12.18.2015

Lotta really good cameras came out this year but if I had to choose the one that set the enthusiasts' world on fire and changed the aim point I'd have to pick a camera I don't own...

Of all the cameras in the equipment case that I've squandered my hard earned 
money on I would have to say that my favorite camera to hold in my hands
and take photographs with would have to be the Olympus OMD EM-5.2

But it's not 2015's photo world changer.

That honor would have to go to the Sony A7R2. 

And here's why: Sony made a halting, tentatively, half-assed start with their A7 cameras. When they were announced I had high hopes for the line but my first test with them back at launch in 2013 was disappointing. The shutters were so loud that, if you were photographing human models, you would have to stop shooting to give them verbal directions because, otherwise, they would never hear you over the nerve-wracking clatter of the horrible shutters. Just cheesy.

The bodies were a bit too small and seemed, delicate to me. The evf finders were no better than those in cameras that had been on the market for quite a while. But most damning was that, even though Sony seems to be the source of all imaging sensors, they cut corners on both their raw files and their Jpeg processing. Similar sensors in Nikon cameras just spanked the hell out of the Sony trio at the outset.

There were people who embraced the cameras. Mostly people coming straight from DSLRs who were finally willing to at least try the seductive reality of electronic viewfinders for the first time. The praise they have for their Sony A7 (original lineup) cameras is partly a sigh of relief that came from embracing the new viewing and reviewing technology that underlies the mirrorless experience; not from the superiority or enhanced usability of the cameras themselves.

I wanted to like the Sony A7; and especially the A7R, but after many attempts at a warm embrace I left them on the curbside and moved on with my life.

That was then. But life and camera design move on. I think Sony had a good bit of success with the new cameras and a large part of the success is wrapped around the fact that the cameras give one a reasonably priced entree into full frame imaging with high quality sensors and the ability to use a very wide array of third party lenses from many sources, and from across decades. Whatever the reason I think Sony's collective camera design brain sent the message to the Sony Borg that there really was a market for their wares and, if they had a flagship product to rally consumers the fight to sell more product in the channel would be easier. They needed a "halo" marketing product to prove that, as far as image quality was concerned, they could go toe to toe with the best on the market. They might even better the high point.

The product that I think will come to define the Sony A7 line as a workable group of cameras for high aspiration non-professionals and people who mostly make a living with their cameras will be the A7R2. Not only because they put in their best sensor, and keep improving the processing via firmware updates, but because they finally paid attention to the quality of the mechanical offering. The camera is no longer a melange of composite panels and metal but is now a more robust, all metal construction. The finder optics and finder resolution is much better. The body is beefier and feels much more solid in one's hands. Coupled with a battery grip it finally feels adequate as a support for heavier lenses like the Sony Alpha 70-200mm f2.8, along with an Alpha adapter.

The investment that Sony made in Olympus seems to be paying off with some good technology transfer in the form of a five axis, image stabilization system that works well. Much work was done to ensure cleaner and more nuanced Jpeg files and a recent firmware upgrade gave users beefier, less compressed and higher bit depth raw files. The imaging pipeline currently sits near the top of the DXO sensor rankings. Toe to toe with the Nikon D810.

But the one thing that got my attention and put the A7R2 firmly in the "great camera, I should get one some day!" category is the new shutter. Nice to have all the imaging system stuff better figured out but it still would have been meaningless to me if the shutter rattled along like a Yugo with a quarter million miles on the speedometer and hundreds of marbles in the trunk. A camera with great imaging is always sabotaged if the handling, audible and visceral aesthetics suck.

So Sony finally listened. Either to pundits or their customers or their own inner sense of pride as camera designers, and they worked on making the shutter significantly good. Tremendously good. They've lowered the register of the noise that it makes and done away with a large part of the high frequency clatter-ation that drew the attention of bystanders and camera haters. The shutter is nearly in the rarified field of, "acoustically enjoyable" machines. And this makes all the difference in the world.

So, why is the camera my pick as the break through camera of the year? Because it has just about everything a high end mirrorless user would want for the first time ever in the mirrorless/evf-enabled space. It's got a state of the art sensor that's got resolution to spare. It handles noise as well as just about any advanced camera on the market today. The in body image stabilization is competent and welcome. The shutter is significantly better and rated to work for half a million cycles. The camera works with an incredibly wide array of lenses from just about every maker. Love that Nikon 135mm f2.0? It's one cheap adapter away from being equally wonderful on the Sony.

But then there's also the bonus set of features! The camera does full on, 4K video and according to almost all sources of video knowledge and lore, it's a 4K codec that does a great job as far as sharpness, detail, color and utility. It may be a better file than the ones that video people are trying to squeeze out of the A7S2 (the 12 megapixel model).

The camera is a decent size now that it's been pumped up a bit. It feels great in one's hands (subjective, for sure) and the shutter is no longer an offensive pile of sound crap and vibration.

What's not to like about the camera? The usual stuff people complain about when moving from battery sipping behemoths with large power reserves, and, as always, the lower performance of the AF system when tracking fast moving objects. It is true, the ubiquitous Sony battery (used across most of the line and the RX10 cameras) is a weakling compared to the batteries in full sized DSLRs. While the A7R2 may be about 300 shots from a fully charged battery my Nikon D750 gets anywhere from 1200 to 1500 shots from its battery.

There is a cure for the battery problem and it's a simple one.  Buy more batteries. Carry a couple extra in your pockets. Change as needed. (Or buy into my KickStarter campaign to manufacture plutonium based fission batteries like the ones they use in military satellites. Those last a very, very long time but we are having issues with those damn environmentalists about disposal and some issues regarding manufacturing safety. In the long run I am sure we'll get some regs changed in congress. The bulk of our Kickstarter money is earmarked to pay off politicians...). Seriously though, the Sony batteries are small and not super high capacity but a battery grip is useful and also adds a better gripping design for handholding the camera.  I never asked for cameras to be small, I only wanted mirrorless for the advantages of shooting with EVFs...

The second issue is one that rarely effects my shooting and that's focusing fast moving objects and tracking focus with fast moving objects. I think each generation of mirrorless camera improves in this performance parameter and, for my uses, the camera's focus is more than adequate. In fact, the majority of my intended use for a camera such as this would be to use it with lenses from other companies. Leica, Nikon, and Leica..  In that kind of use the camera also excels because it comes complete with both image peaking and quick image magnification for fine focusing. For an ad shooter that's a perfect combination.

To distill, Sony gets my honor of innovative camera of 2016 because they have single-handedly brought to the market a flagship for the EVF/Mirrorless concept with a camera that checks every box on my list of features. The whole A7 line is the first to implement a full frame sensor with the mirrorless design set. The shutter and mechanical handling is finally in the first rank. And the 4K video is most certainly state of the art as regards video in still cameras.

Had the camera hit the same price point as the one it replaced (the A7R) I would be even more enthusiastic. In a few months, when Sony rushes out a replacement for the A7R2, and the prices drop, I'll probably add one to the drawer. The neat deal is that one embedded in the Nikon system can easily rationalize buying this body as a supplement to the Nikon bodies, since all of them can (with adapters) use the same lenses. And that is one of the genius features of mirrorless cameras, as a class.

Interesting to handle and write about a camera that I haven't been compelled (yet) to rush out and buy. That alone is a paean to how pleased I am with my current Nikon cameras. And at the same time it's probably and indicator of why the camera market is in decline... too much good stuff that works to well. Why rush to replace?

But if you are in a rush to replace, consider using this link:  Sony A7R2 and other stuff...

12.17.2015

The camera and lens that sucked me right back into the Nikon system this time...

This bust lives at the Blanton Museum in Austin.
I like to photograph the statues when I'm playing around 
with new photographic equipment.  They don't move around and blink.
I shot this with a Nikon D610 using a Sigma 50mm 1.4 Art Lens. 

I shot the image at f2.0. 
1/400th of a second. 

The quality of the resulting image led me to understand 
that the combination had characteristics I liked. 
From that point onward I've been buying lenses 
I like for the system along with several new bodies. 

I certainly love this focal length. 
And, at nearly wide open the Art lens 
is pretty compelling. 

I think I'll keep it.


Kirk's Books on Amazon

I"ve made at least two really good lens purchases this year. This is the one I find most intriguing.


It's a Nikon lens made a long time ago. It's the 25-50mm f4.0. I saw it sitting on the used shelf over at Precision Camera and I haggled on the price until it didn't make sense any more to leave it on the shelf. On a full frame camera it's ---- a 25-50mm equivalent (snicker).

Last night I found an interesting article about this lens and quite a few other Nikon lenses at a site I have never visited before. You might enjoy the articles there; especially if you are inclined to appreciate and enjoy some of the classic, older, Nikon manual focus lenses. The articles I found are on a Nikon website, tucked into a part of the site called, "Nikkor."

Here's the article I read about the 25-50mm lens: http://www.nikkor.com/story/0046/ The discussion of the design parameters and the process of creating the lens are very interesting. Even more interesting is just how good this lens is and how well it stands the tests of time.

I'd love to link to some retail website so you can order one and I can get a commission but, as you can see in the article, they stopped making this one (and a few other favorites of mine) a long time ago (1981).

We'll just have to enjoy the reading and keep our eyes peeled for mint examples, out in the wild...

There are articles at the site on several of my other favorite Nikon lenses; including: the 105mm f2.5 ai and the 135mm f2.0 ai. If you are a dyed in the wool Canon shooter you can ignore this.

Kirk's Books on Amazonhttp://amzn.to/1IYPzXc

Just clowning around. Austin Lyric Opera.

Sony a99 + Sony 70-200mm f2.8.


OT: looking forward to a special swim practice on Monday the 21st.


Here's the pool I swim in. It's beautiful. It's heated in the winter to 80 degrees. It's chilled in the Summer to 82 degrees. The only times we don't have masters swim practices are on (most) Mondays, big holidays and when there's ice all over the deck (safety issue).

Today I went to the noon practice and swam with a guy named, Tom. Our coach wrote a fun workout on the board and we dragged ourselves up and down the pool, bracketed by faster swimmers in the lane on one side and slower swimmers in the lane on the other side. We knocked out about 3,000 yards from noon until 1 pm and that was that.

After swim practice I pulled on some running shoes, and a pair of running shorts, and did a leisurely run down at the lake. There are three loops most people run. There's a 2.9 mile loop, one that's about 4.5 miles and a third that's around 7 miles. If you are really ambitious you can run from Mopac to the damn on the east side of downtown, and then back around on the other side of the lake for a bit more than 12 miles. I'd already swum so the shortest loop felt like a good option to me.

That's all pretty routine, but I was excited to hear about one cool, upcoming workout that should be a lot of fun for obsessive swimmers; it's this coming Monday morning and it's 10,000 yards. We start at 8:30 am and we do 100 x 100 yards on a one minute and forty second interval. For non swimmers this means you have one minute and forty seconds to swim 100 years and, if possible get a few seconds rest. You leave on a new 100 yard swim (four laps of the 25 yard pool, per) every minute and forty seconds.  Until you've done this one hundred times in a row.

Everyone is going on the same interval. No faster lanes and no slower lanes. If we stay on pace and do the whole set we'll have swum 10,000 yards in about 2.5 hours. That's about 6.2 miles and 300 flip turns. I think I'll be ready for a big lunch right after this....

This has absolutely nothing to do with new cameras or photography of any kind. I write about it because I think it's important for photographers (and everyone else) to think about getting exercise and staying in good physical condition. I believe that when you are in good physical shape your brain is sharper, your attention is more acute. The discipline of exercising regularly also translates into habitual discipline in other areas; like photography. You can carry more, go further, stay in the field longer and be present to take advantage of chance interactions with nature or whatever it is you shoot.

Here's a link to the U.S. Masters Swimming: http://www.usms.org


Real skin versus retouched skin. Lenses, lighting and signatures.


There is a technique I sometimes use to repress detail on problem skin. I make a duplicate layer of a portrait, introduce a gaussian blur at 28.5 pixels, hit the quick mask icon at the bottom of the layer menu box and then use a paintbrush, set to 20% opacity to brush in a softness to the image. The benefit of this very simple method is that I can use the opacity slider in the layers panel to pull back on the effect. I try to be judicious when I use this method because I think most people's eyes are very good at seeing this "deception."

I try not to use any blurring techniques for most portraits. It really all depends on the skin quality and the way a portrait is lit. Contrasty lighting can make even the nicest skin look worse. Clients with big pores or rough skin texture love the softening effect and, when the images are for their use, I am not disinclined to please them. When I photograph for myself though I am too keenly aware that the introduction of the softening technique diminishes the value I find for myself in prints and images. I can only conjecture the same is true for my intended audience for these sorts of portraits = VSL readers and others who appreciate photographs.

The image above uses no post processing blur technique but takes advantage of a close, large diffuser to moderate the transitions between highlights, midtones and shadow areas. In this regard shooting with 14 bit raw files is helpful to prevent even slight banding in shadow areas and transition areas by dint of throwing more information into the mapping mix. That my model is young, has great skin, and has used make up well, is a big benefit to the final image as I pre-visualized it. (Actually, I can only pre-visualize in giant swaths, like putting up a big fence. Everything creative happens unconsciously in smaller sections of the big fence, mental ranch).

One uses retouching on images when there are details that take attention away from the main goal, a subjective but positive rendering of the subject in it's holistic form. At times one must "kill" the details so the whole construct can serve its purpose.

The right lens can also help. I am doing more and more research into why various lenses were designed to function the way that they are. I started getting interested when I discovered that the lenses that made the best black and white images for me were one with under corrected spherical aberrations. Those would include the 135mm f2.0 I recently picked up, as well as the raft of 105mm f2.5 Nikons I've been collecting.

There is a similarity between them which is a signature of sorts. Stopped down they rival anything out there for sharpness  but at the wider apertures they create out of focus backgrounds that have a very pleasing aesthetic look. I know that the current mania, at least in the U.S., is to value a lens based on its ultimate sharpness. As I get more experience under my belt, and shoot more portraits, I'm beginning to think there are other considerations in lens design (and performance) that are equally, if not more, important.

My friends wonder sometimes why I seem to have a preference for older optics. It's not that I want the burden of manually focusing these lenses, it's that they render photographs of things in a way that seems both more pleasing and more real to me.....regardless of which camera I use them on.

Besides, if everyone photographs with the same little trio of zoom lenses then visual life gets boring.

reflect and direct.


12.15.2015

What's on your "photographic" Holiday wish list? What do you hope Santa drops (gently) down your chimney?

Martin Burke and Meredith McCall in a series of images
marketing "Santaland Diaries" at Zach Theatre.

It's a tradition for photographers who blog to do a laundry list of stuff they recommend to their readers. I presume that the conceit is that you would never have heard of these products if talented bloggers had not brought them to your attention. And now that you've been informed the smart thing to do is to click through the links supplied and make sure you get that perfect camera, lens or light before the stores run out. Or before the companies making the goodies decide to give up and move on to greener pastures; like the design and marketing of innovative new microwave ovens and smart phones. 

I thought I'd take a different tack and ask you what you are actually interested in getting for yourself during this holiday season. And I thought I'd start the ball rolling by letting you know which two or three things I have bouncing around in my head right now:

1. Since I'm a sucker for the "idea" of really good lenses the first item is a "want" and not a "need." I have my mind set on thinking-about-getting (as opposed to actually getting) that Sigma 24-35mm f2.0 zoom lens I rattled on about a few weeks past. I love big, heavy zooms because the implication is that fewer compromises in design and construction were made. My fantasy for this lens is that every time I need a wide angle of some sort I'll be able to put one of these amazing lenses on a D810 and out image the hell out of everyone else.  Buildings will be sharper and more three dimensional, faces more animated and products made more desirable just from having been photographed by this two pound wonder lens. The fantasy continues all the way through post production when I will hand a finished print to a client who will be so impressed, and content fulfilled, that he or she will faint onto a convenient settee and need to be revived with smelling salts. 

The reality might turn out to be that I buy one and compare it to my ancient, Nikon 25-50mm f4.0 and realize that the old lens is at least 90% of the new lens but is already paid for and nicely broken in. But by then I'll be too embarrassed to sell the new lens or return it because of the amount of uninformed gushing I have been doing on my blog.

2. All of a sudden I want a Nikon D4S. Don't know why. Maybe it's a reaction to all the pixie cameras I've been buying and using over the past five years. Maybe I believe that if I spend obscene amounts of money on a camera that it will have special imaging powers that most people don't understand. Maybe I want a camera with a battery that lasts all week instead of all day (or just a couple of hours). 
I'm pretty sure I'm not going to buy one of these either. But I'm sure if I wore it around my neck all day as I walked around downtown two things might happen: a. A lot of people will ask me if I am a "full time," "professional" photographer. And, b. I will have a very sore neck by the end of the day. 

There are things to like about the big camera. The finder is extremely nice. The sensor is supposed to be extremely good, and it will most likely take more of a beating that a more reasonably sized and priced camera.

All very rational stuff but I'd still like to find one in my stocking this year ---- unless those people at Nikon want to buy me off for a while by sending me a D5 for free instead. I'll take a prototype, as long as the firmware is upgradable...

3.  I would dearly love to have a Leica M4. The original M4, not the "P" version. I'm a little light on M bodies since I lost one in that horrible Range Rover accident in Lisbon. That's what I get for loaning equipment to Henry White.  If you are sending me one as a gift for all of my hard work and brilliant (and funny) writing here on the blog, save yourself some money and don't send along a 50mm lens for it. I already have one that will work. This is one camera I would buy, if I had the money and could find one in mint condition (black, enamel, please). 

Those are all my camera, self-gift fantasies for right now. Sad (or happy) thing is that I can't really think of anything I need, photographically. Nothing I can point to and say, "Not having this is holding me back!" But it's nice to think about what I would buy if I got all capricious and silly and went on a spending binge. But that will have to wait a while as most of my extra cash goes off to a college somewhere. 

So, this is the interactive part. Is there some cool stuff that's not on my radar? A camera out of the mainstream that we haven't written about? Some product or finely crafted tool that you think all VSL readers might need to know about? What do you want for the holiday? Tell us in the comments.

(and yes, I think all of us would list PEACE ON EARTH, and all the other planets too...)

Coolest lenses?
Coolest cameras (existing or imagined)?
Coolest lights?
Coolest light modifiers?
It's kind of an open forum: Go!



Sorry. No gratuitous links. You'll have to look up your own "must have" gear.

This used to be the view walking toward downtown Austin. Now it's littered with high rise buildings. I guess that's not so bad.


I was struck more by the range of colors and tones of this image. It was not taken with one of the modern, super cameras but with an older, Kodak SLR/n. That was a bitchy camera that often stopped to "recalibrate" itself in the middle of a shoot, but when it was good it was very good.

Every model of camera has its own palette. Some more interesting than others. The one area in which the old Kodaks excelled was in the rendition of skin tones and colors. Operationally it was less wonderful. But back then we had to suffer a bit for our art.....

A portrait of Belinda.

Belinda.

Someone recently suggested that I only want to shoot "beautiful" people. This is true. But one's definition of beauty can be so wide and encompassing as to include the majority of people one meets in life. Sometimes we are "blinded by love." But most of the time I like to think people don't work hard enough at finding the combination of things that make a person "beautiful."

Eyes. Poise. Strength. Wisdom. Calmness. Being comfortable in one's own skin. These things are the nature of beauty. Harder maybe to capture in photography than traditional measures of beauty, but more permanent and engaging. 

People have said that a portrait can only capture what is on the surface. I think a subject's presentation and energy can provide much more.

We just need to shoot with more appreciation for the beauty that exists at a remove from popular culture's glossy surface.