Anybody getting something outrageously fun and photographic for Christmas?

Ben Puts the Star up on the Tree. 

For about five minutes on Weds. I was enthralled by the idea of buying a Fuji GFX-50S camera and the 110mm f2.0 lens to go with it. As I have a world class capability to rationalize camera purchases my brain started in earnest to construct the argument I might use with my partner about what a great investment it would be to drop $8200 on a first generation camera along with a largely unproven lens. 

I had a daydream about walking into a client's conference room, setting up my lighting and then pulling the GFX-50s and the miraculous 110mm lens out of some sort of pretentious Billingham bag and listening to my client suck in their breath and marvel at the obviously impressive camera I would have in my hands. Surely they would intuit just how wondrous each photograph would be when taken by such a remarkable camera, backed by such superior technology. 

They would call in their associates from accounting and marketing to see the light sparkle off the enormous front element of the lens. Doris, in client services would swoon when I casually mentioned that the sensor was 50+ megapixels. Chet in I.T. would walk in to see what all the excitement was with his new Nikon D850 hanging down by his pants pocket on a Black Rapid strap. He'd be ready to make the argument that the D850 was so close in performance AND only half the price. But then we'd shoot a test frame and he'd look at it on the rear screen of the Fuji, recognize its awesome superiority, and then cast a crestfallen look at his Nikon and slink out of the room. 

Then I got an e-mail and the cloying beep from the computer brought me back to the present. It was one of my clients and they had a complaint. The files I'd delivered to them "were way too big." They were having trouble making them fit into their website. "Could I re-work them and send the files back over with the longest side being 1200 pixels?" They also wanted to know if they needed to do anything special to the files to use them in a PowerPoint presentation...

It all reminded me that most of our clients don't care about which camera we use to take our photographs with. We could do the job with a Nikon D3300 or a Rebel 7ti. We could use the kit lens. As long as the photo is well lit and the CEO has a pleasant look on his face the marketing guys would be happy as clams. 

I usually buy myself a cool camera for the holidays but this year the "new" has yet to wear off of my GH5 cameras. Maybe our relationship will have cooled by Valentine's Day. A box of candy and a bottle of Champagne for the spouse, perhaps a pleasant little Phase One camera for me....?

I am curious to hear if someone is actually going to go for it over this holiday season and buy something that will make me and the rest of the readers on VSL jealous. If you are I'm pretty sure we'd all like to hear about it, tell you why you screwed up and tell you want we would have done instead. But if you have a thick skin and a good rationale then share away in the comments.

We'd love to know what's trending under your tree...

It's been a fun year for lights and lighting. Let me introduce you to my new flash system...

If you've followed the Visual Science Lab blog for any period of time then you probably know that one of our recurring themes is the ongoing change, and pace of change, in the photographic industry. Every single year since 2007 there has been an accelerating shift in advertising from traditional media such as direct mail and print of all kinds to internet advertising and e-mail advertising. We are nearing the point where the vast majority of advertising from all industries is being sent to your phone, your iPad or your computer.

This has consequences for working photographers. More channels with more diversity among the channels means more total number of ads but generally driven by the same budget numbers. That means the time and money resources for each ad are reduced. We might be as busy as we ever were but the granular nature of what we're doing means we're moving faster to make the same payday.

I looked at the way we were handling projects like annual reports and one of the things I decided was that we were wasting too much time (and incurring to much liability) by plugging big moonlights into wall sockets and running extension cords across data centers, executive suites and through the farmland of cubicles. I decided to move to a cordless solution for lighting but I still wanted enough power in a single head to power a large soft box and grab good depth of field with lower ISO settings on my cameras.

I looked at some of the premium offerings from companies whose products I'd used extensively in the past. I looked at the battery powered Profoto mono-lights and also the newer, shoe mount lights from this Swedish powerhouse of flash and just laughed. With budgets dropping quarterly and the future moving to video I found the idea of dropping thousands of dollars per flash ludicrous. Laughable.

I was looking at a Godox battery powered mono-light (also available under other brand names) and I was ready to pull together three of them into a system when I found the lights I'm showing above. They are the Neewer (not a typo. I wish spell check would stop trying to correct me...) Vision 4 lithium battery powered electronic flash units.

When I first looked at them they were dirt cheap. About $279 per unit, which included a remote trigger and a Bowens-type, standard reflector+diffusion sock. I took a chance and ordered one.

When it arrived I sat down with the manual and my initial thought was the same one I have when I am confronted with massive feature overload in cameras, cars and on phones. That thought is: I wonder if most consumers would actually pay more for a simplified, easy-to-use, more elegant product? How about a flash with an on/off switch and a knob for power settings?

At any rate I soldiered through the manual amazed that people might actually need a "stroboscopic" mode in a workaday flash unit. Or that they might need to program in a delay for use with red-eye reduction modes on flashes attached to cameras. At a certain point I figured out how to turn off all the extras and master the feature I bought the unit for originally; to flash at a certain power level every time I fire the shutter in my camera.

The unit delivers 300 watt seconds of flash power to a circular flash tube. It uses an almost universally standard Bowens S mount for speed rings and reflectors. The modeling light is an LED located in the center of the flash tube's circle. The unit recycles in about 2.5 seconds when used at full power and in less than a second at half power. In my testing (well over two months) I've found that the unit is very consistent with color and output in even the longest series of flashes. Remember to let the flash fully recycle and you'll be rewarded with exemplary consistency.

The specifications say that we can expect around 700 full power flashes before we run down the battery. I tend to use the unit at half power in order to get faster recycling times and I've never been able to drain a battery over the course of even the longest shooting day. Once you do run down the battery it takes about five hours to recharge. Since the battery has to be removed from the flash to attach the charger there is no capability to run the flash from A/C power while charging. You either buy back up batteries or you remember to fully charge your units before you head out for the day.

The last time I bought replacement, lead acid batteries for my battery powered Profoto Acute 600B they were nearly $300 apiece and would deliver about 250 flashes. The lithium battery for the Vision 4 flash is about $69 and weighs less.

When I shoot corporate portraits I tend to shoot in bursts and I want to make sure my exposures are consistent (after all, I'll be the guy post processing the work....) so I turn on the beeper that signals a full recycle. Whether I actually pay attention to the beeper all the time is a different conversation.

The flash weighs in at just under four pounds, with the battery, and seems to be very well built. The unit comes with a very simple flash trigger and some traditionalist at Neewer even decided that the company should also toss in an old fashion, ten foot sync cord.

The menu is complex and allows you to fine tune the flash to your working methods. You can change the flash duration from 1/1,000th of second all the way up to 10,000th of a second. There is also an FP (focal plane shutter) mode which allows for higher shutter speed syncing with most modern digital cameras. Befuddling to me is the menu for various stroboscopic settings. I ventured into that menu once and couldn't get back out. It was terrifying. Now I bring the owners manual with me.

As I mentioned, I liked the way the unit worked so well that I went back to order another. I was delighted to see that the price had dropped, which made the unit less expensive than the Profoto beauty dish I bought for that system fifteen years ago....

A few weeks ago I glanced at the Amazon page for the Vision Four unit, trying to find little "spill kill" umbrella reflectors. I didn't find the reflectors but immediately noticed that the Vision 4's had dropped in price to $199. I rounded out my system with a third unit and promptly sold off every plug in the wall, flash unit I've accumulated over the decades.

All three units fit into the Manfrotto case I bought to transport things on a video assignment to Oklahoma City. I can fit the three units, reflectors and speed rings into the front side of the case and three light stands, three umbrellas and a small tripod in the other side of the case ---- with room to spare for clean socks and odds n ends.

I have now used the trio of elegant but inexpensive lights on all day portrait ("cattle call") assignments as well as on fast paced advertising assignments; including one assignment that called for freezing the actions of a person jumping on a mini-trampoline. In every regard the units have worked flawlessly. I am happy to have them.

The days of Euro-overkill flash units are over. Dead and buried. Unless you are operating a large and busy studio and are one of a handful of practitioners using medium format (and even large format) cameras; digital or film, the likelihood that a Broncolor system or Profoto system is better for anything other than massaging your ego is remote. There are certain jobs that might require more power than these units can must but once you go beyond 600 watts seconds or so (buy a Godox or similar) you are into specialist territory and probably shouldn't be taking advice from a generalist like me.

My goal is to "right size" my expenditures to match the realities of my clients' budgets. An equally important goal is to be more efficient by bypassing the need to haul extension cords and to find empty plugs in order to get power. I want stuff that works, is portable, easy to operate and is inexpensive to replace if an assistant accidentally drops it off the back of a truck. The Vision 4 does all these things nicely.

On really fast paced assignments; ones on which I am working solo, I still depend on a ThinkTank roller case with a collection of a half dozen camera mountable speed lights and a Ziploc baggie full of remote triggers. But when we are providing high quality images for law and medical practice and lots and lots of advertising agency projects the Vision 4 units are doing a good job filling the bill.

For anything bigger or more complex there's always rental.

Here are some additional images of the lights and the manfrotto case I am using:

Big Manfrotto Case. ( I need one more....).


Eye Contact. Something I like very much in portraits.

Odd self portraits and three of Studio Dog.

Sunday Morning at Sweetish Hill Bakery in Austin, Texas. Camera unknown.

It's rare that I forget which camera I used to take any particular photograph. I always assumed that people's memories created packages so that a photograph and a camera+lens would be meshed and all part of the same whole upon recall.

This image was taken at Sweetish Hill's old location, right on Sixth St. Later the bakery moved half a block east in a much bigger building which they actually owned. Now it's the site of a trendy oyster bar.

We spent many, many Sunday's sitting at the tables here having excessively good coffee and some of the best pastries available in all of Texas.

I've been going through several boxes of large, double weight fiber photographic prints; mostly 11x14's. This box was marked, "Belinda, Portraits." I'm finding that it's enormously fun to have a time machine that looks back into my own life and the lives of my closest friends and family members.

If I had to guess at the camera I would say that it was a Leica M series body with a 35mm Summicron on the front of it. You can probably guess about the film...

Looking back. A fun thing to do during some holiday down time. One can't swim all the time...

The Third Time is a Charm? Lessons from the camera bag.

I have just purchased a lens that I have owned twice before. This will make my third go-round with the Sigma 60mm f2.8 DN lens. Why? That's probably a question for my analyst...

I bought the 60mm when I re-entered the Olympus m4:3 system for the second time. The EM-5 had been out long enough to get some pretty spectacular reviews so I bought a couple, along with the usual Olympus lenses and I liked everything pretty well. Then Sigma came out with there series of Art lenses for the smaller formats and I tried all three (the 19, 30, and 60). The 19 and the 30 were both decent, workmanlike lenses but they were really nothing great. The 60mm, on the other hand, was pretty impressive. Even wide open it was sharp and detailed. A bonus was that the focal length was just right for portraits when using the m4:3 format cameras. It was a nice, long focal length and, at its wide open aperture, it had a nice way of throwing backgrounds out of focus. 

I got a lot of use out of that optic but when the system moved out to make way for the Sony a99, the a850 and the a900, that lens went into the "for sale" category and moved on to some smarter new owner.

At a later date I bought a Sony a6000 and then an a6300. I was pleased to find out that the Sigma 60mm  DN also came in a Sony "e" mount and also was in the middle of a (temporary) price reduction so I thought it would kinda stupid not to pick one up for the princely sum of $149. As a "90mm" equivalent on the APS-C frame it was just right. I got a lot of use out of it right up until that system too went on the chopping block to pay for some other shiny system of objects. 

Lately I've been toying around with finding a nice portrait lens for my Panasonic GH5-based system and I stumbled back across some portraits I'd made on my first experiences with the Sigma. I've been playing with the Panasonic 42.5mm f1.7, the 50mm Zeiss 1.7 and a few other lenses and I noticed that the Sigma imparted a different look to the photographs. I had recently done a photo assignment making portraits for a large accounting firm and decided to look at the data in the files to see if it would tell me anything. It did, with this format, it seems that the "sweet spot" or "where I end up in focal lengths" when shooting m4:3 is somewhere around 60mm. 

I went back and did a little research to convince my rational brain that my irrational brain wasn't being too heavy-handed with rationalizations and flawed memories of the lens's performance. I looked on DXO and found that the lens performed well for them. Then I read the review on Lenstip.com (which I really like for their lens reviews....) and it turns out that this lens is one of the best all around performers for Olympus and Panasonic cameras that they have measured! 

Of course I've ordered one. Which is kind of embarrassing if you think about it. But, well, um... I've done more stupid and expensive things. I'm calling it "My Christmas Present." I would call it my "Lens of the Year!!!!!" but I already gave that honor to the Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 Pro lens (well deserved). And it would be a bit silly since the lens has been around since at least 2014. 

Note to self: If I sell off the m4:3 system (for the fourth or fifth time) DO NOT SELL THE LENSES! More than likely I will return to the system in short order... I guess that means I like it --- mostly. 

The lens is cheap. Buy yourself one for the Holidays. I did.


Revisiting your archive of older photographs is a great way to illuminate possible avenues for future work...

A copy shot from a fiber based photographic print made in my old darkroom back in the 1980's. 

I had almost forgotten how much I used to enjoy setting up a neutral background in the large living room of the house, or in the adjacent studio, and pulling friends and family in for quick portraits. It's something I don't do enough of these days...much to my chagrin.

I'd work all day on client projects, have dinner, and then grab a camera and a willing subject and shoot a few rolls of film. If I was excited by what I was getting from the light, the sitter and the camera I might hop in the car and head over to the darkroom in the late evening to "soup" the film so it would be ready for contact sheets and maybe prints the next day.

After seeing some of the older work that's been in boxes for years and years I've gotten interested in doing the same sort of process now. I've just set up a seven foot diameter, white umbrella with black backing and I'm rigging up several bright LED panels to bounce into the umbrella. I can hardly wait to interest someone in sitting for a portrait.

At least now I won't feel that I have to scamper off to the darkroom...


A simple and candid portrait of an artist. At the beginning of a career.

Belinda working on a canvas at art school.
Now a 30 year veteran of graphic design.

Posted for fun.

This image was a copy shot of a black and white print made years ago...

What is it that gives a portrait a feeling of depth; an invitation for immersion?

There is a trend that I see in the portrait work of many photographers that I think is counterproductive or at least blandly homogenizing... It's the tendency to light everything with very flat, omni-directional light sources. It could be a big beauty dish or softbox right above camera with gratuitous fill light coming from below camera and it could be as goofy and aesthetically flat as two big soft boxes; one on either side of the camera, giving a 1:1 lighting ratio. 

What light like that does is to wipe out any real dimensional modeling on a human face and takes with it any interesting photographic sensibility in the photograph. The way one of these flatly lit documentations gets help to finally appeal to consumers is with tons of make-up or metric tons of post production work. I may be a rank traditionalist but I like a sense of depth in a photography and one way to achieve that is to create lighting that shows off the true contours of the face with light that comes from one main source. And though it is ubiquitous advice, the other tenet is to move your light away from the camera axis if you want it to be interesting. 

I cringe when I see the work of a (self-proclaimed) famous headshot photographer who lights every one who comes into his studio with the same triangular assemblage of ultra soft fluorescent light sources. He uses them to wrap the light from top to bottom and side to side, as evenly as possible. All the heavy lifting to add any sort of three dimensional interest to the sitters' faces is done by a make-up artist. The flatly lit image giving the stylist a more or less blank canvas on which to paint. It certainly is an effective way to automate one's approach to making portraits but it rarely serves the final recipient as anything more than mundane documentation. Even the expressions the photographer coaxes from his customers are boringly the same and hopelessly contrived.

But maybe when we talk about a feeling of depth there is a

I often hear that one has no real depth of field control with small sensor photographic files. I'm not sure that's right...

It was a typical Sunday morning back in the film days. Belinda and I headed down to West Sixth St. to have brunch at Sweetish Hill Restaurant. We sat on their lovely patio under a translucent awning and waited for our waiter to bring over the most addictive coffee I have ever known.

As has been my habit for well over thirty years I had a small camera dangling off my left shoulder, just in case I saw something that wanted to be photographed. I was running an advertising agency back then so there were no external constraints on which cameras I carried. On that day it was a small, black Olympus Pen FT half frame camera, loaded with Ilford FP4 film and sporting a smart little 40mm f1.4 lens. The same one I own and use now.

I liked the way the light came through the awning so I pulled my camera up, adjusted the exposure from experience (the meter in the camera had long been non-functional) and shot two or three frames at f2.0.

The dim finder of that camera (ancient even back then) coupled with the greater depth of field of the frame area meant that focusing was at it's best with the lens wide open, or nearly so.

I have printed this image onto 11x14 inch paper many, many times in an attempt to get it just right. This is a copy image of a fiber based print that I made sometime in the 1990's. The FP4 film contributes to the higher contrast of the photograph but at the same time it keeps film grain (analog noise?) to a minimum.

The film frame is hardly any bigger than today's micro four/thirds sensors but the lens does a good job carving out lots of detail while delivering good contrast.

To my eye the background areas are well out of focus and have a pleasing out of focus characteristic to them.

I couldn't have gotten a "better" image with any other camera. I might have gotten a different image; a sharper image, a more detailed image, an image with more dynamic range, etc. but this is the image I ended up with and have come to love over the years. As long as my subject matter is highly captivating to me no other metric or feature of photography matters.

The Pen F series of film, half-frame cameras of the late 1960's and 1970's were the precursors to a whole niche of current cameras. They are no less valid now than the Pen FT was to me back in the 1980's.

I never made a habit of dragging around a Hasselblad or motorized Nikon f4 when we were heading out to have a nice meal, just as I would never take a cellphone into a nice (or any) restaurant today. A small and sleek camera is acceptable, a giant, noisy power tool is out of place. And a ringing phone or a loud and loutish conversation is never welcome.

I love small cameras with big capabilities. Thinking about Sony RX100's today.... Nostalgia or practicality?