1.12.2018

Something I hate to do but must do for three days next week: Tethering. A fool's errand.


I am aware that many photographers like to shoot tethered to their laptops or tethered to their studio PCs. I'm sure this makes sense in still life shooting situations that require exacting compliance to a client's comprehensive layout or when working collaboratively with an art direct bent on arranging props within a static scene in just the right way. But I have never warmed up to the idea of shooting portraits while tethered to a monitor or laptop. It would seem that one loses control over implementing one's own style and the conviction that they understand and can assess the value of the "right" frame in a better, or different, way than can the portrait sitter in front of them. 

So it is with sad resignation that I am approaching a project next week. One of my clients is having a sales meeting. It's an "all hands on deck" function that will bring people in from all over north America for the week. The marketing folks have decided that it will be an opportune time to provide portrait photos for anyone who needs them or wants them. This request falls on the other side of the line from "Large and beautifully crafted prints to be displayed proudly" and resides on the side of the use field that includes: headshot for LinkedIn and Facebook, small snap for electronic proposals and (maybe) use on a website. In other words there stated expectation is that we'll take about five minutes per person to get a good shot. Not much more. 

But here's the kicker: they want us to shoot tethered so we can show the portrait sitters the images immediately after we've shot them. They want the sitter to select an image on the spot and they would like us to send the image directly to them via e-mail, on site. 

The tight scheduling means I have to work with an assistant. I choose Ben. The real issue is the throughput and the inevitable delays as people hem and haw over exactly which frame they should choose. I don't like to work this way because there is always some retouching that can be done in post to make each person look better. It just be a judicious crop but it may also be removing a pimple or smoothing skin. 

Recently Panasonic delivered a new application that is free to GH5 and G9 users. It's called Lumix Tether and it delivers tethered shooting and camera control. It's very straightforward software so it doesn't create a gallery of images; it just shows them one at a time. In order to make it easier on the people who will be choosing the images I decided I would take the tethering one step further and combine it with Lightroom so we can look at images side by side, zoom in, etc. After much trial and error I was able to get the three pieces (camera, Lumix Tether and Lightroom) to work together. I can shoot, pull the images into a "watched" folder and then share them on the screen with the "customer." 

Then I ran into another glitch of sorts; my MacBook Pro laptop has a 13 inch screen and the display images in Lightroom are just too darn small to be easily readable. I'm not about to haul my primary computer off my desk and leave it in a Westin Hotel meeting room for three days so I started looking around for other options. It dawned on me that I could use the Thunderbolt connection on the laptop to create an HDMI port, via an adapter I have in my toolkit. Then I could attach a TV to the whole shebang and people could adore themselves, large scale. It would be a much more cost effective alternative to buying a new, fully spec'd 15 inch MacBook Pro with a i7 processor. 

If I could send the image from the laptop to the TV I could provide enough square footage to make selection easy. I could go straight from the camera to the TV with an HDMI cable (thank you! Panasonic for giving me a full size HDMI port!!!) but that would complicate the process of then sending the selected file via e-mail, on the spot. For that I'd need the laptop in the mix.

We have one TV in the house. It's an older 50 inch Vizio 720p unit and I am loathe to disconnect it and bring it along, mostly because I think a newer model would have a much better and more detailed screen image but also because the size of the unit is painful and our space on site is limited. With all this in mind I headed to Costco to buy a current TV. I bought a 32 inch model that's LED, 1080, wi-fi enabled and has a convenient HDMI port. It's also a Vizio (my other choice was a Samsung...) and it set me back less than $200.

With the whole mess assembled together my number one priority is to remember not to wander off with the camera in my hands and thereby pull everything crashing down to the floor. At peak times the TV image will no doubt attract a "peanut" gallery who will attempt to "inspire" the sitter with exhortations and catcalls. I can hardly wait. Yes, the space the meeting planners have chosen for us is mostly public...

The client and I are still flirting with negotiating a different process. I would be happy to keep the TV in the mix, happy to allow for immediate, on site image selection too, but I am trying to sell them on allowing us to record the frame number of each person's selection on a form, along with the person's e-mail address, and then touching each file with some magic retouching spells at the end of each day and sending along the improved images. We'll see how strong my powers of persuasion might be. 

The lure of the paycheck so far outweighs my righteous indignation at having an external force willfully change my workflow. We'll see if we can't maintain that rational approach as the situation devolves into the unknown by the end of the first day...

On another note, below are images I made yesterday on my first walk through downtown in the new year. Actually, since the 22nd of December. 

The rationalization for the walk was stress relief but the underlying reason was to put the Sigma 30mm f1.4 DC DN (haven't a clue as to what those abbreviations might mean; if anything) through its paces. I was very happy to have it along and I find myself liking the files at least as much as I did when I owned the same basic lens (different mount) for the Sony APS-C, Nex cameras. 











A corner of the kitchen in my parent's house. 
Image shot with the Sigma 60mm f2.8 DN art at 3200 on G85 with no processing. 
Nostalgia included in the mix.

Final thoughts on tethering: Don't do it unless you have to and you're going to get paid for it. Tethering is a pain in the ass.

1.11.2018

Another Blogging Milestone in the Rear View Mirror.

With all the trauma and anguish of the past three weeks I entirely missed noting a small but important-to-me milestone. About three posts ago I put up the 3500th post since the birth of the Visual Science Lab blog. If you figure that the average length of a typical blog here is about 2,000 works then I've bashed out some 7,000,000 million words,  reviewed a lot of gear, and tried my best to piss off the entrenched photo community.

If nothing else the blog has given me the opportunity to improve my skills as a typist...

If you enjoy the blog please take time to comment from time to time so I know that I'm not writing into a vacuum. Of course any contribution is totally voluntary but let's not waste each other's time; checks or cash in thousand dollar increments are the most efficient wealth transfer for both of us....

If you are feeling particularly charitable, and are so inclined, I could really use a new Bentley automobile in order to more efficiently do my writing research in far flung locales. Should a Bentley prove too dear one of the S class Mercedes cars would suffice. We all need to make adjustments....

I think I'll write a few thousand more blogs. Some routines are hard to break.

Assembling a set of prime lenses for a Panasonic G series camera that will see a lot of action in both the video and photography camps...


One of my friends who is a professional videographer is thinking seriously of supplementing his Sony FS7 dedicated video camera with the new Panasonic GH5S. He's looked closely at the files and finds a lot to like about them. We were sitting around having coffee and he asked me for recommendations of lenses to use with the new camera. His requirements (or strong preferences) are to have lenses that have apertures of f1.8 and faster for each lens. He would also like to keep cost down; if possible. 

My first suggestion was that he consider the three new f1.2 Pro lenses from Olympus. All three have been well reviewed and seem to have superior imaging characteristics as well as the ability to move into a manual focusing mode that has hard stops for minimum and maximum focusing distances. We both are on the fence about this family of lenses, we love the "idea" of them but also feel that there are more cost effective options in the overall m4:3 universe which might not be the highest performance where high resolution still photography files are wanted but which would definitely do justice to the 4K video files he (and I ) will likely shoot. 

Now, this is a topic I like to sink my teeth into. He also stated that he was more interested in using lenses specifically designed for the format instead of trying to match lenses from other systems via various mechanical adapters. 

I started making a list. The first lens on my notepad was the Panasonic 42.5mm f1.7 short telephoto. It fills an important slot as a perfect focal length for intimate video interviews. It's also fast enough that when used close in allows for dropping backgrounds out of focus in a very nice way. I bought my second copy several months back and, in the past, found this lens model to be a bit sharper, wide open, than the Olympus 45mm and it also features lens based image stabilization. It's a solid recommendation for a low cost video centric kit. We wish the focusing ring had hard stops in manual focus but you can't always get what you want at the price you're happy to pay. If you want good, sharp performance at a bargain price then this is the system lens I start with. 

My next suggestion is a cheat because it violates his first preference of only considering lenses faster than f1.8. I'm suggesting that everyone who shoots longer focal lengths with the m4:3 cameras get their hands on the Sigma 60mm f2.8 DN Art lens. Of course I understand that it's a stop and a third slower than my friend's limit but it's so sharp and so inexpensive that you just can't go wrong. This is a lens that you can set at its widest aperture of f2.8 and never have a moment's hesitation about its optical performance. At an equivalent of a 120mm lens in the full frame world its a focal length that's almost perfect for classical, tight head shots. Sorry, no built in image stabilization so it's either no coffee or a tripod if you want those frames to be nice and sharp. I love the sleek and minimalist lens body design but it's not everyone's cup of tea. Especially those who shoot year round with soft wool gloves. Not enough grippiness to make those folks happy...

Next up on my list of really good and really well priced fast(er) primes is the universally well-reviewed Sigma 30mm f1.4 DC DN Contemporary lens. It's priced at $339 (or close by) and this will be the second time I've owned this product (albeit in a different mount: I had it for the Sony a6300). On the APS-C frame of the Sony it's the equivalent (FF) of a 45mm lens but on the m4:3 it's closer to 60mm and that's a focal length of happiness for me. I ordered the m4:3 model last week and it came this Tues. Today is the first time I've had enough free schedule to walk around and shoot with it but the first few hundred frames I shot today reminded me what I like about this lens: the center of the frame is nicely sharp and contrasty at f1.4.  The lens is a bit bigger than other m4:3 lenses but it's not nearly as big or heavy as the Olympus Pro series primes. If you like slightly long normal lenses this might be a lens you put on the front of your camera and never take off. I recommend it whole-heartedly. 

Heading down to the wider focal lengths puts me into territory that I only care about when clients request it. The shortest lens I would work with for my personal work would be the 25mm focal lengths for this format which, of course, yield an angle of view like a 50mm lens on full frame. My first choice here (at prices much lower than the Pro series) would be the Panasonic-Leica 25mm f1.4 which is getting long in the tooth but is also a very well made and good performing lens. It's a classic fast lens with the best performance at wider apertures being in the center 2/3rds of the frame. It's not a lens for flat field macro work but if you like shooting fast and you're working in the video world the performance will exceed the resolution the video files well past 4K. So, it's my first choice in this focal length range for the Panasonic cameras. Important to note that this lens does not offer image stabilization either so it's best used on the latest cameras (G9, GH5) for stills or on a tripod or gimbal if paired with the new GH5S. 

If price is an object (and of course it is since we've rejected the budget busting territory of our first choice of the Pro series lenses) then there is one more normal lens that I can recommend with no trepidation or hesitation and that is the Panasonic 25mm f1.7. It's exactly what you might think of as the system version of the Canon or Nikon "nifty-fifty" lenses for full frame bodies. It's decent wide open and then sharpens up very nicely so that by f4.0 and above it's almost on par with the pricier options. This lens is priced at around $250+ but it goes on sale with clock-setting regularity for the blow-out price of $159 and I think it's well worth that price. You can use it wide open and get most of the frame into the very good to excellent category or you can stop it down to f4.5 and get sparkly sharpness throughout. 

As we move down into wider lens territory I can only parrot what I hear from my experienced users and take my cues from them. If I were not content with my Olympus 12-100mm Pro lens and I wanted to stay away from zoom lenses with slower maximum apertures the one additional prime I am actively considering buying is the Panasonic-Leica 15mm f1.7 lens. It seems well made, gets high marks across the reviewing world and seems affordable for 28-30mm equivalent users at around $549. 

I'd suggest lenses wider than 15mm if I knew of any that were really any better than the zooms that cover the wider ranges (Olympus Pro 7-14mm, Panasonic-Leica 8-18mm) but I think when you get into focal lengths under 15mm the inherent depth of field of any of the available primes is no smaller than that of slower zooms; in a practical sense. I can't think that an 8mm f1.8 would have that much less depth of field that the 8mm end of a zoom at f2.8. The zooms I mentioned both have high optical quality; especially near their wider ends so it's not really a question of the primes delivering better image quality. In the end, the flexibility and quality of the two wide zooms wins out in the actual world of making photographs or videos. An added note: I bought (and am happy with...) the Panasonic 8-18mm zoom specifically because it is capable of taking filters directly on the front of the lens. The Olympus Pro and the older Panasonic 7-14 both have bulbous front elements which make it impossible to use conventional, screw-in filters on them. This will be more important to people who want to make video outside and less important to those who dismiss video entirely.

My ideal kit for the m4:3 cameras would include the three fast Olympus Pro Primes, the Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 Pro and the (incredibly flexible) 12-100mm lens and all of these would be supplemented by wider zoom options (the Panasonic-Leica gets my cash because it has filter threads and I can use variable ND filters on it).

I haven't covered long, fast lenses because I just don't think you can do better than the 40-150mm f2.8. If you need longer or faster you'll probably head into adaptations. The 75mm Olympus f1.8 gets very high marks and I consider it somewhat of a speciality lens. One I'd like to own but one that I have to work hard to justify. 

Everyone's choices will be different. I'd opt for different lenses if I were photographing solely for my own pleasure. I'd be happy with a 25 and a 45 and I'd be opting out of the buying cycle after locking down those two models. But here I am on the cusp of a week long shoot for a large medical practice that will call for very wide shots, very tight shots, large depth of field and shallow depth of field in a random pattern throughout each day of the assignment. It helps me to justify the choices I've made!
To my videographer friend: I hope this is helpful. 

Have I left any good lenses out of the mix that I should know about or learn about? Let me know!


A re-posting from exactly this day in 2012. Same message needed repeating for me this morning...

Irrational purchases versus marketing strength.

(postcard mailer)
Versus...
(new camera of the moment)
Or this....

A piazza in Rome.
Street shooting in Rome.
I love cameras as much as the next guy. Maybe even more. But, at some point the mania of researching, buying, testing, trading and selling off cameras, and then wading through the next generation of offerings seems...over the top.  This isn't really me talking, it's my book on Commercial Photography.  I re-read it last night after having coffee with a pragmatic gentleman yesterday who mentioned the book.  

I get that it took a number of years and a number of tries for camera makers to get digital cameras back to the same level of working transparency that they'd achieved decades ago in film cameras.  Up until the time of the Canon 5D2 and the Nikon D3 we could easily rationalize that we "needed" to upgrade our camera to take advantage of the curve that was still grasping for true "holistic" usability in our professional tools.  But boy did we sacrifice some hard earned money, time and mental rigor.

Around 2009 all of the pieces were firmly in place.  Any of the top cameras on the market that year are totally satisfactory for the function of creating great images and mastering the needs of the mainstream commercial marketplace.  My Olympus EP2 was a perfect camera for the leisurely hobby of shooting fun stuff while on a walk or road trip.  And it still is.

My Canon 5Dmk2 is a perfected working tool for what I need to do to keep my clients happy.  In fact, the 1DS mk2 from 2004 was just about there as well.  When you think about it, just about every camera with delusions of professional competency made since 2008 or 2009 is probably better, overall, than us operators.  And in point of hard fact most professional assignments are usually done either on a stout tripod (at a reasonably low ISO) or in complicity with electronic flash or other supplemental lighting (also at a reasonably low ISO) and can be handled with a wide range of cameras and lenses.  Including (when stopped down) most recent zoom lenses.

What's fueling the race to make every camera full frame?  What's the cattle prod that keeps the herd begging for higher and higher pixel counts?  And what's the new fascination with the new "rangefinder" styled cameras.....that are anything but?  Desire and marketing?

It's fun to buy new cameras but even I have limits.  I was drooling over the Fuji X pro camera shown on Michael Johnston's blog and all over the web when my inner business guy (deeply repressed during most camera buying escapades) emerged, beating me about the head and shoulders with a rolled up copy of my own business book.  

He had a couple of questions.  But first he looked around the studio and started counting cameras and lenses and lights and gadgets.  He was still counting an hour later when I came back from lunch.... and then he turned on me like a spreadsheet badger and demanded to know what the hell I was thinking.

"I see enough cameras to re-brick a wall." He shouted. "But I don't see any new promotional mailers.  I don't see a revised contact list.  I don't see any work being done on adding to the e-mail lists.  Where the hell is the new portfolio of people we've been talking about, ad nauseum?  And why am I stepping over three or four different camera systems here?  Are you fucking nuts?  Or did you just win the lottery?"

(My inner business guy can really get in my face...)

But he had a point.  And I could see it pretty clearly.  And so can my bank account.  

"Hey, Photo-Punk."  My inner business guy taunted.  "Let me give you a quick lesson on asset allocation."  I slunk down in my chair and got ready for the lecture I knew I deserved...

He began:  "I see you have the Canon 1DX on order already.  Pretty sweet.  But dude (he calls me that when he's really pissed...) we're talking seven large  ($7,000) for that one camera body.  And how often, when making one of your executive photos or your product shots of electronic toys do you actually need like, 10 frames per second?  Or more throughput? (said with a vicious sneer...)  What you really need are more new clients and more return visits from old clients and, guess what?  They like the gear  you're shooting with right now just fine."

I reached for my cup of coffee and he slapped my hand with a ruler, hard.  Then he looked at the Starbucks label and just shook his head.  "We'll deal with that money leak in another conversation..."

Back to business:  "For the same $7,000 you could finance a coherent, effective direct mail campaign to every art buyer and worthwhile art director in Texas.  One thousand postcards, printed, would run you around $200.  One thousand stamps for said will run you another $430.  A little more elbow grease and a little less time haunting the Photo Equipment Porno sites and you'd have your mailing list in good shape.  Throw some cash at a good graphic designer and for less than $1,000 you can reach a pretty well defined list of potential, check writing clients.  And you could do that seven times in one year for the price of that one camera body!!!!!"   He was screaming and foaming at the mouth by this point...

"If you get a handful of new clients from just that advertising it would return a zillion times more cash to your pocket than a camera that you'll be convinced is obsolete by the time the next big photo trade show rolls around."  (Then he muttered something unflattering under his breath.  Very much a hard nosed business guy....not a marketing guy.  A marketing guy can insult you and smile at the same time.)

I decided to stand up for my inner artist.  I said that I needed the tools that would make my inner artist happy.  That was the argument I trotted out.  Bad move.

"Your inner-f-ing artist????  You gotta be kidding me.  That guy was happy shooting on the streets with an old Hasselblad, a used lens and a pocket full of slow film.  I haven't seen anything from these profit vampire digital cameras that looks any better.  And do you know why?  Because you keep spending all your money on toys.  Back when a camera would last you longer than indigestion you could put money aside for travel and adventure.  Remember travel and adventure?  A hell of a lot more fun to do, and write about, than the buttons on the lastest f-ing point and shoot cameras.  Wouldn't you agree?"

I looked back down at my shoes and tried to remember the last time I got on an airplane and left town to shoot art for myself.....

"Let's take that same $7,000 and see what you could do if you were smart enough to use if for a trip.  Shall we?"  

"Hey look!   Here on Expedia.  You could get a round trip ticket and ten nights at a decent hotel in Tokyo for less than $2,800 bucks.  But wait, don't you have a friend with an extra room in Paris?  And a couple million frequent flier miles?  So all you'd have to pay for is.....film?  No, not even that?  Just food?  And you're standing around your office, getting older and slower and looking at dinky ass digital cameras?  Just grab one out of the drawer, throw a couple of lenses in a bag and get your sad butt in gear.  What the hell are you waiting for?  Or take the $7,000 and go to Rome for a month.  Maybe you could even write a book about it.  Where's your old penchant for blue sky?  Have you turned into a photo pussy?"

He was right.  Where was my inner business guy as we got all wrapped up in the digital marketplace?  Now that we've got cameras that are more or less as transparent as the film cameras they replaced what was my excuse to buy more?  Was it the habit we got into as we feverishly tried to master early digital?  Or was it just resistance and the thinly disguised belief that we "techie" photographers have that the newest camera is like a magic talisman that will give us power over our competitors?  According to my inner business guy the only real magic is the work you do on your marketing to clients.

Everything else is just addiction to the "new car smell."

1DX order cancelled. Passport renewed.  Cards in process. How's that for a kick in the ass for the New Year?

1.09.2018

The Luxurious Richness of the Panasonic Professional Camera Universe. Three incredible concepts in a row.

The newest sibling in an interesting family.

I've had my nose in family matters for the last few weeks and I nearly missed the exciting news from my current favorite camera company, Panasonic. They've been busy lately churning out very desirable cameras and they've just announced one that most photographers will snub while their friends across the hall in video might just adore. It's labeled as the GH5S and, much like Sony's line extension of the A7 series into an A7S and A7Sii, it's the low light version of their previous flagship hybrid camera, the GH5. While you can do a lot of great engineering in order to make a camera that is a good compromise between still photography and video there are some advantages in presenting a camera with a sensor that is optimized for one or the other. And that improved video segment is what the GH5S is directly aimed. But while its specialization for video files seems to disqualify it as the top choice for a stills camera I still find it fascinating. I'll try to explain why...

Here is an image I made for Zach Theatre's upcoming production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.


I worked in a blacked out theatre, using some of their work lights but mostly shaping light in little pools by using multiple, weakly diffused LED panels. The light was there to provide dimension and shadows, not just to increase illumination.

We worked with a Panasonic GH5 and the 12-100mm Olympus Pro lens attached to a Ninja Flame monitor so the art director and I could move lights and change levels in little steps until we both agreed that we'd gotten what we needed for a whole series of different poses and shots.

The illumination levels were low so I worried about file noise but needn't have. With a bit of noise reduction in Lightroom the image came right into line allowing us to use it almost life-size on lobby posters and, easily, in all our electronic displays; regardless of screen size.

The shoot took an hour and thirty five minutes from start to stop and generated dozens and dozens of different looks and variations.

The background was added in post.

It's challenging play. If you are in Austin it's well worth the price of admission.

Notes: I am back in Austin and heading back to the theatre to shoot a video interview this morning for a very different project. I got a good nights sleep last night and had the first cup of good coffee I've had in weeks this morning. 

I am quite fascinated with the new Panasonic GH5S camera and will be writing a bit about the Panasonic professional camera family (fast growing!!!) this afternoon; just to blow off some steam. I currently feel quite vindicated in my decision to through in my lot with the Panasonic/Olympus systems. Come back later to see if I actually got finished writing about deciding between the G9 and the GH5S. 

1.07.2018

OT: closing in on one little piece of closure.

News from the photographic caregiver:

I am closing in on a piece of closure; my dad will be going to a memory care facility tomorrow. While I love him dearly none of us is able to supply the round the clock attention and care he needs to cope effectively with his level of Dementia. Tomorrow afternoon my wife and I will pull the rest of the financial papers and valuables out of the house for safekeeping and head back up to Austin to resume, as best we can, the life we've created for ourselves there. 

I understand that there will be emergencies, calls in the night, unexpected and confused stuff that comes at us out of left field, but my therapy and salvation has always been doing my work. There is a comfort in the consistency of getting up and packing the car, greeting clients, setting up lighting, engaging in repartee with portrait subjects. Puzzle solving on the annual report shoots. Creating the flow of video production. The familiarity and mastery are tied together and create a comfort for me that I can't really explain.

It will also be good to sleep in my own bed instead of on the fold-out couch half asleep, waiting to hear if my father stirs in the middle of the night and needs to be reminded of where the bathroom is.

On Tues. morning Ben and I will pack up the car and head over the theater to get that one last interview I need in order to start editing a project we've been working on since before Christmas. We don't really need footage from a second camera but I think the boy wanted to attend to keep an eye on his own father. To be able to step in if I've overestimated my own emotional resilience and need a gentle reminder that life goes on and work goes on and that's okay. 

This is probably the last post I'll write about my parents. There's a ton to learn but it's mostly lessons for me. It's time we got back into the mad throes of photography. Anyone up for a good Canon versus Nikon fight? How about the ongoing exercise in hermeneutics over mirrorless vs DSLRs? No one? I guess well just have to start right in about the insane price of the fully tricked out Pro iMac..... Till then. Kirk Out.

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....