I was a bit amused when I read that DPReview had selected the Nikon D500 as their "camera of the year."

It reminded me of the introduction of the Nikon F6 so many years ago. The F6 was launched long after the mass market (both pros and hobbyists) voted with their pocketbooks and abandoned film for the siren song of digital imaging. The camera came with a premium price and though I was hanging out with dozens of working professionals at the time I never met a single soul who splashed out cash to buy an F6. And I've never seen one in the field. Why? Because as great and perfect and proficient as the F6 might have been every person who may have been part of the market for that camera had already moved on...

In 2016 the D500 will appeal to diehard DSLR fans and cheap (or poor) sports photographers. But it's really not a significant, new product. It's more of a tweaked old style product. A D7200 that shoots more quickly. Or, a D300 that has a much better sensor and shoots more quickly. It's still big, heavy, kind of a dog to shoot video with, and embarrassingly bereft of a state-of-the-art electronic viewfinder. 

Not everyone wants to change away from camera styles and form factors to which they have grown accustomed. Not everyone who is even modestly invested in Nikon's system will be anxious to switch to something else. And that's great. But it hardly makes more of the same an interesting choice for "camera of the year." 

I think the honor should go to something brand new and different. I'd nominate the Hasselblad mirrorless medium format camera because it's new and different; and when they get the firmware sorted out it may also be a really good image maker. If that's not your cup of tea I'd be happy to nominate the Sony RX10 iii which is just now starting to get its due from reviewers who are taking a second look. The combination of a miraculous lens and truly great video at an "affordable" price point is eternally tempting. 

For sheer performance and usability my personal nomination for my camera of the year has to be the little Sony a6300. If those bastards at Sony had just seen fit to put in a headphone jack I would be tempted to call this camera near perfect. It's small and light, has a great sensor and great performance, shoots fast, focuses well and does very, very good, 4K video right in camera. Yes, the a6500 came out this year as well but it's nothing more than an iteration, at a higher price, of an already well sorted camera. I find the touchscreen to be an "anti-feature" but I'll admit that the in body I.S. would be worthwhile. I'll stick with the a6300 as my recommendation because it's a proven commodity and makes me smile when I use it. 

The Nikon D500 is resting on the legacy of the past. It's the camera that most of us grew up with but photography is changing quickly and the power and performance of a good shooting tool no longer has to weigh a ton and cost too much. 

Yes, with cameras like the Fuji XT-2 and the Olympus EM-1 mk ii, and the Pentax K-1 in the mix I was surprised to read about DPReview's choice. In fact, I kept looking for the "this article sponsored by Nikon" disclaimer somewhere near the post but I could never find it....


Sometimes the sky just looks so good you have to go out with a camera and make photographs...

Every square inch of downtown Austin is under construction. It's getting to be bizarre. It's almost as if the real estate investors have forgotten a simple rule, "whatever goes up must come down..." But that's a story for another blog post. 

Austin is currently experiencing the lowest temperatures we've seen in over a year. When I woke up this morning the thermometer on the outside of the house said it was 25 degrees (f). I made a cup of Irish breakfast tea, with milk and a little sugar, and then I grabbed a fresh towel and headed to the pool. As you know, if you read the VSL blog on a regular basis, my masters team swims year round in an outdoor pool. It's heated but still, on days like today there's a huge psychological barrier involved in making if from the nice, warm locker room to the pool about 100 yards away.

We have insulated covers on the pool at night to retain heat so the first arrivals at the pool help our coach pull off the covers and roll them onto their carrier. When the covers come off clouds of steam roll across the pool like a fog in the background of a 1950's werewolf movie. It's a leap of faith to plunge in but we do it every morning. I am cautious and wait for the first person to make a move. Once I see that he or she suffered no hypothermic shock I'm ready to plunge in. 

It was cloudy this morning and the low temperatures (you have to remember that we are in no way acclimated for this!) were exacerbated by a gusty, 30 mph, north wind. It's the kind of Sunday morning that one just puts one's head down and pounds through the workout for an hour and a half; not much chit chat since surfacing to talk is almost painful. 

Today we did a bunch of individual medley sets to start. Nothing like swimming some butterfly to really engage with your body on an early Sunday morning...

The most painful part of today's aquatic adventure was exiting the pool and making it back to the locker room while soaking wet and being pummeled by the north wind. Coffee never tastes better than it does after the swim+chill combination. I didn't keep track of the yardage today but I'd say we got in our 4500 to 4800 typical yards. Maybe a bit less since so much of it was breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly. It's always easier to rack up the yards if you are doing distance freestyle sets but, hey! what's the fun in that?

Since it was a typical Sunday I had breakfast, read the NYT, and then headed to the studio/office to meticulously retouch ten rush portraits and then bill for four different jobs, spread across three different clients. No one seems to have gotten the message that we just happen to be in the middle of the end of year, holiday season! But that's okay because I really enjoy the billing...

Once I got the important stuff out of the way I checked the weather again and was pleased to see that the temperature had climbed to 30 degrees by 2:30pm. Perfect for a long walk through the city. 

I layered up, found my Craftsy "swag" hat and grabbed my favorite camera of the week; the Sony a6300. I vacillated between taking the 18-105mm or the little, Sigma 60mm f2.8 Art lens. In the end the Sigma won. I'm loving the a6300 these days because I am finally intimately familiar with the menu and loving the quality of the files I've been getting from that little camera; both in stills and in video. 

I wondered around for the better part of two hours with the camera and lens and only gave up shooting when the failing light pushed me past ISO 6400. I'd shot about 200 frames, and even in the freezing temperatures the battery indicator was showing 80% full at the end. Certainly not reflecting the hysteria about Sony batteries that I routinely read on the web...

As I come to grips with the demise of traditional photography and wrap my head around a more software, firmware, hardware combination of stills and video I am less and less attracted to the "nods" to yesteryear in camera interfaces and more interested in exactly how much the camera can do for me. The flexibility of the RX10 series is probably a major reason I like them so much. They cross over between the disciplines well. As does the a6300. 

I shot the a6300 as still camera today but left the SmallRig video cage on the body. It handles a bit better for me that way. More surface area for my hands. More to hold onto. My one compromise for still imaging was to take the (for stills) vestigial handle off the top of the rig. 

I got home as the last light faded from the sky and I could just make out the giant Christmas "tree" and its hundred foot strands of light from Zilker Park. I put the camera battery on the charge and started playing with the files. There's nothing earth shattering in the folder. Just fun juxtapositions of color and hard angles. I'll more than likely erase the whole folder in the next day or so. The idea is really never to go out and find a masterpiece for all eternity. No, the real plan is to go out and look at the world and just marvel at how different it is every single day. The camera is a basic foil that lends the pretension of an artist at work. It gives me grown up permission to do something ultimately non-productively fun and joyful. The camera gives me the cover of somehow being at work while hiding the fact that I'm really just soaking it all in. 

The things I find interesting are probably droll to most readers. Old machines, painted a hundred times. A dress in a window. A building framed against an abstract sky. Meaningless on one level and yet as meaningful as anything else humans do in their short lives. Walking around in the cold, looking for nuance and warm coffee beats the hell out of "getting a jump on those first quarter tax estimates!" 

Don't ever forget that we are all entitled to have down time and fun in as wonderful a proportion as we desire. Screw being a serious adult. That way lies madness...

This dress in the window of this shop reminding me of a time long past. 
Interesting that the shop has several windows displaying much larger sized mannequins, wearing much bigger dresses. I guess it makes sense but what happened to "aspirational" fashion?

Custom cup holders for a bicycle.

Austin based Vodka company. "Shovel ready" for heavy drinking...

There's that sky I referenced. It looked pretty astounding this evening. 

I finally found a cost effective speedlight that works as a dedicated, TTL flash for current Sony cameras.

I've owned lots of different "on camera" flashes and flash "systems" over the past few years. I even wrote a boot about them back in 2007. I had things pretty well figured out when I was using Nikon Speedlights with Nikon cameras but I never really got the hang of using dedicated flashes with any of the mirrorless cameras I have owned...until now. The issue in the past always revolved around getting consistent exposures in TTL. I can get all the consistency I want if I shoot in manual mode settings but nearly every third party flash I've tried with Sonys denies me the use of HSS (high speed sync) and good, repeatable results with automatic flash metering.

When I owned the a99 and the a77 cameras I went ahead and purchased their top of the line flash only to have it repeatedly shut down after 15 or 20 leisurely paced pops due to an overly cautious heat/panic threshold setting. It made the flash useless for event work or social documentation.

I've tested some of the newer Sony flashes but just didn't want to bite the bullet at the prices being asked and risk yet another sissy flash that can't be used for real work.

I did a recent event using only manual flashes on camera and we (the camera, flash and I) nailed about 490 out of 520 exposures. The remaining 30 could be saved with judicious use of post processing. But I had to think about exposure all evening and it made my brain tired. It made me long for the bomb proof flash systems we enjoyed in the heyday of the Nikon F5 film cameras. The mental sweat of a long, flash-ridden event pushed me to do some research.

I found the Godox Ring 860ii flash and an identical unit under another brand called, Neewer. Since the specs, battery, charger and appearance were identical I saved about $40 by ordering the Neewer version.
Why did I buy this? Well, it has a healthy guide number but it also has two features that I am delighted with. First, it has a whopping big Lithium Ion battery that charges quickly in a very nice charger, clicks into place in the side of the flash and provides about 600 full power flashes with one charge. Buy an extra battery just for peace of mind and you are ready to shoot all day long. Even if you are a promiscuous shooter like me. Charge time is something like 2 hours.

The second feature that makes me smile is that the flash incorporates the new multifunction flash foot that interfaces with the same multifunction flash shoe found on all the newer Sony cameras. It is compatible with all six Sony cameras that I own. The flash provides full TTL automation and it also provides HSS for syncing out in the sun. Going a step further, you get a simple optical slave capability, built in. Set the camera to S1 or S2 and you are ready to use this flash as a slave with ANY other flash.
It also can be used as a master flash to trigger other flashes in it's family.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating so the day I got it I charged the battery, tossed the flash on top of an A7Rii, set it to TTL and started going around the house scaring Studio Dog by shooting everything in sight. Every exposure was on the money. Right on the money.

For about one third the cost of a comparably capable Sony model I now have the rock solid flash performance, in full auto, that I've been looking for in the Sony system. Every camera flash I own now is some new brand built in China. Not that the Sony flashes aren't built in China as well. All the flashes have two features that allow me to use them as a system in the same way we used to use our monolights and "pack and head" systems. One feature is the power ratio control. I can dial the power on any of six flashes from full to at least 1/64th power.  I can also set every flash to optical slave and use them together regardless of which radio trigger they want to answer to. It makes for a highly portable and mostly interchangeable system.

So many Sony peripherals are priced insanely. It's nice to find options that do a great job at much lower prices. I am happy with my purchase and recommend these flashes to other Sony shooters.

Many photographers are torn between spending on one camera or another. My decisions generally boil down to "new camera or new light?"


Camera reviewers love writing about cameras because it's like holding fresh meat out in front of hungry dogs. It's an easy sell. And, at times, I'm in the middle of the dog pack trying to snap at the bait. Most photographers have only two cruel mistresses; ever newer cameras and ever cooler lenses. 
I am one of the unfortunate photographers who also has a penchant for wanting new lights. In fact, I go months without thinking about which camera I'll use on a commercial job but almost every day I'm busy considering how I'm going to light the next job and with what sort of equipment. 

I'll be quick to say that in the present time of nearly perfect cameras (across formats and brands) lighting makes a much more profound difference in the way a photograph looks than your choice of camera. From small flashes to large banks of fluorescents the different ways of lighting and modifying lights are, to my mind, where most of the magic resides. And yet, except for a handful of electronic flash brands, the lights rarely get their due.

In the last week, on paying jobs, I have used several Profoto mono-lights, a big, battery powered Elinchrom Ranger flash system, five SMD LED lights, several TTL hot shoe flashes and even two Lowell tungsten fixtures. I used them in soft boxes, umbrellas, bounced off foam core, bounced off a white ceiling in a giant atrium and even direct. 

While I have six Sony cameras in my equipment cases I have far more lights and even more lighting modifiers. Why? Because the quality of light you can create from each source is unique and expressive, and matching the light to the emotions you are trying to convey in an image is a vital part of what photographers, who can light, do to make their images work.

If I want an amazingly soft source with a fast fall off to black shadows I can use a giant light source (like the 6x6 foot silk scrim I love) as close to a person's face as possible. Depending on the thickness and opacity of the diffusion material and the light source I chose I can get a wide palette of possible looks, textures and variations. It will always look different from a hard light or a smaller soft box. 

And yet I can shoot a portrait in the light created by the giant scrim with just about any one of the cameras currently in favor (D810, Olympus EM-1, Fuji XT-2, Sony A7Rii, Canon 5Dmk6, etc.) and, with the right lens, get pretty much the same kind and quality of image. It's almost like the camera doesn't really matter if you know how to light and how to do the camera basics. 

I've pulled files from the Sony, the Nikon, the Canon and the Olympus cameras that I've shot in similar light over the years and, after I equalize for minor color, contrast and saturation differences in post processing I would be hard pressed to tell the difference, even over generations, between any of the cameras. One reason for this is that lights allow a photographer to work at optimum apertures and optimum ISOs, which goes a long way toward minimizing advantages of less noisy sensors. 
Sure, there are differences in dynamic range but at ISO 100 those differences aren't as apparent in the final medium as many might think. But the lighting.... that makes huge differences.

I know many of you will read this and dismiss what I'm saying because you don't work commercially and spend most of your time photographing with natural light. You are, of course right, for your work. But even when I am off the clock I prefer the look of portraits and other images in which I have total control of the quality, direction and intensity of the light. 

Sadly, this means I rarely meet a lighting modifier I don't really like or have a curiosity about. It may be a worse addiction than yours just because it is in addition to the camera buying addiction. 

But in the beginning I seem to remember someone saying, "Let there be light." Except for my bouts of introspective street photography I hardly ever leave home without the lights and nearly always I end up using them. Light em up and you'll be working at a level most people don't bother with. It can be a wonderful component of your photographic vision. But every high end flash or deluxe modifier you choose to buy is one less camera body or lens buying opportunity ahead. It may be opportunity loss but the lighting gear tends to stick around longer and go out of fashion much more slowly. 

And, as ring lights repeatedly show us, lighting trends come back in to fashion faster than you can imagine. Lighting trends are the Groundhog Day of the photographic world. Hold on to your old modifiers, I can almost guarantee they will be cool and trendy again soon. 

Six cameras versus 25 light fixtures and instruments. It's hardly fair.


All I want for Christmas is a new set of SetWear Gloves.

Here is my original pair of Set Gloves from SetWear. They are thin leather and heat resistant. They were super comfortable and saved me from burning my hands over and over again back when hot lights were in vogue. They got lost on some long, convoluted project hundreds of miles from home. I replaced them with another set in 2012 and the new set has given me good service on an almost daily basis.

But, if we're no longer using hot lights (that often) why in the world would I be wearing leather set gloves in Austin, Texas, year round? Crazy? Fetish? Freakishly rockstar-ish? Naw, I'm just tired of screwing up my hands. About three times a week I'm pulling an R10 Multi-Cart out of the car, grabbing bags of stands and securing stuff with bungie cords. Reaching into a dark hatchback in the pre-light hours of dawn (and woefully pre-coffee) there is always something your hands collide with that has sharp edges or corners. I've gotten tired of getting paper cuts from seamless background paper, burned fingers from black metal gear left roasting in the sun, formica splinters, and cobra bites from angry props. If I'm going to haul stand bags, Pelican cases or just about anything else I want something between my skin and the gear. I'm also tired of getting the errant fingernail bent back when trying to grab for falling gear.

Set gloves aren't perfect but they are mostly perfect for the jobs I put them to. They aren't for warmth, they are just that thin layer that nature should have already provided for your palms and your fingers.

I used mine this morning to unload multiple stand bags from the car. I used them last night to load multiple stand bags from the car. I also used them on Tues. when I was setting up seamless paper in the middle of a chic office building just south of Barton Springs. I used to keep a pair in the studio and a pair in the car. Somehow, one pair has escaped....  A new pair is at the top of my 187 page Christmas "want" list....just ahead of that Leica SL and the new 50mm. It's conceivable that I'll score on one of these two. But I'll let you guess which one.

My latest set gloves were black with flames in yellow and red. My oldest set (above) just had flames in black and white. The newest ones just have "SetGlove" printed on the index finger (below). I like the red flames best but I'll take any variation. Thanks!

I almost forgot, a lot of video production is effectively moving the camera. Improv here we come.

In order to show the good functioning of a prosthetic knee and lower leg my client needed some interesting footage. They needed our talent/model to walk backward along this smooth, concrete floor so we could show how well the mechanics of the computer controlled joint worked. There might be people who have practiced walking sideways while keeping a video camera completely shake-free but I'll tell you right now that I'm not one of them. When I'm working I'm looking for control and repeatable results. We can't always engineer that but we can channel our best


I Keep learning this lesson over and over again so here's a holiday re-post of why the last job counts most.


You're only as good as your last job...

The universe is a tricky place and plays by a different set of rules than transient beings like us would like.  I had coffee recently (when do I not have coffee??) with a very famous photographer who was bemoaning the fact that his work had gone from super-renumerative-award-winning-globe-spanning to zilch in an arc of about five years.  And he couldn't figure it out.  We talked about market changes, the death of magazines (we both cut our teeth in the heyday of editorial work), the move to a more and more granular set of markets and age-ism (the ebola virus in the room).

But as we picked our way through the seemingly chaotic vagaries of happenstance we both saw a pattern emerge.  We'd been resting on our laurels.  We thought that a great project, done for a "show" client would have infinite legs.  That, say, a cover of the New York Times magazine would be a client magnet for years to come.  Or that a bestselling book would cement business relationships, down stream.  I'm consistently guilty of presuming that local clients know my long history in the market and that it must provide for some future business traction.  

 It's rough when you hit the wall of reality and have to confront the fact that.......you are only as good as your last job.  And that everything technical you've learned over the years is losing value faster than your dollars.....

In swimming, competitors can brag and trash talk and walk through memory lane to their heart's desire but the real test, the only test, is that time on the clock and who touches the wall first.  Nothing else matters.  You can carry your old wins gracefully but they won't help you in this race.  They won't give you anything more than a psychological advantage.  Mythology doesn't trump "now."

When we have been in the business (or the craft) for a long time we have a tendency to believe that the things we were taught and the "best practices" techniques that we embraced are both objective and right. Above opinion and obvious.  But every new style is, de facto, a destructive technology whose sole intention is to kill off the status quo.  That's the nature of art, life and business.  We can admire what came before but we achieve by inventing the new. 

I am hardly above reproach and never infallible.  I had (have) a knee jerk reaction to everything new that comes slamming down onto the photographic pike.  I hate HDR.  I loathe all the silliness of iPhone-o-graphy and above all I wish I could freeze the market and the prevailing aesthetic right at 1995.  I was pretty good at that style and comfortably understood the business....

But had I stopped there I would long since have migrated into a less.....kinetic.....industry.  The fact is, I am only as relevant to clients as my last job and my last portfolio show and (here comes the coup de grace) and showing my greatest hits from yesteryear only reinforces, to potential clients that I am frozen in amber and not swimming at pace through the stream of current commerce and style.  Without constant course correction we might as well swim to the side and exit.  They may admire my old work but it may have no relevance to the projects in front of them today.

I am not saying anyone needs to abandon their core style or walk away from decades of experience but I am saying that it needs to be incorporated into an ongoing journey of discovery which includes shooting for  oneself, trying new technologies and showing new work.  Even if the work is in a style you've done forever there is a resonance that emerges which communicates the freshness.  We can never step in the water in exactly the same way we did the day before.  Life continually changes us and you can't help but reflect those changes in your current work.  It's not important to be trendy.  It's important to let the comtemporary "you" seep into your work and the only way you can do that is to work contemporaneously. 

My readers here don't need to be reminded that I pick up new cameras all the time.  Part of it is the barely subjugated hope that the new gear will deliver the power of a cult talisman and improve my work by its magic, but another part is my belief that technology and aesthetics are joined at the hip and move in a staggered lock step.  I've talked lately about "fluid or fluent" photography by which I mean that the technology and the interface of your chosen camera doesn't interfere with your seeing.  That it regresses and becomes automatic.  That's the promise of many of the new, smaller cameras.  You look at the screen on the back (or in the EVF finder) and see the image already brocaded and prepared.  Previsualized, if you will, for you, by the machine.  All that's required is selection and timing.

In a way, fluid practice is Zen practice, is mindful practice, is stream of consciousness practice.  It precludes setting things up.  It precludes the disruption to the creative process by affectation.  It is negated by spending time setting up strobes.  It's a direct reaction to the scene in front of you or the scene in which you also exist as a player.  The 2006-2010 small strobe fascination,  was a style.  It was a manifesto.  And now it's old fart.  The techniques of HDR will be incorporated into the tool kit of photographers but, as a recognizable style, it will join the ring flash and colored filter gels on the scrapheap of photo-art-history.  The current technique of using small cameras and fast lenses, and moving and responding rapidly will also cycle through.  But it will be the prevailing style for a while.  And then it will killed off by the next disruption.

This doesn't mean that older styles don't soldier on like Zombies on the Night of the Living Dead, fashion isn't instantaneous, globally.  But you can already see the sea changes.  Scott Bourne is all feverish about shooting portraits in the studio with, gasp! an Olympus Pen camera!!!!! Thom Hogan (the big Nikon guy) declares his love for the Pens. Every guy I know is rushing to buy a Fuji x10 or x100 or the Nikon or the Panasonic mirrorless camera of choice.  Images are starting to crop up all over the place shot in the new ethos.  Camera Minimalism is rampant...

And it's all part of the process.  But you need to swim your own race.  Training methods change.  The hard work doesn't.  And the hard work has always been the incorporation of change into your own art.
Finally, to all the people who will rush in and talk about the sanctity of style I can only offer up Picasso.  He mastered seven distinct and wonderfully different styles over the course of his career and was prolific.  More work.  Less resting on our laurels.  More output and more change.  Less talk about how we did it in the old days.  Not discounting the art but no one can live on laurel leaves....

Our existence always hinges on our ability to change....well.

note:  I like this blog: http://mftadventures.blogspot.com/  it's called "High Fidelity Compacts."  It's well written and thoughtful.  Most cogent for people who are interested in smaller cameras.  Nice.

another note:  I laughed so hard I almost spilled my coffee....  On some comment stream someone was taking me to task for saying nice things about the Nikon on my blog.  Someone else responded that my blog was there to sell mountains of my books and also for my commercial photography clients.  I'm still waiting for the mountain of book sales but I hope to God my clients don't read the VSL blog.  I'm not always kind here....

Post edited. 11/17.


A post from five years ago today. About the role of the muse in photography. A re-posting.

The role of the muse in making art.

Like a catalyst in chemistry the perfect muse starts and sustains a reaction in the artist that makes the process of art both possible and, to the artist, desirable.  When I started out in photography I was "home schooling" myself.  And I made a lot of trials with a lot of errors but I had one short cut that many others, whose goal was to become "an artist" or "a photographer"  didn't have.  I had a burning desire not to "be" an artist but to make the art.  I kept stumbling into beauty at every turn and I wanted to record it, share it and say, "See what I see.  Isn't life amazing?!"  And since I came to the art looking for tools to share what I saw I  bypassed the whole quagmire symbolized by the question:  "What should I shoot?"

There are two ways (probably millions of ways) to come to photography.  One is to become enchanted by the tools and set off on a life long journey to master the tools and wield them like a wizard in an RPG.  The second is to find a subject and to search for the right media with which to have a conversation with everyone around you.  The wizard seeks power while the person struck senseless by beauty tries to lend power to his subjects.  To translate their beauty into a universal language.

I've often said that I can take or leave landscape photography.  Same goes for still lives or big Crewdsonian tableaux.  Ditto the Didactic demonstrations of Gursky.  But every once in a while I'll be walking down the street and I'll look into someone's face and become transfixed with the perfectly imperfect symmetry of a face and the transient nuance of a serene grace I see there.  Other times I'm equally riveted by a playful half smile or a majestically projected innocence.  And I want to make a photograph because it's all so fleeting, and the universe and time keep gobbling up our chaotic intersectional interfaces with an insatiable and unstoppable vigor.  True beauty, to me is the wonderful contenance of another person, projected without affectation.

So I slowly taught myself how to make portraits.  And for the last thirty years I've worked to make my own encyclopedia of beautiful faces.  And it's much harder than it might seem.  First you have to recognize them; the people who resonate with you.  Then you have to gain their collaboration.  Then you have to guide them through the process of being photographed.  You have to be wary of dabbling in new styles so as to not obviate your clear vision.  You have to be able to take the raw materials provided by your session and work it like clay or marble and pull from it the vision you saw with your heart.  That's the hard part.  And I fail far more often than I succeed.

But sometimes it works.

So many things can derail you.  The biggest obstacle is fear.  Fear that you'll not be able to find the "right" subject.  Fear about approaching a stranger.  Fear of failure.  All kinds of fear.  Almost impenetrable fear.  But, of course, as Steven Pressfield aptly conveyed through his characters in his magnificent book, The Gates of Fire, the opposite of fear is love.  And the capacity to fall in love is the secret tool that makes a portrait artist successful.

To fall in love with a face.  To fall in love with the way light caresses soft skin.  To fall in love with the creation of an idealistic symbol of a person's outward projection.  To fall in love with the wonderful energy of eyes, vital and alive.  The opposite of fear is love.  Love doing your work and you banish fear.

So the muse is there to make sure that, even if only for a minute or two, you experience the warm, rich embrace of love and translate it into your art.  I laugh and I kid but I really do understand that a portrait will rise above the level of documentation or decoration when I feel myself falling, however tentatively, in love with my subject.  And my one desire is to share with my audience how special my subjects are.  How unique and vibrant.

Poor Belinda.  I thought she was so radiant and wonderful when she was 20.  How silly of me not to understand at the time that every year she would become ever more so.  That's the nature of your muse.


If I could start over and build a camera system from scratch which cameras would I consider. And why?

Jen. Triathlete. ©kirk tuck.

Every so often I'll be working with my cameras and I'll find an annoyance that makes me question if there may be some other system out in the wild that would handle my photo needs better than what I've got in my hand. While I was swimming this morning I passed the time on a long set by conjecturing which camera systems I would consider, right now, today, if I had no cameras at all. For the sake of the exercise I would imagine that the studio was hit by a tornado that swept away every camera body, lens, flash, battery grip, decal, camera strap and battery. The insurance company writes me a big check and now it's up to me to find the "perfect" system. Shouldn't be that hard given that I've already shot with most of the systems on the market, at one time or another. 

I think this time around I would try to limit myself to one great system instead of picking and choosing. No more rationalizations about "personal" shooting cameras or "special use" cameras. Just one solid system for work and for play. 

After taking a good, hard look at the things I photograph and video tape for money I'd narrow down the field into the systems that meet those parameters. There are a few considerations that I already have in mind that would disqualify various camera systems. For instance, after nearly six years of constant improvements in EVFs I know I would never want to go back to a camera system that relies on an optical viewfinder for shooting. That immediately filters out Canon, Nikon and Pentax from the running. My desire for the cameras to also have state of the art in video tech would have disqualified Olympus and Fuji in years past but both have introduced cameras this year that would allow me to consider them. Leica is out. No because I can't afford the prices for the cameras and lenses but because I don't want to waste the money for any imagined, marginal gains.

While the Sigma Foveon-based cameras appeal to my eccentric side the operational realities of even their latest tech make me run for the door. 

Let's see whose left. That would be Panasonic, Sony, Olympus and Fuji. Each has their strengths a weaknesses. I've used Olympus, Panasonic and Sony extensively but haven't really touched the Fuji products. I was initially turned off by the early performance issues with the Fuji X-pro-1 and actually miffed at Fuji for not including something as vital as an eyepiece diopter on their flagship model... Since remedied on the latest camera bodies. 

With the four companies represented here the choices get interesting. In order to make this fair I'll choose my system for the way I like to work. That would include two identical bodies, a 24-70mm equivalent and a 70-200mm equivalent lens set, augmented by a macro and a fast 50mm equivalent. 

I'll look at Sony first. The obvious way to outfit the system is with two A7rii bodies, a 24-70mm f4.0 Zeiss/Sony zoom, the 70-200mm f4.0 G lens, the 50mm f1.4 and the 90mm Macro. Add in a couple of controllable flashes and you are pretty much done. The wide angle guys would bitch but that's too bad as these are the choices that would best suit me. 

What are the advantages? State of the art sensor technology with class leading resolution and dynamic range. Arguably the best "super-35" video performance you can get in a still camera. Great lenses. Good handling from the camera.  But what are the cons? First would be cost since the bodies alone are $3200 per. The lenses are relatively pricey too. Finally, the flash performance is nothing to write home about... Oh, and whiners will bitch about the battery life but as long as I can buy two Wasabi brand batteries for $20 I'll stay away from that argument. 

Next up in my book would be the Panasonic system. I owned the GH4 camera and it was great so I'd get two of those to start with and, since my experiences with their lenses were also good I'd dive right into getting the 12-35mm f2.8 and the 35-100mm f2.8. Toss in a Leica branded macro lens along with a 42.5mm f1.2 and I'd say I'll be set. The "pros" of the system? Low price for the cameras. Currently about $1200 each. (you always need two. At least I do...). Absolutely great 1080p video and good 4K video albeit with a big crop. The cameras handle well and the files are great. Of all the systems represented here I have to say that the focusing capabilities of the GH4, with dfd, makes these bodies the best point-to-point focusers in the mirrorless kingdom. The "cons"? The fly in the ointment for me is the same one I'll pull out for the Olympus system. The sensor is small. It's not an absolute deal-killer but for some stuff the bigger, more amply endowed full frame sensor can be hard to beat - especially when it comes to depth of field control with a wide range of lenses. Still, from a strictly pragmatic point of view this may be the best of the choices for the most number of different tasks. The GH4 is a video legend and every other aspect of the system is spotless. Somewhat boring, but spotless. It's just that sensor size that nags at me...

The system I keep falling in love with is Olympus. If you just want shoot really wonderful images and you don't need to blow them up to amazing sizes, or drop everything in every background out of focus you could use this system and be set until someone reinvents photography gear again. The OMD EM-1 mk2 is pretty wonderful, at least on paper. If it's as good as the EM-1 (original) but with better video capability it is already good enough to make most photographers smile big. The wonderful thing about the newest rev is, without a doubt, the enhanced video performance. It's finally able to run with the big Sony cameras and easily better than what's stuffed into the latest Nikon and Canon offerings. 

My friend, James, and I used a passel of OMD EM5.2 cameras last year to shoot a video for our friends at Cantine Grill and even with a more primitive codec the video was wonderful to work with because of the camera's superior image stabilization capabilities. These have been improved in the latest camera. For the still shooter the extra resolution of the 20 megapixel sensor makes a difference. The camera is full competitive with the typical APS-C, 24 megapixel cameras in a good operator's hands. Add to this that fact that the better Olympus lenses are really good and not too pricey and you have a winner of a system. 

My play would be two of the OMD EM1 mk.2 bodies with battery grips. Pricey but, remember, we're playing off that husky insurance check fantasy, right? The 12-40mm Pro f2.8 and the 40-150mm Pro f2.8 lenses are the "no-brainer" accompaniments for the two cameras; along with newly announced 25mm f1.2 and the 60mm macro lens. I think the only time you would be disappointed is, um, never?
(Note to self: shoot some video with the new Olympus and reconsider the whole system choice thing I have going on right now....)

The "pros"? The Olympus system is elegant and well thought out as well as technically advanced for still photographers and right in the comfort zone for videographers (who use hybrid systems). The image quality is nice and people love the color palette. The "cons"? Again, the sensor size is the only thing I can really come up with. If Olympus keeps introducing faster and faster lenses the differences will largely be moot ---- as long as those fast lenses are pristine in image quality even when shot wide open... It's really a marvelous system and once you get over the psychological hump of "sensor size phobia" there are very few reasons to overlook it or to choose anything else. 

The final system I'd consider would be Fuji. I put it last not because the list is ordered by preference but because it's the system I have the least hands-on experience with. But that's never stopped online reviewers before so let's take the Fuji system for a spin.  Right up front I'll say that I love the look and feel of the Fuji X-pro-2. If I limited myself to shooting only still photography I'd own two of those beautiful Leica M replacement cameras in a heartbeat. They are gorgeous and everything I strongly disliked about the predecessor has been fixed or banished. Wonderfully implemented bout of camera design and something for other companies to aim for. But, sadly, the video is shit. Not necessarily the I.Q. entirely, but the run time, the codec and the way it's engineered into the camera. This puts my favorite model (from an aesthetic point of view) out of the running. But fear not! there is always the newer XT-2 which uses pretty much the same sensor but makes up for the X-pro-2's video shortcomings --- for the most part. 

From my brief exposures with the XT-2 and from what I've read from trusted sources, the imaging performance is outstanding for an APS-C sensor with 24 megapixels. Everyone seems to love the Fuji colors and if you love to make things go quickly out of focus in the backgrounds you'll find a nice range of very fast primes to assist you. The emotionally logical way to buy this system is to do with with primes but since we're replacing work tools with our big insurance check I'll stick to what I know works and grab two of the XT-2 bodies, 18-55mm f2.8-f4.0 along with the 50-140mm f2.8 lens. One drawback of the current system is the absence of a 16-55 or 16-50mm constant aperture f2.8 lens. While the reputation of the 18-55mm is pretty solid it gives up some important range on the wide end and gives up some depth of field control at the longer end. I'd probably want to supplement with the 10-24mm to get back that 24mm equivalent. 

(Edit: It's been brought to my attention that I have overlooked a sterling lens from Fuji that indeed covers the range I wanted. It is the 16-55mm f2.8 for around $1300. The one thing it lacks is image stabilization. So close.....  But in its defense it is reviewed as being pretty spectacular in the sharpness and general "look" categories). 

The video started out pretty well and could be made better with some firmware updates to get longer run times. The reality though is that the run time might be limited by heat dissipation issues, so  --- who knows. For our exercise we can only consider what's available in the camera that ships right now. Well have to accept that, in terms of usability the Fuji video trails the other three systems by a bit. 

The "pros" for Fuji are: A good, solid sensor, nice colors, good overall handing and class leading image quality. I'll applaud what they are doing with fast primes and with the longer system zoom and then, below, ding them for the lack of a "universal" 24-70mm f2.8 equivalent. (see above added edit about the lens). I mean, after all, thats' what we've been trained to expect and use in each system.

The "cons"? Right off the bat I ding them for the lack of the fast, standard zoom. Then I churlishly rant about how much better the whole deal would be if I could get the same video performance in the body style I like much better --- the X-pro-2. I hear from a wide number of trusted sources that low light AF performance and continuous tracking focus could be improved. But the lure, for a generation raised on real cameras, is the profusion of solid buttons and knobs and the Fuji focus on making great primes for the system. The zoom versus prime thing is shaping up to be more about nostalgia than real performance; at least for some working pros. The effect of the generous apertures is cool but in real life you've got to make sure at least some generous part of the product or person you are photographing is in sharp focus and, if you need f2.8 or f4.0 for that then you've effectively obviated the need to carry lots of heavy, individual focal length lenses in your bag. 

So, here at the end I'm working through my hypothetical exercise and distilling down to my favorite. But it's not so easy. I have to look at everything through two different filters. The first is sheer pragmatism. Which system provides the kind of performance and results that are best suited to a wide range of professional (and sometimes boring) results? On the other hand, the "fun" hand, which system is the most enjoyable to use? Which one makes it a pleasure to be out and around taking photographs or video? 

In the end I am torn in three ways. If I was a slave to pure logic I'd drudge on down to the store and buy the Sony parts and pieces (which surprisingly is what I seem to have done in real life). I'd be equipped to do the boring but demanding stuff that hobbyists never have to worry about --- like shooting lab gear for trade show panels that will be enlarged to life-size. Or shooting 4K video out to an Atomos video recorder and transcoding it on the fly to ProRes 1080p. The big Sonys work well and have remarkably good image quality. But they aren't nearly as much fun to shoot as the Olympus cameras or even the Fujis. 

If the unmitigated joy of taking pictures was the only metric but I grudgingly accepted that I would also want to shoot great video it would be pretty much of a straightforward choice for the Olympus system. Of all the cameras I've shot with in the last decade the EM5.2 was the most fun and the best bang for the size and price. While the EM-1 mk2 has moved the price point into a more rarified strata it still promises to have the hand feel, the solid Rolls Royce door shut of a shutter and the color that makes everyone so happy. 

Why not the Fuji and why not the Panasonic? Well, as great as the GH4 is the camera is just not particularly exciting or even all that friendly. It's that "soul" thing I wrote about years ago. It's the emotional way in which we interface with our gear. The Olympus is designed to woo us into the fold from the minute we pick up the camera. The Panasonic forgoes the idea of infatuations in favor of pure, engineering performance. While the Panasonic checks all the right boxes the Olympus is designed to make you like it. It's an emotional buy from Olympus, over-layed with all the performance most of us would ever need, and since I am as nostalgic and emotional as the next guy that's why the Olympus would get the nod over most everything else.

But that leads me to Fuji. I call "bad marketing" on Fuji where I am concerned. If you decide to have a "flagship" camera it should have the same basics as your second tier camera and it should cost more. I would have added the video capabilities of the XT-2 into the X-pro-2 body, raised the prices of the much more alluring X-pro-2 body over that of the XT-2 and happily sold it, at a premium, as a lux piece of gear. But in the current system I would be forced to choose between the form factor that makes me drool and the performance features that make the cameras work tools. It's a bad choice because which ever way you choose you'll always be looking at the other model and thinking you made an acquisition error. 

Some one is bound to suggest that I just get one of each but that totally misses the point of having identical back-up gear for business. If I were clipping trust fund coupons and spending the results of my ancestors' hard work it would be fine but if I had real money I would never worry about back up cameras or jobs anyway and I could mis-spend part of my fortune on useless stuff like the new Hasselblad mirrorless camera. 

No, in the end it comes down to a battle between the Sony and the Olympus systems and I'll end by putting it like this: As long as my income depends on photography and video I'll keep working with the full frame, mirrorless cameras, and supplementing with those zany one inch bridge cameras (they would come along regardless of which other system I might choose...). But the moment that The Lisbon Portfolio is optioned for movie rights by J.J. Abrams I'll be moving down in sensor size and up in imagined joy to the Olympus stuff. At least that's the conclusion I came to while swimming outside in the cold this morning. Your kilometerage may vary. (YKMV). 

A silly kind of exercise to do during swim practice but one that seems fun for photo gear nerds like me.