. I wrote about them here but I made a big mistake. I put the price tag of the kit, with two fixtures, two electronic ballasts, a bunch of modifying lenses and a case at about $6,000. I got my numbers wrong. The actual price of the kit is a little under $4,000. Seems much more reachable to me. While they are not cheap they are pretty darn incredible and put out quite a bit more lumens than the higher end LED panels along with the benefit of being able to supply a never ending stream of sharp, hard light when you need it. 

So, there's my correction. Not $6,000 but under $4,000. Look for an article about a full on shoot with the lights coming soon. Including behind the scenes set up images. Too much fun. And, if you shoot video for a living these puppies will make your knees weak....



10.08.2014

The hard thing about photography is that it takes time to do and there's never a guarantee that you'll find the subjects you want.


I have the world's least efficient hobby. I like to take photographs of people and of things I find interesting, cool, funny, beautiful, bittersweet, bizarre, sensual, or even nostalgic. I practice my hobby by  choosing a camera and a lens and then driving or walking to an area that I think holds the promise or potential of providing any subset of these thing. Then I walk around all day long just casually looking. Sometimes I'll go to San Antonio and walk around the downtown area from early morning on a Saturday until sundown. Sometimes I feel like I'm coming home with little treasures captured in my camera and other times I'll be frustrated and feel as though I'm wasting my time.

As cities become more and more homogenized there are fewer interesting anomalies to look at and enjoy. When I come home empty handed I start to feel as though I should have worked on something commercial. Instead of roaming around in old clothes and tennis shoes with a jewel like camera in my hands I should be concocting some sort of marketing piece or spend a warm and viscous afternoon calling clients and potential clients on the phone, trying to set up an appointment to show them other commercial work that I've done. 

If it's been a particularly fallow trip I consider that I may as well get a real job and spend eight hours a day in a building somewhere with canned air, sitting behind an industrial desk, working on templated software, getting up every once in a while to fetch and drink a diet Coke, all the while feeling the back of my eyes burning from the almost undetectable flicker of the sixty cycle fluorescent lights. Occasionally heading down the hall to ask Doreen in accounting if we can budget money to do something meaningless and mundane. I try to weigh the advantages of working for someone else and I always imagine that it would be in some company whose offices are in North Austin. I also imagine that the hours will be strictly enforced. I'll be on the Mopac Expressway in my little car sitting motionless or near motionless for forty-five minutes to an hour. In each direction. I'll listen to the same stories (at least they seem like the same stories) over and over again on NPR. Or I'll listen to the worshipful gun nuts on one of the other stations talk about which automatic weapon Jesus would have owned and how vaccines are turning us all into communist leeches.

But some days I go out into a city with my camera in my hand and twenty dollars in my pocket and everything is fun. Fun and strange images and juxtapositions erupt merrily with every few steps. I meet people who are a bit insane and generally far more interesting than most people you will ever meet in the sort of antiseptic, middle class existence that we create in the hopes that our isolation will ensure our personal safety. Is that scruffy guy with the old digital Rebel the next Robert Frank? Is the woman behind the counter of the donut shop really engaged in selling donuts or is she an actor playing the part of a woman selling donuts?

I'll bet I walked fifteen miles the last time I was in San Antonio pursuing my lonely hobby. I must have looked at more street level windows and doors than I could keep count of. I drank coffee at the Apache dinner but it wasn't very good. I found a Starbucks and the coffee was much better. Old men stopped to ask me if my camera was digital. Young people avoided me so I couldn't get a toehold and start off on a never ending story like their uncles or their parents. 

My uniform was inconsistent. I could see that in the eyes of the policemen I walked past. The shorts were a green that was becoming so washed out that they are starting to look tan. I've lost weight and the shorts are just a bit too baggy. I was wearing ankle high, white sports socks. The nondescript gray pullover shirt was vague but it came from Barney's. And my new walking shoes were totally out of the consistent uniform pattern. They were a brand called Ahnu and they cost $125.

The camera of the day was something equally vague. A mid level Nikon digital or an early mirror less. My watch was a $15 Casio that is more accurate than my $1200 Fortis which sits on my night table running down, automatically.

In days past a camera was an invitation to learn more and lean in. To strangers it was a fun momentary connection. Some were happy to have been considered interesting while some just acquiesced for no real reason other than it was the stream of least resistance. In days past having a camera pointed at a person tended to validate their own idea of their own image. If you pointed it at a woman she may have assumed that you were validating her beauty. If you pointed it at a person in a military uniform it validated the idea that you appreciated their service. The bottom line was that having a camera pointed at a person made them realize that they were interesting. At least to one person and at least right now, at that moment. 

Now the world is different. The mood has changed and the innocence of creating images just for the sake of creation is gone. It's been replaced by suspicion and the idea that photographers are participating in a mercantile skim in which the images, stolen from the subject, becomes so much irretrievable raw material for a giant stock photography site where everyone is getting rich but the subject. Now they want to be cut into the deal. Photograph someone of the other gender and you are suspected of devious intentions. Photograph a person in uniform and you are a de facto terrorist.

And in spite of everything I've said I still love it. I love the vagaries and uncertainty of just walking and looking. I love the challenge of winning over people to my fleeting and mostly ephemeral cause. I like the feeling of driving back up the highway with a card full of latent images just waiting their turn to promenade across my monitor and remind me of how the air smelled and how the heat played across my skin in the afternoon. I love to sift through the images of random people and piece together my fictional version of their story just from the images and from the bits and pieces we shared in our brief and shallow encounters. 

And I am reminded that, in a sense, the real value of walking around the streets with a camera is the hard-to-describe but authentic and joyous immersion in actual, real life. Not a life of trading time for money or trading blunted curiosity for safety. In some sense the walk through other people's lives is a never ending search for some sense of universal belonging and understanding that I can interpret and weave into my own existence. The images are tiny, encapsulated visual novels. I can read and re-read them into my memory at any time. And every time I engage them their story seems to change. And I know that I've changed and even though I'm looking straight ahead at the same images I know I'm looking through them at a different angle. 







Back at Zach for a second "King and I" shoot. Horsing around with an old 60mm f1.5 lens.


There are two different sets of kids who perform in "The King and I" at Zach Theatre. They alternate during the week so that no child misses too much school, homework and sleep. The marketing folks at the theater asked me if I'd come back and do a second set of images for the kids. My goal yesterday evening was to shoot as many images of the kids as I could instead of shooting the big, dramatic, adult actor moments. 

I met Belinda for dinner and we both went. I wasn't settled on which camera system I'd end up using so I brought along a couple. We'd be seated on a "walk-through" row, middle of the house in both axis. That meant an aisle in front of us and more elevated seating behind us. Still, I'd be shooting during an actual performance with a full, paying audience, so my choice of camera system was a bit more important than it would have been on a dress rehearsal night.

Originally I wanted to shoot with the Nikon D7100. On paper the 7100 has the best high ISO performance of my current cameras and I also wanted to use the CX crop mode (1.3 crop gets the camera to about an m4:3 sensor size with 15 megapixels and a commensurately smaller raw file size. Belinda and I got into the theater early to do a little sonic testing. Even in its quiet mode the D7100 was much too loud. I even tried swaddling it in neoprene but that wasn't enough to squelch the shutter and mirror noise. Back in the bag it goes. Pity since the 85mm lens with the CX crop would have given me the equivalent of a 170mm f1.8...

Next up was the Samsung NX30. I figured that it has an electronic shutter setting and if it works as the Panasonic e-shutter works it should be silent. Well, turns out the first "curtain" is electronic but there's still a loud capping noise somewhere in the process so that one headed back into the bag as well. I finally grabbed the Panasonic GH4 and put it into the silent mode----where it was absolutely silent. The only noise was my exhale as I gently squeezed the shutter button. 

I shot most of the show with the 35-100mm f2.8 and truth be told I could have used another 100mm of reach from time to time but there's always more that I'd like no matter which set up I'm shooting. 
For the dance scene above, with no kiddos on stage, I decided to try out the ancient Olympus Pen 60mm f1.5. in combination with the GH4's focus peaking (the lens is strictly manual in every sense!).

The EVF indicated exposure was perfect and, considering that I was being brave and using the lens wide open for the most part, the focus peaking was pretty darn good. Especially when one considers the lower light levels, the constant subject movement and scene contrast. The camera's focus peaking worked well and I was able to get satisfactory focusing on 95% of the frames attempted. 

I figure if you can shoot an ancient lens in manual, focus it manually and do manual exposure as well as a bit of white balance adjustment on the fly still and come away with decent images you are probably zeroed in on your technical game. It was fun to pull out and work with a classic optic. It was even more fun when the old lens is given an "assist" from a new camera.




added in the afternoon: I forgot to mention that the play was wonderful. Mel as "the King" was phenomenal while Jill Blackwood is always just perfect. Another treat for me were the huge backgrounds "outside" the palace windows. They absolutely glowed at "twilight." I'll go back a third time just so I can enjoy the whole spectacle without a camera pressed against my face.

10.07.2014

A splashy marketing stumble makes me question Canon's sanity. Again.


Canon's ad agency bought a time machine and 
made a website from the 1980's. 

After a week of build up and a double truck ad in the New York Times all of the hoopla from Canon was for the introduction of a badly designed "interactive" website that tried to tell too many (poorly crafted) stories to too many disparate audiences. You can go and see it for yourself: http://seeimpossible.usa.canon.com

But be forewarned that the site took over a minute to load on my broadband connection.

And this on the heels of a lavishly produced but sparsely attended show here in Austin from their consumer printer division in which they showed maybe 100 framed and matted prints to an invited audience of maybe 35 people at the Austin Music Hall. They seemed desperate to fill the space even with complimentary alcohol and nice catering.

While I will make no judgement on the content or style of the images shown it was sad to hear that Canon printed all of the files themselves because the actual printing was the weak part of the show. That, and the fact that all the prints were printed in the same palette at the same exact size and format.

Homogenous. Flat. All printed on the same Lustre paper.  If these two incidents are examples of their advertising agency's best work it's high time they shopped around... maybe find some college kids in an apartment who haven't lost all of their mojo and still have some enthusiasm for stuff that's new and different.

I'm sure someone will suggest that I don't like Canon cameras and that's not the point here. The point is that maybe part of the problem in camera sales is that the damn ad agencies handling the accounts don't have a clue how to talk to photographers. That's a big hurdle. And I'm not just singling out Canon. At this point, if I was on the Canon internal marketing team, I'd just bag the traditional ad agencies and start crowdsourcing the creative. It couldn't be worse and it would be a hell of a lot cheaper.....

A reposting of an image by reader request. And a mea culpa to Aaron.



On a recent blog I wrote about using three cameras with various lenses on them to shoot in a style that used to be common in the days before pro level cameras became so expensive. A reader asked in a comment how I wore the cameras as I was shooting. The above image is from a math conference I did this Summer. Two of the cameras are GH3's and one of the cameras is a GH4. In the blog I talked about using all three cameras with prime lenses but two of the cameras above are fitted with zooms. I wouldn't want to be too consistent...

And I do owe an apology to reader, Aaron. I misread his comment about there being no difference in changing lenses to other focal lengths or zooming. I presumed we were talking about staying in one place and zooming versus changing positions and "zooming with one's feet." He is, of course, absolutely correct. Sorry about that!

I have been doing variations of the three camera shoot for about a year now and I find it a fun way to shoot. I'm down to two Panasonic cameras now so my "three camera" system is now only being practiced with the three Olympus EM5 bodies. This week I am experimenting with using the 3 Sigma DN Art lenses for m4:3 as my trio of glass. The 19mm, 30mm and 60mm. While the wide end is not very wide neither is my vision... I absolutely love the 60, and I love the smooth black lens barrels.

On a totally different note I showed up for jury duty yesterday fully expecting a painful three days in the service of democracy and the rule of law only to find out, from the judge, that both defendants in the cases copped a plea just before the empaneling which gave me back three uncluttered, unencumbered days. I spent this morning swimming, sipping a latte and eating warm chocolate croissants. This afternoon Studio Dog and I are going out for a run. Should be lovely. A nice gift from the scheduling universe.

10.06.2014

Why are we so in love with the cameras that we own and so disparaging of those brands we don't own?

The answers seem to lie in a book by author, Paul Bloom, entitled: How Pleasure Works. The New Science of Why We Like What We Like.

I am a truly addicted reader and, contrary to legend, I do read as much non-fiction as fiction. I am currently making my way through Paul Bloom's book and it's giving me fresh insight into the endless brand wars between otherwise rational photographers.

Leaving aside our initial buying decisions for a moment, the book makes the argument that once you've chosen something and received it the object attains an "endowment value." Basically it means that the object is no longer an anonymous and replaceable thing but it is now yours and by the very nature of you possessing it the object has more value to you.

Bloom references a study of market valuation which was done to bolster this idea. Essentially, a person is offered an object of value for a set price. His example was a coffee cup for five dollars. Once the person had committed and bought the coffee cup she was then offered six dollars to sell back the cup. In general the persons in the test refused and considered the cup to have a much greater value now. While the transaction would have netted the test subject a quick dollar of profit in mere seconds they were emotionally unable to logically understand the objective value proposition. It seems that the endowment valuation is at work in every purchase that we, as consumers, commit to.

A second issue is the power of having made a choice. It seems that making a choice between random but identical objects invests the chosen object with more value and degrades the value of the identical item not chosen. The test described in this example was a bar game in which you have three identical coasters. You hide one coaster and then ask the test subjects to make a choice between two remaining coasters. Remember that the coasters are identical. The test subject is still asked to make a choice.

After choosing the tester brings out the third identical coaster and asks the test subject to choose between the previously declined coaster and the newly revealed coaster. Almost without exception the subjects chose the newly revealed coaster signaling that the previously rejected coaster was less desirable and so not a good choice.

It seems that once humans make a commitment to own something both the power of choice and the (irrational) endowment of value come into play and cause us to defend our choice and denigrate the unchosen objects. Other studies bolster these findings and speak to their near universality, not only amount humans but also among some other primates.

There is another related force at work which keeps us "loyal." We, like almost all species, are more comfortable with a known thing or experience than a new or unknown thing or experience. In happy relationships satisfaction with partners is shown to increase over the long term specifically because our partner is known and safe. Safety is the basic parameter we are all trying to achieve so we can continue living and safely pass on our DNA. As a result of millions and millions of years of evolution the compulsion to choose safety over implied, additional, but unknown benefits is an overwhelming one. The longer we work with a brand the more comfortable we become with its operation and even its quirks, even if they are demonstrably inferior to the products of competitors. That familiarity and understanding of "safety" tends to cement our relationships and, by extension, our brand loyalty.

In short, you like your camera better than my camera because you chose your camera (for whatever external or rationalized reasoning=marketing? Group persuasion? ) and you like my camera less than your camera (even if it's performance is identical) because you initially did not choose it. You have further cemented your positive appraisal of your camera through familiarity and your dismissal of my cameras choice because it is relatively unknown to you and therefore relatively unsafe.

And this is why Canon lovers love Canon cameras and Nikon lovers love Nikon cameras and etc., etc.

I know. You are an engineer, I.T. guy, math guy, and you think you made only logical choices and are immune to the psychology of choice. Paul Bloom and I think you are wrong.

I haven't gotten to the part of the book where relative rewards of new risk taking are covered but I can impute that it is risk taking that moves the species forward in an evolutionary way by uncovering the risk/reward math involved in having new methods or efficiencies made available. Either that or I am also making the same kinds of rationalization as above to bolster my camera choices.

Multi-system owners? Either they want to have the right tool at hand for a specific job or, more credibly they are trying to cover all of their bases so they can enhanced their perceived safety and ranking in their tribe.

The book and the research are eye-opening and a bit humbling. But it all boils down to sex and survival.  You might find it all interesting.

http://www.amazon.com/Kirk-Tuck/e/B002ECIS24/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1

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!!!!!