5.17.2020

Staying on message is important. For readers and for writers. Here we write about photography. Let me know if you need me to start a swim blog...

Sigma fp in video snapshot mode.
Equally proficient at taking photographs.

Confession. I was going to go a bit off topic today and write about grandmother Tuck's incredible method for making ham salad. I was going to reminisce about visiting my grandparents in the small town in central Pennsylvania where they lived, and go into detail about their house; even sharing details of their big television set in the living room, with the ceramic sculpture of a black panther sitting on top. The panther had a dial midway down its torso and one used that to change the orientation of the rooftop antenna mounted three stories up on the roof of the house. Using the panther belly mounted control you could fine tune broadcast reception! That one feature made such an impression on me...

Before getting into the secrets of grandmother's ham sandwich I was going to regale readers with fragmented stories about my father and his father sitting in the living room of the house, listening to the radio for the live broadcasts of the Pittsburgh Pirate's baseball games. And then maybe segue into a delightful and nuanced story about my sister sitting at the oh so expansive dining room table making toothpick sculptures, which would lead, of course, into a story about my older brother sitting in a nicely upholstered chair in his bedroom (while visiting) on the third floor of the house, reading the earliest issues of the Marvel Spiderman comic books... 

But instead I'll hew to my new resolve and try to stay, at least obliquely, on the subject of photography ---and by extension --- a bit of video production thrown in for good measure. 

But I don't want to leave you hanging so I'll give you the TL:DR for the ham salad. The secret was peanuts. She added peanuts to her ham salad and that savory addition made for the best ham salad sandwiches I've ever had during my full and happy life. End of story. Oh, and the toothpick sculpture turned out well, the Pirates lost (as usual, which generated salty language) and my brother lost his copy of Spiderman #1 long before they started trading for upwards of $100,000 (in mint condition). 

Which brings us to the Sigma fp, once again. I was happy to find a weird review of the Sigma fp as a cinema camera in an interview with an award-winning cinematographer and underwater camera engineering expert with deep experience in media such as IMAX. The guy is a member of the Australian Cinematographers Society and an inveterate camera and lens tester. The actual interviewer is goofy but Pawel is pretty rock solid and has some amazing things to say about the video capabilities of the tiny camera. See it here. And here is the take-away quote from the cinematographer:  "When I say I like this camera, it's as if it cost $60k, I would have still bought it."

Added: Here's a review by a very smart and talented photographer who I've known since our college days in Austin: Ellis reviews the FP.


I think those of us who took a chance on the Sigma fp have ripped through a lot of words to try and explain what it is about the camera that endears it to us. It's obviously got less gingerbread and comfort features than cameras like the Sony A7iii and the Panasonic Lumix S1, and as far as photography goes there are some drawbacks to use, but across both video and still imaging there are several consistent features that make the camera well worth the "paltry" $1800 price tag for those who appreciate those features in spite of not having the  cupholders, automatic transmissions and heated seats of most current higher end cameras. 

The first is something that can be measured objectively. The Sigma fp has some of the very highest color accuracy of any production camera on the market. In Pawel Achtel's tests the Sigma fp seems to slightly outperform the Sony Venice cine camera ($42,000, body only) in this regard, as well as the Red Ranger Monstro 8K  ($59,950 body only). 

The second point that Mr. Achtel makes in the camera's favor (and here he is making the statement about video output) is that the camera's high ISO is amazingly noise free. He suggests that it is nearly noise free to 10,000 ISO and usable at 25,000, with a bit of noise reduction tossed in.

I'm maybe a bit more conservative when it comes to noise but I'd use the camera at ISO 6400 without much worry for stills; as long as I was careful to get the exposure just right. As for color accuracy, I don't have a way to accurately measure it but I have to say that the files that come out of the camera, both as photographs and also cinema DNG video, are some of the best I've ever seen. 

So, No. It's not a good, all around snapshot camera. It's a horrible, just horrible sports camera. It's not a good camera for shooting active dress rehearsals in the theater (I tried once with lots of sweat and gritted teeth). But when it comes to shooting as one would with a movie camera or with an old Hasselblad it delivers amazing files and a similar workflow. 

Yesterday I put on a wireless mike set-up and gave the camera a video spin as a "snapshot video camera" using 8 bit .Mov files with the camera set to 4K UHD All-I at 29.97 fps. It was great. The audio is fine as long as I pay attention to the meters and never let them clip. (It's one of the few cameras I think I'd prefer to use in a dual sound video set up just because the meters are small and the control interface a bit buried...).  It's a small package and since it doesn't have mechanical image stabilization built in I cheated by using the fluid head on a monopod. 

While there are a lot of great photography and video camera out on the market this Sigma fp really speaks to people who love to tinker with their files and are willing to sacrifice ease of use for more visual perfection. More cowbell...

This morning I saw a video posted on DP Review that showed some footage shot in .Mov with the Sigma fp camera. The "cinematographer" listed as a shortcoming of the fp that there was no flat profile. But that's because it features uncompressed raw files which are much, much, much more color gradable and contrast adjustable than Log profiles (which can be added downstream from a raw file import, in post). The camera just needed to be set up to use the raw DNG files and to write them to an external SSD. (added:) In fairness the writer did say that he missed having the Log profile in the .Mov mode.  I contend that you would know whether or not the camera has a Log profile when you do your research before buying.   He also suggested that the color settings (might be called profiles...) such as 'cinema' 'orange and teal' etc. were too intense or overdone. And I would agree with him if each profile was not widely adjustable. You can decrease the effect of the color settings all the way from a plus 5 to minus 5 with the use of a menu item, for each color setting. You can also adjust the contrast, sharpness and saturation of each look in +/- five steps as well. That makes it perfectly adjustable for just about anything you'd want to do. You can even make .Mov files as flat as a pancake, if you want to by also using the "Tone" control in conjunction with the "Color" control.  The article seemed to short change the fp when much of the problem was a lack of experience with the camera...

So, we're still staying at home but that doesn't mean we can't test, shoot, evaluate and vet our results. 

Sorry, no chat about swimming. It just didn't come up.  

Added note: Richard Butler got in touch with me and we e-mailed back and forth. He directed my attention to the line where he (correctly) went into the color profile sub-menu to change the strength of the profile but was still not able to set a low enough contrast for his uses. I missed that. I apologize. 

I do agree with him to his point that a nice, flat profile like Fuji's Eterna would be a welcome addition for shooting in .Mov.

Signed, The Imperfect Blogger.  KT



5.16.2020

Stuff. Like putting your leg in a bear trap....

Thought I should tackle the idea of stuff, just enough stuff, and too much stuff. I suppose I started thinking about this when I ventured over to Mike Johnston's blog this morning and read the 45 comments from mostly middle-aged men gushing and reminiscing about various esoteric audio components; mostly sourced during the golden age of audio-philia.

The entire exercise of falling in love with gear is not necessarily foreign to me. Let me explain (As I listen to Bare Naked Ladies on the earbuds that came standard with my iPhone XR):

It all started when my frugal parents bought my brother and I a joint Christmas gift of a stereo record player and....the Beatles White Album. They also had the foresight to buy us a set of (cheap but serviceable) headphones. Once bitten by the idea of being able to endlessly listen to my favorites songs on demand I started diving deeper and deeper into "audio." I bought and tried to fix old reel-to-reel tape recorders and built a Heathkit stereo receiver which actually worked. By the time I graduated from high school I'd decided to go off to the university and study electrical engineering with the idea of designing and building various audio components.

Once ensconced in my cheap, un-air conditioned dorm room I embarked on building all sorts of stuff. I put together a Dynaco Stereo 70 amplifier, scrounged up a pair of AR3a speakers and finally bought a decent turntable. The flaw in all of this was that my parents were putting all three kids through the university at the same time and were NOT disposed to financially support what they very clearly saw as nothing more than an expensive and distracting hobby. I needed to find a part time job to support my hobby...

Of course, the logical thing to do was to find a great "hi-fi" store within walking distance (no car) of campus and present myself as a knowledgable stereophile who would be capable of actually explaining and thereby selling equipment to customers. Just at the edge of campus was a tall residence tower with two stories of retail at the bottom. One of the shops was called, Audio Concepts. The store was filled to the brim with many esoteric brands I'd never heard of before as well as the rank and file stuff from companies like, Kenwood, Yamaha and Pioneer.

The stars must have lined up just right on that day back in the middle of the 1970s because the manager, a really cool guy just a couple of years older than me, hired me for 20 hours a week at a bit more than minimum wage. There was also a small commission they'd be willing to pay me for system sales. I was in heaven. Swim practice in the early morning, followed by classes at UT, followed by a late afternoon/early evening demo-ing audio gear for eager audiophiles. Sleep was just an incidental concern...

Working in an audio shop was fun. We carried Crown, Audio Research, Thiel, Dahlquist, Phase Linear, Lux, Denon, Magnaplanar, Klipsch, ADS, Stax, and so much more. I was a dutiful study. I memorized every spec sheet and paid rapt attention to every sales training session I could attend (also, the reps brought pizza for us and I was in perilous straights half the time having routinely spent my food allowance on a really cool tonearm or moving coil cartridge. We spent hours in our "listening room" at the store training ourselves to hear the tiny differences between the products. The sales staff was really good. We loved the gear but we also were well motivated to sell. In fact, at one point I was whisked off to Minnesota to do a two day interview with Magnaplanar; they were looking for a marketing person with some technical knowledge.  (I declined their offer because it was 17 degrees when I stepped off the airplane at the beginning of September. It was 90 in Texas the day I left...).

So, when I was at work, and in my dorm room, I spent a lot of time listening to the gear. I'd choose music based on how well it was recorded and how well it showed off the best parts of my system. It was almost exactly like photographers who shoot images only to test their lenses but who never get around to finding a style or subject matter than really compels them to go out and photograph for the sake of photography.

But I was smart enough to understand that there was a "gold list" of composers and artists that all "sophisticated" audio enthusiasts were supposed to appreciate and enjoy. Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane for Jazz. Joni Mitchell and Pete Seeger for folk. Anything Mozart, Beethoven, Berlios, Rachmaninoff, Debussy or Ravel. Everyone had a copy of "The Planets" composed by Gustav Holst, and a copy of "The Four Seasons" by Vivaldi. And no audiophile's collection was complete without a good copy of "Carmina Burana." Yeah. I bought all the vinyl I could find and listened to the coolest parts. Because they made my speakers sound great. Even better through a set of Stax electrostatic headphones.

But then something odd happened. I started dating a concert cellist. An avowed music lover. Someone who didn't give a crap about the "quality of the recording" or the "amazing low bass" of a music system. Her favorite set of records was the "Bach Suites for Solo Cello" which was scratchy and recorded with a lot of noise/hiss, and even grunting and moaning from Pablo Casals as he played. To her the audio quality was totally immaterial. Didn't count. Not on the radar. But every once in a while she'd hear a note so sweet a tear would fall down her face.

If you date a cellist you ARE going to go out a lot to hear live music. Not just classical music but all kinds of music. The same girlfriend who played hauntingly beautiful cello was also the bass player for a punk band that performed in clubs around Austin. For her the appreciation of music was saved for composition and execution and not at all for the mechanical reproduction. We sat through all of her friends' recitals and every concert that students could get discounted tickets for. At some point in time something in my own brain clicked in and I realized that no matter how great the gear might have been it was much more thrilling and much BETTER to hear the music live; in performance, contemporaneously. Three different music history classes at UT convinced me of this as well. I was lucky that two of my classes were taught by a famous concert pianist who would discuss a piece of music and then sit down at a Bosendorfer grand piano and proceed to play the composition we were studying. What a great way to learn music!

At that point in time it was as if someone reached into my mental process and turned off the switch to the circuit that made the idea of buying more and more gear seem fun. Now the gear was a weak and very secondary substitute for the REAL thing; which was the live, performed music. And, of course, at that time in Austin we probably had as many live music venues as all of New York City and we had the Armadillo World Headquarters, Austin's spiritual center for live music.  From country to hard rock. From Willie Nelson to the Talking Heads and Devo. And UT did their part with performances by Paul Olefsky and Janos Starker (cellists).

I started parting out and selling off the audio gear. When would I have had time to sit in an easy chair and listen to....an unchanging and always the same...album? And why would I spend time listening to a copy of the experience when it was so easy and enjoyable to go out and see the real thing in real time?
Should I put on my slippers and smoke my meerschaum pipe or get out to a club and see Clifton Chenier? Easy answer there....

My collection of LPs sits in a closet in one of the unused bedrooms now. I no longer have a turntable and we don't have any audio components in the house. Just a Tivoli Stereo Radio in the studio and an all-in-one, rosewood cabineted, CD playing, FM stereo on a bookshelf in the living room. Total expenditure about $300.

There are two places where I routinely listen to recorded music. One is in the car when driving for more than twenty or thirty minutes. The other is when I'm writing fiction. And in the case of writing I can only listen to music without vocals. When I do sit and write I like to do so in coffee shops (temporarily on hold) and I use music through my phone's earbuds more to cut out the ambient noise and distraction than anything else.

I still live in Austin. There's still live music everywhere (but temporarily on hold lately). When we have shows in the main theater at Zach Theatre there is always someone performing beautiful music in the lobby before the shows. It's always top notch; always live. And most of the shows which are musicals are almost always done with a live band or orchestra. The Theatre never uses canned music. We're lucky in one regard; we can hear good live music all the time in Austin. Even during the pandemic people are hiring UT music students to come and perform at backyard (socially distanced) happy hours for small groups or families. No one would think about piping in recorded stuff. Not when we can hear the real thing...

I subscribed to Amazon Prime and I sometimes pipe in streamed music when I'm sweeping the floor or doing planks or filling out tax forms. But, as a rule, Belinda and I seem to be immune to the charms of dedicating time to listening to pre-recorded music, other than a brief splash of something from our past during an anniversary celebration or something of that nature.

My lifestyle tends to be one of constant movement and so the value to me of thousands and thousands of dollars of audio gear, locked into one place in one room, only to be enjoyed in repose, is incomprehensible. I think I realized early on that one could (and some did) spend tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars on audio gear to chase what will be an always imperfect replica of the real thing = live music. And every hour spent sitting motionless in front of big wood boxes, listening to the same collection over and over again, was an hour lost to the pursuit of enjoying the REAL THING.

Mike posted images of his basement, littered with obsolete and aging gear from his past audio pursuits. It was a reminded to me to keep moving stuff out the door as soon as I decide to move on to the next iteration.

But what does all this have to do with photography? Well.... It's all disturbingly similar. For many of us the gear seems to be the thing of great interest while the photographs seem like nothing more than a proving mechanism of just how good the gear is. Almost as color accurate as real life. Almost as sharp as seeing something amazing with your own eyes. Almost as much fun as the act itself. As a group with most photographers there is an inclination to pursue photo gear for the sake of owning and testing said photo gear. The minute something comes out that promises a more accurate rendering we rush to buy it. And I'd wager that I'm not the only one with too many cameras and not enough finished work of my own.

If I follow the same progression I did with audio I'd end up with one small point-and-shoot camera and a hundred more stamps on my passport. One thousand more portraits. A multitude of human engagements. Because, while it is so true that the camera captures memories, you have to create or witness the memories in order to capture them. You have to have interesting things happen in front of the camera to imbue it with relevance. You have to meet interesting people and get to know them in order to get interesting portraits. You have to fall in love over and over again to get great portraits.

The stuff itself is like an anchor which ties you to it. Like a sad elephant chained at the ankle to a post. You want to go out and create a great image but first you need to acquire more stuff and then optimize it. In the meantime more stuff comes out and now you are convinced that you need to take a break to learn which new stuff to buy and how to use it so you can  REALLY create great photographs. In the end, if you follow this path you'll have memorized every owner's manual, masterfully mapped functions to every button and figured out exactly what focused distance works best for each lens in your system but you won't have invested the time in actually photographing much of anything more than a glorified test chart.

If you follow the same path but with audio gear you will have surrounded yourself with expensive, glorified record players and components but you will have anchored yourself to a room, cut off human contact, and taken up precious time and money that could have been spent actually HEARING AND EXPERIENCING real, live music. The kind where every performance is different, nuanced and irreplaceable.

There were a couple huge benefits for me in reading all the comments about audio gear that were appended to Mike's original post. First, it reflected back to me my own weaknesses in photography, where I (sadly, routinely) let my desire for new gear overshadow my desire for new images and new experiences. It also showed me that it's the desire itself that is the issue; the thing that kills our happiness within our chosen hobbies and passions.

I remember back to the late 1960's when my friends and I camped out in little pup tents in our backyard. We each had our own little transistor radios. They ran on those rectangular 9V batteries. I lay down on my Boy Scout sleeping bag and looked up at the Summer stars and then a song by Donovan which had hit the "Top 40" came on the radio station. It was "Sunshine Superman." Nothing has ever sounded as good as that did in that moment.

I remember when I took my first real black and white photograph. It was of my high school girlfriend who was as patient with me as she was beautiful. I used an old, zone focusing 126mm camera (Argus) and I barely understood even the basics. But when those deckled edge prints came back from the drug store processor I was irrevocably hooked. Mike's column, and the responses, reminded me of where the real magic lays and how much the "stuff" insulates us from the joy of the moment. 

I'm not sure that's what he intended.....

right now I'm listening to "Sunshine Superman" with some earbuds connected by white wires to my phone. I can tell you the music is as powerful as anything coming out of $$$$$$ stuff.

Nice. Thanks Mike for the Instant Satori that came packaged in that blog.

Now, where did I put that magic Argus?


5.15.2020

For Better or Worse Austin, Texas Prepares for Re-Opening. But first, coffee.

My coffee. The way I've come to like it. = perfect.

Austin, Texas has been in a "stay at home" posture since the first day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic. By my reckoning that would have been on Friday the 13th of March. Which means that Belinda and I have been staying close to the house most of the time, walking in the neighborhood, respecting social distancing, wearing face masks in public for a bit over two months. We're okay with that. If it means giving health experts time to perfect treatment protocols that save people from dying and gives us some breathing space to find a cure then we'll gladly take the hits that come with that choice. But we don't speak for everyone...

Whether it's right or wrong it seems that the USA population, in general, is being pushed to get back to work and school in spite of whatever consequences might result. I get that we have a choice and that not everyone can afford the same choices. But I also get that some of the "back to work" posturing is purely political and might set us back a good bit. We might not be around to see the "right" answer finally presented but history will tell the tale to future generations.

I'm not here to make a political statement one way or another. I'm a liberal democrat but I have friends who are conservative republicans. Trying to make everything black and white is a fruitless exercise at best. Especially when there is so much that's truly unknown. People are wired differently and it would be great if we could all see past the political stuff and appreciate each person for their individual selves.

But one way or another we can all go out and document how it's affecting our communities. Rather than sit at home today and continue to work on a bit of marketing I chose to take a camera and go downtown to see what the pulse of the entertainment district looked like today. You'll remember that I was down a few weeks ago and everything was boarded up. Artists, as usual, were painting art over the plywood and particle board that covered the doors and windows of our historic bars and music halls. What would have changed from then to now?

The first tentative start up of the bar district has started. The panels are coming off the doors and windows. The less welcome graffiti is being scrubbed off. The sidewalks are being power washed. It feels like everyone's target is to open (soft or hard) around June 1st. I'm glad I got down there today because I wanted to take some higher res versions of my favorite temporary art. 

I used one of my Panasonic S1 cameras and one of the two Sigma 45mm f2.8 lenses I'm currently hoarding (hey, some people hoard toilet paper and hand sanitizer; I like lenses....which is crazier?) and set the camera for documentation mode. I like to use the camera in the flat profile and then add back contrast and saturation in post. Seems to work really well and does a good job of preserving highlights. 

It's already getting hot here in Texas and by the time I got back to my car it was already in the mid nineties. I got in the car and flicked on the air conditioning before checking my phone.

But you've already read about resumed swimming, right?  





https://www.kvue.com/article/money/austin-bars-music-venues-prepare-reopening/269-4e544657-1fa0-4250-9295-28a41cb677fc

OT: The universe finally throws a poor, humble photographer a bone... Splash, splash.



Yesterday felt like a step backwards. I noticed a flaw with a new camera and spent time boxing it up and returning it. This morning felt like I was just running in place trying to come up with things to do and reasons to unlock the studio door. By noon I was ready to get out of my house and my office and just walk to relieve the boredom and encroaching ennui. I went downtown, parked my car, ditched my phone in the center console, masked-up and went for a walk. 

When I got back to the car a while later I checked messages. There was a text from my swimmer friend, Patty, which read: "Masters swimming is back! Check yr e-mail."

Hallelujah. Hallelujah! It seems like years since I've been in the pool. Apparently the USMS (United States Masters Swimming) folks have been working with medical experts to devise protocols for allowing us to get back to swim workouts. We'll be swimming with no more than two people to a lane. One person will start at one end of the pool and one person at the other end. We'll start and finish our repeats and sets at opposite ends of the pool from each other at all times. We'll circle swim. Up the right side of the lane and back on the right. We won't be able to use the showers, suit spinning dryers or the water fountains, and we'll have to come suited up; ready to hop in and swim. 

To make this all work we're having to do reservations for each workout. Of course there is a website and an app for making reservations. With space for only 14 people per workout the sign-up system is the only way to make it all work. 

Since I was out walking and not sitting at my desk, or nursing my phone, I missed the original message by hours. When I got back to my computer to log-in, re-engage my credit card (to pay dues) and head to the reservation site all of the 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. workout slots for next week were already filled up. But there was still more than enough space for an anxious-to-get-back to the water swimmer in the SIX a.m. to SEVEN a.m. slots. I can handle that. I did it all through high school and college...

The biggest advantage for us is that we're a private, members only swim club so we don't have to worry about accommodating walk-ins or drop-bys. 

We're scheduled to start next Tuesday but I'm already cleaning my goggles and checking my gear. This will take so much of the sting out of the shutdown for me. I can hardly wait. I would have traded a camera system just for the chance to swim through the Summer. Now all is not lost! Some sanity has returned to my universe. Pure, soaking, hyper-gratitude over here. 

I've got four days booked for workouts through the next week and I couldn't be happier. It's like getting a free Leica M10 in the mail. 

Now I can back off of all that stupid running. Whoever thought that running was a real exercise? (again, sarcasm alert!!! I do understand and appreciate that running is good exercise). 

Tuesday. May 19th. 6 a.m. Target. 

5.14.2020

Inconsequential news of a product failure. Or perhaps just a failure of quality control...

full frame file from an fz1000 ii. 

Same. Central area magnified.

You start out using a camera one way and enjoy it but then you use it another way and uncover a fatal flaw. At least that's how I progress through onboarding a new camera. 

About a week and a half ago I splashed out some cash and bought a brand new, sealed in the box, Panasonic fz1000 ii. I bought it from a USA official dealer with a pretty flawless track record. I set up the camera for the way I usually like to use these bridge cameras and fine-tuned the menu items with my idiosyncratic methodologies in mind. For the last week I've been using it while on walks around Austin and have stayed in a fairly narrow and easy use window by mostly setting the aperture near its widest setting or no smaller than f5.6.

I've been happy with performance of the camera and found it was capable of creating very sharp and nicely colored files. All in all, a good performer and a nice camera to take out when you want to be ready for just about anything. With a 25mm to 400mm zoom on the front it's a camera that can deliver results in just about any situation. It's at its best in strong light and that's how I was using it today. 

I was standing on the pedestrian bridge that joins north and south Austin, shooting an image of the city skyline, when I decided to stop down a bit more to get sharpness across a deeper section of the photograph; I wanted to make sure the paddle board riders close to me and the bridges further away were in sharp focus. For grins I stopped down to f11 and shot a few frames but when I did so I noticed a mustache shaped blur object at the top of the frame. Uh oh. 

I tried the same shot at f8.0 and the blur object remained. Now, this is where I'd take a conventional, interchangeable lens camera home to blow the dust off the sensor. Worst case scenario I might even do a wet cleaning... but this camera does NOT come with an interchangeable lens; it's a sealed system, so I looked through the menu to see if I'd missed a menu function for sensor cleaning. NOPE. It's not an option. 

So, here I am with a week and a half old camera that's never been subject to sand storms, leaf blowers, desert winds, the sea shore or work in an industrial setting and it's got a honking big piece of crude on the sensor. 

I came home and looked at the file writ large on the screen of my 5K monitor and noticed that the mustache artifact was not lonely but was accompanied by smaller dust bunnies. (See bottom left of the magnified frame, and also, just above the left side of the "mustache). 

Say what you will about intuition but there must have been some reason why I saved the original box and all of the packaging when my usual inclination is to dump out all the manuals, warranty cards and boxes into the recycling. In this instance (perhaps the lethargy of the moment) I'd tossed the whole package that constituted the packing and materials into my closet next to the spent cores from our experimental nuclear reactor. Just above the shelf with the souvenirs from Area 51. 

With a warning call to my sales associate at our local bricks and mortar store I jumped into the VSL limousine (no, I do not literally have a limousine!) and headed up with the box, materials and flawed camera in hand. But not before taking a moment to print out an 8.5 by 11 inch print with which to demonstrate the inadequacies of my particular unit. 

Without a murmur of push back my sales person asked me how I'd like to handle the unfortunate situation. Would I like to trade the camera for a different, new and boxed unit? No, I decided, I'd rather just get a refund to my credit card and soldier on with one less camera in my inventory. The whole transaction was amicable and as smooth as teflon. 

This marks my second mishap with a Panasonic Lumix camera this year. I'm not at all enthused. But, considering all the really crappy things happening in the world now this falls below the line of even caring. 

I'll miss the camera's long reach and easy wide angle but I won't miss the unwanted clutter in the final files. A bit more Q.C. might help cement Panasonic's reputation for the better. Just a thought. 

Kudos for the prompt and effective response on the part of my favorite "bricks and mortar" camera store, Precision Camera. Nice to be able to manage things face mask to face mask.

I came home and watched the news. That put the camera imbroglio into perspective...

What will the profession of photography look like in a year? Or Two? Pretty sure it won't look like it did before but will the photos have changed or will the way we look at them have changed?

"Hairspray" Zach Theatre.

I was looking through a folder of my own images this morning and I found myself wondering how my photography will change next year or the year after when we emerge from the pandemic and the new financial depression. Will there still be a theater in which to make images? Will there still be plays and musicals? And will people still want to drop by and have their portrait taken? Will I have lost the skills I've spent decades working on? Will my isolation slowly rob me of my glib repartee and make my social skills slow and clumsy? Will I have lost a pivotal time frame in which I might have done my best work? Will I be consigned to the concept of yesterday's photographers?

These are the things I think about when I wake up in the middle of the night, with unspecified anxiety and then lay awake until I've decided that the time has come to get up and start the routine of my daily suspension from art over again. At least I still look forward to that first cup of coffee...

When the smoke clears and people walk back out of their shelters will there still be a demand for photographs or will more practical and immediate needs wipe away any residual appreciation for the graphic arts? 

I fear for physical galleries and museum spaces. I think the former won't come back for quite a while and the later will be diminished. I think the shift from photography to video will accelerate while also pushing down incomes and moving us further away from the idea that intellectual property has value.

We'll all be a little sadder if we lose some of the legendary camera makers that we grew up with. Product introductions will slow down and the tools and selection of tools will become a bit more constrained and limited. 

Will models and talent agencies exist anymore? Maybe only in the biggest markets like Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas. Will NYC even be a player in the creative spaces going forward? Will compacted living become an impediment to attracting talent anymore or will people seek to live in less expensive and more diffuse communities? 

Maybe a year or two of not being able to go out and shoot exactly what we've always wanted to shoot will cause us, collectively, to lose interest in photography as a hobby and passion and by extension losing the most affluent part of the camera market will be the final nail in the coffin for camera sales and  finally make iPhone photography the dominate channel for all kinds of imaging. 

I think most of us reading here are at an age and a demographic segment where our worries are more likely focused on losing our relevance to our local culture more than they are about want and deprivation. We can count ourselves lucky to have nice roofs over our heads and well stocked pantries. But every generation is and will suffer through this shut down of normalcy in some way that is pernicious to each bracket.

The millennials will have an unexpected gut punch to their ability to get good jobs. The generation X folks will have taken two steps backwards in funding those college accounts for their kids and saving for retirement, and even the kids still in primary schools will be scarred by the sudden shifts of parenting and education. The burdens will fall (as they always do) most harshly on those with the least income and wealth and the affects of the upheavals will be less burdensome for the wealthy. 

I understand all this and there is little I can do to ameliorate the chaos for anyone, but I can understand what the chaos feels like for me and it most immediately feels like so much loss potential and lost opportunity. Both as a working photographer and as an "artist." I am almost certain that 2020 will be a lost year for work. We're coming up on the half way point of the year and there are no signs of recovery for our businesses. And no opportunities to make the kinds of photographs that I love. The foundational ones that make the rest of photography seem fun and fulfilling. 

I feel like one of the Olympic athletes who trained for years and years only to have the games postponed. Having peaked too early. And, the possibility that when everything resumes it will be somehow too late.

We're lucky, sure. We only had travel plans and personal projects disrupted. Our social security contributions will be lower this year and that will drive down future income. But we haven't lost people close to us to the disease and we're doing fine. It seems selfish to write this but the only truth is in writing what you know. Trying to explain what you feel.

I head outside with a camera every day. My goal is to find one good photograph every day. Sometimes I get it and sometimes I fail but I'm committed to keep my hands in the process; my mind in the game. 

Today I selected images that I like, that were fun to make and fun for me to look at. I chose them to bolster my own spirits and to help renew my hope that we'll all get to go back to whatever work we loved as soon as it's possible. At 64.5 I've learned that I only get to do this whole process of life once and every lost year is irreplaceable and something to be mourned, at least in passing. 

Intellectually, I know this is so much harder for people everywhere. But if we don't talk about the way it affects us personally we're pushing down real feelings that will surface less elegantly later. 

It helps to have friends. I had coffee with a great friend today. He's just ahead of me on the life experience scale and he's a great mentor. Every connection helps. Just a quick "thank you!" to Frank. Much appreciated.

photographing big, fun set up shots for 
Zach Theatre's marketing and advertising.
Wearing short pants and sandals.

Michelle's beautiful smile.



this is now a documentation of the past. 
The Chair has been recovered and is now looking 
modern and snappy. I miss the wrinkled and the padding 
that had been compressed far too often for far too long.



checking on the reservation status of state parks in West Texas.
Ready to go back to Ft. Davis State Park and watch the stars in
a dark and dramatic sky while camping a bit rough.

The last time I was in Mexico was two years ago.
We photographed an industrial plant. It was hot, loud, 
humid and fun. 


the Kirov Ballet at the Mariensky Theater in St. Petersburg.
The view from the Czar's box. Was this performance
"the Firebird"? I think so....

Up to Saratoga Springs to see Ben graduate from college and to see 
Fred for coffee at Common Grounds. 




Noellia at the Barton Springs Spillway.

a model getting ready to hit the catwalk at a show in South Beach, Miami.

Boston. Dress shop.

Austin. Dress shop.

Ben at Asti Trattoria. Austin


A still life shot on stage. During a rehearsal for "Million Dollar Quartet." 
@Zach Theatre.


Ben. Looking earnest.


South Korean Photographer at lunch in a Chinese restaurant in Berlin.

My dining room with a model blocking the view. 
Made potentially for a book cover.

A pause while getting make up done for a photo workshop I taught.




At the Spa.

In the old studio.

the end of the road? Or, another beginning?

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.