9.17.2016

Imperfect photographs are not necessarily less authentic than technically perfect images, and certainly not less interesting...

Blurry. Grainy. Not Perfect. (from the Zach Production of : Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The Musical). 


Paris Street in 1978. Blurry. Grainy. Not Perfect. 

When I look at images I like in 2016 and compare them with my favorite image from my earlier years (circa 1978) I see some similarities. I love movement and gesture in the images. I like visual assemblages that feel plucked from real life and which have no need for perfectionism. 

In the images above (the top two) I shot with a smaller sensor format camera than my Sony A7rii. I was using the long zoom range to grab snippets or vignettes that caught my eye. Images of the moment. The quality of the frames was, in my mind, much less important to me than the quickly captured content. 

Now, I have the technical know how and the tools to have created those images in a way that would satisfy the most exacting critics of the craft. We could have spent hours hanging large soft boxes from speed rail, lining up the shots on a 30 inch monitor, hitting the actors with full make-up, creating exact motions for them to rehearse over and over again. And then we could have set up the A7Rii to shoot at ISO 100 with a shutter speed of 1/250th to freeze all movement and guarantee a noiseless and highly detailed file. I can outfit the camera with lenses that resolve the highest levels of detail.  Finally, after painstakingly going over every frame that resulted from the shoot I could have sent the best frame along to a retouching facility in NYC and spent thousands of dollars having every square centimeter of the frame meticulously retouched. But to what end? Would the technical prowess trump the authenticity and realism of the captured moments as rendered above? The more interesting question is: whether the obsession with technique would augment the frame or ruin it?  If I were to conjecture I would say that the obsessive-compulsive fixation with technical perfection would have instantly sucked any life out of the images that they might have had and left us with well exposed and well processed ersatz copies of life that only emulate the moment instead of truly capturing it. In essence the pursuit of perfection morphs "recognition" of an image into kitsch.

In my early photographic career I was obsessed with technical qualities. As an electrical engineering student at UT Austin I shared the misguided belief that everything could be measured and everything measured could be controlled. It's a mindset that doesn't allow for a chance gesture of a moment, captured in the blink of an eye. I was good at producing sterile and lifeless images of things that didn't move or change. Those subjects were ones that were easiest to overlay with the trappings of quantification and the crassness of showing off my newly acquired skill sets. This obsession was rampant in the day. It was expressed in a never ending showcase of images shot by photographers on big sheet film. But not just any sheet film, rather 4x5 pieces of Agfapan 25; an ISO 25 black and white film with almost non-existent grain and nose bleed sharpness. Never were the ruins of old gas stations or the gears and cogs of historic industry so well documented. All from the safety and necessity of of stout tripods. Never before were so many boring images shown on large prints. Shown not to celebrate the content of the prints but as vehicles to show off mastery. These prints still mark the apex of that style and focus. The images made by today's self appointed experts, using Zeiss Otus lenses and high Megapixel cameras continue to pale in comparison and, in a direct side by side evaluation, would probably cause today's puffed up "masters" to head home with their tails between their legs and their prints shoved back into a flat file somewhere never to see the light of day again. 

That still objects such as cityscapes, soaring buildings, urban architecture, clouds and landscapes and man made details dominate the "portfolios" of bloggers who write about gear, and photographers hellbent on proving that their mastery of techniques, and their ready access to the "ultimate" in gear, is so prevalent is sad. These unmoving and completely cooperative subjects provide a blank canvas that is easy to cover with crass and one dimensional images of imagined technical perfectionism. But each frame comes at the cost of impetuous and profound recognition of endless unfolding dramas. They come at the cost of real, emotional connection with the subjects being photographed. They are stop watches and race cars but never a nice drive in the country with a picnic basket, a bottle of Champagne and an attractive companion. 

The bottom image of the three above was taken on a fun and frenetic trip to Paris back in the days before there was a McDonalds, a Starbucks, a Kentucky Fried Chicken or a Gap littering the streets. It was a time when cigarette smoke flavored the air and people walked with style and purpose. I was carrying a cheap, little rangefinder camera loaded with Tri-X film and I looked up and saw this woman with her portfolio tucked under her arm. I raised the camera, made a rough and immediate composition and fired one frame. I have savored the feel and look of this image for thirty eight years. When I initially printed it I was still locked into the ignorant idea that everything we shot NEEDED to be sharp and exacting. Grainless and archly composed. But the image wore me down. I kept printing it and then putting the prints aside. They kept coming back and whispering to me. I finally had the light bulb over my head moment and realized that the authentic immediacy of the image, and its visually implied motion, were powerful to me and instantly put me in mind of that particular second of awareness. They more accurately reflected the scene in front of me on that Autumn morning...

That image represented a salvation for me as a photographer. It took off the handcuffs of needing to fit into a technical, cookie cutter, slot as a photographer. A slot that demanded we look at the miracle of grainlessness and eye cutting sharpness. This image is the one that gave me permission to change the priorities of my own pursuit of art; elevating the recognition of a moment and scene over the trappings of the medium's dictatorial embrace of technique for the sake of technique, and replacing those constraints with an appreciation for the energy that instant image satori can bring. 

Sharpness for the sake of sharpness =  yawn. The thing that makes an image work is seeing something honestly and immediately wanting to capture and share that tiny, finite moment. All the other stuff is the trappings and lace of a boring complicity with the demands of herd-approved structure. And it's these "approved structures" of how something is "supposed" to be done that kill most art. 

Don't tell me my image has motion blur. I don't need bi-focals to see these perceived "mistakes." I'm too busy enjoying the slices of special time that photography keeps giving me.

































9.16.2016

Past Poisons Present.



People get locked into the era of their primes. Not the prime lenses they might own but the prime period of energy and interests in their lives. That age is usually from their 20's to the 40's;  before life has beaten the creativity and optimism out of them.  As people move on and embrace entropy everything is compared to the milestones of technology that correspond to the period of that primacy. It is in this way that people can say, with a straight face, that LPs (long playing grooved records) are better than any other form of recorded music. The blinders of lock-in convince them to spend time and money collecting limited editions of special pressings of music they would never listen to, if not for the delivery method. Equally, this nostalgia for the Golden Age is the reason some people are locked into listening to old jazz, another generation is still listening to disco from the 1970's while yet another group lives to lip-sync bad pop rock from the 1980's. 

This Golden Age Lock-in is the reason why perfectly serious businessmen, who profess to be logical and "bottom line" oriented, can spend enormous amounts of time and money on restored muscle cars that were dominant cars of their youth. "They just don't make em like they used to..." is their mantra. 

It seems to me that the same idea is rampant in photography. Not so much that using a Nikon F is vital but that the true-isms they learned in early times poison the appreciation of present technological advancements. In early days of digital imaging it seemed vital to have a full frame sensor. It was once the only way to get the right mix of both resolution and also big enough pixel sizes to keep noise down and detail up. A stylistic adjunct to this, after years of having nothing but smaller sensor cameras, was that full frame cameras allowed for narrower depth of field and that popular technique had been missed. All of a sudden everything had to be shot on full frame, using an 85mm f1.2 lens at its widest aperture. And to mainstream photographers today this combination (from the past) is still the gold standard.

There is a cohort that achieved their mastery of the craft in the days of medium format film and they will drive the incredibly tiny niche market for a new collections of modern, digital medium format cameras, like the new Hasselblad or the down market Pentax. The idea being that the cameras of the golden age were special because they were NOT the 35mm cameras everyone else was using. If the size was a determiner in the past there is no reason (in their minds) to think anything has materially changed. (Is a bigger sensor a better imaging tool even when "bigger" is now such a relative term?).

The past tends to poison our ability to accept real change that challenges our belief systems. It's the reason most people resisted the inevitable acceptance of electronic viewfinders and why they resisted new, smaller imaging sensors. It's the main reason people cling to using flash as their only lighting tool. It's the reason why people have friction with their current camera menus. And why a huge portion of the camera buying market professes to prefer eliminating video capabilities from their potential cameras. It will be the reason we resist self driving cars...

We see the effects of past intrusion on present everywhere in the photo business. A blogger opines that the stars of yesteryear had uniformly bad technique and would never have been famous in our current, modern times (a disingenuous argument since both of his examples are current, working and gallery-profitable artists). He claims that the only way to fame now is to "up your game." Which is another way of saying we need to go back to the golden age of technical mastery and make sure that all our work is superbly sharp, perfectly focused and color pure. As though using the supposed metrics of an earlier time is the only guarantee of present success in a marketplace driven by a different aesthetic than perfectionism. Make it sharp like the transparencies from a 4x5 or 8x10 view camera and certainly you will prevail. Of course, this is just insane rambling. The people who achieved success in the past did so because the content and style with which they worked was interesting and compelling; sometimes in spite of their technical mastery, or lack thereof. That the style was assimilated and endlessly copied makes it seem more banal that it was in its time but the power of the work at the time is unassailable. 

Nevertheless the hordes of photography remain resistant to change and daily channel the restraints of past practice. They cling to the big sports cameras. They cling to the heavy, fast zooms. They worship endlessly at the altars of high megapixels and full frame sensors. Why? Because that's the way the pros professed to do things oh so many years ago. Because that's the way the advertising by the two major brands is structured. They are always paying stealth homage to the "good old days" of journalism and associated parts of the profession that are in headlong decline. 

I took at gander at the Photo Expo calendar to see that all the usual suspects will be teaching all the usual courses. They'll tell you how to use big flashes and little flashes. How to do the style that made them popular ten or fifteen years ago. And the biggest booths at the show will be Nikon and Canon as they try to convince another generation that the history of their camera production is somehow meaningful to contemporary artists for all the wrong reasons. The camera maker that tossed everything modern at camera design, to see what would stick, (Samsung) is long gone from the market, in some way confirming my belief that the bulk of buyers love to talk about innovation while their buying habits are constrained by their lock in with the past. 

Current photography is no longer about metrics of perfection or overlays of styles popular with generations past. It is about immediacy and experimentalism. The poison of obsession about tools or barrier to entry techniques is a perfect example of the past putting practitioners in self imposed straightjackets. Hard to get out of the box if you think the box is a really nice, comfortable, custom tailored suit.

Like it or not the camera that influences people in their creative prime today is the cellphone. The iPhone 7 is not a revolution but an iteration aimed at the generation which first fully embraced phone cameras as just cameras. We might not be able to make the leap from 4x5 all the way to a pocketable phone for our personal work --- if our idea of "prime" is locked in the past, but we can take some baby steps and accept that all the new formats for  cameras are just as legitimate as everything else. No one format has a lock on anything anymore... 

Techical perfection is nothing more now than a nod to an era when achieving technical perfection was as difficult as having new and novel ideas. We've moved on.








9.15.2016

I was going to shoot test targets in a boring office to see how the Sony RX10 iii performs at high ISOs but then I thought, "What the Hell?" let's just shoot a cool rehearsal at Zach...

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Opening the last week of September at Zach Theatre, in Austin, Texas.
All photos ©2016 Kirk Tuck. All rights reserved.

Zach Theatre in Austin, Texas is less than two weeks away from opening their first show of the season. It's a big one! It's Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (based on the 1990's movie...) and it's going to filled with amazing sets and even more amazing costumes. But those come next week. Right now the case and crew are working hard in rehearsals to get every dance step and musical note perfect. Which they will. After seeing a second rehearsal last night I'd bank on it.

The show is so complex and visually rich that I wanted to see at least three rehearsals before I finally shot the dress rehearsal. I really want to feel the flow of the play so I'm ready to nail the shots we need to help market the production. And, as a side benefit of reconnaissance I get to produce some fun behind the scenes images to show how much work goes into ramping up a production of this magnitude. 

Yesterday evening we had a group of supporters in to watch about an hour of rehearsal and I decided it would be a good opportunity to take another look. Whereas last week I brought out the big guns (Sony A7rii and a6300) and the fast lenses I took a totally different tack this time. I brought one camera and a couple of spare batteries. And it was a very counterintuitive camera! It was the Sony RX10iii that I've been writing about so much lately.

You see, one of the thing people always right about of forae and in reviews is the idea that this camera is useless over 100 or 200 ISO and that there is rampant noise everywhere. The second most talked about issue is the limited battery light. While I was mostly focused on using the camera at high ISOs I thought I'd pay attention to battery life as well. Since this was a rehearsal and not a paying job I felt okay taking a bit of a risk with the gear. After all, it's good to know what you can do with all this stuff....right?

A week ago and again on Monday I spent full days shooting small products on black velvet with the Sony RX10ii and Sony RX10iii. All of the images were shot as raw files at ISO 100. I spent Tuesday and Wednesday of this week post processing each one of 348 files. Dropping out backgrounds on some, dustspotting and general image housekeeping. My takeaway? At ISO 100 those cameras create files that are sharp, detailed and visually solid. As good as any 20 megapixel camera on the market. And it's important to understand that I'm judging the whole system; the sensor and the lenses. 

So it was only logical to want to see what we could get at the other end of the spectrum: Handheld instead of locked down on a tripod. Bad light versus perfect light. Moving subjects versus totally motionless objects. Wacky Jpegs instead of very controlled raw files. 

I set up the RX10iii to shoot highest quality Jpegs with normal high ISO noise reduction. I used the flexible spot focusing mode. I made on custom white balance for the whole space ( all lit by fluorescents living high up in the rafters of a converted warehouse; at least they were all running the same tubes...). That's about it. Oh, yes, I set the camera to shoot at ISO 6400. While there are higher settings on the ISO scale in the camera I am not yet that brave...

Calculating the exposure by determining that I could not go slower than 1/125th of a second and have a prayer of getting un-blurry images of moving dancer and performers, and knowing that the camera at most focal lengths has a real maximum aperture of f4.0 I found that ISO 6400 was pretty much the lower limit for use in that space. (note to self: The theater needs to invest in more lights for that rehearsal space!!!).

So, what did I think? Well, if you just look at the files the way they will most likely be used (on a webpage, on Facebook, on Instagram, on Twitter, on Snapchat ---- not on a printed poster or double-truck magazine spread, I think you will find them quite acceptable. Good, quick social media content. If you jump into magnification mode and pixel peep at 100% you'll see some painterly artifacting from the intrusion of noise reduction but, really, the files are head and shoulders above my old Nikon D300, my Sony a77 and any number of recent cameras with bigger sensors. 

My biggest issue was the camera's ability to lock focus at these low light levels on moving subjects. Out of the 1,000+ images I shot last night I tossed out about 200 for focus issues. That's more than I'm used to but given my promiscuous shooting style I never left a scene without at least a handful of well focused photos. For this camera to work as a totally autonomous, one camera to rule them one camera to dominate all photography, Sony will have to add some sort of phase detection AF to make it truly awesome instead of just mostly awesome. The focusing in the Panasonic fz 1000 is better. 

Given that the real color of the floursecents is like 2900K with a nasty green spike I'm happy with the color rendition and I'm happy with the noise profiles at 6400. I doubt I will use the camera at that setting much when I can get somewhat better performance from a few other choices in the equipment basket but it is nice to know that it's usable in a pinch, or when you just want to play with an enormously long zoom range and a really deliciously sharp lens. 

That's my big revelation. Oh, one more thing. I shot over 1,000 images and still had 30% battery life left on the camera's gauge at the end on the evening. Turning off the automatic switching between back screen and EVF seems to conserve power. That's all I can figure. Anyway, here is an assortment of unvarnished Jpegs for you to look at. You can decide if the ISO 6400 setting will work for your next rehearsal. In the meantime, if you live within 100 miles of Austin you might want to go online and order your Priscilla, Queen of the Desert tickets. Show starts on the 28th of Sept. and runs through the end of October. Here's a link to Zach: http://zachtheatre.org


















9.13.2016

Austin, Texas Photographer Continues on Crazy Quest to Shoot Professional Assignments on a One Inch Sensor Camera. Self Destructive or ......

This the Sony RX10 mk2. It is the most capable all around camera I have used. I take it on assignments along with the Sony RX10 mk3; the second most capable camera I have used.

Yeah, yeah, professionals and serious amateurs only use full frame cameras for their work....

Oh Bullsh@t. There's a wide range of work that could be handled by just about any camera currently on the market. The real secret in most assignments is getting the light right. That's generally followed by making sure your composition is good and balanced. That's followed by... etc. etc. But unless the camera is broken the chances are that just about anything you are using that was produced after 2010 is probably more than up to the task of getting the actual images you need. Double-especially if your primary target is the web. 

I know that if I want massive clicks I can write about the Fuji XT-2 or the Canon 5D mk4 and compare them with some Nikon cameras and some Zeiss lenses and we can keep the protest fires going all day long. But what if I just want to get some work done in a very efficient way for clients who have real businesses and actually write checks for the jobs we produce for them? It quickly becomes obvious that "photography" in the service of commerce is the result of a whole system and not just the camera and one of the magical lenses. 

It should come as no surprise to anyone who reads the blog here but I am a huge fan of the Sony RX10 series of one inch sensor cameras. Earlier this year I produced a corporate video what was shot with an RX10 mk3 as our main camera and the RX10 mk2 as our B-roll camera. The video looked great. And sounded great. We shot it all in 4K (UHD) and the cameras never gave us a moment of doubt; even shooting under dicey circumstances.

A couple of months back I posted a blog about using the long reach of the RX10 mk3 to document the dress rehearsal of the play, Mary Poppins, for Zach Theatre. I supplied images in the blog post that were taken from a fairly impressive distance from the stage but which still filled the frames with bright, sharp images of individual characters and small groupings. The camera handled focus and relatively high ISO in a competent manner and it was a great way of working since I could photograph silently while capturing a wide (24mm equivalent) establishing shot of the stage and then push right in for a waist up character shot with the long (600mm equivalent) end of the lens. 

As I continue to use these cameras I get more and more comfortable with their capabilities. A week and a half ago I decided to stop being so precious about making portraits (headshots) and put down my full frame camera in deference to making a portrait of a doctor, for a large medical practice, with the RX10 mk2. I just finished retouching the client selection today and I was very, very pleased with the results. I am sure they will be as well. 

The one thing that remained vexing about shooting portraits with a small sensor camera was the seeming inability to drop the background out of focus enough to make the image aesthetically satisfying. With the new and more powerful selection tools in PhotoShop Ccxx I've experimented with a number of ways to select the portrait subject, inverse the selection, contract the selection, feather it and then apply gaussian blurs to mimic the traditional look. What I have devised is a very flexible and controllable method (for me) to emulate the style we've done with bigger cameras for years. One more barrier removed. 

And for those of you who eschew the idea of using software to fine tune headshot files I would say that your camera and lenses are already doing so much correction already that what's a bit more pixel  nudging in the service of making a picture and making a buck?

But why bother to make portraits with the small sensor camera if you own big ones already? Well, the RX10's generous depth of field and face detection AF pretty much ensures that you will never again sit down to post process and realize that your expensive camera missed focusing on your subject's eyes once again. The files are small enough to be manageable while big enough to bring the same level of quality into play. The lens on the front of any of these cameras is so flexible. Unlike using primes I can fine tune focal lengths to get exactly what I want and unlike a full frame camera sporting a 70-200mm f2.8 zoom lens (to match the convenience of the smaller cameras) I don't have to worry about the whole tripod mounted assembly drooping toward the floor as I switch to a vertical orientation. Ignore the last point if your big, fat zoom lens comes with a tripod collar. 

The mitigating factor in mostly equalizing the quality between the one inch sensor and the full frame sensor is the fact that, in the studio, you have the ability to use as much lighting power as you want and can always work at ISO 100. At ISO 100, with perfect exposure and nuts on white balance, the smaller sensor cameras are able to produce an amazing level of quality. More than good enough for a 16x20 inch portrait print retouched in the same way as a full frame file.

But the most recent experience that compelled me to write this piece this morning was a session with a private collector of artifacts who hired me for several days to document his collection for a book project. We needed to document hundreds of pieces with great efficiency which was made more difficult since the objects ranged from five feet long (on the long side) to some that were as small as an inch across. We would need to shoot almost directly overhead from the objects with the camera mounted on a tripod with a horizontal arm. 

We used high output LED fixtures in medium sized soft boxes as our primary light sources. With Live View you get to work fully in a "what you see is what you get" mode. No chimping. 

I ran a field video monitor off the HDMI tap on the camera so the client and I could see the live view image without having to miraculously float above the camera to see our subjects and compositions. The 8 inch monitor was small and light enough so that we could move it around as required. I could grab the monitor and watch it as I adjusted the camera's zoom from a perch on a step ladder. I could watch the screen as I shifted the focusing point to any position on the camera screen. We could watch the electronic level for the camera and check the histogram as we shot. But most importantly, the client could hold the monitor in one hand, create wonderful combinations and collages of artifacts, and check his compositional work as he went. 

We were working at ISO 100, between f5.6 and f8, and with shutter speed hovering in the quarter second to eighth second range. The camera was set to do a five second self timer and we could trigger the camera to start the exposure with an IR remote. Alternately, the shutter button on the RX10 series of cameras is actually tapped for use with a conventional, traditional cable release! Amazing but true. 

Working with a custom white balance and consistent exposures we took ample advantage of the capacious depth of field provided by the combination of focal lengths and sensor size. We were able to keep combinations of objects in sharp focus with ease. 

While I had both the RX10 mk2 and mk3 with me we mostly used the mk2 because it is easier to focus down into the macro range and the 200mm long end was ample for our working distances. 

We often hear grousing about the Sony NPW-50 batteries but I was very impressed with the stamina of the batteries we used. We started shooting at 8 am and finished each day around 4 pm, and on each day we used only two batteries. One in the morning and one in the afternoon. For a live view set up with consistent feed into an external monitor I think this is impressive performance. Well on par with more conventional DSLRs, when they are used in a live view mode. 

So, here we are in the future. Now. I'll toss out idea that our embrace of "ultimate" quality cameras is meaningless for many of the day-to-day jobs that photographers are hired to do. Give me a convenient and flexible camera any day of the week and I'll work efficiently with it. I am consistently amazed that we are able to produce work that is easily technically better than we could have six or seven years ago with equipment that cost five times less than one of these little bridge cameras. 

None of this really matters if you do this for fun instead of money but this blog is really about the working life of a photographer, not the idea of having endless financial resources, and days in which to make one perfect photograph. There is a time value to production that is part of the mix of work. If all cameras in the bag satisfy the technical quality parameters required by the job then why oh why would I not want to choose the most efficient working tool possible? In many cases that tool is decidedly not the biggest, most expensive and highest resolution camera on the market. In fact, I would say that the smaller, lighter more flexible tool trumps the bigger tools more often than not. It does so by reducing the frictions of production in meaningful ways.  

I am now ready to hear your arguments vis-a-vis my occupational sanity....

A different point of view about value? Read this: http://animal-dynamics.com/cameras-vs-houses-sony-rx10ii/  Thanks to blog reader, Richard. 

9.11.2016

Sunday is the day on which I make a point to walk around with a camera and just look at stuff. Everything changes all the time in life. It's good to get out and notice the changes.


Another perfect Sunday is coming to a close. I was up early and in the pool while most people were popping open the New York Times on their laptops or tablets. We rocked through 4100 yards as the sun rose up and burned away the scattered clouds. The water was perfect. It felt like it was right at 78 degrees. The air temperature was down at 73, which is a delightful change from the usual temperature at this time of year. 

A little after noon I grabbed the camera that is quickly becoming my go to street camera and I headed toward downtown to see what might be new. The camera was the Sony a6300, packing the relatively new (to me) Sigma 30mm f1.4 DN Contemporary. Love a lens with a name like that....

I took my time and took the long walk. I spent some time at the Graffiti Wall where the arrangement of rocks below seemed cool to me. Then I walked over to the Humanities Research Center at the UT Campus to get another look at the fabulous retrospective show of Elliott Erwitt's photography. It's just as good as it was last week when I visited. If you are near Austin (and that includes any readers we might have in San Antonio) this show is worth the drive. It occupies the entire first floor gallery of the HRC and it is wonderfully curated. The best. Believe me. The best. 

From the HRC I turned south again, heading past the State Capitol (currently under construction) and back into downtown proper. Down the smelly and seedy portion of East Sixth Street and over to the Convention Center where I was tickled to see a bustling Bridal Show in full swing. I remember going to a bridal show about twenty years ago and the thing that struck me, when I reviewed my memory of that event and compared it to the reality in front of me, is just how much bigger people have gotten over the last twenty years. I have to say that the attendees, when compared to the people two decades ago, are profoundly heavier. Thirty to fifty pounds on average. Sad and weird. I shook my head and continued my walk...



I headed back west past the tourists, drinking and eating appetizers on the sprawling front porch of the JW Marriott and continued east past the Austin Music Hall; now marked for demolition (that was a  short run...). Past the new Seaholm Center with a Trader Joes grocery store doing good business. I made it back to my car, parked in my usual space by the Treaty Oak, and headed home. 

When I landed here I was interested to see what I had gotten on my leisurely stroll through the city. I'd meant to spend the afternoon playing around with black and white but it seems like I veered in pretty much the opposite direction. 

Murals on Congress Ave.


I loved the splashes of art on the construction facades. They certainly lively up the place.



A fun find for the day was two UT film school students out shooting on Congress Avenue with a camera model that I owned, and used, many years ago. It was a Bolex Rex 5, set up in its spring-wind mode and loaded with 100 feet of some sort of 16mm film. The two guys handling it seemed to be having fun. The camera was certainly getting many thumbs up from for people savvy enough to know what it was. It brought back memories for me. I'd spent a lovely afternoon one day at Hamilton's Pool, back when an actress and a young film maker wannabe could head to the natural pool (about 20 miles from downtown Austin) on a hot weekday and not run into anyone else. I remember every frame...






Why I prefer panels with diffusion on them to soft boxes for portrait lighting.

Martin Burke as Crumpet for Zach Theatre's "Santaland Diaries." 

When I first started in photography the beginners all lit things with white umbrellas but they always coveted and aspired to own soft boxes. Especially Chimera soft boxes which were considered the cream of the crop. All of our photographer idols had studios filled with soft boxes. All sizes, from 12 by 12 inch up to 48 by 72 inches. There was a car shooter I knew in Dallas who had a custom soft box bank that was twelve feet by twenty feet. Amazing. And we would always marvel at the quality of light. Soft, yet directional. The boxes were relatively easy to set up and take down and at one point in my career I really couldn't understand why anyone would use anything else. 

But then I started shooting stills on movie sets and at high end video shoots and I watched as directors of photography lit up their sets using mostly various big frames which, in conjunction with diffusion material, created panels of light. At first I thought they just didn't know about the existence of soft boxes but after some long conversations with grips and gaffers I started to understand that the panels could provide a much more comprehensive amount of control, and along with the control, more "looks" than could be pulled out of soft boxes. 

I started collecting various frame sizes and cloths and using them in my work almost all the time. Once I learned just how much customization of light I could accomplish

9.10.2016

Fuji versus Nikon. It's not a contest of performance or image quality but one of aesthetics and brand positioning.


On the one hand we have the venerable maker of traditional DSLRs in the form of Nikon. Their once rectangular and hard cornered bodies converted like the conversion of automobile designs; from the sleek lines of the 1960's to the boring and aesthetically non-starting, rounded, aerodynamic shapes of the 1980's and beyond. Think: Mid-1980's Ford Taurus.

On the other hand one of the flagship representatives (and current pop star) of the mirrorless world, the Fuji XT-2. A clear design reference to the early days of mirrored cameras, visually, but endowed with a technological change that seems to be resonating more and more with aficionados and purists in the photographic world. The XT-2 reminds me so much of the generic SLRs of the 1970's; like the Rollei SLRs and even the Konicas.

But they are apt examples of the two factions currently warring against each other for the affections and $$$ of today's camera consumers. It's an interesting point in the history of camera design and marketing.

I watched this Summer as Nikon launched one camera that none of us will buy and a few other models that many traditionalists will consider. The first camera is the D5. It does one thing well and one thing only. It focuses quickly. Not necessarily with pinpoint accuracy, out of the box, but there is a built in app that automatically calibrates Nikon lenses to enable them to achieve focus. Seems a bit sad that a multi-thousand dollar camera and multi-thousand dollar lenses from the same company are unable to focus as accurately as their own grandfather lenses from previous decades, but there you have it.

No doubt that the $6500 Nikon D5 is nicely finished and is probably built to a withstand lots of wear and tear. I am sure the shutter is tested for a high number of actuations. But in all other regards it's a body that doesn't buy you better levels of image quality than you might be able to achieve with any number of camera bodies at half, a quarter or even 20% of its selling price. Who is this camera aimed at? For all practical purposes it is aimed only at sports and action photographers. There are better sensors for the fans of ultimate image quality = even within Nikon's own line. The resolution is a bit light for studio and landscape photographers and the weight is a quick impediment to dedicated street photographers and documentarians.

The technical attribute that makes this camera a non-starter for me is it's antiquated viewing system. Yes, I am certain that its optical, pentaprism finder is unequalled in clarity and transparency. I am sure it is a joy to use to look at the world in as close a condition as our human eyes see the world. But to my mind a camera finder needs to do more. The age of optical finders is dimming and being replaced by electronic viewfinders, and we seem to have hit the tipping point in the acceptance of that realization for a large plurality of serious photographers; professionals included.

I doubt Nikon anticipates selling very many of these cameras. The Olympics are over and more normal photographic life goes on. Too heavy for anything but a work camera and too limited for the kind of work that most of us end up doing. For $6500 the most thrilling thing this camera does, in my book, is to get some 3,800 exposures per battery charge. That may become its claim to fame as it slips into the stream of history.

The Fuji XT2 is, in some ways, the antithesis of the D5. At $1,600 it's near the high end of the price range for APS-C mirrorless cameras but nearer the middle/bottom of the range if you are also considering APS-C DSLRs like the Nikon D500 or the 7Dmk2 from Canon. The XT2 is not engineered to withstand infinite abuse. The frame rates with full AF are not as fast as the big Nikon but, in fact, for the average shooter the Fuji XT-2 brings a lot more to the party.

Being a traditional DSLR camera with an optical finder the D5 will definitely take a back seat when it comes to shooting video. No zebras, no focus magnification, no EVF imaging, and no in-body image stabilization. Wanna use it for video in bright light? Get a big Loupe for the rear screen or get an external monitor. But you probably won't bother since there are much better video solutions out there offering 4K video and all the video niceties for half the price and less. Just Google the Sony A7rii or the A7sii. Or even an RX10iii....

The Fuji XT-2 is the first Fuji still camera that jumps into video feet first. It features image magnification until you start recording. While you are recording video you still have access to focus peaking. The one thing that is twingy is the idea that you must buy the battery grip in order to be able to monitor sound via headphones. A minor gripe since the body and battery grips together are still far less than half the price of the D5.

The Fuji XT-2 seems to check all the right boxes for people who are moving to APS-C, EVF-enabled cameras. The range of lenses is expanding and each of the lenses introduced so far is well regarded. There are a number of fast primes which is like catnip to the older generation of shooters. The EVF moves the camera into the future along with the full range of Sony mirror-free cameras. This allows for continuous live view and all the digital trimmings such as film emulations that you can see as you shoot and zebras, as well as focus peaking (which is very, very practical when shooting with manual lenses).

The black and white and color film emulations resonate with a generation immersed in Instagram filters. The sensor in the camera is said to be wonderful in terms of color and tonality. It feels good in many people's hands and doesn't quickly become burdensome.

But what Fuji has done is to position the brand correctly for a contemporary market whereas Nikon is still branding their cameras to appeal to a newspaper procurement department from 1995. Every time I hear about how brilliantly tough and resilient the Nikon pro bodies are I remember watching journalists from the last century rushing around the sidelines of sporting events with three big, motor drive Nikons around their necks and over their shoulders. One body always had the cool, wide angle lens on the front; one had the short zoom and the third had the long zoom. As the photojournalists ran the cameras bang, bang, banged together with a disturbing cadence. You could watch little parts of the camera bodies fall off as the photographers allowed them to slam into each other like those little metal balls on swings that people used to buy for their desktops....There were five or six one inch metal balls at hung in a row from a little wooden frame and if you pulled up one ball, released it and let it slam into the row of balls the energy would transfer to the ball at the opposite end and it would bounce up. That's what the photojournalists' cameras spent their lives doing. So, of course, they had to be built to take the abuse.

But the abuse was usually a side effect of the cameras not being owned by the staff photographers but by the newspapers or the magazine they worked for. If one broke they could ask for, and receive, a replacement at no cost to the themselves.

With the exception of people working spot news, and pros working high dollar sporting events (one tenth of one percent of working photographers), this "trio camera necklace" of destruction is not the working modality of most present day photographers, be they pros or serious amateurs. Most of us are using one camera at a time or using them in a less frenetic fashion when we do use multiple cameras. We care for them better because we own the cameras and we own the responsibility for their potential demise.

Fuji seems to understand that the market has changed and the branding of cameras has changed. The emphasis is no longer prioritized in this descending order, a la Nikon: 1. Indestructibility 2. super fast focus acquisition 3. dedication to optical view finders 4. Giant, grippable surfaces 5. Image quality 6. Filter and film emulation enhancements 7. Usable 4K video. 

Most of us understand that indestructibility is relatively meaningless when most of us will upgrade to demonstrably better imaging cameras in two to three years. The toll for bullet proof build quality is insanely high given that most (non-sport shooting) professionals and serious amateurs are never going to get near the MTBF of their camera's shutters before the camera is a fondly remembered relic relegated to Ebay.

Most of us require a higher degree of accuracy in our focus than raw speed of acquisition. An ever growing number of us are adamant that we want the feedback and information provided by great EVFs and that we're never going back to what are becoming vestigial optical viewfinders.

We've mostly voted with our wallets against bigger, heavier cameras because the entire cohort of people buying serious, single intention cameras are aging and not willing to over-burden their shoulders and lower backs in the service of camera portage.

The bottom line is that Nikon is still marketing the machine. The specs. The robustness of materials while paying passing lip service to the idea of creativity, pleasant design and ultimate usability. This emphasis on horsepower or clock speed is lost on consumers who have come to expect their technical toys to operate with transparency. Nikon has bypassed the narrative of art and the "magic" of the sensor to keep addressing the concerns of a previous generation: the ability to pound on nails with the camera and not have the camera fail. Thick sheet metal in the new world of bluetooth interconnection. (An analogy for both cars and cameras). This is sad given their ancient history of telling photographer success stories in their marketing...

Fuji is not selling their new camera on the basis of its alloy frame (that's now considered a standard feature for entry to a certain market) nor are they focusing on the life cycle of the camera or its ability to withstand careless battering. No, they are looking at much more urbane and urban audiences and aiming their branding toward the things a new generation is more interested in: How beautiful is the rendering of the X-tran sensor? (implication: it has magic power to make your images more beautiful than other cameras used under similar situations). The size and design of the body is less intrusive and burdensome, as are many of the lenses. It's a camera that one could carry with them throughout a walk in a city without the size and weight becoming an unnecessary burden or something that's big enough to attract unwanted attention.

Nikon is selling a tool while Fuji is selling a companion. A good looking a affable companion.
Stripped down to their essence the cameras do basically the same thing. They use modified Sony sensors to make photographs with the aid of their own branded lenses. But the nut of it is how we've been manipulated to perceive the difference between the whole Nikon line and the smaller Fuji line of X cameras. Again, one is a tool for production while the other is an (affordable) near Luxe item that infers from its design and positioning that it is for people more interested in true art than just rote documentation. A Mini Cooper versus a Ford Edge.

One can easily see that Fuji is attempting to nestle into a space not unlike Leica's; almost handmade machines but at a lower price point. A status symbol in the manner of automatic watches in a world of quartz watches with batteries.

Branding is so much more powerful that actual feature sets or modalities of use. We assess our purchases not in a quantitative fashion but a qualitative fashion that employs subjective measures of the relative value of design versus function.

The reality is that a good photographer can take good photographs with either camera. One line will enjoy increasing success while the other line will show declining success. The momentum toward mirrorless cameras, and cameras of smaller size, has less to do with consumer comparisons between the cameras than the power of blogger, reviewer, magazine etc. prejudices to push consumer preferences in one direction or the other.

Right now there is one company that is clearly winning the branding and marketing wars and that is Fuji. Most of us have never pitted a similar Fuji lens and a Nikon or Canon lens of similar price and spec against one another and so we cannot seriously state that one is better than the other (other than anecdotally). But the mythology of the marketplace as created by iterative marketing and opinion maker propaganda has us salivating about the idea of owning the prime, Fuji lenses; even though they have a limited track record in the market. And far fewer user samples at full size are available.

The same is true in the video market when it comes to differences in Sony A7Sii cameras and offering from all the other makers. The untested consensus is that the Sony is the one to beat, even though some cameras like the Panasonic GH4 and the more expensive Sony A7Rii best the A7ii in some important technical video parameters.

At this point most of the differences between the two categories (mirror-free and traditional DSLR) of cameras boil down to whether or not one wants an EVF versus an OVF and then, whose branding messages you ultimately decide fit your personality or your self-image.

Since this is inarguably the case I would state that Nikon needs to change the hell out of their marketing and branding to make their cameras magical companions instead of cold tools while prospective Fuji buyers should re-apprise their lust for the XT-2 and re-direct said avarice toward the X-Pro-2 which more clearly fits the brand driven desire for elegant design and "best friend" status.

Of all the cameras in the market today I am most drawn to the design aesthetics of the Fuji X-Pro-2. So much so that I don't care if its video is crap or its battery only last for 15 minutes, it's a beautifully done camera. I may be relatively immune though to their particular branding since the joy I feel when handling one fades quickly and my longer term affinity/relationship with the mirror-free cameras from Sony reasserts itself.

At this point in the current cycle of higher end cameras we've begun to attain imaging equivalence across brands and are now engaged solely in a war of creating product personalities through the magic of advertising and paid testimonials. The reliance on increasingly irrelevant pro "thumbs up" in the service of Nikon is becoming downright embarrassing while the understated "we're like Leica only cheaper and sexier" seems to be working out well for Fuji. Sony just hums along selling cameras because they work well and have exotic feature sets that make people happy and productive.... at least that's what their marketing insinuates to me.

Finally, I want to take this opportunity to disagree with those who believe that the success of single intention cameras (those unencumbered by phones) is in making them more and more connected. I beta tested the "ultimate" connected camera in the form of the Samsung Galaxy NX in 2013. You could connect with wi-fi or cell network. Or bluetooth. Or morse code. It ran full on Android Jelly Bean. In every instance the parts dedicated to connection ruined the intimate attachment of the user to the camera and killed its embrace. Get a life. Meet friends for coffee and show them your photos.

Match your camera to your imaging needs, and the way you enjoy working, not necessarily by what rare ingredients were used in its construction or how well the lines of the camera complement your outfits and ancillary wardrobe.

Sexiest camera in my studio today? Probably the little a6300. It's just cute.

OT: The irony of ordering the "Big Breakfast" at McDonalds while browsing through a copy of Food And Wine Magazine.

Elvis Behind Bars.

I woke up early this morning. I beat my alarm clock. I was feeling a bit sore in my left hip because I'd done something kind of zany on Thurs. Instead of going to regular swim practice I headed to the pool in the off hours and kicked 2,000 yards straight through with a kick board. I'm here to tell you that I, at least, have less resilience and ability to recover from over-training than I did when I was twenty years younger...

Anyway, I got up and did yoga stretches for half an hour before swim practice today. We hit the water at 7:30 am and pounded through a bunch of yards, many of which included sets of 200 yard I.M. swims. By the time I exited the pool and showered I was exhausted and starving. Really hungry. Stomach rumbling hungry. Usually I'll go home and have some cardboard tasting, healthy cereal and fruit but today I succumbed to advertising and weakness. 

There is a McDonalds about halfway between the pool and my house. It's a very upscale McDonalds that has been redesigned and is actually a visually pleasant place to hang out in. There is public wi-fi and it's pretty fast. I saw the signs in the window for their "Big Breakfast" and my stomach demanded that we stop and check it out. I surrendered to impulse and agreed. 

It was quiet in the restaurant. There were no other customers at the counter. I ordered the Big Breakfast. It includes: an ample serving of freshly prepared, scrambled eggs, a hash brown assemblage, a pork sausage patty, and a biscuit. I also ordered (without any trepidation) a small coffee. It was ready in the blink of an eye and I took my prize off to a comfortable booth to dig in. 

I hate eating in restaurants alone unless I have something to read. My choice of reading materials in the car today was meager. My choice was a book about the mechanics of swimming; which I had read six times before, a book on chaos theory, and a recent copy of Food and Wine Magazine. I went with the magazine. As I sat in my booth eating a complete meal that cost something like $4.80 I had the thought that I was immersed in several layers of irony. One: that one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the southern United States is host to a much maligned fast foot chain outpost. And that it has weathered the decades while many other tonier restaurants have vanished from the zip code. Two: That a much ridiculed chain would have such nice and comfortable interior appointments. Much more comfortable than the confusing and harsh redo of our neighborhood Starbucks. Three: That I would care enough about food to subscribe to several magazines on the subject and be reading an article about Michelin starred restaurants while dining in the most egalitarian restaurant I can imagine. Delicious irony. But the post workout body wants what it wants....

My review? The coffee tasted less bitter and burned than the usual Starbucks cup. It was actually very good. The eggs were fresh and well prepared. The sausage was inoffensive. I felt guilty eating the hash brown potato patty as it is so fried (but the crunchy texture is certainly satisfying), but the standout was the smallish biscuit. It was as perfect as any biscuit I have tasted.

My only memory of the magazine was of the advertisements for cruises. The photographs in most of the ads were very overproduced and odd flights of visual fantasy.

I took a camera along in the car. It was the Sony A7ii. It stayed in the car.