A short and tentative review of the Tokina 16-28mm f2.8 lens. I like it.

I was at a small college yesterday making images hither and yon. At one point I got myself over to the small, 1950's vintage library and made some photographs there. I made a point to pack the Tokina 16-28mm (Nikon F mount) lens because I hadn't really had an opportunity to give it a good, real life, tryout and I wanted to see if some of the less than stellar reviews that this lens sometimes gets on the web were accurate. So many lens reviews seem really to be a review about the writer's (questionable) technical abilities more than any shortcomings of the products being tested....

I've given up trusting all but a handful of lens reviewers. Who do I trust most? Probably Thom Hogan. I've read reviews by him, bought a lens he has reviewed and found it to be exactly as he described it. I would only trust reviewers who understand how to use their cameras in the field and then only if they had some real experiences with the products. Like weeks and months rather than speed preview assessments from walking around the blogger's office.... I would trust Roger Cicala at LensRentals.com as well. His writing is pretty damn good and he seems to lack any (deal-killer) brand compulsion disorder which might cause him to damn good products from brands he doesn't favor while overselling the brands that he does like. That's a good thing in a reviewer. 

There are some reviewers who are nostalgic and color their reviews with beliefs around the ideas that only prime lenses can be good, or that one company or another has a lock on the secrets of making the best lenses. Often, you can read between the lines of their reviews and intuit that they used a lens ten years ago to make a photograph that was saturated with personal meaning for them and they've never let go of the association..... a very subjective way to understand lenses. 

It's easiest to collate a list of preferred reviewers that have a track record of insight and experience but are not weighted down by the need to sell you something, or anything, in order to survive. That way lies the madness of the slippery slope. I want to read a review by someone who won't go hungry next month if we don't click the links and buy the products. 

I digress. But I think it's important to understand that all reviewers are not created equal. In this case I have less experience than some when it comes to wide angle zooms. I bought the first Canon EOS 20-35mm zoom back in the film days, the first 12-24mm Nikon APS-C wide angle zoom in the early digital days, I've shot a bit with the Nikon 14-24mm and also own the (very good) Panasonic/Leica 8-18mm lens. I can only compare how the files look in relation to the lenses I use everyday. I don't expect all lenses to rise to the level of a Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art lens but I do expect the lenses I use to have certain performance qualities. Sharpness, minimal color casts, good resolution, convincing acutance and minimal flaring and ghosting. With wide angles it's also very nice if they don't have outrageous distortion; or distortions that can't be easily corrected in post production processing. Most lenses, outside the too good to be true bargain lenses meet these criteria pretty well. 

The lens I am discussing today is one I have owned for about two months. I didn't use wide angle zooms much until recently but I did a series of jobs for an architecture firm and the seem to adore really wide angle shots in some situations so I thought I read up on what was available and see if I could find any used bargains out in the universe. I was pretty well convinced I did not need anything wider than 16mm or 18mm so I tended to shy away from the 12-24mm models and concentrated on the lenses that had smaller zoom ranges on the assumption that they would be easier to design and build correctly and so would have more consistent performance. 

I didn't care about speed but my research seemed to guide me to the idea that most of the f2.8 models were very good and that the faster aperture might be very useful in more accurately manually focusing the lenses, even in live view. I narrowed down my field based on reviews and user reports to the Tamron 15-30mm (new but not G2; it wasn't out yet) the Sigma 14-24mm Art, and the Nikon 14-24mm. The Tokina wasn't on my radar to begin with but I ran across one in perfect shape in the display case of used Nikon mount lenses at Precision Camera. It's a current model but Tokina's pricier lenses don't seem to have the market share or popularity that the other brands enjoy in the U.S.A. It required more research before I was willing to bite. 

The lens has one finicky performance issue that is mostly apparent with strong light sources in the frame and even just outside the frame. It generates a color artifact that can be a line or curved line of bright color in parts of the frame, echoing the shape of the reflection or light source that causes it. Some people imagined that the corners were less sharp but my post purchase testing leads me to believe that some people don't understand imaging curvature and how affects flat field image sharpness in closer ranges. Finally, I was informed that bright light sources in the frame and just outside the frame can cause higher than average ghosting or veiling flare. This is somewhat true but good technique can go a long way toward minimizing this. 

But here's the deal; my use of the lens is mostly for interior shots in buildings, houses and factories. Most are well and evenly lit and I can control and mitigate light striking the front element of the lens. If I use the lens correctly in these situations it does everything I would want it to. 

After reading decent reviews from multiple sources (each also pointing to the same weaknesses...) I decided to buy the lens. I bargained for a used price that was a fraction of the price for new versions of any of the lenses I had under consideration. It was the combination of the low price and the 10 day return privileges that pushed me to try the lens out. I figured if the lens was a poor performer, or the artifacting problem was untenable I would have nothing to lose by returning it. 

I took the lens out on a sunny day and most of my shots were sharp, contrasty, saturated, color cast free and largely distortion-correctable. I was, however, able to duplicate the color artifact on occasion but judged it to be a minor annoyance and one that was moderately easy to avoid. I would have preferred to buy the Sigma 14-24mm lens but my irregular use of ultra-wide angles in general, and the much higher price of the Sigma, led me to very much appreciate the qualities of the Tokina. 

So, yesterday I documented an older library on a small college campus and I used the Tokina 16-28mm on a Nikon D800e, on a tripod. It was one of the first times I used Nikon's implementation of live view with the D800e and it was primitive in comparison with the live finder image of a mirrorless Panasonic or Sony but it was still very usable and allowed me to use the built in electronic level to good effect, and to fine focus with good accuracy. 

I've included some samples and would note that I also included images that have light sources in the frames. I looked carefully and did not see either excessive ghosting or the dreaded color artifacting. I did about thirty shots over the course of an hour or so with the Tokina and was happy with the quality of the images in each case. Note that I did not shoot the lens wide open at f2.8 and that's consistent with the kinds of shots I'll want to do with the lens.

Having spent a lot of time with the two Pro Olympus lenses I have around the studio I loved the fact that the Tokina also had a manual/autofocus clutch around the lens barrel. It was a familiar way to switch back and forth. 

The lens seems to be robustly constructed and is big and heavy. Not a lens to take on a casual stroll around town, along with a Nikon D800e and a battery grip loaded with 8 lithium double A batteries....

But if you are going from interior location to interior location with a rolling case the weight and size is largely irrelevant. 

Do I recommend this lens? Hmmm. At the Amazon price of $566 it's a bargain if you are an intermittent users of extreme wide angles. It's a better bargain, slightly used, at about $400. If I was a practicing architectural photographer I'd break the credit card out of that block of ice in the deep freeze and get my first choice, the Sigma Art. If I had more common sense I would never have sold my Canon 20mm f2.8 EOS lens and a camera body to use it on. I used to just tell clients that 20mm was as wide as I could comfortably shoot. If I was a high earning architectural photographer I guess my "go-to" lens would be the manual focusing, Zeiss 21mm f2.8 prime along with several other Zeiss primes. The images might not be much better but I'd feel so smug....

For a guy who is satisfied with the regular images he gets from a mid-tier Nikon lens like the 24-120mm f4.0 I think the Tokina lens is a good match for my intended use and my budget. I doubt I'll buy another wide angle zoom. I think I'll just look for a Sigma 20mm art lens and call it quits. In the interest of full disclosure, if my old Nikon 20mm 2.8 (which wasn't quite as good as the Canon model) had not fallen apart and ignominiously failed I would never have fallen down this rabbit hole and jostled with the Red Queen for zoom lens supremacy. In the long run it would have been just as smart to replace the Nikon 20mm with.........another Nikon 20mm. 

Not much of a review but then again it's an honest one.

At about 24mm. f11
At 16mm. f11


Interesting how the support equipment is usually the "make it or break it" stuff in most jobs. Today my "support team" was a monopod and a faster broadband connection. Yesterday it was a safe car.

Golly Jeepers! It's been a rough week and it's only Wednesday. It started on Sunday. I shot the first part of a project for a seminary/graduate school in the afternoon and evening. A matriculation ceremony followed by a reception. It was one of those old fashioned shoots where I was trying to capture the look and feel of the event; almost like a wedding but with a much lower degree of stress. The job came in through an ad agency and we'll do more work on the project (photographs for a fund raising brochure) tomorrow. But it was an easy one to pack for, a couple of Nikon D800 series cameras with a 24-120mm, a 70-300mm and the Sigma 50mm Art tossed in for good measure. I also packed and used a Godox fully manual flash which came in handy at the reception; the facility had a beautiful, white ceiling that was two stories high. With the camera set at ISO 800 and the flash at 1/4 power it made for a very nice, though homogenous, lighting effect.

The useful support team member on Sunday's job was the Godox flash. I'd long ago figured out how to use guide numbers, and have been burned with inconsistent exposures when using TTL flashes so many times that I feel more comfortable figuring out flash power and exposure for myself. Since there was adjacent parking I left an emergency bag in the car. It had extra lenses and an extra flash, just in case something went awry.

Yesterday I packed up two systems and headed to Dell, Inc. through a rainstorm which, in the moment, seemed daunting but will no doubt seem lame once hurricane Florence makes landfall this week. The assignment at Dell was to document a large meeting of executives (think hundreds) in an event to discuss....the future. I was of two minds coming into the project. On one hand the Nikon D800s would make short work of the job because, compared to my GH5's, they nail white balance quickly and well, they have insanely detailed files, and a lot of exposure latitude. On the other hand they are loud. As loud as most other full frame DSLRs, and I had no idea how big the room was or how somber, or light-hearted, the tenor of the event might be. Would a clacking of the shutter ruin the ambiance? Would I limit the way I shot in order to create less...distraction?

Once I scouted the room I put the Nikons back in the car and grabbed the bag with the GH5 and GH5S cameras. Even using them with their mechanical shutters would ensure a much quieter and less "in your face" experience. With the silent mode engaged there was no sonic intrusion whatsoever. I put the 12/100mm Olympus lens on the GH5S to take advantage of the lens's image stabilization and used that combo as my "B" camera. It was tasked with audience shots, reaction shots and stuff that had to be shot in dark areas. I put the 40-150mm f2.8 Olympus Pro lens on the GH5 (OMG! That's a profoundly cool lens) and used it for all the speaker shots and all the images that I knew would end up in marketing materials and on primary websites.

It was a good call. The room was on the smallish side and we were packed in. I moved through the room to get the angles the marketing team needed and was happy to be hauling less camera weight than I would have shouldered had I stayed with the Nikons and their husky zoom lenses. I was happy not to disturb the meeting by shooting a loud shutter camera inches from the attendees.

I covered the event well and my client was happy with the final images. We were on a tight deadline so I finished up the assignment at 4:30 pm and raced through the sloppy traffic and wet roads, getting back to my studio around 5:15. I sat right down and started editing. My target delivery time was 8 pm. I shoot too much and I edit too little but this time I really did try to keep myself in check. I whittled down about 750 shots to something around 450 shots and I felt pretty proud of myself. Since I tend to do custom white balances a lot most of the images only needed to be "lightly touched" for contrast correction or "shadow lifting" so post processing the edited images (see what I did with the words there?) didn't take long. It was my first rush assignment with my newly improved, fiber broadband internet connection.

I was shocked to see my five gigabyte upload zip through in less than seven minutes. My previous connection would haven't taken about five hours; unless the connection stopped for cocktails somewhere along the way.....this is an amazingly wonderful way to deliver files now. I'm so happy!

I took a break for dinner and then came back into the studio to charge batteries and re-pack for today's shoot. We worked for our German healthcare client and I needed to provide documentary coverage of a new product rollout with both high res photographs and an assemblage of b-roll that would go out to television stations, via the company's public relations firm, no later than 3pm today.

This meant that I had to pack for two different kinds of shooting and be able to go back and forth between two camera systems to get what I wanted. I was mostly interested in using the Panasonic GH5S as an ENG  (electronic news gathering) camera and using a Nikon D800e camera as my photography camera. Since most of the program was in a large and well lit classroom (with ample exposure to the outside light) I was able to satisfy both criteria without having to light anything. The Nikon is a better low light camera and is very flexible when used with the 24-120mm f4.0 VR. In fact, I used only that combo for all the still shots, but kept a D800 and several other lenses in the Think Tank Airport Security case I used today. It's always a sound business practice to keep back up gear around.

I set the GH5S to 1080p @ 30 fps using the 200 mbs, All-I codec. I used Rec 709 as the color profile. I kept the zebras on and at 105% and made a custom white balance for each room in which I shot and changed it often as the gloom of a rainy morning gave way to a sunny sky in the afternoon. While the classroom was lit with 4400 K ceiling lighting the stronger sun outside did have an effect on color...

The support team member that was worth its weight in gold today was the Benro monopod with "chicken feet" that I bought last Fall. It took some practice to get the most out of it but it paid off today by providing a very steady base and the ability to do gentle and jitter free pans. I bought this one. And having used it all day today if I lost it I would rush out to the nearest good camera store and buy another one immediately. How did I live without this?

The client was hazy about exactly what they needed in their b-roll video so I covered a lot more than I needed to. Near the end of the morning I was able to talk to their public relations person and she was able to pare down the fluff and let me know exactly what she wanted to send out for network use. Love the smart P.R. people. They know what to send along to the media.

I used the Nikon like I've been using cameras for decades; figure out what you want out of the shot, compose it, meter it and bang away. Use the camera with authority so everyone just assumes you know what you are supposed to be doing and you must be in the right spot...

As we got closer to noon I had photographed and shot video of most everything on my list. Since me 3:00 pm deadline began to loom large I packed up, said goodbye to my contact and headed back to the studio to both edit and then post process (see what I just did there with those words?) the stills, and upload them, and then edit and color grade the video in order to piece together a b-roll video program to be disseminated far and wide. Everything had to be in the "hands" of the P.R. agency by 3:00 pm to make it all work so time was of the essence.

I got to the studio, took the dog out for a quick "fire hydrant consultation" and then got to work on the files. The beauty of nailing exposures and setting custom white balances while shooting is that you don't have to hit each file with multiple corrections. I edited down to 200 images, color corrected and contrast corrected them, and then converted the huge raw files to manageable Jpeg files for delivery. I was once again stunned as I watched my broadband connection make short work of the upload.

As soon as I heard the completion tone of the upload I stopped playing chess with Studio Dog and started editing the video as I imported it. I grabbed the clips I wanted and avoided importing the bulk of the hour's worth of material I'd shot; after all, I only needed three minutes! In this instance Final Cut Pro X was my friend. I created a b-roll program with 10 to 15 second clips of pertinent visual content, separated by 1.5 seconds of black between each cip.

The selection and edit process, along with some color grading, took about an hour and I was able to upload it all to my client with time to spare. Since I had time to spare I jumped back in and made an alternative edit and sent that along too.

That's three jobs completed so far this week with more to go tomorrow and Saturday. Each time I shoot I become aware of one piece of gear which leverages the power of the rest of the gear and makes my job easier. I gave props to the Benro Video Monopod for today but I could have easily chosen to laud my ancient (2009 Vintage) Think Tank Airport Security roller case. It also rocks. And I was amazed when I thought back to when I first purchased it, and how long I've had it. The case has easily done a couple of marathons worth of moving and it's still going strong.

When I read all about the newest cameras I sometimes think we have it all wrong. The valuable stuff we buy is the support gear, and it sure returns many times its purchase price. I used a light stand on Monday that I swear I bought the year I quit the advertising business and started working full time as a commercial photographer. That stand has been in service since 1988. As have my background stands. Now that's real value. Cameras? Not so much.

So, I'm shooting again tomorrow and then Friday is a post production, pre-production and cleaning day. If the photo gods allow it I'll also be able to get in a swim and maybe even get my car's oil changed. No promises but we wouldn't want to slow down ahead of a Saturday shoot....


Weird Gear Acquisition Plot Twist...

Now that my kid is out of college and we're no longer paying for his tuition, room, board, and other associated costs, I imagined that I would plunge back into the market for fine cameras and go crazy. It seems like I can afford anything I want now that I'm no longer keeping a private college in business.

But here's the crazy thing: I'm not interesting in buying new cameras. Just no motivation to go shopping for something new. I guess you only really want what you feel like you can't have.

I did buy some stuff yesterday that's tangentially connected to my work. I bought two pairs of "32 DEGREES" heat performance leggings. In older parlance, two pairs of long underwear. I also bought two more batteries (non-brand name) for my Nikon D800s. I figured both pairs of products would come in handy on my upcoming trip to Iceland. Cameras? Got enough of those for the trip already...

I've been posting a lot of older images lately; many from film, but I'm shooting more and more lately with the Panasonic GH5S. It's a wonderful, little camera and one that's overlooked by stills-only photographers. The recurring "bad rap" that I hear from people who haven't used the camera is that the lack of in body image stabilization makes the camera unusable. That's just silly since you can always put stabilized lenses on it and get the same image stabilization performance you might front a stock GH5.

This morning I am packing up a camera bag to go out and photograph an executive event at the facilities one of the largest computer makers on planet. I've got two big Nikon D800x cameras in the bag, along with appropriate lenses and flashes but I'm also packing the GH5S with the Olympus 12-100mm f4.0. I'll use it for shots where I have to have a truly silent camera which also has great high ISO performance. Will the 10 megapixels limit me? I don't think so. Seven years ago I shot one of these events with a Nikon V1 mirrorless camera, with only ten megapixels, and the company keeps inviting me back. But maybe they're inviting me back for my loquacious and jovial personality and not that much for the camera work.

Curious to know if any VSL readers have also picked up a GH5S and what your experiences with this camera have been. Anyone?


Imperfection series.

Tourist with an old Hasselblad. Florence.

One of our more memorable trips was one that Belinda and I took through Italy. I brought only one camera and two lenses but they seemed to suffice for the photography I wanted to do. The camera body was a typical 500 C/M that was, of course, totally mechanical and boasted a top shutter speed of 1/500th of a second. I brought along a 100mm f3.5 Zeiss Planar lens and a 50mm f4.0 Zeiss Distagon lens but I ended up using the 100mm for nearly everything. It matched my personal point of view.

I didn't use 220 film backs then because many of my favorite black and white films weren't available in 220 loads. The 12 frames on a 120 roll always seemed just fine to me.  I did bring a very old 45 degree pentaprism finder for the camera but most of the time it was easier to just use the waist level finder. I had become used to seeing the image on the waist level finder in reverse and had come to consider that normal. My one concession to modern convenience was a small, Sekonic incident light meter. I got into the habit of taking a reading when entering a new room and then just using those settings until I noticed the light had changed.

It's funny to think about working this way after having just read so much about the new cameras being launched and all the reasons why current photographers find the new cameras under-featured or "unusable" because they lack some "feature" such as GPS or AF zones that extend to the outside edges of the finder. I find it sad that dual cards slots are now a "must" and that so much depends on attaining terminal velocity of auto focus speed in order to capture simple images.

I wonder if many of the people who embrace all the new technology and demand it in order to take the most basic and banal images would benefit from spending a month with the Hasselblad camera I used for my trip. Perhaps the slow, manual film advance would give them time to consider the decisive moment instead of depending on the promiscuous spray. Perhaps knowing that they could not depend on the malleability of RAW files to fix many errors and shortcomings would prod them to be more careful with their exposure control. Maybe having to use one really good lens with one really nice focal length would allow them, over time, to develop some sort of personal vision or mastery.

The 1/500th of a second shutter speed isn't quite the issue it seems since most medium format lenses didn't experience much image degradation from diffraction until they were stopped down past f22.

I think about these things when I am told that a camera lacking 1/8,000th of a second top mechanical shutter speed is not "useful." I think about how much we were able to do with ISO 400 black and white film when I am told that the lack of a noise free ISO 12,000 on a camera is "a deal breaker."

And wouldn't the web be a much more sparse repository for images if every 12 frames shot had to be meticulously developed, by hand, in temperature calibrated liquids before having the perfect frame selected and then printed on thick silver papers in their own chemical baths? Washed for an hour or so?  Toned in selenium baths and then washed again? Dried face down on screens over night? Dust spotted with tiny bristle brushes and Spotone dyes, matched to the overall tone of the fiber prints?

Then maybe we'd have something more to talk about than the latest equipment and why we "need" it so badly.


Why do I so often talk about how much I like using the original Pen-FT 60mm f1.5 lens?

This is a shot I did at a night time rehearsal of an "Austin Shakespeare" in the park rehearsal. The lighting on the outside stage was primitive and dim, the hour = late, and the weather hot and humid. I was playing around at the time (2010) with an Olympus EPL-1 body fitted with an EVF finder and, via an adapter, an ancient, manual focusing Olympus 60mm f1.5 lens. These were early days for mirrorless but I really liked the concept and had been having great fun with the EP-2 camera.

I discovered an interesting thing about the VF-2 finder when using manual lenses. When focusing the screen would shimmer at the point of sharp focus! This made accurate focusing with my ancient half frame lens not only possible but, in some cases, faster than autofocus. I was shooting as the rehearsal was in progress and, because of the sparse and aging stage lighting, was trying to hold the camera steady around 1/30th of a second while using an aperture near f2.0. Surprisingly, our hit rate that evening was not embarrassing!

I hadn't used this lens much for nearly a decade before that because, other than my collections of older Pen FT half frame cameras from the 1970's, there were no other cameras on which the lens would work. I'd forgotten, or perhaps never been aware, of just how great a performer this lens was and is.

You need only click on the image to enlarge and then check out the detail of the butterflies in the actor's hair. Oh heck, you could also check out the actor's hair, remembering that this was a 12 megapixel camera with an ample anti-aliasing filter over the sensor....

I use the lens quite frequently now. Most recently I used it for two black and white, 4K video interviews. When my son saw a still frame from one of the interviews he nearly fell off his chair. It looked as though I'd done a perfect still photograph of one interview subject and we might have been looking at that high res image of it on the screen.

The ancient lens is perfect for video. It's sharp when I need sharp and then the background falls off into a luscious banquet of bokeh. Nice, soft, rounded bouquet of bokeh. Would I take a thousand dollars for that old lens? Not on your life! Do you have a recent German car you'd like to trade? Then we'll talk.

New stuff? Not seeing anything out there that's as nice. Sharper? Maybe. As nice? Nope.

Shooting portraits for my LED book, ten years ago. This one with a Canon camera. But not a new Canon camera.

Back in 2010 Amherst Media published the first book about LED lighting for photographers. Ever. It had samples from famous wedding photographer, Neil van Niekirk, and lots of lesser samples from the author; me. It was early days for LED light sources aimed at photographers and most of the affordable fixtures were made in China and didn't have much street credit with people who were obsessed with specification sheets. Oh, I mean photographic numerology... Most people's experiences weren't based on actual, personal use but were conjecture based on glancing and dated reviews of an early generation of tiny, cheap plastic LED panels.

The feedback I got from everyone I mentioned the book project to was that "all" LEDs had really bad color, and a deadly green spike was almost always unavoidable, so the lights could "never" be used for portrait work. Ever.

I plodded on, doing experimental shoots and gathering really wonderful LED lit portraits from friends and professional associates across the country. My memory about that time is that it coincided with my flirtation with Canon digital cameras. I had three different models and liked them for three different reasons. But I used the 7D (APS-C) along with a 70-200mm f4.0 Canon zoom to make the image above. We were in the studio using some inexpensive Chinese fixtures that had 512 small LEDs on a rectangular panel. I don't remember the exact price but I think each panel was about $200.

I came across this image of my friend, Selena, recently while cleaning up old hard drives and preparing them for short term storage ( you know, put them in a vacuum chamber, suck out all the contaminated air, seal into a non-porous, anti-magnetic storage containers filled with pure helium....just the routine archival regimen...) and I remembered all the bluster from the ignorati about the inability of LED lights to render a pleasant skin tone. I think a quick custom white balance got us right into the ball park. Not too hard to do if you read your camera's owner's manual... Ah, nostalgia for the early days of what is now very, very popular tech.


It's pouring down rain. I'm waiting for the internet service person to come and upgrade my internet service. All hope is swirling down the storm drains.

I don't know why I didn't do something about my slow internet service before this week. I guess my use of big chunks of internet bandwidth to send things to clients was sporadic and unhurried enough that it was less arduous to just maintain the status quo and keep moving along with what I was used to. But the game plan changed when two clients, Dell and Ottobock Healthcare, booked me for photographic and video projects next week. Both events are tied to short deadlines and, after each event, there will be a small window of time in which to edit images, and b-roll video, and upload them (successfully) to a far off public relations company for near immediate distribution to various news media channels. I have no worries about editing down the images or creating the approximately 290 megabyte H.264 video component to send but I did start to worry about how long it would take to actually upload. I uploaded about 800 large files (approx. 20 megabytes apiece) about 16 Gb, on Saturday afternoon and it took the better part of eight hours to complete. I know that I'll be uploading a fraction of that amount next week but we have to make allowances for various technical setbacks and re-starts. And I'm always a bit leery where client deadlines are concerned. We haven't yet installed our back up broadband.......

(I do have a back up plan but it consists of sitting and having too much coffee at the local Starbucks while I steal their meek wi-fi....).

When I got my bill for my very meager, copper strand, broadband service yesterday I decided to act. Every recent arrival to our neighborhood had gotten hooked up to a fiber optic connection with at least 100 Megabits per second upload speed and most are paying about 33% less than I. It was time to join the crowd. ( I resisted previously mostly because my supplier, and the only other supplier to our neighborhood, used to take advantage of their near monopoly by insisting that we bundle any new internet service with television services and I am morally and constitutionally opposed to paying for something that comes through the air for free. Besides, who in their right mind wastes time watching television programming? Only compulsive sports addicts and news junkies... as far as I can tell....). 

I called the service center and used all my sense of long term customer privilege, and channeled my full sense of (unearned) entitlement, and negotiated for the new service, at the new, lower price, and resisted the push to have paid TV foisted upon me. I was successful in getting the order set up the way I want it. Now we need to get all the wiring and hookup done. 

As my two hour appointment window started to close, around one o'clock, I got a call from the technician. He was running late but would arrive within the half hour. He arrived along with the first wave of a downpour, complete with thunder and lightning. Yes. He must climb the phone pole to effect the installation. The rest of the work can be done in the house.... But there is still the pole. And there's rain. And thunder. And lightning. He's busy wiring everything he can in the interior space and we're waiting out the rain. 

I am an eternal pessimist where new services are concerned and always expect the worst. But the optimist in me hopes to be very pleasantly surprised. I'll let you know when we have rejoined the modern world and have internet service that's at least as fast as the neighbors. Maybe, if we all wish together, we can have terabyte level service like most S. Koreans enjoy. Our dream of being a first world nation....hmm.
view from the studio.

Better video camera handling. Those guys with the big shoulder mounted cameras had it right.

For decades I worked as a still photographer at events right next to my friends from a staging and production company. Many times I'd watch their video guys shooting "happy face" videos at big conventions and corporate road shows, or I'd watch them videotape a CEO on stage, switching live from their high-mag, tripod mounted cameras to various handheld cameras presenting closer views of the stage action. A director in the tech booth would switch on the fly between the various feeds and integrate the content, along with charts and graphs, onto giant screens on their side of the main stage. In this way the audience members (in a crowd of 1200 to 1500) would have a great view of the stage action. In fact, the view, because of the 12 by 30 foot screens, was good anywhere in the house.

As technology advanced I wondered why this company, which was quick to buy into the latest projection and sound equipment, still favored the larger, shoulder mounted ENG video cameras over the latest, small and hand holdable video cameras that weighed just a few pounds. I'd read the specs and pondered the footage from both styles of cameras and found them to be almost identical. And the company could have purchased four or five of the new Sony or Panasonic hand held video cameras for the price of each bigger, more traditional, shoulder mount cameras.

Well, to make a long story shorter, it's one thing to stick a camera on a tripod and just point it at a subject but it's an entirely different undertaking to hold a video camera steady enough over a three or four minute interview when it's just sitting in your shaky hands. Even with the best of image stabilization at your command. Just because your new Sony, Canon, Nikon or Panasonic has "state-of-the-art" image stabilization doesn't mean you become a solid pillar of stability while holding a camera in your two hands. But there are times when a little sway or movement is fine; actually desirable. But there is a difference between subtle and pleasing motion and the kind of footage you get from hand holding a camera in front of your face with no physical support.

What the video pros at the production company knew, even years and years ago, was that a good shoulder mounted camera makes optimal use of your body construction to provide a much more stable base for a video camera and allows for longer clip lengths with much less erratic motion than a strictly handheld camera.

I learn mostly through shattered hubris. I try to figure stuff out on my own and change when a good idea turns into disaster on the ground. Then I do some research and try again. I've successfully handheld short video clips (and by short I mean 10-20 seconds, max) with highly stabilized cameras like the Olympus EM-5ii and the Sony RX10iii but have been far less successful hand holding longer lenses on modestly stabilized "video" cameras such as the Sony A7Rii or a Nikon D810 with stabilized lenses. There's something about the two hand (death) grip and the desire to look through the EVF that, when combined, conspires against long term, overall stability.

Several years ago, in a spasm of experimentation, I bought a cheap shoulder mount and found it to be surprisingly good. It was branded as an Ikan and basically held the camera via a big clamp that cinched on one's upper back and on the front of one's rib cage. Once I learned to breath without moving the camera I was able to get much better footage than I ever had by just holding the camera in my hands (in any pose or configuration).

I used the cheap shoulder mount a lot with the GH5 and, along with that camera's image stabilization, have been very happy with the controlled content I was able to film. It was somewhat less stable (but not jittery) than a tripod or a good monopod set up but so much better than any naked grip I tried.

My friend, the full time, professional videographer/director, kidded me about how cheap I am when it comes to buying good tools for the trade. He looked at my plastic rig and laughed. I countered that I paid only $39 for the device and had used it on many jobs. He laughed and suggested that it would fall apart some day, and at the least appropriate moment. I scoffed but he was right...

Last week I used the Ikan shoulder mount to handhold a GH5S + Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 Pro lens while I followed a CEO around the headquarters of his company. I was doing a completely documentary approach and nothing at all was scripted or set up. He would walk down the hallway, run into an engineer or person from finance and they'd have conversation. I moved in and around the conversation getting good angles along with jitter free close ups and moving shots. It all worked so well.  I could pan left and right smoothly by moving from the waist. I could pan up and down easily as well. When I edited the footage together for a minute and thirty second program I was quite happy with how everything cut together. There is a big difference between slow and mostly controlled "camera drift" and the bouncy, sometimes erratic motion I got by hand holding.

At the end of the week I'd scheduled some shooting time for a personal documentary I am working on for Austin's theatrical troupe/theater: Esther's Follies. I went to the Friday evening performances of their shows. The cast works on a small stage and does wide-ranging political satire, some magic acts that are Vegas quality and some song and dance. It's irreverent, funny and topical. And the small, dark spaces backstage can really test your video handling skills...

The old, Ikan shoulder mount. It finally bit the dust. 

I was doing well with a Panasonic GH5S blazing away at ISO 3200, sitting on the aforementioned Ikan shoulder rig but at one point I stopped to adjust the camera position and overtightened the bolt that held the camera to the rig. The plastic construction snapped and the camera began a slow motion plunge to the floor (along with my Olympus 12-100mm lens). Only my cat-like ninja skills prevented total disaster. I lunged with both hands outstretched and managed to grab the camera+lens before it hit the floor, tossing my 62 year old body onto the floor in the process. But, as I am resilient, no damage was done and I brushed myself off, tried to shed my embarrassment and go on with the job. Handheld.

Yes, plastic stuff might not be optimal for continuous and long days of actual work. Lesson learned. The hard way. The gods plucked the strings of my hubris and then kicked the chair of fate out from under my feet. What a wretched metaphorical morass.....

Later, nursing my bent ego with a glass of cheap red wine, I sat in front of my computer and looked at the footage I'd shot over the course of four hours on a Friday night and I could see, defined, the before and after marker detailing the demise of my steadying tool. Not a horrible difference but enough of a difference so that I noticed it and was chagrined.

Now, none of this sent me in search of an ENG camera. I'm not buying into putting 20 pounds on my shoulders every time I'm heading out to shoot video. I value my ability to swim a nice butterfly too much to take the risk. But I knew I wanted to be able to get the GH5S and a good lens onto a shoulder rig that was both reliable and highly adjustable. So I set out to build one from the parts I found online.

Here's what I ended up with:

This is my custom rig made of parts from SmallRig, NiceyRig, and a few nuts and bolts. The shoulder pad is adjustable and has metal cheeseplates, front and rear, on which to hang batteries or something to act as a balancing counterweight; if I find it necessary. The camera is also able to be adjusted closer or further from my face. Even the handgrip assembly allows for backward or forward adjustments. 

For me, the important ingredient was the actual padded shoulder mount. I love that it works with the 15mm rails. The whole rig is rock solid when everything is tightened up. I can add a platform to the camera mount, just above the top of the camera, to hold a microphone and, in theory, a monitor, but I think that works against the whole idea of being able to effectively hand hold the rig. Too much weight in the front would require more weight in the back to balance and at some point it all becomes unwieldy. 

With another documentary-style corporate shoot coming up on Weds. we'll be sure to put this to the test. I'll also be practicing with it today and tomorrow. If you have a rig that I've missed, is fantastic and is under $300 be sure to let me know about it. I'm in the trial and error phase of shoulder mounts right now and leaving now rocks unturned. Who knows what lurks beneath?

(For SEO...): Will work with CANON, NIKON, OLYMPUS, PANASONIC, SONY and other cameras. Ha. Ha.


Kirk's Workshop in England is sold out. We'll miss you....


I just got word that my workshop to England (December 1st - 9th) is officially sold out. We're spending time in London, Stratford upon Avon, Bath and the Cotswolds, and picture-rich spots in between. I'll be doing workshops and hanging around on shooting adventures to help out and give photo advice. It should be a heck of a lot of fun. 

The Fall is getting a bit crazy. We've got video and photography projects nearly back-to-back for the immediate future and I start off the travel season on October 27th with our workshop in Iceland. All of a sudden it seems like I've stumbled into another career....

I hope there's a great lap pool at every location. I'm betting I should take along my insulated swim cap as the water probably won't be nearly as warm as that in our Texas pools....

So I'm a month and a bit more than a half out from the first trip and I'm already mired in the "which cameras should I bring" endless loop. I might need one or two more fast lenses for the Nikons. D800s for Iceland and D700s for England? Too bad I won't be able to wait for the arrival of the Panasonic GHX full framer......

Since we're filling up the workshops I think I'll have some pull with the tour company as far as selecting next year's destinations. I'm open for suggestions. I've always wanted to do a workshop in Tokyo and now I'm also interested in Seoul, S. Korea. Then there's always Spain and Portugal....

There are still one or two spaces left for the Iceland trip. Click through the link and navigate around the http://www.craftours.com site if you are interested. 

Fun to think about far off workshops but next week is booked through with several big corporations. After that we've got some projects on the east coast. Lots of work to get done before we head off to colder pastures....

And I thought 62 year old photographers had fallen out of fashion...