Sony's answer to Nikon and Canon's "Nifty Fifty."

A Rehearsal Photo from Zach's upcoming production of: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The Musical.

In the distant past cameras did not come with nasty little "standard zoom" lenses as part of their cost effective package, they came with a 50mm f1.8 or f2.0 normal lens. The benefits are legion. Even the most pedestrian 50mm lens handily outperformed the plastic zooms when it came to sharpness and clarity. The zooms were preferred only for their focal length flexibility which, unfortunately, was only deliver along with a big helping of slow aperture. Over time the general public became less and less discriminating (or less well educated) and chose to think that the zoom gave them more stuff for their money. Now cameras no longer come packaged with normal, prime lenses. 

Nikon and Canon continued to make small, light, fast and inexpensive 50mm lenses and, as trends go through cycles, the benefits of the single focal length lens have been rediscovered. Hundreds of thousands of "Nifty Fifties" have been sold over the last decade and photography is better for it. But if you chose to live your photographic life in the Sony mirrorless camp you had few low priced options in that focal length range. Sony introduced one lens, the 55mm f1.8 that cost about $900 and, while it is very, very good, it seems almost churlish to have the ambition to be a big camera company if your customers don't have a cost effective choice in this realm. No, the Zeiss Loxias don't count as cost effective.

The faithful waited three years from the launch of the original A7 series cameras in order to see the introduction of a cost effective alternative to the super lens. It comes to us in the form of a 50mm f1.8 FE lens at a list price of $249 and a current street price of $199. It comes to us with six elements and, in a departure from Nikon and Canon, one of the elements is an aspherical. There are seven aperture blades and it's touted as a high resolution lens solution. According to the test hungry technicians at DXOMark.com it tests out very, very well. It out resolves 24megapixel, full frame sensors and deliver a score of 36, which is a big bump up from most standard zoom lenses --- even the Zeiss 24-70mm f4.0.

I had read the reviews of the lens at DPReview.com and understood that it had some handling issues that might ---- make a lot of users unhappy. The biggest issue is that this is one of the few Sony lenses that does not autofocus at the wide open aperture and then stop down. Nope, when put onto a camera the camera tries (some times desperately) to focus at the set aperture. If you've set f2.0 or f4.0 it generally doesn't present much of a problem. If you set f11 and you are in a dim setting you are in for a world of focusing hurt as your state of the art camera hunts and hunts. The flip side is that focusing at the taking aperture (especially at f4.0 and f5.6) does away with the effects of focus shift which plague even the priciest of lenses. That's a good thing.  But it's a good thing (accuracy) mixed with a big dose of bad thing (slow focusing acquisition). It's a compromise. And each user has to decide if the compromise is worth it to him/her. 

I bought the lens fully aware of this issue. The lens also has an interesting/annoying characteristic that makes it feel like it's part of a point a shoot camera. It doesn't just acquire focus and stop, the lens goes to either side of sharp focus before stopping. It introduces a bit of delay. I'm not sure if it's fixable with a firmware update but I'm using 3.10 in the camera and it should be working in full phase detection AF mode, so I don't get the compact camera hunt motif...

All of this is critical to know if your intention is to use the 50mm as a convenient AF lens. I had other plans. I love the manual focus action of my existing choice of lens for the A7ii. It's a Contax/Yashica Zeiss 50mm f1,7 that is very sharp and contrasty. It works well with the one button focus magnification of the A7 camera series. It's also quite usable with focus peaking. It's more accurate with the magnification but it's an extra step to push a button to engage the magnification and then push a button again to go back to the normal view in the viewfinder. Too many steps for stuff that moves quickly or erratically.  I wanted an inexpensive lens with good optical quality that would also trigger the focusing magnification with a touch on the focusing ring. You grab the ring to focus, the magnification engages and shows you a big, crisp image (with focus peaking intact) in the viewfinder and the second you stop turning the ring the image snaps back to showing the full frame. 

I didn't know how well this would work but having spent decades using my hands, in conjunction with my brain, to focus any number of cameras, I thought I would give it a try. What better place to try than on a stage production rehearsal, under mixed light at my local, regional theater?

I had already done some casual images just walking around and came to the conclusion that the lens was terrifically sharp across the center almost wide open. I've been shooting it at f2.5 and f3.5 and have been very, very satisfied by the optical quality. The optical design and the construction of my sample is top notch. But stationary objects are like shooting fish in a barrel, it's easy to get a nice sharp frame that way. 

While it took a bit of practice I was comfortable with the manual focusing routine I've described above: grab the ring, focus with magnification, let go and shoot. The results were gratifying; my images are impressively sharp.  As sharp as I need them to be. When the camera gave me an enlarged image I could easily focus on skin texture or eyelashes, even the weave of fabric. Once I released the lens I obviously didn't have to mess with focus hold buttons as the focus remain fixed until I changed it. 

My takeaway from the 400 images I shot in a preliminary rehearsal yesterday is that the lens is quite sharp and the manual focusing, with the A7ii body, is easy and quick. The lens may, in fact, be no better than its Nikon and Canon counterparts but the focusing method I've described might just be more accurate and allow exacting focusing position and acquisition a much higher percentage of times giving me the perception that the lens performs better. And if the images look better then who is to argue? I will keep this one on the front of my A7ii as daily user and look forward to some sort of firmware update that makes AF a more transparent transaction. Until then I'll count on the manual focus to do my heavy lifting. 

A lot of words for a cheap lens but in the end I am glad I bought this one and put the left over $700 into my retirement account. I might need that cash some time in the future. You never know. 

Nice resistance to flare. 

Enjoy the book. Get one now.

OT: Post Swim Croissant Tasting at Cantine Italian Cafe and Grill in Austin, Texas. Post workout fun.

Croissant Trio from Pieous, Dripping Springs, Texas.

I woke up this morning, gulped down a cup of hot Irish Breakfast tea with milk and a tiny bit of sugar and headed out the door for the 8:30-10:00 a.m. Masters Swim Practice. I was a few minutes late getting to the deck and when I got there all the medium pace lanes were filled up. I ended up sharing a lane with a notoriously dedicated triathlete whose workout philosophy is harder, faster, better. She dragged me through 4800 yards and I was spent by the end. Feeling virtuous but physically spent.

Afterward fellow swimmer, Emmett Fox, asked me if I had my camera (yes, always) and reminded me that we'd be forsaking our mundane local Starbucks for after-swim coffee in preference for a morning at Cantine Italian Cafe And Grill. Emmett and swimming spouse ( partner of one who swims... ) Dr. Jim Grubbs were going to host a tasting event to decide, once and for all, which bakery had the best croissants in all of Austin. No burnt coffee and refrigerated pastries at Starbucks this week!

Cantine, the restaurant, is closed on Saturday morning so we had the entire place to ourselves. Jim and Emmett had put together a selection of eight candidates from favorite local bakeries, as well as one mystery entry, the identity of which we discovered at the end. They put out three each of the croissants on nine plates and numbered the plates. No one was told the provenance of the pastries until the tasting was over and the scores tabulated. The eight local candidates for butter and flour supremacy were from: 

Baguette et Chocolat, Texas French Bread, Sweetish Hill Bakery, Easy Tiger Bakery, Cafe No Sé (S. Congress Hotel), La Patisserie, Elizabeth Street Cafe, and a bakery near chef Emmett's home in Dripping Springs --- Pieous. 

We tasted in small amounts, clearing our palettes with wonderful, stout coffee (thanks Cantine!) and we made notes and rated each entry on a scale of 1 to 5. The results were tabulated and the winner (by consensus) was Pieous Bakery from Dripping Springs. The very, very close second was the entry from Café No Se. 

I brought a Sony RX10iii camera along and made images of our encounter with good food. It was a fun way to spend a toasty and humid Saturday morning; swilling coffee in the air conditioned comfort of one of Austin's best restaurants while chewing on croissants. Especially fun for me as I had my camera in my hand. 

So, the surprise inclusion, made, I am sure, tongue-in-cheek, was three croissants that Jim bought in the frozen section at the local Trader Joe's Market. He took them home, followed the baking instructions and included them in the artisanal mix. Anonymity didn't matter, even the least discerning in the group was able to understand the difference in texture and overall taste. Like one other in the group the Trader Joe's version had added sugar, which we believe D.Q.'s it from being "authentic." 

We disbanded and went our separate ways, planning to meet for next week's coffee at Cafe No Se.
An earlier motion to move to McDonalds was roundly vetoed.

Why the move from Starbucks after 15 or so years? Easy, they remodeled the local store and did an incredibly bad job with the remodel. It is much louder, the overall seating was reduced and the seating that is left is almost impossible to configure for any group of more than four. The final straw is the chain's new devotion to costumer confusion. They changed the flow and now no one knows how or where to line up to order their stuff. Instead of a line you get a confused group of people who would dearly love to get coffee but have no idea of who is next or why. No signage. No stantions. No directional supports. It's very sad when companies make customer experiences meaner and dowdier. And whoever sold them the pin spot LEDs that shine in everyone's eyes, no matter where they sit, did no favors to people who are sensitive to good lighting and/or good design. Next time they remodel they might consider hiring architects, or at least consider keeping the ones they use (if they did) sober and rational. So there is a basket of good reasons to shun this member of the chain and search out better. local providers. My advice? Short the stock...especially if all their remodels turn out as poorly as this one did...

#5. My personal favorites for flavor and texture. From No Sé at the South Congress Hotel.

The overall winner.

The runner up. By a nanometer.

Our host was Cantine; my favorite South Austin restaurant. Renowned for their great pizzas. 

Emmett preparing the blind taste test. 

Martha takes notes.

Rating for appearance. 

Incidentally, Pieous wins for best appearance. 

discussing the fine points of baked goods. 

The Co-Captains: Dr. Jim Grubbs and Restauranteur, Emmett Fox.

Lisa Fox (co-owner, Cantine) slices croissants into sample sized servings. 

Patty and Jim get serious with their evaluations.

Stout and virtuous, free flowing coffee to cleanse our palettes between samples...

We rated on both texture and taste.


Photographs are physical manifestations of opinions. Opinions about what looks interesting and what doesn't.

Of the nice things people say about photographs (beautiful, balanced, long tones, great composition, wonderful color, outstanding technique, lovely bokeh, etc.) the one aspect that ultimately makes a photograph interesting or not is the content. And, with the exception of pure documentation (here's is an exact photographic copy of your painting...), all photographic content is the expression of an opinion from an artist about what to include in a frame of what to leave out. Once the image has been framed there is an opinion expressed again about how to express the framed content. Will it be black and white? Will it be color? Will the color be accurate or reflect some nostalgic affectation from yesteryear? How big or small with the final photograph be? How contrasty should the image be?
If one takes multiple images of a person how then will the final frame be chosen? What parameters will be used in that process? In the taking of the photograph will the photographer attempt to impose more or less control over the event of the photograph? Will he suggest or demand a certain pose? Will he infer the pose or expression by subtly mirroring what he wants to see in the final frame to his subject?

And where did all these intermingled opinions come from? When we first embark on making art we have a certain amount of life experience and, to be honest, it's the subjective life experiences (and the reactions to the experiences) of each artist that makes work unique. Uniquely interesting or uniquely banal.  

For most of us being young means that we've seen fewer things which might inform our vision. As we grow older we hope(?) that life has unveiled many, many interesting things to us, and those are the touchstones we use to decide what to include in our art and how to include it. But each person comes from a different collage of experiences and studies. And the counterpoint to this wealth of experience and exposure is our self-censorship as we are certain that we've seen something like this before and we're beaten down (by repetition) until we are convinced that our variation of the thing already seen can't equal the samples we've seen from the masters of old. We see the overarching opinion instead of our alterations and additions...

I think we are profoundly affected and trained by so much of what we've seen when we were young and didn't understand anything about the constraints and clichés of art. My earliest visual memories come from a time when my own father was in graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis. We lived in a two story apartment and I must have been all of four or five years old. My first visual memories are of light and shadow. The cold, blue, winter light that came in through the living room windows to bath the aging, borrowed furniture in a Sven Nyqvist sort of illumination. Austere and precise light. It was a bright, cold light that rendered soft, thin shadows. Another memory of the time is of me stopping just to stare at the way light came though the spindles on the railing that ran up the stair case and projected shadows on a soft, pale and pastel, yellow wall. It was the same year I really looked at leaves on a tree as being both part of the tree and separate from the tree.

I was not an early age photographer. I only came to photography in my last years at college, and then only as a hobby or a pass time. My training was in literature and, for me, images have their own words attached, even if they are just gratuitous descriptions of what already exists in the photographs. 

I'm sure that the things we see early on are the same things that become part of our process and make up the bulk of our personal work in photography. When I make a portrait looking at the completed images reminds me of the feeling of the session and the words we exchanged while the subject and I collaborated in the making of the portraits. The words intermingle with the graphic-ness and objective content of the images in front of me. My whole endeavor in creating portraits is to first feel deeply attached to the subject and the moment, and second, to try and share the whole feeling, encapsulated precariously onto two dimensions. The experience and the actual piece of art are inseparable to me if it's work that means anything to me. 

This will seem odd or embarrassing for me to admit but I will write it anyway. I have always been captivated by beautiful people in my world. Not a mundane, classic beauty like the blond movie starlets but a deeper and more compelling beauty that flows from the eyes of a subject and from their projection of grace as they move or alight. It's a combination of some inner energy that is resident in some and not in others along with engaging features. It's that kind of beauty that overwhelmed me when I first met my (now) wife so many years ago. And here is the embarrassing thing to admit:

After practicing portraiture and living through the endless process of just living as a photographer I came to my conclusion that your vision is molded by your experiences. If you see beauty around you then it becomes part of your subconscious context for your future existence. For your intellectual choices. When my son was born I made a point to hire the most beautiful baby sitters possible. People already in my sphere of life because of my work or my conscious efforts to be surrounded by interesting people. When we left my son in someone's care in order to go out to a show opening, a reception or an adult dinner, I wanted him to be able to look into the eyes of someone with whom I had photographed and had witnessed the sort of grace and energy I'd experienced from them. For his first three years he spent most of his time with his mother. Of all the people I've photographed she exemplified to me those attributes I had come to value. But his other caretakers were beautiful in their own way as well. You've seen and commented on many of them here on this blog when I've displayed their portraits. In this way I consciously tried to prejudice my child toward an appreciation for a certain kind of beauty. 

If he ever embraces photography, or some other expressive visual art, I hope that grounding will serve to prejudice him to see in a certain way and create opinions that share his internalization of my early efforts to surround him with interesting beauty. 

In some ways it's no different than painting a nursery with soothing colors or supplying plush crib toys for tactile pleasure. 

So, in the end, all compelling photography is nothing more than well seen subjects selected and enhanced through the opinions, created by the life experiences, of the artist. Since that is so it stands to reason that the more richly you experience life and the more widely you travel the richer these visual opinions become. The secret is in sharing them without the attendant cynicism of age/experience intruding upon or retarding your joy at making the art, and understanding that it resides in an ever changing continuum of opinions. Some opinions widely shared and some springing to life because of private experiences that were not as widely shared. Those are the ones that make much good work interesting.  

Just a thought. It goes along with the idea that "to make more interesting work you must become a more interesting person."   Understanding the mechanics of writing a love poem is less important than being in love. At least when attempting to write that love poem. Maybe that's what we are doing when we make good portraits. Even if the feeling is temporary.