5.13.2020

A new discovery about the Sigma fp. Very useful in the time of Zoom communication, FaceTime, etc.


It's the times we live in. All of a sudden interactive video chats are everywhere. I have people who want to meet or chat via FaceTime, groups that want to stay all socially connected via Zoom (mostly swimmers) and even people (clients) who are interested in doing live casts on YouTube (we'll see about that...). And up until now I've participated by sitting in front of my iMac and taking advantage of the built-in microphone and camera. But the thing that always annoyed and embarrassed me was the thought that my video presentation and the audio that are supplied by the desktop computer probably look as crappy as everyone else's. (Well, my video feed is probably nicer than that of one guy who insists on sitting right in front of his window... and my audio feed has got to be better than that one woman with an old laptop, with two children under 5 years old playing in the same room...sorry!). 

I didn't think there was much I could do about the overall quality of my presentation without spending more money, and online video chatting isn't really where I was interested in spending ever diminishing cash. By chance I was over at Michael Johnston's blog and he was bemoaning his tremendous difficulties in getting up to speed with video (I assume he wants to be streaming) and it made me realize that I hadn't done nearly a deep enough dive into the capabilities of gear I already have in house. Maybe I could cobble something together...

There was some free time on the schedule, between my afternoon nap and happy hour, so I decided to re-read my camera owner's manuals and see if there was any mention of using the cameras for streaming. Nothing in the Panasonic texts. Then I chanced to look at the skinny, but decent, Sigma fp manual and noticed that I could make choices for the camera's USB connections and there it was. One of the choices was: Video Class UVC. 

The studio was quiet. Dark and cool. I fired up the iMac Pro and found the USB 3.x cable I always have strewn across my cluttered desk, waiting for a camera connection or battery recharge duty, and plugged in the Sigma fp. I'd already set the USB protocol to Video Class UVC and when I turned on the camera and opened FaceTime I just got the regular built-in camera feed. Then I noticed "Video" in the menu bar for the program and...ta-da!!! There was an available selection for the Sigma fp. I clicked on it and a few seconds later I was getting the feed from the Sigma fp instead of the built-in Mac camera. I could also chose from the menu whether I wanted to use the audio from the computer's internal microphone or whether I wanted to pull in the audio from the camera. Cool.

A look through the microphone bag languishing on the Metro shelving uncovered the Beachtek DXA Micro-Pro pre-amp/audio interface and an Audio Technica, dynamic, side-address microphone. I hooked the DXA to the camera's audio input and the microphone to the DXA, set the gain to high (it's an inefficient microphone) and...voila!!!! my feed both looked and sounded great. It also worked for Zoom. 

Now, if I add a couple of nice LED panels shining through a couple layers of silk diffusion and then do something to clean up the background, and maybe just a little bit of back lighting, I'll have the prettiest feed in my online social streaming groups and I didn't have to spent a cent. I mean, other than the $4,500 I spent on all the toys to get to this point. 

At any rate I now have a fully functional webcam and I no longer have to hunker down in shame in front of the monitor as I chat with my people. Nice when you find you already had the "ruby slippers" of streaming all along...



The Unexpected Content Deficit Disaster.


There is a flurry of articles floating across the web this week about...content. And the sheer lack of it for streaming and consumption. I just read a piece about Naomi Campbell (famous model) having to do her own cover portrait for Essence Magazine without the benefit of a photographer, make up crew, etc. She used an iPhone 11 and the photo was...okay...but it certainly speaks to the current situation. But the companies that are taking it on the chin are companies like Disney which had just launched its Disney+ streaming service that was projected to become an important part of the company's income going forward. The cold hard truth is that they've run out of new material.

Disney is fast-tracking streaming of their cinema version of "Hamilton" and skipping or paralleling the theatrical release in order to have any significant content for the mid-Summer season. Netflix, though still a darling of Wall Street, has run through everything they had lurking in the cupboards and are now trotting out "C" and "D" tier content that would never have seen the light of day if anything else had been available.

https://wwd.com/business-news/media/the-new-normal-fashion-celebrity-shoots-at-hearst-magazines-1203562609/

https://petapixel.com/2020/05/11/naomi-campbell-shot-her-own-cover-photo-in-isolation-with-an-iphone/

The painful reality is that the teams who produce "Amazon Originals" "Netflix Programming" and feature films from Sony, Universal, Disney and other movie giants are ALL on hiatus. Everything is shut down. Every stage is dark. And what that means for the general public is that the next few months to a year hibernating at home is going to get even bleaker.

This parallel epidemic of zero new content is also affecting all the TV programs which were supposed to be in production for the upcoming season; needed fodder for now even hungrier audience. But those shows are on a production halt as well. The pandemic is affecting content everywhere. No new gallery art shows. No new museum exhibitions. No new plays. Not even a revival. Just whatever desperate organizations can manage to stream on YouTube...

It's even hit the news shows. I was wincing a few weeks back as I watched the PBS NewsHour and saw poor Judy Woodruff (the anchor) trying to master the stay-at-home broadcast. It was a mess. I have no idea what camera she was using for streaming but the video was a disaster. Overexposed by at least two stops and I'm still not sure where the focus landed. Various reporters were cycled through, reporting from their homes in makeshift video studios that reminded me so much of public access TV shows that used to hit the airwaves a long time ago. I had to turn my chair around and look out the window while listening to the broadcast because the almost immediate decay of broadcast values and  technical proficiencies had fallen so far so quickly. Painful to watch...

What does this have to do with our flagship topic of photography? Well, it stings on several levels. First of all most of us are only human and we can only spend so many hours in the day crafting perfect blog posts, sorting and scanning virtuous old work, and looking wistfully at mountains of killer good gear, imagining its enormous potential for content creation. We do need other sources of entertainment.

But I feel as though I've already watched all 20 of the really good movies on Netflix and I've long since hit the bottom of the trough on Amazon Prime. While I'd like to see "The Mandalorian" on Disney+ I took a peek at the rest of their catalog and it reminded me of nothing so much as an electronic soporific.

So, there is that pain of not being able to find a nice and efficient source of entertainment.  Maybe Belinda and I should start taking violin lessons or learn how to yodel. But I don't think so...

Then there is the more insidious and creepy consequence of this content shutdown. Namely, that we're letting entropy force down the level of appreciation for craft, talent and technique to the lowest possible level that the general public will accept which means that recovering and going back to the true exercise of our hard won skills after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides will be difficult-to-impossible.

Once we've trained a nation of TV addicts that it's fine to watch badly constructed programming based largely on 4K video streams from iPhones held in wobbly hands how will we convince audiences and the people who pay for productions that there is real value in "better" material? Most polished content?

What we're seeing now on the web, on TV, and in print is a race to the bottom for production values. I presume that there are already some great movies that are edited and in the can but without open theaters to drive word of mouth marketing and massive ticket sales I suspect that the producers are "keeping their powder dry" and will release those properties when they can once again make maximum returns.

Added to that, even when the pandemic is resolved, most company's budgets will have been severely compromised and will take years to mend. How many will decide that since they were able to skate along with horrible content and miserable production value that they don't really need to spend the money on professional content providers? I think we're in for a spell of "the dark age of commercial content production" and it may last for quite a while.

My advice? Buy Apple stock. They're exponentially replacing full production crews with iPhones just as fast as they can make them. (Disclaimer: I am not making any serious recommendation about stock purchases and am not a broker or an employee or agent for Apple, although I do own some Apple stock).

Don't believe me? I just read that the very popular TV show, "American Idol" is putting their season finale together from 40 different celebrities' "shelter at home" locations using iPhone 11s for their primary capture tools. Each celebrity was sent up to three iPhones and a ring light set up, along with lots of instruction and video tutorials about how to make it all work. The segments from the "stars" will be shot in the phones' 4K modes and sent in to an editing team who will put the show together from those phone files. And this is one of the shows with the highest viewership in the country. iPhones. Broadcast television.

https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/27/entertainment/american-idol-coronavirus/index.html

I think we just broke down the mighty wall of "Broadcast Standards."

So, if people drink more, and need escape badly enough, even dreck will sell. What chance would Leonardo Da Vinci have stood in this time period? Decay of western civilization indeed.

Other than that things are going pretty well around here today. Just tossing all the big camera into the trash compacter to make room for a couple of iPhone 12's. After that we'll try composting the lighting gear to make room for a cheap, LED ring light. YMMV.

Seriously though, what did we expect? At least vintage wine is relatively untouched by the decline...

5.12.2020

Going Negative. What's the best way?


For a long time I felt like I was too busy to address the stacks and drawers full of black and white negatives that reside all over the studio. I'd given my last flat bed scanner away to a non-profit years ago and, in the high volume work years if I needed a digital file from a cherished black and white negative I would just send it out to one of the two Austin photo labs (which are still in business) and let them handle it; for a price. 

Now I find myself where everyone else is: with lots of time on my hands, no ready subjects to photograph right now, and re-considering my approach to looking for "gold" in my negative archives that I'd like to print or share. If I were fabulously wealthy I'd just put every slide, negative and piece of sheet film in boxes, drive it all over to the lab and have them go through piece by piece and create high resolution scans for me. But at $12 to $25 per image and with my realization that my interpretation for scanning is generally different than the scan philosophy of the labs I can't really justify spending tens of thousands of dollars to dig into negatives from yesteryear. 

I'd gotten fairly competent at using an Epson scanner, purchased over a decade ago, to make scans of medium and large format prints but it really wasn't an optimum solution for 35mm negatives. Not enough resolution for really nice prints. And, when I was in the rush of business it just seemed more expedient to let someone else do the scanning. 

Lately, three or four people who I follow on YouTube.com (like Sean Tucker) have proposed and demonstrated making good scans using their digital cameras combined with a macro lens. There are plug-ins for PhotoShop that make for easier conversion from the negative state to a positive image and I've seen a few tutorials of that process as well. 

So, for all my home scanning of personal images I'm torn between just getting another inexpensive Epson flatbed scanner; like the Perfection V600, or trying my hand at "camera scanning."

Either way I'll have to spend some cash. I can buy the scanner for around $250 (including sales tax) but to do the lens approach I'll need to source a macro lens for the L-mount system. The lens that makes the most sense is the Sigma 70mm Art lens (macro) which would work on my Panasonic S system cameras but it's currently back-ordered everywhere. I'm sure I can find a Nikon or Canon macro and make do with an adapter. The solution from Leica for L-mount macro is a series of close-up lens attachments which you attach to a lens filter thread to allow for closer work. (Not optimal).

If this was for a series of paying jobs I'd try to source a more involved and capable scanner but even then without a dedicated 35mm scanner I'm not sure I'll get the data density I want in a file.

My inclination right now is to try my hand with the camera scan method (not really a scan since I'm doing a "one shot" image capture). This would involve ordering (and waiting for) a Sigma 70 Macro but I'm anxious to get started and might just buy a set of three different front-of-lens diopter attachments and at least experiment with one of the high resolution S1R bodies. If I can shoot negatives at 1:1 with that set up I can at least assure myself of getting the most information out of the negative.

The point of pain with this approach is getting the camera exactly planar to the film. I have a tripod with a side arm but I suddenly miss (for the first time) the sturdy, old copy stand I let go of years and years ago. We'll see if I'm bright enough to engineer some sort of workable substitute...

I'm not much worried about the post production side of things but I do worry about the capture. Sad though, if I'd have been doing this already a decade ago I would have a wide selection of adapters and slide duplicators to choose from.

The films I want to scan range from 35mm to 6x6cm, 6x7cm, 6x9cm and 4x5 inch sheet film. The larger the film size the easier I think the process will be.

I guess my question to the VSL readership is if you have tried the camera/macro lens/lightbox method yourself and if you have any pointers for a late arrival who suddenly finds himself ready to get some black and white files from yesteryear into the system. I'd love to hear from you.

My friend, Paul, shoots with Nikon D850s and bought one of the Nikon ES-1 Slide Copy Adapters which attaches to the front of a 60mm macro lens and seems to be the perfect solution for 35mm slides and 35mm negative stripes but I'm wary of buying multiple solutions for multiple film sizes if I don't have to. 

Scanner or high res camera? Which way to go?

Final note for a stormy Tuesday morning: I ran the lake loop last week on a hot and humid afternoon and I have to say that running in the heat with a face mask on is just flat out painful. Makes me feel a bit claustrophobic and it also makes my brain imagine that breathing deeply is harder. I'm already thinking of workarounds and the best one I've come up with so far is to just be on the trail earlier in the day. 

The perfect time, weather-wise, is around 6:30 am, for the start. All of a sudden this is starting to remind me of college swimming where the first practice of the day started at 5:45 a.m. ---mandatory --- five days a week. I thought I'd left the early stuff behind. Ah well, flexibility has its advantages. 


5.10.2020

A Special Mother's Day Look at the Panasonic Lumix fz1000 mark 2.


Here we go again... In a puff piece (buying guide) entitled, "These are the best long zoom cameras in 2020" camera marketing Goliath, DP Review once again reprises the idea that, when compared to the Sony RX10 cameras, the lens on the fz1000 ii (which they have not yet reviewed...) (Note: Now reviewed by DPReview as of 5/11-- the "soft" description has been expunged)... is soft. When I read that I was baffled. I just picked up an fz1000 ii a week before and shot with it for a couple of days and didn't see the same results they did. In fact, it's a very sharp lens right on out to 400mm.

I thought, perhaps, that I'd missed something, or that my casual shooting had failed to show up some fatal flaw so I went back out yesterday with the fz1000 ii and shot a bunch of images; from close ups to shots taken at the longest focal length. All handheld and most at f5.6, which is one stop down from wide open, on the long end. I can only imagine that the images would be even sharper were I to turn off the image stabilization and put the camera on a big tripod. How much sharper would the camera be if, when using the tripod, I actually used the electronic shutter AND a two second self-timer delay? Whatever softness the kinder-digi at DPR experienced it did not come from the lens itself. Unless they are just incredibly unlucky in getting test cameras...

Are the files as sharp as those from a Leica R prime lens on a Panasonic Lumix S1R? As sharp? Yes. As detailed? Of course not, since we're talking about a contest between two totally different sensors/resolutions and price ranges. But, compared to cameras in its own market segment it is nicely sharp and a very good photography machine; especially considering the purchase price. 

The fz1000 ii is a third generation model of the fz series, 20 megapixel, long lens bridge cameras from Panasonic. It features a 25-400mm f2.8- 4.0 zoom lens and a BSI sensor. While some handling improvements have been made over the previous two cameras the compromise is that many of the video features I really liked in the fz2500 have been stripped away. No more built-in ND filters, no super high quality codecs and no headphone jack. But it's agile, fast to work with, has a great zoom range and the color and detail in the files has been improved over its closest sibling; the fz 1000 (originally). 

I own both the fz2500 and the fz1000 ii. They are not manufacturer supplied "test" cameras but cameras purchased through the powerful procurement arm of VSL.

When I took the camera out for a double-check spin yesterday I outfitted it with a ho-hum polarizing filter. I tried to use careful technique and was also quick to turn off the "touch AF" option for the rear screen. It's nice to use the touch AF in the studio where your nose is not right up against the screen but when shooting like you would any other conventional camera with an eye level finder I think having the touch AF screen enabled introduces some of the problems that less advanced photographers seem to be having with this line of cameras. Owning a camera and spending time with it is important in understanding how to optimize it for all kinds of shooting situations.

While the camera is not small it is light and easy to carry around for all day projects. For travel it's nearly ideal, unless you really need a camera that will fit in a pocket. 

I found that at every focal length the lens, the camera, and the camera's processing, did a great job at making files that were nicely sharp but without apparent sharpening artifacts. I would have no issue recommending this camera to all but the most remedial of beginners.


 VSL H.Q. Where all the magic happens (sarcastic smiley face emoticon implied).


Just being silly and playing around with Luminar 4. Why would you want to 
introduce a planet into your images? Maybe because you've just finished 
a Star Wars movie marathon.... 

 the entire frame. 
 the bottom right hand corner of the frame. More than 100%.

400mm, handheld. click to see larger.
 Shot from across the lake. 
Real sky. Not Luminar sky...


Why do I keep coming back to these all-in-one, long lens range, 20 megapixel, one inch cameras? It's the same reason, I think, that people buy Swiss Army knives and small SUVs. I know that a Swiss Army knife, with its big assortment of blades, corkscrews, screwdrivers, etc. isn't going to be an effective close quarters combat knife and I also know that I wouldn't want to screw in a bunch of wood screws using the screwdriver tool but... it's easy to carry and can do a very decent job at everything from cutting open a package from Amazon to opening a nice bottle of wine. I've pulled cactus thorns out of my skin with the tweezers and re-tightened loose camera screws after long flights with its smaller blades. It'll do a fine job cutting rope or tape and I can even file my fingernails with it.

The model I have has scissors which work well on paper and also on emergency nose hair trimming for those times when you are parking your car and getting ready to go meet with a client and you look in the rear view mirror and notice a particularly egregious and inappropriate nose hair that has somehow gone public.

The "bridge camera" does the same kind of multiple duty. It wouldn't be my first choice for making a file for a super-fine detailed, point of purchase sign that will be reproduced life size, nor would it be my first choice for documenting a serious swim meet for a magazine. But... it handles most day-to-day tasks well. I can shoot product shots for the web with it, even engaging focus stacking, if needed. I can shoot portraits with it, now that image selection is a piece of cake in PhotoShop and I can do a quick post production operation to defocus backgrounds. I can take the camera out for a hiking adventure and get beautiful shots from far away and seconds later deliver a very wide shot without changing lenses in the field. The bridge cameras can also do decent macro stuff and deliver high shutter speed flash sync for those times when harsh sun calls for some handy fill light.

If I slip on a rock and the camera crashes onto granite 20 feet straight down it's cheap enough that I won't shed a tear. We'd do a brief ceremony, salvage the battery and memory card and chalk it up to poorly conceived risk taking.

But it's not just that bridge cameras are a more fun substitute for a lot of situations that used to require a more traditional camera it's also that, at the touch of a button, they can become quite good video cameras. Even though the fz1000ii would not be my first choice for a dedicated video solution the 4K files it creates are absolutely great if you see something and want to catch some great video on the fly.

With a decent audio device like a Beachtek DXA Micro Pro pre-amp I can use a professional XLR microphone and monitor, at least, what's coming out of the pre-amp via headphones. If I match that with careful level settings in the camera I can get decent audio for an impromptu interview. Would the fz1000ii be my first choice for a dedicated video project? Or a client video project? No, not really. But if I was out on a hike and ran into Sebastio Salgado and wanted to do a quick interview on the side of a mountain I wouldn't feel the despair of being unprepared; I'd be able to get usable material with my Swiss Army knife of cameras.

If budget was never a consideration would I still choose the fz1000-ii over the Sony RX10 IV? No. The Sony is a slightly better camera. Mostly in regards to its better video capabilities but also, for sports shooters and the impatient in general, the phase detect AF is a bit faster when using C-AF. The Sony camera (if I can extrapolate from previously owning the model 3) is built like a proverbial tank too.

It's got a headphone jack which is great and I also like the aperture ring on the lens. But is it worth twice the price? and, since it's nearly twice as heavy will you really enjoy carrying it?

If I did not have a steamer trunk packed with full frame Lumix and Sigma cameras, and dedicated lenses, and could only choose one camera to own and use for every project I would ever encounter the RX10 IV seems like a front-runner. But that's not the use case I currently have so I've got a deep investment in the full frame stuff. It all made so much sense before the current pandemic and the halting of projects.

But, for a camera that is more of a hobbyist accessory for me the fz1000ii clicks the right boxes, from image quality to lightweight portability. It's a great compromise for someone who already has too much sunk into cameras of all kinds.

What am I doing for Mother's Day? Well, my mom is no longer with us so I'm making sure Belinda has a good day. I brought home her favorite flowers this morning and this evening Ben I are making coconut shrimp, sirloin steaks, mixed roasted carrots, a tropical salad and lava cakes. It'll probably be a big mess but we've both (all three...) worked in food service so I don't think we'll mess up too badly. In a typical negotiated bargain I bought the groceries so the boy has to do all the clean up. We'll both take turns preparing the various dishes. Any which way it turns out I'm sure Belinda will be delighted just to see the boy.

I might even bring a camera into the house...

Planning ahead. Looking for more adventure opportunities here in Texas. I'm thinking about heading west in the next week or so to explore parks out near Marfa, Texas, including Ft. Davis State Park and Big Bend. I'm looking for some challenging hikes and some non-technical climbing opportunities.

There is also a state park out by San Angelo, Texas that I know nothing about...yet.

But just to make it all different I thought my next park foray would be a video project. Especially since I have two Panasonic cameras that do nice video AND have flippy screens. TBA.

Hope you guys engineer a nice Mother's Day for someone special. We'll catch up again tomorrow.

KT

5.09.2020

A palette cleanser from "Matilda." I must say that I love Paul Sanchez's silver suit almost as much as I love to say, "Silver Suit."

A production shot from the Zach Theatre Play, Matilda.

These are unusual times and the U.S. administration has worked hard to muddy the waters and disrupt any objective truth about the pandemic virus. We are in the position that the late, great Richard Avedon described as the dilemma for portrait photographers ---

--- we can only see and photograph the surface. We can't know what's under the skin and we can't know it anymore than we can truly know what's in the mind of the portrait sitter. Right now our understanding of the pandemic is incomplete. We know that people are dying. That's not up for debate. We know that there differences of opinion about who is culpable for the spread. But we have no knowledge of how quickly or surely a vaccine will arrive, or how it will be parceled out. No idea if a curative will really reduce deaths and how that cure will be rationed, if there's not enough to go around. 

I can't change what has happened. But I can compartmentalize the burden of knowledge about this and keep it from overwhelming all the other things in my life. 

This blog administrator tries to be open to divergent points of view but with something this raw, and now divisive, I'm stepping in to ask that we try to keep as much unsubstantiated political opinion off the blog. If you can show with video that a politician has lied directly to us all then that's fair game. 

Rumor, conjecture and unproven assumptions, political points of view, only serve to make everyone more unsure and uncomfortable. I'm not banning all political opinions on VSL but let us all do our best to stay positive. To discuss photographic issues. Talk about how we're adapting and how we're coping with a bad situation. 

Don't make me get on a plane with my boys from the photo above and take a metaphorical bat to you.

No winners or losers. Just people. Let's help each other stay positive...

Comments closed on this post.

B. At the Galaxy Cafe. Re-worked in Luminar for a different aesthetic.


I think we both look forward to a time when we can go back to our favorite restaurants. I'm probably much more anxious to do so because I'm one of those "horrible" extroverts who has a pressing need to be around people. Lots of people. B, on the other hand, is a pure introvert and is enjoying every moment of sheltering in place. She's got a project to work on at all times. Painting the porch, refinishing a book shelf, experimenting with special inks and watercolors, doing yoga.

I think her favorite part of the day is when I stop buzzing around the house and announce: "I'm going out to the studio to play with some photographs." 

But I do think of my favorite introvert as the "lifeguard" in my pool of existence. She's good about enforcing habits that keep me safe. But enforced in always the kindest way.




B. At the Galaxy Cafe after a trip to the Blanton Museum. From the archives but recently re-worked.



 Yes, Some times when I say stupid stuff I still get "the look." 


A variation on yesterday's black and white post. Re-imagined in Luminar.


From a session at the Jacob Javits Center in NYC for Samsung. Shot with a Galaxy NX camera and the 85mm f1.4 Samsung lens. They got a lot right...

Anyway, I played around some more with Luminar 4.x and it's actually a great program for quickly retouching and enhancing portraits. You'll have more fine control in PhotoShop (for instance you can control eye size for each eye in P.S. instead of having a combined setting in Luminar) but Luminar is great for fast skin smoothing, detail enhancing and color correction. The filters also work well and you can dial back the effects with sliders.

I'm having fun with it. And it's not too expensive. I'd buy it again.

Not supported or sponsored by Luminar....or any other photo company or retailer. So there.

5.08.2020

One black and white portrait photographed for sharpness and clarity.


As photographers it seems we've spent so much time trying to 
get shallower and shallower depth of field; as though that would 
be a process by which to distill beauty...

But if a subject is, indeed, beautiful why wouldn't we want to be
able to look at our photo in all the detail we can see with our own eyes?

Black. White. And all the Gray in Between. 

Re-imagining a portrait in a different way. Post processing to get a softer look.


I'm always trying to get weight into my photos.
That, and shadow. 

This was originally a very sharp negative that I reworked in the darkroom many years ago with a technique that softened edge detail and areas in the frame. It spilled light into shadows and shadows into light areas. I made a print and stored it in a box. 

Recently I pulled out the print and scanned it and then re-worked the 
scan in Luminar imaging software. 

I like the softer look of Lou's face in this now. 

I wish I could have people in the studio now. I miss taking portraits 
more than any privation so far in this crisis. I feel disconnected from my passion.