1.07.2018

An interesting exercise for a working photographer: spend a week in you parent's house looking at all the family photographs.

Much younger versions of Ben and Studio Dog.

I am as guilty as any other photographer of looking mostly at my best work. It's stored in archival museum boxes, trendy and expensive folios and stacks of yellow Kodak and red Agfa printing paper boxes. I can open a box and look at street scenes that were lovingly printed on black and white paper. I can open a filing cabinet and flip through page after page of transparencies, the subjects of which were meticulously lit with expensive lighting systems and captured with precision medium format camera systems. If this is all I ever look at I come away with a very skewed and very elitist understanding of what photography means; what function it ultimately serves hundreds of millions of families. Billions of people.

Everywhere I look in my parent's modest home I see photographs. None of them are landscapes. None of them are particularly artful or academic. There are no blurry street scenes nor are there "compelling" shots of food or really any of the work you would expect to see on Instagram or Flickr.
Instead the photographs behind all kinds of frames create a visual history of my brother, sister and me as we grew up and then there is a newer layer of the images that track grandchildren from infancy through college. 

Few of the images were "professionally" done. There is the portrait I paid for on my parents' 50th anniversary which was done by San Antonio photographer, Charles Parish. It's a beautiful image of my folks at the apex of their health and good fortune standing in a local park with each other. I had prints made for my parents as well as me and my siblings. But there is an equally compelling snapshot of them a number of years later, taken in low light after a family dinner at our favorite restaurant, Cappy's. My parents weren't so much posed as they were frozen in their tracks but the image represents the last "marker" of the time before the slow decay from health issues started to surface more obviously. By the time this photo was taken my dad started walking with a cane and my mother started to seem frail. 

In their kitchen hangs two different combination frames that each contain about a dozen smaller images of various sizes. A random compiling of images; each from a certain slice of time. One frame includes a shot of my dad in a tie and white shirt at work. A more recent one is of my brother in law holing a book and mugging for the camera. In the center is a snapshot that I think I had taken of my mother's mother (at 95) with my brother's son at toddler age in her lap, in a rocking chair. She's reading him a book with the light coming from one side through a large window.

To the right of that is an image of Belinda as a very young adult with her legs drawn up and her hands wrapped around her knees. My gosh, she seems so young. Over on the right of the frame is a photograph of me, taken from one side, intently focusing a camera with a silver lens on it. My hair is curly and brown. 

The images are strewn through the house as if deposited by a neat hurricane. Every bookshelf is covered with images of their grandchildren. Some of the images were taken at school by services like Olan Mills and the others were supplied in an endless series by proud parents with a range of photographic skills. The value of the image always a reflection of the emotion presented and never calculated by the spit and polish of technique. Each antique dresser is covered with images from a different time strata of our collective existence. The tall dresser in the rear bedroom of the house seems to be home to ancient, professionally done, black and white photographs of my grandparents. Perfect poses and exacting and exquisite lighting delivered to quality papers that have already stood the test of time without degradation. 70 to 80 years, in some cases with no ill effects. 

While there is a difference in the posed, professional images and the more candid ones the candid ones benefit from having had the operator in the right place at the right time with the right intention. 
The perfect inventory in the house is a blend of the two styles. One showing the moment and the action, the other showing a formal perfection of the person being photographed. 

Another layer is represented by the books I found in a box. These were little, plastic albums that my wife made for my mother and my wife's mother for the "Mother's Days" from the time of Ben's childhood. Each book contains 50 or more images that were taken of Ben doing activities or being held, or hanging out with family members. Each book covers one year. There were 15 years of them in the carefully stored boxes. I sat down with a few of the books and looked at the 4x6 inch prints in succession. In one Ben plays King Arthur in a school play and those photographs are followed by ones in which Ben is winning a ribbon at a swim meet. These are followed by images of Ben and his entry to the Science Fair. Most of these were taken by me or Ben's mom, Belinda. The images recreate the moments for me that resonate with a certain intensity I did not expect. But certainly relish. 

Tomorrow I'll be checking my dad into Memory Care and, with my brother and sister absent, the task falls to me to curate a collection from a houseful of time capsules into a small selection that will fit on the tops of his dresser, end table and bedside table in his new apartment. I'm casting aside my snobbishness about execution in order to be open to trying to understand which moments and expressions will ultimately serve my father's sense of calm and continuity best. 

This has been a valuable learning experience for me. I need to learn to cast aside the pursuit of trying to be aesthetically present all the time in my work and leave much more space for happy accidents and testaments to the "here and now." I need to forget the stuffy artifice of finding just the right lens or just the right aperture and instead shoot with a more joyous abandon. I've come to realize that, with family photographs, it's all about the memories that the images convey. They don't stand alone but are forever locked with meaning by the context of our own histories. 

I am currently looking for the little album that my mother made in the 1965 when she hired a taxi to take her to an encampment of gypsies miles from Adana, Turkey. She made a few dozen wonderful, color snapshots of the people at the camp with a primitive zone focusing camera and color negative film. They get better every time I look at them...

There is very little drama in my family. My parents come from Pennsylvania stock on both sides. My paternal grandfather was a banker. My maternal grandfather worked in the Pennsylvania court system for 50 years. My parents come from staid and conservative stock. But in the photographs of my family the little eccentricities are in evidence in the photographs of each subsequent generation. 

A trip to the family home might bring back a feeling of relevance to many photographers who have grown stale in their work. They might excavate and discover just how essential the emotional content of photographs is to their ultimate success. Not a success of gallery adoration, necessarily, but as a record of the continuous process of existence that is the nature of family. 

No "Family of Man" here. Just the shiny bright moments of discovery and happiness evinced in the pride filled collection of visual or metaphoric kisses. 








1.06.2018

Expression trumps lighting. Lighting trumps lens. Lens trumps camera. Getting it all to work together is the ultimate goal.


I chuckle when people look at a portrait I've done and they ask me which camera I used to do the work. It's kinda like admiring a driver's driving skills and then pointedly asking about which spark plugs he chooses. In most cases the choice of camera (or spark plugs) is inconsequential compared to all the parts and pieces that have to come together to make portraits work.

Just for the record, the portrait above was not done with a Hasselblad or Rollei, and it was not lit with Profoto strobes are some other fancy brand of lighting. This image was done with a Mamiya 6 camera and its very nice 75mm f3.5 lens. The lighting came from an old Vivitar 285 flash bounced off the ceiling and mixing with the fluorescent lighting that dominates the kitchen at Sweetish Hill Bakery on Sixth St. The imaging "sensor" was Kodak's Tri-X (ISO 400) film.

Many of my favorite photos over the years have come from innocuous cameras with little to no pedigree. Some of my favorite portraits of my wife, Belinda, came from the only cameras I could afford in the moment and lenses that were even dicier. The worst camera I've probably owned was a Canon TX, an early and inexpensive FD lens Canon with a top shutter speed of 1/500th of a second and a sync speed of 1/60th. It was the ultimate "barebones" camera but it was built like a reinforced concrete outhouse.

That was my first SLR and I bought it new from the University Co-op, along with the Canon 50mm f1.8 FD lens that came packaged as part of a kit. I kept that camera for five years and slammed so much bulk-loaded Tri-X through it that I think I started to wear down the film gate.

When I went on the cliché "backpack through Europe" trip with a girlfriend in 1978 the TX was my primary camera, augmented with a Canonet QL17, fixed lens rangefinder camera. While I have always been disinterested in wide angle lenses I was thrilled to buy a large, cheap, Vivitar 135mm f2.8 lens in the Canon FD mount to use on the trip and found that it spent most of its time on the TX while the 40mm lens on the Canonet served me well as enough of a wide angle.

I was comfortable with the cameras but it was my interest in making specific images that drove the photographs I took; not the cameras and lenses. I think I would have been happy with just about anything. The photos from that time period of camera slumming still appear frequently here on the blog, mixed in with more current work.

So, lately I've been leaning on my Panasonic GH5s to do just about everything. If I'm being lazy I might just take the Panasonic FZ2500 but if money is involved it's more than likely that the GH5s are going to see all the action.

They make great photographs. But only when I point them at interesting stuff. And stuff in which I am interested.

They are "small" sensor cameras and lately, it seems, that all of my friends and associates have convinced themselves that to be competitive they have to buy and use one of three specific cameras. The Nikon D850. The Sony A7Riii, and the Canon 5Dmk4. They seem to think that it's critical to have the highest on sensor performance that money can buy in order to do work that will stand the test of time and the more important test of tickling the fancies of the people who have the ability to write checks for photography. I understand the impulse to trend into overkill. I guess it means never having to second guess one's self while on an assignment.

I had lunch two weeks ago with a photographer friend of many, many years. If you think I love to switch gear you'd be amazed as his ability to move from system to system. The only real differences between us is that he doesn't mind spending real money to buy the best stuff, and he seems content to keep and work across multiple systems instead of leveraging the sale of one system to help pay for the next.

He is currently buying the associated infrastructure of lenses to use on his new Nikon D850. But as an architectural photographer he is reticent to let go of his Canon 5Dsr or his Canon 5Dmk4 because they are paired with every tilt/shirt lens Canon makes to use in the interesting business of coaxing beautiful expressions out of monolithic buildings or to make office and lovely (and expensive) interior spaces come alive. Judging by the speed and intensity of his shopping he'll soon have that lens range duplicated in the Nikon space as well....

But he doesn't stop there. He's also got medium format Leica with a range of optics, and then bits and pieces of various other systems. Of course he has the Sony RX1 Rii and so many other cameras that we all find interesting and desirable.

He's convinced, at some level, that the cameras and their unique output is what keeps clients coming back and writing the purchase orders but I think I disagree. This photographer just happens to be a master of lighting, but even more important, he was a visual design student at a great university and brings with him a love of, and a deep understanding of what is interesting, noteworthy, compelling and unusual about architectural subjects. His background consists of a lifelong interest in traveling to see monuments and buildings everywhere. He's a devoted art lover and amateur art historian and he associates mostly with academics and architects. He understands at a very high level just what it is that his clients are trying to express in their work and translates it for a wider and less lofty audience. It's that ability to effectively translate the work of his clients into a universally understandable and accessible visual summation that is his super power. It's his insight into the work that keeps world class architects knocking at the door.

And when we talk about the latest cameras I remember back to a time when clients were just as thrilled with the work they got from his when the best camera on the market for his work was something like the original Canon 5D. With all of 12 megapixels and no great noise performance as the ISO started rising. The work he did years ago with that cameras stands the test of time. It's elegant. The colors are great. The images sharp. The visual presentation compelling.

His powers of seeing and interpreting aren't necessarily improving because he is using "better" cameras but the images are improving because as he lives longer, travels more and sees more he incorporates the new ideas and styles he sees and experiences into his work. His sources of inspiration grow as he ingests work from more and more places and peers. His vision expands. The brand or model of camera is just a wrench or screwdriver compared to his point of view and his elite perceptions.

Over lunch we rib each other as friends seem happy to do. He pushed me to defend my purchase and use of the system I've made combining Panasonic GH5s along with Panasonic lenses and Olympus Pro lenses. I start by reminding him that at least half of the work I've doing these days is in video while the other half is the kind of photographic subject matter and material that my marketing clients are aiming mostly at the web and at electronic screens. I mention just how little real money I have tied up in my system compared to the kind of outlay we used to routinely make for gear. And then I watch his eyes gloss over as I regale him with minutae about video.

I've had my moments of doubt about my decision to downsize from the full frame Sony A7Rii cameras to the micro four thirds Panasonics but every time I do a comparison based on my non-alternate reality universe uses I end up deciding that my system gets the job done just fine and that focusing only on the cameras themselves undermines and incorrectly minimizes the importance of good lighting. Even more so it devalues the importances of finding the expression and capturing it in the moment.

I don't begin to think that my choice is the right choice for everyone but I do know that with a small and inexpensive flash system I can make a $2,000 camera with a small (but good) sensor beat up on a much more expensive camera combined with no flash system. The light allows me to create the photograph. The flash allows me to use ISOs like 80, 100 or 125. ISOs that leverage the abilities of the sensor. While it's true that using a bigger sensor with the same flashes would benefit the FF camera just as much I remember that I am not trying for the "ultimate in image quality" I am merely going for the ultimate image, which I judge by different metrics that sharpness or noise.

I heard a story recently from a director of photography who works on two hundred million dollar movies. He was being interviewed about the wholesale trend of LEDs taking over film sets and displacing older tech. The interviewer was pushing the idea that the DP could now move much quicker, use a smaller crew and become more efficient. After all, the lights would need less power; they would be more "agile."

The DP laughed and replied that he lights in order to bend the light to his will in the service of fulfilling the right look for each film. He said that he is not lighting to hit a certain overall illumination level but to use the light for qualities such as its ability to have direction, and characteristics like softness and color. He further stated that if all the lights took much less power it would hardly matter because the production would still use the same total number of lights. They would still need to be on light stands. They would still need to be flagged or modified. The grips would still need to run "stingers" (extension cords) and put sandbags on the light stands. Sets will continue on as they have been.

In the photo world the high megapixel count cameras are the rage. In cinema the choices are not so clear cut. The most popular camera for video, at the high end of the production scale, has been the Arri Alexa which is a 2K or 2.5K camera. There are many "comparable" cameras that feature 4K, 5K and even 8K sensors but directors and DPs used the Alexa on more academy award winning movies last year than any other movie camera---by far! Why? The directors and the DPs like the look of the files. They love the unique color rendering. They love the way the tones look.

In today's photography world we might want to stop staring at the overkill specifications of ever more pixels and start looking at more of the parameters the cinema people find compelling. A comparison may result in people finding out that they really do prefer the colors out of Olympus or Fuji cameras more than the Sony and Nikon cameras. They might find that older CCD sensor cameras have a "better" or more desirable overall look, when used at base ISOs, than more "modern" cameras. (Something I have mentioned hundreds of times in articles about the earlier Kodak Pro Digital camera line-up). They might even find that the tonal scale of the GH5 is compelling for some.

In the end photographers who pay attention to all the other steps and process considerations will find that if you get a great expression and pose from a portrait sitter it will be an effective portrait even if the only camera you had at your disposal was a disposable one. Or one with 6 or so megapixels.
They might also find out that artful use of lighting can add more character to an image of a person than adding more data points.

The thing that I like least about the fascination with camera specifications is that it takes away the oxygen from more important things in the mix. We might need to discuss cameras less and lighting techniques more often.

The Panasonics aren't magic but they sure work well and feel good. But if you are good at all the stuff leading up to pushing the shutter you could probably even make a good photograph with a Pentax (kidding, just kidding....).

1.04.2018

A Progress Report from San Antonio.


There is an idea that your children are like little Buddhas that teach you so many things. I maintain that your parents are like bigger Buddhas who, in their decline, teach you to embrace patience and kindness; two things I have always seemed to  have been short of supply...

I've spent the last week as the primary caregiver for my father and his dementia can be frustrating, tough, emotional and daunting. I've been battling with the healthcare industries inefficiencies and leaning on the sage advice of older friends (including some here at VSL) and my attorney.

I'm finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel.  We've located and contracted with the most highly regarded memory care facility in San Antonio for you father. He'll be admitted on Monday. I've finished funeral arrangements for my mom. Memorial to come a bit later. I've activated my power of attorney and all the other legal devices necessary to smooth the transition and work as an ongoing advocate for my father.

There are blessings. A wonderful housekeeper who has spelled me for three or four hours a day. Friends (even ones I've never met in person) who call from across the country and across the world to make offers to fly in and help. To fly in and substitute for me in the business until I can retake the reins. Even my good Austin doctor who was quick to call and counsel me through some tough steps.

Another blessing is that my parents worked and saved and we can afford to provide any level of care that my dad might need for the rest of his life. I'm blessed with a brother and sister who are hardworking, honest, kind and pitching in to do their parts without hesitation. We each have our duties and they haven't stepped on my toes nor have I stepped on theirs.

And then there is my own family. Ben and Belinda must come from some other planet where everyone is the personification of compassion, love and dedication. They are relentlessly supportive an comforting. Far in excess to what I deserve.

I'll be back to work next week but my Sundays will be spent with my father; hopefully for years to come.

Now, on to some photography chatter. I was alone in the living room at the end of a tough day and decided that I deserved a little photo treat. I remembered how much I like the Sigma 30mm f1.4 lens when I was shooting the Sony a6300. I looked on Amazon.com and, low and behold, they make it in the m4:3 mount!!! I couldn't get that credit card out quick enough. It's winging its way to my studio as I write. Good thing too. I have a job in January which will really leverage a fast, sharp and agile lens which is slightly longer than "normal."

I was actually a little bit thrilled that I haven't lost my passion for the art we all practice with such joy.

Go and hug someone in your family today. Then go buy a fun lens. Life is short....


12.31.2017

Family Life Takes Precedence.

A Momentary Hiatus While I Take Care of Family.

Dad. Eight Years Ago.


We’ve discussed many things here on the Visual Science Lab blog but dealing with family and loss hves never been among them. I consider myself lucky; I’ve made it to sixty-two and have only lost two close friends, and until now, no one in my close family. There have been brushes with mortality but always followed by successful recoveries. I haven’t given enough thought to just how much a death in the family can affect the day to day routines and expectations of a self-employed person’s life —- until now. 

It was the morning of Christmas Eve and family was getting ready to converge on my parent’s house to celebrate. My father has been dealing with dementia for years and, for the most part, my mother was his primary caregiver; keeper of the finances, scheduler of the doctors appointments for both of them, as well as the social director for them both. My sister and brother-in-law were in town and staying at my parent’s house.

Just after breakfast my mother, who has been dealing with C.O.P.D. for many years collapsed, unable to catch her breath. My sister called 911 and off to the hospital she and my mother went in an ambulance with lights flashing. Mother suffered cardiac arrest in the hospital but was revived after six minutes of CPR and other procedures. Once stabilized she was intubated and sent to the intensive care ward under sedation. My brother-in-law (the man is a blessing!) stayed at home with my father.

My little family was still in Austin. Our usual Christmas ritual was to have Christmas Eve dinner with a family we have known and loved for decades. We planned to ring in Christmas with nice wines and better company. One phone call from my sister and I had a bag packed and was heading south on highway I-35 as quickly as I safely could. 

Ben and Belinda could handle anything that needed to be done in Austin. 

When I got to the hospital my mother was sedated and unconscious and there was nothing for me to do there. My sister insisted on staying by her side so I headed to the family home to check on my father. He was agitated and having trouble understanding or processing what was happening. My older brother lives in San Antonio and he was at my parent’s house adding his help in caring for my father and sorting out our next steps. All the grandchildren were arriving in town, there were hams and tamales and holiday food in the refrigerators. None of that mattered anymore. 

My mother got progressively worse. When she was taken off sedation all she wanted was to come home. She was inconsolable. We talked to the doctors who were pessimistic about her chances and they agreed to send her home with hospice care. She died quietly and without pain in her own bed yesterday at 12:52 pm. 

Earlier in the day yesterday, Belinda, Ben and I had taken my father to a well regarded “Memory Care” facility for evaluation. If you are familiar with the term “memory care” in this context it’s basically an assisted care facility with emphasis on patients with memory loss, Alzheimer’s and dementia. We have a small apartment reserved but it won’t be ready until the end of this week —- and making the reservation will be the easiest part of the battle; dementia patients can have big mood swings and may go from liking a place to having paranoid delusions, anger and panic later in the same day. 

My sister and her family have gone home to the east coast. She needs to take care of herself as she has a serious cancer battle to fight and is overdue for her chemotherapy. My brother and his wife are school teachers handling some student debt for their three children’s recent college work and they need to get back to work as well. 

Many years ago my parents, in their wills, divided up the duties of their children as regards medical directives and estate management. The burden of medical decisions falls to my older brother (he lives in the same city as my parents) and he’s been wonderful in jumping into all kinds of situations with my parents and helping. He’s the one they call at 3 in the morning when my father has ended up on the floor and is unable to get back up. He’s the one they’ve called when the pipes froze or the electricity went out. Proximity ends up meaning “more responsibilities.”

My duty is to take over the financial end. To sort out to whom my parents owe money, from whom they receive money, which insurances need to be changed or renewed, to pay their bills and to be a good enough steward to make sure they don’t run out of money before they run out of life.

My mother kept things running, financially, and never shared information willingly, but in the last few years she allowed me to set up things like a durable power of attorney. Her filing methodology consisted of paying the bills as they came in and then putting the paperwork into shopping bags, trash bags, random desk drawers, under the sink, etc. 

With my sister out of the picture and my brother heading back to work I am currently shouldering the 24-7 task of both caring for my father ( from first coffee and oatmeal to changing adult diapers and repeating (with a smile on my face) the same answer to the same question that he may have asked twenty or thirty times in the last hour. He is sometimes quite lucid and pleasant and as he wears down over the course of the day will sometimes become agitated and disoriented, insisting that “this is not my house! Take me to my real house!” and then deciding that I am a stranger coming to rob him. It’s a tough change from my (last week) previous life which mostly consisted of swimming on my own schedule, having coffee with friends and colleagues along with bouts of judicious napping. 

Last night was a rough one. As his agitation grew it dawned on me that while I might be able to get him checked into the right facility but it might become a big battle or even require me to get legal help to keep him there. I woke up already tired this morning and started doing laundry and making an inventory of the food on hand and planning what I’d make for him to eat through the day. I need to get on the phone to make funeral arrangements for my mom and then I need to find and collect bills and get them paid. 

I get that these are events and situations that nearly every child will face one day. Maybe it’s a warm-up, or training, for our own inevitable demise…

How does this relate to photography? Well, the stunning thing I am beginning to understand, now that my time is being swept away by a resilient and relentless tide, is that I must continue to work and be financially productive in order to get my own child through his last year of college, to keep putting money into my retirement accounts and to pay for the lifestyle my wife and I have created. I never realized that what I saw as “tons of unspecified free time” was really tons of flexible time during which I billed, wrote blogs, wrote books, stayed in touch with clients, maintained batteries and gear, practiced the new or hard parts of my craft, and so much more.

I have my first job of the new year booked for Friday the 5th. Pre-catastrophe I’d be planning out how I wanted to actually produce the video shoot and start gathering and testing the equipment. I’d have a plan. I’d have gotten a great night’s sleep and had a healthy breakfast. Now I’m frantic to line up paid caregivers and some of my parent’s younger friends to cover that day for me and then to have my brother come from his job as a school teacher to handle the “night shift.” I’ll be back in the car (instead of in the pool — newly reopened) heading back down to San Antonio to take the reins from my sibling to give him some respite.

I’m hoping this brutal schedule is as temporary as I imagine it might be but I know there will be the frantic phone calls from the senior living facility, the long weekends of digging through a chaotic melange of paper without a roadmap or logical guidance, and then the sheer drudgery of taking over their accounts with my paperwork in hand and being responsible for getting their taxes done, their bills paid, getting my dad to future doctor’s appointments, and so much more. I can’t shake the feeling that my life will never be the same. 

The next job starts on the 10th. And then more jobs follow. The extra stress of not knowing what roadblocks or emergencies will arise and hamper my ability to commit to work schedules drives my anxiety. The “not knowing” if my dad will go willingly into memory care is a fear the size of a grizzly bear hugging my back.

Thankfully, my brother and sister are logical, kind and caring. We are all a united front. We all like each other and we don’t squabble. Thankfully, my wife is amazing and patient and logical and so very supportive. Thankfully, my son is incredibly responsible, helpful and compassionate (especially toward his father—-me). Another area of gratitude is that my parents leveraged their depression era fears of poverty into enough resources to last for any foreseeable needs my father may have. 

My career as a photographer/film maker/blogger/writer? I have to believe that I’ll be back in the saddle by the end of the month. Shouldering some additional obligation but at least able to get back to the work. 


Thanks for your patience and advice. It’s all welcome. Keep it coming; it makes me feel connected...


I have this sinister little lens in the top drawer of the equipment case that's never been satisfying. I think it's because it's hard to get focused right.


I've discussed many of the Olympus Pen FT half frame lenses that I enjoy using but I've mostly glossed over one. It's the 20mm f3.5. When I used it on its intended half frame Olympus film camera my results were always hit and miss. Mostly it looked soft and mushy. I had better options among the autofocus lenses that came along with each generation of m4:3 lenses. The poor 20mm just basically got side-lined. 

But I am nothing if not persistent. I decided to give it one more try on the front of my favorite photo camera, the G85. The Olympus Pen FT 20mm lens is from about 1968 and was the widest focal length lens made for the half-frame cameras (which have a crop factor of 1.4 with ff 35mm and 2.0 with m4:3). 

Each newer generation of Panasonic G cameras seems to be getting better and better at implementing focus peaking. And it's getting easier and easier to enable focus magnification while manual focusing. 
This is all good for older, manual focusing lenses.

As I walked around and shot frame after frame with the G85+20mm f3.5 combo I came to realize just how tricky it was in the pre-EVF days to really focus a slow, wide lens accurately. The visual depth of field on a focusing screen seems to obscure the real limits of the "in focus boundaries." 

No matter how much I love to romanticize older lenses there is a basic fact that their maximum aperture performance falls behind that of more modern lens options. With that in mind I mostly shot the lens at f5.6 since stopping down nearly always improves the performance of any older lens; up to a point. 

When I returned to the studio to evaluate the lens' performance I noticed several things. First, the lens is not particularly sharp wide open and also shows some green and magenta fringing at tonal junction points. Stopping the lens down gains sharpness but it's the old fashion sort of sharpness formula that combines lots and lots of resolution but at a lower contrast and acutance than any modern lens. It's a good candidate for post production, with an emphasis on a good sharpening routine coupled with a liberal use of the clarity slider to add back contrast and edge snap.

Unlike software corrected wide angles of the present the lens is much better corrected for geometric corrections right out of the box. It had to be; there was no firmware correction available when it was designed and sold. 

If you go into this lens with the idea of using it for substantive work you'll need to be comfortable shooting either at f5.6 or f8.0 with m4:3 cameras. Those are the sweet spot apertures for this lens. I should also note that it amply covers the APS-C format as it was originally designed to cover the wider (1.4x crop) area of the half frame film cameras. With a decent adapter and with the caveats I mentioned above it should work well on any of the Sony APS-C mirrorless cameras. It may even cover the full frame, but only at the closer focusing distances.

In all, I like the lens for photographs of people and may use it for something but I'm being progressively spoiled by the wide open clarity of lenses like the Olympus 12-100mm f4.0. It's harder now to rationalize using some of these older wide angles on the smaller format cameras when there are so many better modern alternatives. But it's fun to see that it's still highly usable on the latest cameras. Nice delayed obsolescence. 


12.28.2017

Taking a break from a tough week to go to the museum with Ben and Belinda.


My wife and my son decided I needed a break from parent and sibling drama and could use a ration of calmness so my little nuclear family decided they would take me to the Blanton Museum to get a second look at 

The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip

Once again the prints were exciting to look at. I have a new appreciation for Joel Sternfeld. His work is beyond great; especially when seen in its 40 by 50 inch, printed glory. 

We each set our own pace through the gallery and then walked together through the contemporary galleries on the second floor. 

After a bout of art we headed over to our favorite Chinese food restaurant and had lunch. We've been taking Ben there since he was three years old and everyone called him by name when we walked in. I've worked on a project for one of my favorite law firms this afternoon.

On a photographic note: the Sigma 60mm f2.8 DN showed up three days after the first promised delivery date and it's as good as I remember. The files are bright and sassy and the focal length is great for my point of view. A nice bargain for $240.

On an off topic note: Does anyone have a successful strategy for getting elder parents to give up the single family dwelling and move (willingly) into assisted living? If so, the suggestion might be worth its weight in gold... I could shoot more if I worried less...

12.27.2017

The last of the old Christmas Nostalgia Prints. "Young Woman with Camera."


Shot with a Canon TX camera and an 85mm f1.8 FD lens. Copied from an existing print. My ride on the time machine is over for now.

Back in a few days with something different.

12.26.2017

A Photo From the Distant Past. Copied From a Print.


I've been spending some time lately looking through boxes of prints. I have several thousand black and white, 11x14 inch, double weight fiber photographic prints that I rarely look through because everything became digital. Everything is accessed on the web. The prints seem to me to belong to a different age; a different aesthetic.

There was something about being a photographer in my 30's that felt as though we had all the time in the world as well as the ability to block out all the distractions and just do our work. We weren't frantic to churn it out in order to get it up on the web as soon as possible so we could start garnering "likes" and variously disguised "attaboys." I would shoot for the pleasure of shooting and the equal measures of deriving pleasure talking to the interesting people in front of my camera.

Nothing was ever finished or "showable" until it was printed, toned, washed and dried. Once I made an 11x14 print I could go out into the world and show it. The audience was limited but, for the most part, appreciative.

Opening these boxings and carefully shuffling through the prints is, for me, like looking back in a time travel device that doesn't allow you to go back in time but rather to look back in time. 

All those beautiful people in all those prints are now twenty or more years older. Most of the people I still know and see around town. Most of them have aged very, very well. All are still interesting to me.

The more that life changes the more I struggle to figure out how to translate and integrate what we did for our craft, and in service of our vision, into a modern idiom. To translate from a unique and physical treasure into a fleeting mosaic of tiny squares of light and color on a fixed screen. Mostly immovable and in its own way unshareable.

Sure, you can walk around with your phone and annoy people by showing them tiny and compressed images but I rarely see artists walking down the street dragging a cart with computer and a thirty inch monitor behind them, ready to show off their work on the sidewalks. Ready to put a black hood over the monitor to chase off the reflections and glare so the people who assent to view the work can see it in all of its modern glory.

The image above is of my friend of 30 years, Michelle. She has always been wonderfully beautiful.
I photographed her with a medium format camera and a medium telephoto lens. This image started as a color negative and is progressively being re-seen in more and more monotone variations.

As was my custom then the lighting was done with only two lights. One in a small softbox directed at the background and the second in a huge softbox (4x6 feet) and used over to one side. There was no fill and I'm happy with that.

The opening of the boxes and the re-examination of my own past is proceeding, driven by the loss of both family and friends which seems to be the human lot in life after 50. It's also motivating me to start printing again.

Not because I think anyone will notice or care in any productive way but because it seems so much more "real" to me than stacking up images on a magnetic disk. Locked away as potential, but not actual, pieces of art and craft.

12.22.2017

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....).