Everybody trumpets their favorite camera of the year but I didn't read much about everybody's favorite cheap lights last year. Here's my favorite 2019 purchases and my favorite 2020 purchase. Go Lights!!!

Don't you just love it when the box shows up from some photographic retailer and everything inside has arrived without damage? I sure do. I think I buy as many lights in a given year as I do cameras. I rarely get emotionally attached to lights but I'm of the belief that good lighting is as important to many photographs as having the right camera or the hippest lens. I got one box this year and it had my "2020 Electronic Flash of the Year" in it. I know I'm a little early but patience was never my strong suit....

But before I unveil my current champ of low cost lighting for 2020 I'd like to call out my favorite two purchases of 2019.

First up is the Godox SK 400 mark ii. A fancy name for a dirt cheap monolight from a fairly well trusted brand. I bought this in the middle of the year when a set-up shoot on a dark stage with 60 foot ceilings convinced me that modeling lights that would stay on constantly were not a luxury but a mission critical feature when it comes to focusing in dark spaces. No matter how powerful your battery powered flash unit might be pretty much all of those lumens are wasted if your AF won't lock or you can can't see where that point of sharp focus is when manually focusing your image. 

I have three battery powered monolights, each with its own LED modeling light, but the issue with them is that the modeling lights are dim and only stay lit for 30 seconds. I guess it's a battery saving "feature" but it makes using them in dark environments really, really tough. After a bout of guess focusing, and having my assistant stand by one of the lights poking the modeling light button every half minute, I drove to Precision camera to check out the options. The least expensive, but still capable, electronic flash I found was the Godox SK 400 ii. It's got a metal body, allows for a wide range of Godox triggering options, has a 150 watt modeling light, recycles quickly, even at full power, takes Bowens accessories and, best of all, is only $139. I immediately bought one.  I thought it might not stand up to wear and tear but we're going on to about 60 projects on which the SK 400 has been the main light so I think I've already gotten my money's worth out of it, and it still seems pristine and very reliable. It was my best flash purchase of 2019.

The other "Best Cheap Light of 2019" was, without a doubt, the Godox SL 60 W. It's an LED lighting instrument that kicks out 60 watts of clean LED lighting from a COB LED that is about one inch by one inch across, which means it does a much better job giving me hard edges than an LED panel light. This guy also takes Bowens accessories, has a very quiet built-in cooling fan and a very nice LCD read out on the back. You can go from 10% to full power with the nice, big dial on the back of the unit, in very fine little increments, which makes it very easy to control. 

At around $139 for this unit, with a 7 inch reflector and a set of four way barn doors, I was very, very skeptical. I had a hard time believing it would be any good at all. But I thought I'd give it a try and ordered one to try out around the studio. After I had the light for about a week I dragged out the credit card and bought two more of them. They've been wonderful for video projects and when not in commercial use I bounce one off the office ceiling for a nice, soft and color correct office light source. 

I love these lights and love the price even more. Sure, you might need more power for bigger projects, but within their design parameters they do a great job. Especially for the price. Want to stop down more? Lower your shutter speed or turn up your ISO. Godox makes more powerful units but they get big, heavy and expensive pretty quickly and you only gain a stop for every doubling of power and price. I might get one bigger unit but so far I haven't felt the need to progress beyond these bargain bad boys. Easily may favorite continuous light of 2019.

Here's what the back panel of the SL60 W LED light looks like. 
Nice and uncluttered and, yes, you can use it with a supplied remote; though all you 
can do it turn the power up and down. The light is one color temperature= 5600K.

But, that was last year. What have I done for me lately? 

After last year's black floor, black stage, black ceiling set-up shoot fiasco (not to worry, we pulled it off --- by the skin of my teeth...) I decided I needed more cheap studio flashes with built-in, continuous (and relatively powerful) modeling lights so I went to Precision Camera looking for a couple more SK 400 mk2's. End of the year....Inventory in flux....no available stock and no chance of getting the SK's in before the middle to the end of the month. 

So I went home and dialed up the online retailers, knowing I'd be able to source the Godox flash from one of them them. But when I hit the product pages I noticed a new light from Godox that was smaller, lighter and even less expensive than the SK 400ii. In fact, there were two models; the MS300 and MS200, both from Godox. A bit of reading let me know that the model numbers refer to the watt second rating of each light. 

Since the only specification that was different between the two lights was the power rating, and the price difference between the two was a measly $10 I opted to order two of the MS300s. It was ordered from Amazon.com so I figured that if I didn't like something about the lights I could always send them back for a refund. They arrived in nice, well designed (from an aesthetic/advertising perspective) boxes and come only with the body of the flash (with flash tube), the modeling lamp (which you must install), a power cord, and a rugged cover to protect the flash tube and modeling light when traveling. They do not come with a reflector. 

Not to worry, the vendor had a special offer; you only needed to click on the optional reflector and it would included free of charge. 

The construction of the MS300 lights is almost all plastic, including the stand mount and tensioning control for tilting the flash. The receptor ring for Bowens accessories attachment is metal and, honestly, the plastic parts seem like they are well made and will stand up to normal, conscientious use. You won't be able to throw them, unprotected, onto the bed of an old truck but if you generally take care of stuff you'll be fine. 

The lights can be triggered by most of the recent and current Godox radio triggers and some of the triggers (XT-1, for sure) can also be used to control the power settings. If you don't use radio triggers the lights come with built in optical slaves which can be triggered by a separate flash. The modeling light controls allow for manual control, proportional ratio, and off. There's a recycle beep that lets you know when the unit has recycled, but you can turn this off, if it bugs you. At full power it takes about 1.8 seconds to recycle. Not quite as speedy as the SK400 ii but perfectly adequate for most uses.

The one thing the experienced user and beginner of modern flashes alike needs to know, about this model, is that there is no "auto power dump" mechanism. What that means is that when you have the flash set for high power, say, 1/2 power, and you turn it down to a lower power like 1/16th, you'll need to fire a frame or hit the test button to get rid of the excess power in the capacitors. Old timers will remember this from the days of big "pack and head" systems but users of many other modern studio flashes will not be familiar with the idea of "dumping the power" to get to that lower power setting. Many more expensive flashes do this for you automatically as you turn down the power.

So, I ended up with two 300 watt second flash units, complete with internal cooling fans and all the stuff a studio photographer might want, along with two umbrella reflectors for the princely sum of $218. Or $109 each. At this price you could almost consider them disposable. 

MS300 back panel.

big modeling light? check!

Since they don't come in an array of bright, tacky colors and they don't have giant illustrations of insects on the side of the product housings, there's little chance clients will think one way or another about your choice of lights. So long as they keep flashing on command. Three of these would make a great starter kit for a financially struggling photographer while the well-heeled practitioner might even consider them to be "disposable."  Consider this, if this light put your checked luggage over your limit you might be forced to choose between a $109 light or a $140 luggage charge. Leaving the light behind would be $31 less painful. 

My take?

Need some flashes with good modeling lights? Don't want to invest a lot of money?

Start here.

And that's why, unless something more fantastic comes along these pups are already my "Cheap Ass Lights of 2020." 


A collaboration with ATMTX to start out the new year. He wrote about our photo session over three different blog posts....

I have a friend who works at a non-photographic job and then spends a lot of his free time making photographs. Really good photographs. His progress over the ten years I've known him has been meteoric. And, guess what?, he owns far more cameras than I do. Tons and tons of them. Mostly bought used and "obsolete." But he uses them well and they really deliver. He's also got more modern stuff; even a few models that make me envious...

At any rate ATMTX sent me an e-mail late last year asking if I wanted to collaborate on a portrait shoot in the studio. He's more of an outdoor/available light/small flash expert and a friend of his wanted some studio portraits of her daughter. I'd never say "no" to a fun collaboration so I started the work year out by getting the studio into shape for a portrait shoot that included close up shots as well as full length poses.

ATMTX shot in between my shooting with his handheld camera and he also shot "behind-the-scenes" throughout the afternoon.

Hit the links above to read (and see) his version of events. I'm not through doing final edits on my high res shots but I'll share them after I'm done.

I love ATMTX's blog and think his complimentary description of my working methods is too glowing. But I was trying to be on my best behavior....

It was a blast working with a friend. I'll definitely do it again.

Gear notes: I was working with a Lumix S1R and the 24-105mm f4.0 zoom lens. Shot in raw+jpeg. Studio flashes into a huge umbrella and a smaller umbrella. Go see ATMTX's photos for more detail.

Hope you are having a fun start to your new year.

Photo by Stan Tyoshin. Denver, 2013
 Kirk loaded up with GH4's.....

I thought corporate events and event photography services would die off and people would embrace virtual meetings and webcast events. I was wrong.

I'm getting myself organized for the first bout of event photography in the new year. Next Thursday and Friday I'll spend most of my time at a large hotel, near the convention center, photographing an event for a corporate client. I'll make photographs of everything from signage to decor, key note speakers on the big stage, and the dynamics of small "breakout" sessions. I'll be there for the opening reception. I'll be there before dawn for rehearsals and some set up shots on the second morning. I'll be there when the CEO wraps up the show at the end of the week. And I'll spend the majority of the time with a camera in one hand and a second camera in the other.

In the early days of this century one of my clients was a pioneer in virtual/video conferencing. They did installations all over the country, outfitting conference rooms with multiple cameras and large monitors. The idea was that instead of gaggles of execs and technical folk hopping on planes and spending enormous amounts of money on airfare, travel time, hotels, taxis, restaurants and entertainment, they would just dial up clients and vendors and have virtual face-to-face meetings in these constructed meeting environments. It might have worked out. To some extent I'm sure it did (although now I think the video+audio systems, and audio only systems, are mostly used by clients to relentless torture their advertising agencies, and vice versa...).

One of my clients is a very successful event production company and my conversations with them in the transitional days of all things digital circled around how to deal with the "reality" that broadband and ever improving tele-conferencing would profoundly change the way they did business. Rather than load up multiple 18 wheelers and heading into giant hotel and convention ballrooms to set up stages and execute rapid decor installations they would have to figure out how to create meetings that could be broadcast to clients and their satellite offices around the world. They would say a sorrowful "goodbye" to warehouses full of lighting, truss, drapes, mixers, audio equipment and so on. 

But even after cataclysmic terrorist events and the biggest economic downturn of our generation the predictions of teleconferencing and webcasting taking over from live, on site events never fully materialized. At least not in a way that slowed down the desire and demand for live, face-to-face engagement. Seems there's something valuable about actually meeting people in person and gathering together in large, dark rooms to share information first hand. As a culture that no longer reads text the primacy of "monkey see/monkey do" has become, de facto, the only way that many people are now capable of learning new stuff. 

I guess this is why photography workshops took off as well; a market based on an inability to transfer information from the written page to the brain. The workshop provides a situation in which people can watch an "expert" do something, in a particular way, and then be led through the process until it is consumed and newly integrated.

At any rate, since the 2008-2009 economic downturn there has been a steady upturn and recovery in most corporate markets and along with it an ever increasing demand for live events of every kind. I understand live events from a sales point of view; nothing beats meeting a vendor and having them develop a level of trust and familiarity when it comes to closing a deal. But I would also guess that shows of all kinds: Sales meetings, CES, IFA, conventions, symposia and the rest are also nice breaks from mundane work weeks, a nice reward for high achieving employees, and a way to keep tabs on the rest of one's industry. At the higher end, corporate executive retreats, there is also a chance to sample "the lifestyles of the rich and famous" as companies make tax deductible forays to expensive hotels (where no rational individual would ever willingly spend the full rate...) to the finest restaurants in the service of their top people. And all of it is tax deductible. 

The benefit to me and to a legion of other photographers is that this may be one of the few actual, successful cases of "trickle down" economics extant. We get paid to go along for the ride... 

Most shows are now fairly pedestrian. Budgets are more carefully observed, venues less expensive, etc. It doesn't really affect me as my rates remain in the same basic band. But it's almost as though savvy event planners have found the spots in which they can "invest" less money in and still get the same bang for their overall marketing bucks. I'll call it the economy class version of last century's grand adventures in conventioneering. 

I'm not sure what to expect from next week's show but I'll be as ready for it as I can. I know the venue and the specific ballroom in the venue. It's a medium size room seating 400 or so at the max. I've seen stage plans and they look nicely proficient. A raised, center stage with a big screen at the rear that will display rear projection video and slides. Two large screens on either side of the stage so everyone in the room can see the information/entertainment without craning their necks too much. A foyer that will be lined with booth for vendors and their sales people. Tables running down the center of the foyer space that will provide space for coffee services, snacks, and maybe a breakfast buffet on the second morning. 

I know that the lighting for the important shots, the ones of presenters and speakers on the main stage, will be provided by multiple spot lights, hung from truss, in front of the stage. No real surprises.

I'll bring a roller case filled with back-up gear, extra batteries, a laptop and extra SSDs for back up and transfer. But the main gear will be the two Lumix S1 cameras, the 70-200mm and 24-105mm Lumix zoom lenses and the 35mm, 50mm and 85mm f1.4 prime lenses for those times when I want to get fancy with depth of field. I'll pack the 20mm f1.4 into the rolling case for some wide stage shots and anything that catches my eye but needs to be wide, wide, wide. 

I'll bring an on-camera flash (and a back up) for reception shots and for use in demos and in places where even the fastest lenses aren't going to freeze action. But I'll never use them for any of the "main tent" sessions. As HCB was purported to have said, "using flash is like bringing a handgun to the opera."  (He obviously didn't spend a lot of time in Texas).   

I like photographing shows. It's fun. I'm a bit of of extrovert so I like to meet new people and hear about new stuff. I like the pure photography of it because it's very rare at these shows to have anyone stand over your shoulder and micro-manage your day of shooting. You get to incorporate the skills of reportage (faux, interior street photography) stage show photography along with your skill in getting people to smile naturally for your camera in social situations. You have ample time to test out new lenses and new ways of using the lenses. 

I like this kind of work because it more or less requires you to minimize gear and to pack down. While some shows might have a component that requires you to set up a few lights and take a few headshots most shows are fast moving enough to trim off those extras and concentrate on the flow of each day's events. With a stocked roller case in the marketing team office and a comfortable camera bag over my shoulder I feel comfortable spending the day making photographs that I believe combine two things:  fun and accessible images along with a well executed visual message that helps drive my client's marketing and brand. 

During my tenure as an event photographer I've had the benefit of seeing some of the finest hotel venues in some unexpected places. It offsets the many times I have to stay at tiny, weird motels while on the road in my role as traveling environmental portrait photographer for industry. The images below are from The Breakers Hotel in West Palm Beach and also from the now infamous, Mar a Lago, also in West Palm Beach. I stayed at the Breakers for the better part of the week while working for a technology client. It's an amazing property but not one on my list of destinations I'd like to pay for out of my own pocket.

Mar a Lago was just weird.

But before I get on to next week's jobs I've got an important one to cover this Saturday afternoon. I'll be photographing a play for children at Zach Theatre. It's called, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," and it should be a blast. Ben and I read that book....a lot. Nostalgia? For sure.  

Love shows. Love events. Not so fond of office work...

Above and just below: Mar a Lago dining room. 


A sample from the Lumix S1 and the "kit" lens. I think it all works pretty well and I'm happy with the way the camera handles skin tones and color.

I started using the Lumix stuff in earnest back in early October.
The image just above is from the "Day of the Dead" parade in 
downtown Austin. Lumix S1 + 24-105mm.

I've been pretty much delighted with the Lumix stuff so far. It's big and heavy and so it makes me believe my work must have more gravitas than usual...

The "kit" lens (24-105mm f4.0) is great and I find myself using it a lot for everyday stuff. It's fast enough and seems to be sharp enough, wide open, to match up well with the 24 megapixel sensor in the S1 camera. I tend to try and stay around f5.6 with the S1R camera. 

There are just a few things I wish were a bit different. First, I wish the batteries lasted longer. There is a power saving mode where one can select to have the camera go to sleep either immediately, or in 1,2 or 3 or more seconds after you take your finger off the shutter if the rear screen is in the quick menu display mode. That works, unless you want the camera to wake up super fast. But you have to remember to set it and, if you are in that display mode you'll have to hit the display button at least once before you review files or else.

I don't wish the cameras were lighter or smaller. I'm happy with those things.

I do wish that Panasonic would come out with a line of slower, smaller and less expensive lenses that are native to the system. I don't mind splashing out for expensive lenses in focal lengths I use most often but a second, smaller and lighter set would be nice for travel and street photography. 

I often replace the 2.5 pound 50mm Lumix S Pro lens with an adapted Carl Zeiss 50mm f1.7 lens because it's easier to walk around with. But I envision myself doing more stuff in the studio and in static locations this year, and less walking around in the street (concentration on portraits) so it's not a "make it or break it" deal. 

I'm going to say that at the four month mark I'm plenty happy with the Lumix S system and delighted with the images. 

Some notes from the field: I've been shooting with Fuji and Panasonic stuff for the last two years so I haven't fired up a Sony A7 series camera for video in a (relatively) long time. I got a text today from a friend who is shooting video at the CES show this week for a corporate client. He just ran into the nightmare scenario: important stuff to shoot, Sony A7iii in hand, and 20 minutes into a take the camera overheats and shuts down. He's concerned because he's got CEO interviews on the agenda and now can't trust his two primary shooting cameras to finish a long interview. He's shooting in 4K and my only two suggestions for him were to go to 1080p (much less processor intensive) and to set the "thermal shutoff" menu item to "high". That, and to pull the battery between takes to help cool down the camera interior. 

He took a couple of the Sony A7iii's with him because he predicted he'd spend a ton of time shooting "B" roll, and also wanted to travel light. It get that. Working on a gimbal on a fast moving, chaotic trade show floor is much better than trying to drag a big camera all over the place, or a big tripod for that matter. 

I gave up shooting video on the Sony A7 series back in the A7ii and A7Rii days for the same reason; overheating. I also never warmed up to editing 8 bit files from those cameras either, but I never had the same thermal issues with the Sony RX10ii or iii. They would plow through a 30 minute take without breaking a sweat. And I used the RX0iii to very good effect in Toronto on a long day of shooting with temperatures having around 10-14 degrees (f). No issues. 

My friend is also reporting that one of the cameras shuts down without warning when the battery is depleted. That's never fun. 

I've run the S1 in 4K for a full half hour with no temperature issues to speak of, same with the Fuji X-T3 and the Fuji X-H1 with the battery grip. Those cameras seem to be able to go all day long without fainting.

Some thoughts about the Nikon D780: I liked my D750, I really did. It was a good all around camera that produced great files and worked well for stills with the caveat that it, like nearly every DSLR Nikon I ever owned, was prone to backfocusing with some lenses. The D780 is more an upgrade and refresh than a big leap forward. Same 24 megapixels. A bit better video. More responsive when in "live view" mode. But the big, new positive improvement, in my view, would be the on chip phase detect AF sensors. That should go a long way toward curing the annoying tendency, when using some lenses, of getting nicely sharp earlobes and unhappily unsharp eyes in some portraits......

I'm setting a timer now and waiting for the first recall. You'll remember that the D750 had two or three recalls during its long lifespan. 

The one interesting thing (to me) about the new Canon 1DX mk3:  I watched a few videos about this new sports camera from Canon and found myself nodding my head about most stuff but I sat up and paid attention when they showcased what was new in video. The camera will now shoot full on, heavy duty, video raw files! Not just V-Log files at good bit rates but full raw files which should allow an enormous flexibility in changing the look, feel, color, exposure and overall quality of video files in editing/post processing. 

The downside is that a 64 GB card fills up entirely in about 5 minutes. Just like the old days of shooting with a 16mm movie camera and a 400 foot film load.....

The other feature that should be of interest to everyone who loves to shoot Jpegs is the introduction of a HEIC file which, I believe, Canon is called a HIF file. These are better compressed than Jpeg and feature a ten bit color space for thousands of colors rather than 256 colors. A big step in the right direction for future cameras. Just right if you have an upcoming assignment shooting at the Olympics...

Aqueously speaking: I've found the right mixture of antihistamines and mind altering coffee blends to mute the symptoms of Cedar Fever allergies so I was back in the pool Sunday and again this morning. We had a great set today courtesy of coach, Jimmy  Bynum, and my lane leader suggested finishing off our 3750 yard practice with five shooters (swim 25 meters underwater/no breath and then swim easy on the way back). Holding your breath at the beginning of workout is psychologically easier at the than after an hour and a half spent grinding out fast yards. 

Hope everyone is happy and healthy. I'm booked all of next week on photographic assignments so I'll probably slow down the pace of posting a bit. Don't construe that as a surrender....

A second image from Day of the Dead, 2019, in Austin, Texas.


Does anybody see a resemblance between the new Sigma 45mm f2.8 and the old Carl Zeiss 45mm f2.8?

The optical formulas are different. The older Zeiss lens is (I think) a four element lens with all traditional glass while the Sigma lens is made up of eight elements in seven groups, and I think at least one of the elements is made of fancy glass. But still, the people at Sigma could be working around the design ethos of the Zeiss but adding more corrective elements because....they can.

Both are slightly softer wide open and both get sharper as we stop down to f5.6. The Sigma is good to go (sharpness-wise) by f4.0 but the Zeiss needs at least 5.6 to be modern sharp. 

The benefits of both these lenses have to do more with the "look" or visual fingerprint of their output than brute force sharpness and resolution. That said, by f5.6 the Sigma is a match for just about anything out there.

Both have beautiful rendering of out of focus backgrounds. Both make interesting images.

Side by side the Zeiss is smaller front to back buy you have to cut the Sigma some slack because the engineers had to fit in an autofocus motor whereas the Zeiss has only finger-drive focus.

It just struck me as interesting when I saw them in the lens drawer together.....

Cedar Fever has struck Austin. One photo blogger severely compromised. Fighting back with Zyrtec and limited outside activities. Ah well, more time to blog.

Belin and Rosemary Sprigs.

The resplendent glory of living in Austin, Texas in early January. The juniper cedars are throwing off millions of metric tons of pollen (as is typical this time of year) and legions of Austinites are sneezing, coughing and driving around with eyes redder (and itchier) than the fiery pits of hell. Cedar Fever allergies cause one to want to sleep around the clock and the only balm for scratchy throats is endless coffee. 

I am currently humbled by my own hubris. Hard won intelligence in the war against Cedar Fever tells us to start taking industrial strength Claritin or Zyrtec at the first sign of a sniffle and then not to relent (or let that green capped bottle out of your sight) until the allergy forecast on the web sounds the all clear. Rain helps. We don't have any of that right now. But I made the critical mistake. There was a lull and I went without my antihistamine of choice for a week or so. Then, on Friday, the cedar pollen levels lurched from "high" at 1,000 to "off the charts" at over 7,000. I was caught short. 

Now, even with a renewed pill regimen, I can barely make it from the coffee maker in the kitchen to my studio/office only a handful of yards from the front door of my house. Two cups of miracle brew in and I'm just now feeling quasi capable of getting through a phone meeting I have scheduled in nine minutes. If I weather that then the next goal is to make it to lunch and.... we'll see what happens from there. 

Studio Dog gave me a look that said, "Don't fight it. Find a comfortable spot over here on the couch and curl up. Take a nap." I can't give up on my professional activities so early in the year....

I'll spend the rest of today in the office working in Lightroom on the files I shot during Friday's portrait shoot. Hopefully that will help me avoid the incessant allergy shrapnel lurking just on the other side of the door. 

How's your New Year treating you? Where's the Kleenex? Can somebody make coffee....again?

Working in the middle of chaos.

I've recently been posting some images I took in NYC at the 2013 Photo Expo for Samsung. It was a busy Fall. I'd just come off a ten day stint in Berlin for the IFA show (kinda like our CES show only bigger!) and a camera beta test,  and a couple of weeks in Denver being filmed for our Craftsy.com classes (Now rebranded as BluPrint and majority owned by NBCUniversal - A Link? ).

The folks at the public relations firm for Samsung's Galaxy NX launch liked me well enough and hired me to head up to the city and work at their trade show booth taking images with the new camera and the system lenses. We shot for hours each day with two different models and generated about 4,500 files in the three days of the show. All the images were put up on big 4K television screens as we shot so people could see, in real time, how the cameras worked and how the files looked. Occasionally one of the cameras would crash because it was still early software, but we had a technician on tap and he'd fix the issues expediently.

Space is tight at trade shows and our shooting area was tiny. We had a couple of small soft boxes and some inexpensive monolights but little in the way of additional reflectors or light modifiers.

In order to back up enough to use 60mm and 85mm lenses on the APS-C sensor equipped bodies we had to back up right to the intersection of the booth and the public so we ended up, frequently, answering questions from fellow photographers as we were shooting. It was mostly good natured fun with a few exceptions such as the "photo enthusiast" who came by repeatedly to tell us that "pros only use medium format cameras. Digital isn't good enough yet!!!" And this was, of course 2013 when most digital was more than adequate.

On our breaks we'd walk the floor and look at all the cool camera and lens porn or try to beat other equipment reps out of free lunches or dinners (I got invited to the intimate Olympus dinner at a famous, and very good steak house, to get a hands on evening with their new EM-1 camera; and the Panasonic sponsored happy hour was pretty cool...).

The noise levels everywhere were high, high, high. But I when I shot I wore a headset microphone so I could make observations about the cameras and the process to whatever assembled audience was on hand, and also to direct our models. It was a blast to do all this once but it got old quick. By the time I was on a plane and headed home I was deep into writing one of my most read blog pieces ever, "The Graying of Traditional Photography..." But looking back through the photographs this week I can see I had a much better time than I remembered.


I like to use a "stand-in" for the final portrait subject when I'm getting my lighting set up. Sometimes everyone is at lunch and the stand-in is me.

I pretty much know how the light from a soft box is going to look, and the same goes for a light in an umbrella, but sometimes you end up in a location where you are shooting against windows and there's all kinds of light bouncing around outside (and inside) and you really need to make sure there's not going to be a big reflection staring back at you in the glass....

After I get my lights roughed in I like to ask someone to stand in just so I can see how everything is working out. And I like to do that before the star of the photo session walks in so I don't have to waste his or her time resetting errant lights. It's also good to know just how much depth of field you are going to end up with at a given subject-to-camera distance and also how it will affect the background. Right?

So, I was setting up to photograph the CEO of a hedge fund late last year and when I finished my set up I found that everyone in the office was either in a meeting or out for lunch. My assistant for the shoot was me. So I grabbed my assistant and demanded he stand in for some test shots. He grumbled a bit, told me he didn't get paid enough to do this, but I finally got the guy to cooperate while I set the self-timer on the camera and walked back to stand on the mark I'd made with white gaffer's tape, on the floor. 

I was then able to assure myself that we'd have a fighting chance of getting a decent shot of the CEO as soon as the cast came back from meetings and lunch. It all worked out fine but even though I've done this sort of shoot for decades it's nice to have the extra layer of assurance that comes from a decent test shot. 

I now realize that self-timers on cameras were invented specifically so photographers could do a one-man set up and test for on-location portraits. Anything else they tell you about self-timers is B.S. 

I don't always look so stern but when I have to switch roles and become the stand-in/assistant I want to make sure the photographer knows I'm taking my job seriously. Those photographers are demanding bastards; that for sure!

No assistants were harmed in the making of this self portrait. 

(Damn. I should have retouched......).

A Camera with a different character. The Sony RX10 series.

A friend who is not a "photographer" and doesn't want to start collecting gear, asked me to recommend a great camera that would make good images and allow him the most flexibility for shooting everything from wide angle scenes to kids playing sports. I thought about all the interchangeable lens cameras I know about but my friend is a guy who is unlikely to want to change lenses or keep several lenses in a bag. It was a weird moment for me to realize that there are lots of other, sometimes better options, out in the world besides our traditional, mirrorless or DSLR system cameras, with their raft of lenses, accessories and operational traditions. 

I thought back over all the work I've done in the past ten years to come up with a camera that I had personally used and enjoyed, but one which would also meet the more limited operational parameters requested. After I cut out all the interchangeable lens cameras I was left with a handful of choices. There are the artsy-hipster-advanced artist, fixed lens prime cameras like the Ricoh GRIII and the ever-iterating Fuji X-100x series but the wide, fixed, prime lens is far too limiting for anyone other than a person who might want to have a small camera to play with but who also possesses a massive inventory of "real" cameras for those times when portraits and other long lens scenarios come into focus...

Eliminating the "art school" camera set left me with just a couple of options. There's the compact, zoom lens cameras like the Sony RX100x's and the Panasonic Lumix LX100ii but I think they are too tiny and fiddly to work with. Then I found a folder of images I made one year when I took a Sony RX10iii to the big Spring party in Austin called, "Eeyore's Birthday Party." Smiling as I flipped through the images in the folder I realized that really good, longer telephoto capability is one of the things that separates really useful, impactful and highly competent cameras from "fun, handy" cameras. 

I sent along the information about the Sony RX10iii, let him know that there's a newer model but that I hadn't used it yet, and I also sent along a folder full of color and black and white images I'd taken with the camera. He was hooked. Then he saw the pricing on the RX10 series and paused. He's using a borrowed RX10iii right now but every time we speak I can see that the camera is sinking its highly capable hooks into his wallet. And his visual vocabulary.

I love the RX10 series. Each new model had something to recommend it (and a deletion to bitch about....) but I'd almost forgotten that the lure and allure for me on the two later cameras is the absolutely first class long end of that 24mm-600mm equivalent zoom. I can isolate subjects, defocus backgrounds and get stellar stabilized results with much less hassle than trying to do the same with a professional, full frame body and a bag full of lenses that, when used together, give me the same kind of reach but with the burden of more weight and complexity than most people (who aren't being paid to make photographs) want to endure.

I should never have opened the folder and re-visited the images. Now I feel the attraction of the RX10IV. Resist. Resist. Resist.