9.07.2019

Extending boundaries and also revisiting an old "friend."

Underneath the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge.

I didn't mean to turn a walk around the lake into an expedition yesterday but that's the way it ended up. Over the course of the last few weeks I'd been concentrating on getting comfortable with retro technology in the form of the Pentax K1 and I was ready to take a "vacation day" from the arduous rigors of shooting and composing with an optical viewfinder camera. I pulled an X-H1 out of the equipment locker and thought about the manner in which I would like to use it. The unmotivated idea of trying for optical perfection didn't appeal (please, let's take a break from modern "super" lenses) and I wasn't in the mood for the wishy-washy-ness of tromboning around with a zoom lens. I looked around the "vintage" lens drawer until I came upon the Olympus Pen FT 70mm f2.0 lens and decided to make that lens the focus of my photography. I used it with an adapter on the Fuji camera....

I must confess at this point that my ardor for walking is not principally motivated by a desire to look for photographs, rather, the walking is the goal and the camera is just along for the ride. Bouncing along on my shoulder just in case I see something I want to capture in the moment. When I write about walking with a camera it sometimes "reads" to me that the whole point is about the photography but about 90% of the point of most walks, for me, is to burn off nervous energy and to augment my other exercise practices. That, and a real practice of walking meditation.

At any rate, the X-H1 is very familiar to me now and I thought it would a nice walking companion. The  Olympus lens is small and relatively light so that's a bonus too.  As a result of a few reader comments bitching about seeing downtown Austin over and over again in my photographs I've started to branch out and walk more on the ex-urban trails around Austin. I've moved from shooting buildings and shop fronts, etc. to concentrating on the one part of photography at which I am least proficient ....landscapes and cityscapes. You might as well lean into your challenges; you never know what will emerge and how it might augment your usual practice...or, if nothing good comes out of it at least it doesn't cost much to try...

Once the camera and lens were squared away there were only the questions of: which route to take? and, what supplies I would need? I decided to park at Zach Theatre (which is adjacent to the lake and the trail) and do the usual five mile loop which would include Congress Ave. and the Mopac Expressway pedestrian bridge. I lathered myself with reef safe, zinc oxide sunscreen, put on my wide brimmed hat and stuck a big bandana in my pocket which I could use to wipe the sweat from my hands or for those times when I wanted to operate my camera, or to use protectively, hanging down from the back of my hat, to shield my neck from too much sun. I also stuck three dollars in my pocket in the event I found myself in desperate need of coffee; or, more prosaically, needing to buy a bottle of water. 

It was blisteringly hot this past week and today seems even more of a scorcher. When I headed out for my walk yesterday it had just hit 100 degrees but I didn't care much since I've done a good job of acclimating myself to the heat this Summer (which should come in handy on Monday afternoon when I photograph a golf event out on a central Texas golf course....). 

The first part of my walk took me along the south shore heading east. The 70mm lens is fully manual and, being 50 years old, has no ability to communicate in any way with a modern, AF camera. The combo of the 70mm f2.0 and the X-H1 does seem to work quite well in the aperture preferred mode and a bit less well in the focus peaking mode. In truth, I don't think the lens is optimized for sharp focus and good rendering at infinity --- or it could be that the adapter I'm using just doesn't allow accurate infinity focusing. I discovered that foible near the end of my walk when I stopped for water and to review a few of the shots. 

In the familiar part of the trail; the part I use most often...

While the sun was a bit oppressive it was a beautiful day and when I got to the Congress Ave. bridge I decided to keep heading East instead of crossing over to the north and returning along the North side of the lake trail. There's a lot of shade on the part of the trail that goes from Congress Ave. bridge until one gets near IH-35 and these were parts of the trail I hadn't been on for a number of years. They've been kept up well. About half way between the bridges the city of Austin has built a series of austere but extremely functional boardwalks that extend the hike and bike trail up over the water and around areas that are either private property or environmentally sensitive. I hadn't walked on these before and found my discovery of them downright joyous. 

One of the things that makes the walks even more enjoyable to me is seeing the large number of normal ly configured people and thin people out engaged in activity and exercising in the middle of the day. Not dozens, but over the course of the walk, hundreds. And that doesn't begin to count the people all across the lake on paddle boards, kayaks and canoes. It's great to see an emphasis on fitness in our city; even on a less than comfortable day, weather-wise. 

Of all the gear I brought along (not much) I think I'd give the nod to the hat and especially the bandana as being most useful. After an hour in the heat my hands were dripping with sweat and operating the camera would have been less pleasant if I had not had the bandana with which to wipe my hands before I pulled it up to my eye and used the focusing ring on the (not weather sealed) lens. The hat just kept me from frying my brains...

A small, city office at the beginning of the trail.


For the most part the south side of the trail is quiet, treelined and a nice immersion into nature in spite of running (along with the river) through the very center of downtown. But when you get to the IH-35 bridge you are re-introduced into the manic pulsation of modern, urban life. IH-35 is a relentlessly busy highway that is packed with cars and trucks of all kinds. Fortunately, there is a small, separate walkway from runners and bikers that takes one over the river and delivers one to the North shores. 

I ended up walking the entire IH-35 to Mopac loop and I checked on one of the park maps to see that it's about 8.2 miles in all. There is a longer loop on the trail, heading further east, but that's there for another time when the temperature is 10-20 degrees cooler, at least. I thought I was making good progress but it ended up taking me the better part of two full hours to complete the loop. I guess I lost time stopping to take photographs here and there. The nice thing about this loop is that at no time do you need to cross any roads. None at all. The walk ways either go under roadways or there are separate pedestrian portions of the North/South bridges you can use. 

If you are going to walk the 8.2 mile loop in the hottest part of the year I'll suggest a shirt that breathes very well (and wicks away moisture efficiently) as well as a broad brimmed hat, sunglasses and a bandana to use either as a towel or as an adjunct to your hat when the sun's angle is just so. You'll want to leave waterproof shoes at home and select footwear with good padding and a loose weave on top that breathes well too. 

It's nice to take a break from some parts of our pervasive technology and nothing seems more aggravating than watching a slow, fat executive in expensive running shoes walking sloppily down the middle of the trail (oblivious) and talking at the top of his voice into his cellphone. Do everyone a favor and leave yours at home. Or at least in the car. Believe me, if you get into an emergency situation while out on the trail someone within 100 feet will have a cellphone you can use to call 911. Best not to be burdened by the tech or subject one's precious phone to all the sweat and wear. Even if you don't give a shit about making everyone around you uncomfortable...



When I got back to the house I rinsed myself off with a garden hose, just to cool down, and then headed into the house to greet Studio Dog, tell her about my adventures, and let her sniff my dusty shoes. I took a shower, made lunch and then dropped the camera onto my desk in the studio. A quick glance at my watch let me know I needed to hustle if I was going to get to a TV commercial, pre-production meeting in time. 

Later, looking at the images, I was impressed with how well such an old and battered lens did in most picture taking situations. As I said before, the only place where I was not 100% happy was with images that were taken at infinity. But I'll get that figured out too. 

There are so many reasons why people go out on long walks but I find the best reason for me is that it clarifies my thoughts about things I'm working on or things I'm worried about. As many of you know from reading the blog over time, I've been dealing as the executor with both of my parent's estates. We lost my mom a year and a half ago and my dad about three months ago and I've been doing un-fun things like clearing out and selling houses, pulling together all of their investments and accounts, going through the process of probate and, in general, making sure to do everything right so I could both honor their legacies and not drop the ball on passing inheritances to family members. 

I took the walk yesterday in part to celebrate my completion of the final probate and my having distributed the bulk of my parents' estates to myself and my siblings. I don't do a lot of high finance. You probably guessed that when you found out that I do professional photography as my sole source of income... So I had a lot of anxiety and trepidation about wiring big sums of money to my siblings' accounts. I just didn't want to screw anything up. I had no idea I was as emotionally wound up as I was until I was mid-walk and, for the first time in a year and a half, my mind wasn't half filled with planning, scheduling or trying to understand the "next steps" I needed to take, or the contracts I needed to be ultimately responsible for. 

For the first time in a long time it felt like I was just out for an unencumbered walk with a good friend (my camera) and time that belonged only to me. Not to anyone else. And not to a legal process. 

Belinda, who has steadfastly guided me through all the trauma and drama of losing parents and gaining more responsibility than I ever wanted, has ordered (and she rarely makes emphatic commands!!!) that I go somewhere fun and far away from Austin and take a week or two for myself. Her idea is that I need to get back in touch with my photography in a way that I haven't been able to in several years. To be able to shoot just what I want and just where I want with no restrictions and no other obligations. Nothing to worry about...

I think I'll take her up on this but the question now is, "Where would you go to shoot for ten+ days if schedule, money and access were not limiting factors?" How would you choose?" "When would you go?"



The boardwalks.













A favorite interview by Paul Perton:

9.05.2019

I had a strange shopping adventure this week. An attempt to buy another K-1, squashed.

The first one. The lure.

I love to buy cameras that seem to be out of favor with the mainstream opinions of the photographic "thought leaders." I seem to champion more than a few underdogs in my acquisition of, and writing about, cameras and goofy lenses. But I like to think there's always some half way decent reason, or at least an available rationale for my selections. A great example of this is my recent embrace of the Pentax K1 camera. If you dig down into the V-log reviews and website reviews that came out just after the launch of the camera you'll quickly understand that the K1 is probably not going to be your first choice for a sports camera and that, at the time of launch, the auto focusing could be a bit underwhelming, but lost in no little measure of reviewer gloom and doom (does everyone shoot motorsports AND birds in flight exclusively now? Is no one interested in "ART" anymore?) was the consensus that the sensor and image processing combination was really, really good and, in fact, could be construed as "class leading." Which of course fires up folks who embrace the challenge of squeezing great images out of a camera with potential instead of expecting their camera of choice to do all the heavy lifting. A workout versus a spoon-feeding....

I'm not going to mount a passionate defense of a four and half year old camera; it would be a fool's errand. But when I look at raw files  from this camera (no matter how hard won) I am pretty impressed. In just plain imaging prowess, as divorced from things like frame rate, the number of focusing points, the range of lenses available, etc., I think the K1 is every bit the equal of the Nikon D810 and D800e's I've owned and....I'd give the nod for accurate and pleasing color to the Pentax.

If you shoot as I do; mostly street scenes, lit portraits, casual portraits and, of course the ubiquitous and dreaded downtown Austin buildings, most of the things that seem to get YouTuber's panties in a bunch are things that I'm for the most part not concerned with while shooting. I'm there for the final look and, to a certain extent, repeatability.

At any rate, I convinced myself on Tuesday that I was enjoying shooting squares format, 24 megapixel portraits with the K1 and might continue to do so for some extended length of time. I thought I might also want to sell that style of photography to a few ad agencies and other clients I know because I am being charmed by the results. But if I go off on another multi-city shooting assignment, or choose to select the K1 as a "personal project" camera for some  out of town work, I am mentally conditioned to want to bring along a second, identical camera body as a back-up to the primary camera.

I looked at KEH.com and B&H and Adorama and while everyone of them would love to sell you a brand new K-1ii none of the usual places had any used K-1s in stock, which I took as a promising sign of this camera's enduring popularity with Pentax users. My fingers strolled across the keyboard until I ended up at Amazon. I found seven or eight used K-1 cameras in their "marketplace" and selected a "like new" one from a highly rated seller, clicked the right buttons and got an e-mail confirmation that my transaction was completed, credit card accepted, and that I could expect the camera in two days "guaranteed". (It was a Prime purchase and it was to be "fulfilled by Amazon).

I can tell you that I've ordered a ton of stuff from Amazon and while there have been occasional screw ups by the "last mile" delivery people the mothership has always been pretty good about getting me what I want when I want it.

I ordered the camera on Tuesday and was happy enough to expect it on Thursday. I checked on the order yesterday and their tracking info indicated that it was in the shipping process but had not yet shipped. A bit strange but I figured them to be an advanced logistics company so I let it go and decided I would check the tracking info before swim practice this morning.

When I went to click on my order on their website I was stunned to find that the order had completely disappeared. As though the camera had never been ordered. No trace. It was so weird that I called their customer service. The person who helped me asked me to check around and see if I could find an e-mail Amazon had sent me at 3:30 a.m that morning which would explain everything.

In short, they said in their e-mail that they were unable to put their hands on the product they'd previously confirmed with me, and that since they no longer had the product, they cancelled the order and refunded my $$$. I was flabbergasted. I presumed they knew what they did or did not have in inventory; especially since they were acting as a clearing house for a third party seller (whom I hold harmless).

I was a bit shocked but took it as a sign that I wasn't meant to have too many Pentax cameras. But that measure of restraint wore off by mid-afternoon and I found another K1, used, that's supposed to be on its way some time mid-week, next week. Shipped directly by the independent seller.

I'd just go and buy one locally but our big bricks and mortar camera store stopped selling Pentax products about a year ago, citing low sales versus the usual brands. What's a contrarian supposed to do?






And then there was color....


A couple of days ago I posted some black and white images from the Zach Theatre production of a family targeted play called, "JungalBook." I got a nice response for the most part but some questioned why I did not shoot color. I wanted to post this today to ensure those folks that we shoot all the plays in color and that I was just messing around with the black and white for the pleasure of tweaking stuff differently and, partially, for the nostalgia of how we used to shoot promotional photos in Austin 30 years ago. Back then our sources of media coverage were pretty much a couple of newsprint tabloids, some newsprint community newspapers and the newsprint put out by the Austin American Statesman; our main newspaper. In only the rarest instances did anyone ask for any color work. I shot rehearsals on black and white Tri-X and if we did color we set up electronic flashes and made our color photographs on medium format Hasselblads. The color shots were almost always "set-up" shots which meant that I had the luxury of being able to shoot a test Polaroid or two to get the color and exposure right. 

Now I photograph nearly everything at Zach Theatre with some selection of digital cameras. Right now my cameras (and lenses) of choice are Fuji X-H1s for the image stabilization and the great, high def EVFs. I have a couple fairly fast zooms which give me a lot of flexibility. I shoot in either raw or Jpeg, depending on the complexity of the lighting, but always I capture in color and, if I want to see black and white variations I do it in post production for the ultimate in control. 

While I like the black and whites from this production that I made (for myself) and shared here, the work I delivered to the marketing team was in glorious color --- which is how it should be now that all the publications and web venues are printed in full four color and the images that end up in these pubs are almost exclusively run in color only. 

So.... here are some of the same selections you saw in black and white but presented in all their colorful glory! I think they are just right for a kid's play...



























9.04.2019

What's with the race to perfection that camera and lens makers seem to have entered? And do most customers really care? Do they know any better?

Actor, Ameerah Tatum.

I can understand a company's desire to create various "halo" products that are more or less meant to show interested consumers that company "A" has the resources, expertise and will to make just as high performing products as companies "B" and "C" but is the race to make ultimate cameras and lenses getting in the way of the practice of photography?  By ordinary people? Are makers intent on just carving out rarified niches of wealthy customers, to the detriment of the usual photography hobbyists?

Not to knock them because I've enjoyed many of their products, but for Panasonic to lead their new lens line-up with a 50mm f1.4 lens sporting a $2,200 price tag seems to be a bit over the top; unless they only intend to go after  the (extreme) upper demographic of cameras buyers. But, in this regard, Panasonic is not alone, when I went to purchase lenses for the Pentax K-1 I was a bit disgruntled. They have on offer a 50mm f1.4 lens that's left over from the film days and features a clunky, screwdriver mechanism with which to focus the lens. It's a good lens but not a great lens, optically, and that's okay because most of us don't use anywhere close to the potential that even a middle of the road lens can provide because..... we're lazy when it comes to practicing best technique. My beef with the inexpensive 50mm f1.4 lens is not with its optical performance, only with it's handling and focusing mechanism. If that lens formula got stuck into a new body that featured silent focus (and maybe some updated lens coatings) I think I'd be pretty happy to use it as my all around lens. I may continue to use the old screw-driver 50mm for daily use. 

But, imagine my surprise to find that one can also buy a different 50mm f1.4 called the HD 50mm SWD AW, which is the "luxe" version of a 50mm 1.4 lens with a selling price of around $1,000. It's filled with optical spec-candy and I'm sure it's astoundingly sharp but I just can't seem to get past the idea that the company has one ancient 50mm f1.4 and one exotic 50mm f1.4 but nothing for modern users on a budget. I think we need a retrench across all the camera lines. We need the makers to come back to the idea of having some entry level lenses to leaven in between the sparkling and costly gems. 

Neither Panasonic or Pentax have a 50mm f1.8, a lens type which was the standard choice among "normal" lenses for decades and decades. It's a lens that's easy to design, delivers tons of quality for the usual price point and should be a staple in every catalog. Even Sony has a full frame 50mm f1.8 at a reasonable price, for goodness sake!

Nikon does have one but it sells for $600. That seems a bit crazy to me. 

If you are a Fuji user you can get two flavors of "normal" field of view lenses; the 35mm f1.4 at around $600 and the 35mm f2.0 lens for around $400. Still a bit pricy for the slower lens but not nearly in the "caviar" circle of the Nikon offering...

I guess the makers of the "over the top" stuff are banking on third party makers to come to the rescue of their less well heeled customers with cheaper lenses made to fit in the mount. Sometimes with the bells and whistles of AF and full communication but most times in a plane-jane, manual dress with no chatter at all between camera and lens.

I've watched with fascination as Nikon and Canon have driven prices on their 24-70s and their 70-200s up near ( or over ) the $3,000 mark, nearly doubling in price over the last ten years and with marginal improvements in absolute quality. And some of the Sony "G" series lens prices just make me laugh out loud.

I think we've entered into a new race in which the perception on the part of manufacturers is that only a handful of consumers still have the will (and the means) to spend money on cameras and so each company is trying to maximize the profit per sale by pushing further and further into the territory of excess.

I long for the days when one could assemble a system with f2.0 or f2.8 lenses and not have to go without food or electricity to afford it.

I guess we do have the luxury of buying as much as we can on the used markets. I'm finding that the differences in optical quality between "good enough" and "technically superb" are marginal in every day use. Maybe if we were all using big tripods and such I'd feel differently.

It's just a thought for a mid-week morning. And, yes, I think this line of inquiry is directly related to my having bought yet another used camera just yesterday and wishing I also had a bag of good but inexpensive lenses to outfit it with....

Your thoughts? Anyone out their willing and happy about spending $2200 on a 50mm f1.4? I'd love to hear a compelling rationale.....

9.03.2019

I didn't photograph the kid's play, JUNGALBOOK, in black and white but when I started messing around with B&W conversions I just couldn't stop.


I photographed a play on Saturday. The scenery and costumes were very colorful and the play itself was tremendous fun. Even for 63 year olds. I photographed it mostly with two cameras; one equipped with a prime, 56mm 1.2 lens and the other fitted with a 16-55mm f2.8 zoom lens.  After I did my post production on the 1,000+ files and sent along a huge gallery of brilliant color images I waded back into the ocean of files and started pulling out some of my favorites with the intention of tweaking them a bit further and sending them over to the marketing team as "Kirk's selects." 

I pulled the first image into SnapSeed and played around for a bit. I liked my color tweaks just fine but then I hit the black and white menu and I had too much fun. There's a film look in the program but it's way, way too contrasty for any imaginable human use. But it does have a brightness slider, a contrast slider (of which I made considerable and successful use) and a grain slider. Rendering your images into edgy black and whites is both edgy and filled with a nostalgic memory of how at least 90% of our jobs were done when I first started out.

Here's my very limited set of black and white variations from the play, JUNGALBOOK, at ZachTheatre.org. If you want to see the difference between the black and white versions and the original color ones I've set up a small gallery on Smugmug.com: https://kirktuck.smugmug.com/A-group-of-selects-and-variations-for-Jungal-Book-at/n-52n6ZL/

Go take a peek and see the difference.

Cameras: Fujifilm X-H1.











My "First Blush" pre-review of the Pentax 100mm f2.8 WR Macro lens.


I wanted a portrait length lens for the Pentax K-1 I purchased last month. I couldn't find a Pentax FA (full frame) 85mm-105mm, fast, autofocus lens in the catalog so I punted and bought a "used, like new" copy of their 100mm f2.8 WR Macro lens (current product). The new price seems to be locked around $550 but Pixel Connection (via Amazon) had a pristine used one for $349. It arrived on Thursday afternoon and it was incredibly well packed, right down to the original box and the Pentax branded lens pouch. It's an interesting looking lens with a slightly tapered metal tube and a front element group that progressively protrudes as one focuses closer and closer. 

I had other stuff to do over the weekend and most of it (Zach kid's play) was done with Fuji cameras and lenses, but today I had the opportunity to take a long walk through downtown and to shoot with the 100mm Macro on the K-1 body. Here are my observations:

1. The AF was fast and stable, locking in quickly and nailing focus each time. I used the 9 group, S-AF for everything. I like it though I'd use the single AF point if I was shooting speakers on a stage or an actor on stage. I'm not a C-AF guy and probably use the C-AF function in my various cameras once or twice a year; if that. 

The 100mm is small and light and doesn't call attention to itself. There is a focusing scale visible through a window at the front end of the lens and buy using the lens scale you could do a focus pull in video, if you were so inclined. When you focus close up or in macro the inner tube of the lens sticks out and looks a bit funny. It feels solid enough and the images are nicely sharp throughout the range. The high praise I can give to the lens early on is that it's one of the most use-transparent lenses I've photographed with. It does its job and stays under the radar not calling attention to itself either in the operation or to people who might find themselves on the other side of the camera. 

I really like the 100mm focal length on a 36mm wide frame. It's tight enough to isolate main subjects but an easy enough lens to design and make that getting sharp images is almost assured; across brands. I've owned 100-105mm macro lenses from Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Tamron, and Rokinon and all have been commendably sharp. The biggest complaint, almost across the board is that all of these lenses tend to hunt. At least we imagine they are hunting but what is really happening is that we're asking the system to make extremely accurate distance assessments while using one of possibly the worst support systems available: the human body. I find that when macro lenses are anchored to tripods and the AF squares in the camera are overlaid onto subject matter with hard edges there is really very little "hunting." We are trying to gauge the focusing success of a camera and lens trying for about 10x the precision required for images taken at 2 meters and beyond when we get into the close up range. If "hunting" is aggravating please remember that manual focusing was good enough for generations of photographers and, with a little practice, can be a workable solution for us as well. 

To paraphrase an early twentieth century, Texas governor: "If manual focusing was good enough for Jesus Christ it should be good enough for us!" (She was talking then about the English language....if you don't get the point then please cancel your VSL RSS!). 

I'm very happy with my purchase and even happier with the combination of the Pentax K-1 coupled to the 100mm lens. It's a great combination. I can hardly wait to try it out on some static landscapes or products, in conjunction with the multi-shot feature in the camera. Might be some amazing resolution. 

Of course, it's early days with the lens (and the camera too, for that matter) but the first test seems promising. 

On another note, I started out shooting today with the camera set for 1:1 crop. It made beautiful squares and I could definitely use the crop feature but it's going to take a lot of getting used to if I'm going to use a primitive optical finder to do it. I think I'll save the 1:1 and the multi-shot stuff for those times when I can use the camera on a tripod and also use the live view function. That, and a dark cloth over my head so I can see the images exactly as they should be. 

I quickly got frustrated with seeing the entire frame, riven by a box in the center and switched the ratio back to 3:2. We'll continue to test the limits of my patience with backwards change at another time. 

These are buildings. Sorry. I meant to shoot super models at the beach tossing a Frisbee with their pack of golden retrievers but everyone was taking Labor Day off. We'll round them up for the next free lens test. Count on it. 


OMG!!!!! Not a building.


One last note: I like shooting Raw better than shooting Jpegs with the K-1. In post processing the colors are initially much closer to what I saw with the DNG files versus any of the Jpeg profiles. I guess some cameras are meant to be used with raw formats while others do very well with Jpegs.
Looking at you, Fuji. King of the Jpegs.