VSL reaches another (smallish) milestone. We've enjoyed 27,000,000 direct page views here at the blog.
That's the tally from 4,761 published blog posts (plus any that I tossed away over the years for irrelevance or spite) and well over 50,000 comments from readers all over the world. It's been a lot of fun and kept my mind busy and my hands less idle during times of international financial collapse, the pandemic, personal family tragedies, and all kinds of anxiety producing mini-disasters.
Finally got around to diving into the Panasonic/Lumix S1R firmware update and assessing the new features. Some were surprising. Surprisingly great!
Here's a link to the video on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/492645355
You know how you can sometimes get really busy with lots of pressing details and you've upgraded something, made sure it still works, and then moved right back to getting your ongoing and not-related details sorted out? Well, that's where I was with the S1R. I did the firmware updates for all three of the S1x models and then turned my attention right back to finishing up jobs and doing year end taxes. I shot a few still frames on the S1R, determined that it still made nice photographs and then put it back in the drawer where it normally lives.
This morning though I stumbled across a video that outlined the differences in feature sets between all the full frame, Panasonic S series cameras and it immediately became apparent that I had not spent enough time understanding and testing all the goodies that were bestowed on the S1R at the time.
The video above is about 15 minutes long and might bore the socks off you. On the other hand it's a sample of what you might expect to get out of your S1R in terms of how well it focuses on me throughout the video, how much detail is retained in the files and, the charming image quality of the video.
I don't want to cover every upgrade to the camera because only a small subset of you own that camera model but I do want to call out a couple of major, and newly acquired, feature improvements.
Or, you can sit back and watch me ramble on in the video. But if you are looking to make visual quality judgements I'd suggest you click on the link above to Vimeo and watch it there after selecting the largest available size.
Focusing: I've always found the Panasonic S1 cameras to be very fast to focus but that's probably because of the way I use them. I'm fond of single AF and equally fond of selecting a single focal point or square to use. If you use continuous focusing with back button manouvering your experiences in the past will no doubt be different than mine.
But what people complained about 90% of the time was the just average performance of continuous autofocus in video. That the cameras were slow to lock on and had a tendency, in non-optimal situations, to hunt or pulse. Panasonic true believers hemmed and hawed and talked about how "real" cinematographers only used manual focusing lenses anyway. Well, even I know that a whole new generation of film makers are thrilled to use continuous AF for their projects. One of my best friends made that a primary consideration when recently upgrading his gear from a Sony FS7.
After the firmware update I believe that the S1x cameras have become much more competitive with their C-AF focusing. But instead of taking my work for it just go look at the video I posted. There's no "pulsing" between the foreground subject and the cluttered background. None that I can see, anyway. And the camera goes from out-of-focus to nicely in-focus smoothly and without any obvious over-shoot and re-focusing. I thought the results were confidence inspiring and will consider using C-AF for on-camera interviews, going forward.
So, that's the first big feature set, which I approve of, but I will add a caveat. Many users are experiencing some interference in focusing performance when working under flickering, non-continuous light sources. Mainly fluorescent lights and cheap LEDs. These conditions make focusing much slower and sometimes inhibit focusing altogether. Yikes.
I haven't experienced this but enough people have written about this that I felt duty bound to report it.
5K video: For me this is the biggest improvement. Right out of the box the S1R had the poorest selection of available file options for video. You didn't have the choice of selecting .Mov. You could only work in M4p. There were also no options for 10 bit color depth and nothing beyond 4:2:0. Still, the files coming out of the camera in 4K looked good. It's just that the paucity of higher data rate files reinforced the idea that the camera was more squarely aimed at photographers and that most everything else about the camera was merely a polite nod to hybrid users--- and Panasonic's camera heritage.
The update delivered a new choice. Now you can shoot in 5K and you can do so with 10 bit color at a data rate of 200 Mbs. The camera delivers tons of detail but it does so in an odd aspect ratio. The native 5K files at 30p or 24p are 4992 pixels by 3744 pixels. It's a much more square-ish format than we normally expect to see out of a consumer video camera. But it works. Go look.
The 5K files are only available as .Mov files and that's fine. The increased bit depth and higher overall resolution mean that your final video, exported as 4K or 1080p is going to look great. Really great.
If you want to stick to 4K the S1R has some interesting new advantages there as well. You'll be shooting in M4p but if you want to shoot at 60p you'll find that instead of mandating an APS-C crop as is required by nearly every 24 megapixel camera shooting with current Sony full frame sensors (not fast enough read speed to write our the full width of the frame!!!) you'll have only a 1.1 X crop with the S1R at 60p. And that's almost no crop at all. You'll get the nearly full advantage of the format all the way up to 60p and that's while writing to an internal memory card.
There's also a bonus level. Go into the HDMI menu and you can choose to write to the camera at 8 bits or to an external recorder at 60p, 10 bit, 4:2:2. And you still get almost the full width of the sensor there too. If you take the clean signal out with the HDMI and write the files at ProRes 422 you'll also get the advantage of an ALL-I codec. Suddenly the S1R goes from a good video tool to a great one.
The final bonus of using the external recorder is that you lose the 20 minute, 4K time limit. The system will run as long as the camera battery and memory card are able. Pretty sweet!
And while you are in the video mode you can also set the camera to show shutter angle instead of shutter speeds. It's a quicker way to work and helps assure that you are in the right setting for good, clean, jitter free video. Sorry, no wave forms...no vector scope...
With the update the cameras shares an exclusive feature with the S1H (which I actually consider to be the system flagship). If you use the XLR audio adapter from Panasonic the new firmware unlocks "High Res" audio. You can record your audio at a much higher sampling rate which should improve the sound and decrease noise in the files. Go ahead and listen to the sample I created and see what you think. It's not available on the S1 or the S5...
I'm very impressed that Panasonic took a camera I already liked a lot and made it even more valuable to me. Like all the S1x cameras the S1R has a full sized HDMI which makes me want to connect it to my Atomos recorder along with headphone and microphone jacks on the body. I'm very happy right now. If you just updated your S1R you're probably also happy. Ah, happiness. Fleeting but tasty while here.
So, that's what I experimented with today. Thanks for all the comments on yesterday's post. Seems like many of you have found great ways to work around the pandemic. Gave me hope and a smile when I read the comments.
Video notes: The video I embedded and linked to was created in a small corner of my office. Everything you see is unedited, not color graded, not corrected for exposure or tonality. It was recorded directly into the camera so it's 5K, 10 bit, 4:2:0. The audio is 96kHz. I shot at f2.8 and 2/3rds of a stop with a Sigma 45mm f2.8 L-mount lens. The scene was lit with a single 500 watt tungsten light in a Lowell Tota-Light fixture.
So, both the audio and the video are absolutely STRAIGHT OUT OF CAMERA. No monkey business. No LUTs and no Log files. Nice to see the camera delivers so well with so little intervention.
Next time I'll try to find a more glamorous on camera model. This one was definitely not cute enough.
I'm sure everyone has been paying attention to advances in field audio recorders so I'm guessing this post is redundant. But here goes.
But let me back up for a second and set the stage. When you leave a completely treated sound studio and venture out into the real world to make videos or movies you are leaving a "safe zone" and heading into a real world filled with background noise, distracting noises and random noises. You try your best to ameliorate as much audible clutter as you can by using the right microphone types, putting up sound absorbing blankets and turning off as many noise making appliances as you possible can. And you lift your headphones off one ear and say, "quiet on the set" whenever you can. That's the nature of location recording.
If you are not only the sound man but also the camera operator, director and all around only crew member then you've got your hands full.
The biggest issues, after the various controllable noises are taken care of, when recording live sound along with video, are the noise floor of your audio gear and the treacherous thing we call, "clipping." Clipping in audio is a lot like blowing the highlights in a photograph. If you record sounds and all of a sudden an actor or subject gets very loud a traditional recorder will clip hard and introduce a lot of distortion into you audio that's very hard to deal with in post. You can use "limiters" to pull back the audio but it's not the most effective solution.
At the other end of the spectrum you might have set your levels for a good level while doing your tests but then, in the heat of an interview, the speaker either moves away from your mic or starts speaking so softly that the signal barely registers on your recorder's meters. If your only job is audio it's pretty straight forward to ride the level controls but if your head is in the "visual" and "content" spaces you'll likely overlook the audio spikes and dark holes that will certainly vex you when you sit down to cut your project together.
Along comes "32 bit float." While nearly every production recorder writes 24 bit audio files the newest generation can write 32 bit files. There's a lot more information and the files are much larger but the wonderful thing is that you don't even need to set levels. You can bring up the quietest passages and you won't get the ever higher noise floor you would with a regular 24 bit file. You can scream at the microphone and as long as your microphone doesn't overload you won't clip the recorded audio. That's so cool. You can let Tom Cruise scream at you and record every tender nuance without distortion. You'll just need to adjust the levels in post.
The first device I heard about that offered this was a Zoom F6 and the reviews on it were pretty good. Some have mentioned that the audio pre-amps aren't particularly good sounding and that may be so but it sometimes feels (analogy) like people talking about a lens not having that Leica look. The F6 was cool in concept and I guess it's serving its purpose for some users but many were hoping that Sound Devices would come out with an affordable version because people really, really like that company's quiet and clean Kashmir pre-amps. And the way they design their limiters. The limiters have a nice roll off instead of an instant clamping modality. But, of course, you won't need to use limiters with 32 bit float. It's kinda built in.
Sound Devices launched an updated model of their original Mix-Pre3 audio recorder and, voila! it features the magical 32 bit float. And the Kashmir pre-amps. And you can use it as a high end audio interface for web casts.
The Mix-Pre3 is set up for professional use and takes three XLR inputs. It will do simultaneous writes on the internal SD card as well as a USB Thumb drive which gives you a back-up of your audio recordings. It can read or write time code and can be powered by double A batteries, an A/C adapter, a power bank via USB-C. Most reviewers are suggesting either the power bank option or an adapter for the battery tray that allows use with Sony NP batteries because the unit does suck down power.
This machine provides the audio equivalent of a digital camera raw files that never runs out of highlights and has no noise in the shadows. I'm putting this on my Amazon wish list for myself. It'll be right there next to that set of Leica cinema lenses. If you buy the five lenses together the package is just a bit shy of $100,000.
The Sound Devices Mix-Pre3-ii is much more affordable at around $800.
But the real story is the 32 bit float. And it is also available on a small, single channel device from a company called, Tentacle. It's a self contained recorder with a supplied lavaliere microphone that's meant to be used in place of a wireless mic set. Just turn on the unit, pop the small box into your subject's pocket, clip the mic onto them and go. You get to set the levels after the fact and it's easier than ever to sync up the audio to your video. That system is a bit less than $400. But you'll need one for each actors or interviewee.
I can't wait to try out the Mix-Pre3ii. Seems just right for a one man video band.
Okay. That's it for today.
I'll admit to feeling a bit lost this year. I've always used a framework of commercial engagements as the glue that strings together the fun stuff and the gear lust. Having descended from the puritans I have an aversion to spending money I can neither deduct or depreciate and l've also lost my rationalization that the paid work will pay for the leisure time photo dalliances. So I'm trying to mentally re-group and re-imagine doing stuff just because it's fun and just because I can.
I have in mind to make a series of small, black and white movies with my current gear. When I say movies I mean little, five minute to ten minute long pieces that are narrative in nature; not interviews or travel showcases. The problem, of course, is not really being able to use actors as I'd like and also not having access to locations that I used to take for granted.
Fortunately or unfortunately I've come to realize that unlike walking around with a nice camera and taking photographs of stuff that looks interesting or pretty does not work when it comes to making really interesting projects that need to hold an audience's attention for more than 30 seconds.
I say, "unfortunately" because this requires me to actually do work in advance of shooting. I guess it falls under pre-pre-production. The hard part being the need to think up the story, then write the script, and then do the storyboards. Everything else flows from those steps. But this means hunkering down and doing work for weeks instead of getting the immediate gratification of snap-shooting.
It's fortunate in that I have the time, and the country has the time, for more considered thought projects. There's not any pressure to construct and fulfill tight deadlines. There's no one looking over my shoulder trying to hurry me along or pick away at my budgets.
Having written a number of books I know the only way to make a good project, as opposed to a good shot, is to plan, write stuff out, walk through ideas and blocking, and to make well thought through shot lists. It's so different from my usual work which has always been loosely planned and subject to changes on the fly.
Anyway, short films. Fun to watch. That's my current hobby project.
But I am curious what are you doing to stay active as a photographer? Have you found projects that are engaging even if they are different from your usual beat? I'm assuming that many portrait and people photographers are quickly discovering landscapes. I've tried it but my heart just isn't in it...
Would love to hear how you've changed your focus (ha. ha.) to adapt to whatever restrictions you are under in your area!
And a quick note to all of you being inundated by snow and wild weather: Stay safe and stay warm.
How's that 12mm Meike Cinema lens treating me? Pretty well. There's some barrel distortion and some fun flares but...
One of my two favorite lenses from 2020. The Sigma 56mm f1.4. Too tight for a lot of work. Just right for me.
We are currently in an unprecedented building boom. It's not confined to downtown; I see it happening all over the city. Downtown is becoming denser by the month but it's an odd contrast because everyone is working from home and most of these new buildings are class "A" office space. Not residential towers.
So, the streets are nearly vacant, the restaurants are mostly closed down and there's little of the hum that used to accompany downtown living.
While many are predicting that office life won't necessarily return I believe that face to face contact is essential, in the long run, for human health and cooperation. With all the big businesses moving relentlessly to Austin I imagine filling the newly finished buildings will be the least of our teething issues.
The future, it seems, will be crowded. But at least I'll have the right lens to document some of the change.
Yeah, I shoot with Panasonic cameras right now but that doesn't mean I'm above looking at the lovely shades of green grass in the adjoining yards. There have been some interesting photo products gently pushed into the market this year and I'm going to list them here.
The Fuji X-100V. I'm starting with this one because I keep coming back to it, putting one in my shopping cart and then relenting and putting the money into the stock market instead. But you never know, long term the "fun-ness" return and "joy" factor of the X-100V might be more profitable. I can't understand why I'm reticent to actually push "return" and have one of these sent to me right away.
I absolutely hated the first X-100. It was bug ridden and super glitchy to use. Oh what a difference five successive iterations makes. The "V", introduced in the first quarter this year has much to recommend it. It gets into my cart so often because it reminds me (and probably everyone else) of all the old, film rangefinder cameras we've owned. It's gorgeous, and this iteration feels so much better in the hand than any of the previous models. It's actually comfortable to hold.
If I were a fan of the 35mm equivalent focal length I would have ripped open my wallet and grabbed for one by now but I guess that's the one thing that keeps holding me back. I've owned an XT-3 and have much respect for the 26 megapixel sensor both cameras share. I love the film emulations and used the Acros B+W often while ambling around with a rather corpulent collection of Fuji cameras and lenses.
I thought about this camera once again after spending an afternoon walking around town with a Lumix S1H and the 50mm S-Pro lens. The Fuji probably weighs less than half of what the Panasonic lens alone weighs. It would be the perfect walking around camera for someone. Me? I'd love one if I could get it with a 40mm or 45mm focal length lens on the front.
Also, every review I read or watch tells me that the video features and image quality are amazing. Still on the fence over here but very impressed by how far this camera has come. And how loyal a following it has amongst serious photographers.
The Sony A7Siii. So, my picky and hard to please videographer friend, James, has owned a bunch of cameras in his pursuit of the perfect run-and-gun solution. We both hammered through the previous Sony cameras only to be dispirited by their thin video codecs, short battery lives and their tendency to heat up like a waffle iron. We both live in central Texas and we really worry about the reliability of cameras when used in tough environmental conditions for about six month out of the year. James was making due with a Sony FS7 and a few lesser Sony cameras when the A7Siii hit the market. He was first in line to snag one.
This is the 12 megapixel, video oriented camera from Sony. Here's what James said he likes after using it on three or four day long assignments, under a mix of conditions: The color science is much improved and now is easy to grade. In fact, we were talking about it this morning and he said that if one uses the V-Log profile and then uses the paired Sony LUT in post processing he barely needs to touch the files before delivery to clients. This is big for him since he struggled to get reliable performance out of his previous cameras.
The next thing he values is what he considers to be the best video AF on the market. Better than all the rest. I watched some footage he shot and I can't argue with him. The camera locks on, doesn't pulse and doesn't ever decide, mid-take, that it's time to randomly focus on the background instead.
Battery life is improved and the camera also seems to have the temperature tempest under control. But the biggest improvement in our minds is the updated and much higher data rate enabled set of codecs. Hello to the first Sony A7 series camera to offer 10 bit and 4:2:2 in camera. The files are much improved because of these particular updates.
For all these reasons I suggest that the A7S-iii should be considered one of the gems to hit the marketplace this year. If you do video. A lot of video, and you want to stay in the under $5,000, hybrid camera space this and the S1H own that geography. A lot will depend on whether you are already a Sony user and have lots of E mount lenses. If so, it's a no brainer.
Panasonic S1H. Introduced back in February this year this is the camera I didn't think I really needed since I had multiple copies of the S1 and S1R but, after a big video project that could have benefitted from many of this camera's features, I found myself trading around a few of the duplicates and picking one up. They aren't cheap and many people will tell you that the newer S5 can do just about anything the S1H can do but none of that matters to me. The EVF difference alone would keep me in the S1 series camp...
The S1H rips $4,000 right out of your net worth and rewards you with a big, heavy, bulky camera body. But...the files out of this camera, for regular photography, are better than what I've gotten from either the S1R or the S1 and that's big because they are two of the best performing, full frame, mirrorless cameras out there. I seem to remember that the S1R is one of the very few cameras tested by DXO Mark to get a 100 score. So, to have a newer camera hit the market and deliver (at least to me) cleaner, more accurate and more transparent image files is huge. A few months after I bought the camera it got a firmware update that gave it ProRes Raw files at 5.6K when coupled with an Atomos Ninja V. The ramifications in the world of narrative video are pretty amazing, and this was after Netflix already gave its stamp of approval to the camera as a top quality production camera. As far as I know it's the only mirrorless out there to have been bestowed with this blessing.
I've been shooting a fair amount of video lately and while nearly every 4K capable camera I've played with is competitive enough to make it on to the field the S1H is consistently my favorite for color, detail and feature set.
But here's the surprising thing, after really digging down into the Raw and Jpeg files and comparing them with my other S1 cameras and cameras from previous systems I think I would put up with the size and weight even if my interest was only making photographs. The images are that good.
If you've been interested in a good production camera and have heard the siren call of the L mount alliance I would point you to this camera but with the proviso that it's ungainly and requires your commitment to dragging around the most weight of any camera in its class. But damn! If making convincingly good images is your priority then this should be at or near the top of your list. I'm actually tempted to dump the other two S1cameras and get a second S1H to complement the first. From three down to two. What a concept.
The last camera I'll mention is The Fuji XT-4. Allow me to hit the basics. It's as good (or better) an imager as the XT-3 was and uses, I think, the same really, really good sensor but it's been vastly improved with the addition of in-body image stabilization and a bigger, healthier battery. That's the real news. I liked shooting with the XT-3 but many of my favorite lenses weren't stabilized and I missed that. While nothing really competes with the stabilization of the top of the line Olympus cameras I'm happy to just have reasonably good stabilization. Especially if I'm using the Fujicrons.
The XT-3 was a good video camera but it had a few shortcomings. The biggest was that all internal files were 8 bit but the XT-4 fixes that with 10 bit in Log and a few other bonuses. You'll need a USB-C dongle to monitor video file audio on headphones but there is a mic input and the camera can also charge and run off USB-C external battery bricks. Very useful for long programs. But you'll still bump your head on the recording limits in 4K. It'll run for 30 minutes; a step up from the XT-3's 20 minute limit.
This APS-C camera is still relatively small and light and now gets almost everything right for photographers. It would be a distant second choice for video-only, at least when compared to the S1H and the Sony A7S-iii listed above. But it's also still affordable. Well under $2,000.
I shot with the system for about a year and for the most part loved it. I just got side-tracked by video and moved on. If I never needed to shoot video I would probably have stayed put. Lot of nice lenses in the system...
And that brings me to lenses introduced this year.
The Sigma 85mm f1.4 DG DN ART ABCDEFGH.... There is a point at which, as a one man crew, a lens can be too big and heavy to work well in the field. I hit that point with the original 85mm Art lens which seemed to have weighed in at about 30 pounds and required its own rolling case to effectively transport. There were two reasons to own one; first, it was the sharpest of the 85's you could buy for any camera at the time and secondly, it was less than a third the price of its nearest competitor; the Zeiss Otus 85mm f1.4 (which is manual focus!).
If I was heading to a client's location and we were using the camera and lens on a tripod I could always justify bringing and using the original 85mm Art because it was so sharp, even when used wide open, and when I did use it wide open the out of focus look was wonderful.
Because of its weight it was almost completely unusable for vertical portraits on a tripod and if I had been required to carry it up the side of a mountain or through the streets of a busy city I would have given up altogether.
So it was against this bittersweet background that Sigma delivered, this year, their solution to the original's faults. The new version weigh in at half of the old one and it's also about half the size. It's now designed as a native mirrorless lens instead of being an adapted DSLR lens (which is probably why the original was so big and heavy). I rushed over to Precision Camera as soon as I became aware of the new lens's availability and without any hesitation traded in my old one plus too much cash and walked out with a new model.
It's everything I hoped for. It focuses quicker and with much less hunting, no matter which camera body I use it on. It's as sharp as my older lens and it's a pleasure to carry around. At $1100 it's about half the cost of lesser performing lenses from several of the most popular brands and I'm thrilled to have it in my camera bag/collection. A very nice final rendition. Now we can spend more time playing and less time trying to bulk up at the gym in order to drag the old one around. Available, I think, no matter which mirrorless system you are in fief to.
Sigma 56mm f1.4 Contemporary. This is a small lens that I almost overlooked entirely but one day I was playing with a used GH camera at a store counter and the sales clerk grabbed this lens off the shelf and put it on the camera. A glance through the finder and my interest was well piqued. What is it? Well, it's part of the much lauded Contemporary system of lenses. My three favorites from the line-up are the 16mm f1.4, the 30mm f1.4 and now this guy. The lenses are computed for smaller than full frame sensors and only available in mirrorless mounts so think: Sony, Fuji and M4;3 for right now. I'm sure they'll made Nikon mount versions if Nikon appears to be staying in business and I'm sure they'll make a Canon version once Canon finally decides on a lens mount.
The trio of lenses is perfect for my use on micro four thirds cameras with the lenses translating into 32mm, 60mm and 112mm. All are sharp enough to use wide open and, in some sort of inverse logic, the biggest one of the bunch is the 16mm followed by the 30mm and the 56mm is the smallest of the three. Honestly, it's bite size. But such bite.
My attraction to the lens is because it's so nicely sharp and optically well behaved even at f1.4. It also offers a great balance on any of the G or GH series Panasonic cameras. While it doesn't feature any image stabilization both the G, GH Panasonics and the Olympus high end cameras have such good IBIS it doesn't matter.
The price of the 56mm Contemporary is moderate but the performance, for smaller format cameras, is premium all the way. It's certainly one of my favorite new lenses this year.
I would also list the Sigma Contemporary primes that were just announced; the "i" series, but they aren't shipping in sufficient quantity to really consider them as available in 2020... (Hey Sigma: Let's get that 65mm f2.0 L mount shipped. Eh?).
Meike Cine Lenses. Various. Meike is a Chinese company that's making cinema lenses mostly for the micro four thirds and APS-C cameras right now, but I notice they've introduced a 50mm t2.1 cine lens for full frame that's actually affordable. Some day we'll play with one but for right now my attention is focused on the smaller format lenses.
These lenses are the descendants of a lens line introduced by a now defunct company called, Veydra. The promise of the Veydra lenses was very cool. Small(ish) manually focusing, geared lenses designed with long focus throws and great optics for smaller formats. The goal was to produce an entire set that all used the same filter diameter, had their geared (clickless) aperture rings and geared focusing rings in the same locations (easy to use follow focus gears, etc.), and designed with a consideration for minimizing focus breathing.
When Veydra collapsed Meike, who were the actual makers of the products, stepped in and stepped up. They improved the optical quality of the lens line and put an emphasis on quality control. And they enlarged the lens line up. Some of the lenses were introduced prior to 2020 but the new 85mm t2.2, the 65mm t2.2 and the 50mm t2.2 were brought to market in this year.
I took a chance on a used 25mm t2.2 I found at a camera store and, after using it on a project, also bought (new) the 12mm t2.2. Both are charming to use and have such a distinctive cine look about them. Right down to the focus and aperture markings residing on the sides instead of facing up as a photography lens would have them. Makes them resemble Zeiss Cine Primes.
The optical quality is really good and if I didn't already have a bucket full of options in the 50-60mm range I'd have already pushed "Buy This Now" for the 50mm and the 65mm. But for the moment I'm still wringing out all the potential of the ones I have. At $400 a whack they deliver for budding film makers without breaking the bank.
Sorry to make this so Sigma-Centric but... I have to give a nod to the Sigma 100-400 f5.6-6.3 DG DN OS. I've heard nothing but good news about this recent introduction. There's a whole cadre of photographers who are constantly looking for good long lenses and, for a while, that's been an empty spot in the catalogs of mirrorless camera makers. Even now the longest lens Panasonic makes for the L mount is the 70-200mm (available in two flavors) while the longer lenses for Sony cameras are also hard to come by. By all accounts Sigma has made a lens that's fairly fast focusing and also performs well optically. I've played with one a couple of times and if I were going to continue shooting stage shows from the back of the house this lens would be a great choice. I'd use it with the Panasonic S1R and put the S1R in the APS-C mode which would give me a 600mm equivalent reach but still at nearly 24 megapixels.
The one thing I disagree with Sigma about is the tripod mount. They sell a tripod mount separately instead of making it part of the package. I get that everyone doesn't want to work on a tripod or monopod but if you put it in the box as part of the product you ensure that users who need the tripod mount will be able to source one. The single thing that kept my from picking up this lens in the Fall was the situation in which I could buy the lens right now but the dealer would have to special order the tripod mount for me. The lens would be unusable for my application without the tripod mount and so the whole transaction was cancelled. Put the damn part in the box!
But that's a marketing issue. The lens itself is a bargain.....if you like shooting long.
My absolute favorite lens purchased this year? Easy. That would be the Sigma 45mm f2.8 for the L Mount. It's small, light a beautifully made. It's artsy and interesting at f2.8 and sharp as a tack from f4.0 onward. It's teaching me, once again, how to shoot with more thought to depth of field and to the value of having some stuff actually in good focus. I have two. I bought one with the Sigma as a kit and then I found one used for half price. I like the lens so much I thought I'd buy a back-up. I haven't regretted it.
That's all for this morning. I'm sure I typed this too quickly but sometimes the brain wants stuff out the door and on the page. Nothing has a link. Don't bother repetitively clicking on the bold type. Reason? These are the products I found to be interesting/intriguing/fun this year but your mileage will vary. Sometimes extremely. I guess I just want to start a conversation about what people enjoyed finding new this year. I'm alway interested.
time to walk with my family. back later to find the cap key.
The "All In" mentality can sometimes sabotage my core pursuits. Or...how many rabbit holes can you jump into at once?
People are all so different. I admire people who are able to make a long term plan and stick with it. I think I admire them mostly because I have such a hard time trudging down the same path day after day. And I tend to be obsessive about whatever new, bright shiny adventure presents itself.
When I first took up photography seriously I was drawn to the thrill of making black and white portraits of people I found interesting. If I'm honest with myself it's obvious that making art out of portraits has always been the constant undercurrent of my attraction and dedication to photography. But I let so many distractions interfere. And spent so many resources chasing them.
Take my recent plunge back into video. I started back in with some simple cameras and basic microphones and I thought everything looked pretty good coming out of cameras as basic quality .Mov files. No fancy bit depths and no extended color ranges. I worked with cameras like the Sony A7r-ii and a Sony RX10-3. My regular working methodology somewhat matched my still imaging routines. Ignore V-Log. Get the exposure and color right in camera and make sure everything is in focus. The work looked good and no big additional investments in gear or training seemed necessary.
I was mostly doing interviews and testimonials for a German healthcare company at the time and everyone was pretty happy with the edited results. Logic would have suggested that I just continue on doing the same thing and trying to get better at non-gear stuff like: the art of interviewing. tweaking lights for interviews. better audio techniques. trying more adventurous angles and shots. But being a gear nut I was drawn into shooting more and more stuff with two cameras simultaneously. And, as the projects proliferated I convinced myself that I needed two identical cameras so everything would match up in the edits.
After a spell with the two Sony cameras my research "convinced me" that I couldn't like the video files coming from the Sony consumer cameras because, unlike all my video friends' cameras, these weren't 10 bit and didn't write files in 4:2:2. Eventually I found myself deep into the Panasonic systems.
This year, instead of pulling back and enjoying enforced time off from spending and wheel spinning, I bite off the production of more video projects for the theater and other clients. After our big project near the end of the summer I was asked to shoot video of the theater's outdoor concert series. And here starts the big disconnection from logic/purpose and intention and a plunge down the rabbit hole with a little push from my own ego.
I should have declined the offer to shoot the videos because that kind of work is more rote documentation and isn't really creative. It's more like tossing equipment at something visually mediocre to try, through heroic angle changes and editing, to pull out something people might want to pay to stream and watch for an hour. The constraints were many.
The music and voices of the artists were all great but there wasn't much visual interest. No stage decor. Minimal lighting. No costume changes. Not much to work with, visually. But the projects tweaked my ego and also pushed me into the boring realm of technically mundane problem solving.
I convinced myself that in order to do this right I'd need a follow camera with a long lens and then I'd need two or three other camera angles on the fixed stage so the editor would have more cutting options. I tried certain cameras and decided they weren't exactly what I needed so I bought more cameras. The cameras worked well but I decided I could use also use different lenses to better effect. In essence I was brutally over-engineering each project and, given the tiny stipend attached, ended up "losing" $500 to $1,000 per show.
In a depressing moment of shocking Satori I realized that I had, in that moment, strayed completely from my core mission. forsaking my real love in the arts and replacing my passion with a misguided pride in my technical problem solving. I could rationalize that I was "helping" out the theater but at a certain lower level of production the role I was filling wasn't anything any other technician could not do just as well. And I'd been an active participant in my own "straying from the course" for decades...
Now, don't get me wrong. If you are mid-career and you need money to keep the lights on and the wolves from the door then the ability to solve problems and accept bigger and bigger, or more complex projects can be a real plus. Financially. It gives you more products to offer your clients. But the day you find yourself sitting in the office charging batteries for six cameras, loading each camera with V90 SD cards and putting cinema lenses on your designated stationary cameras, all in order to film a quickly produced, three person singing experience for little more than coffee money you will, hopefully, have the sudden realization that you've lost the thread. You've moved away from making art to doing "blue collar" grunt video and you were driven to it by your "need" to step in and show off your technical proficiency. The need to keep your ego fed.
After getting five of these projects in the can I thought I was finished. Then the theater wanted just one more. I declined. And the next day, when I went into my office and saw all the cameras, lenses and peripheral junk I'd quickly amassed to do multi-camera video shoots I was embarrassed at my own lack of guard rails. And a bit shamed by my squandering of time and resources I could have better put into service doing the real work I know is my core passion = portraits. In black and white.
It's the ultimate destructive extension of the idea that gear matters. If one camera angle is good then four different angles must be so much better. But at some point you have to either give in entirely to the idea that it's all just a job or stop and reconsider where you true love lies.
In retrospect I should have considered the year 2020, from March until now, to be an opportunity to break from my compulsion to freely accept any and all commercial work. Only now, in mid-December have I come to grips with the spinning rims of non-intention. Only just starting to separate need from want.
One of my friends who knows me better than I know myself suggested to me that I might stop and meditate and really consider what I want to do with the time I have left on this mortal coil. Did I want to work like an itinerate pot mender and go from job to job doing an endless repeat of basic and un-inspired projects or would I be better served by stepping back from having to constantly prove my technical worth and taking stock of the very core activities that I would truly enjoy? Could I go back to the beginning and experience that joyful feeling of making beautiful images?
The act of meditation, as I understand it, is an attempt to quiet all the little voices in one's mind and to concentrate on your own truth. After having retreated from "work" projects at the beginning of the month I've had time to reflect on this. Like a glass with muddy water you have to wait until all the debris settles before you can see through clear water. In effect, not having deadlines and responsibilities for projects that are busy work has given me a bit of clarity.
So much of the office/studio is still filled with stuff for "just in case." What if I have a job that requires we shoot against a white, full length background? Oh, that's what those six lights in that case and the long roll of white seamless paper are for.... What if I need to shoot macro photos of semi-conductor dies? (something I haven't done in over a decade...) well, that's what the big macro rig with rails and stuff is for. And the video slider, and the three gimbals, and the eight shotgun microphones (each new one being just a little better than the last one), and what about those fifteen, big light stands? And those five soft boxes (now with front panels in various strengths of yellowing)?
Even the compulsion to keep an inventory of every focal length lens I might ever need for any commercial job when, in fact, my real passion in photography requires maybe three lenses at most. I have a 20mm; I've used it twice in a year. I have a 50mm, I use it every day.
All of these things take up space and, more importantly, mindshare.
They are a result of the "compound interest" of our shared beliefs in our industry, carried over from the last century, that we need to be ready to handle anything at any time. From architecture to food shots. From portraits to landscapes to microscopic processes. And the point of pride was that being ever-ready we could handle anything. Even if we didn't like a particular process and were only doing it for the financial rewards. But being able to and wanting to are vastly different things in the current age. And at my current age.
I shudder to think I will end up years from now surrounded by mountains of gear but unfulfilled in my basic, personal mission.
Cameras and gear are an addictive trap. They also function as an ill-fitting life jacket for your self-esteem. A hopeful antidote for your imposter syndrome. Haunted by the thought that you might just be a mediocre image-maker but you'll be able to fake your way through as long as you have the best support gear you can buy.
When I get introspective I sometimes think I'm being unrealistic and that having this wide tool box of stuff is really important. At that point I usually think back to two people who each rented my studio back in the 1990s, for one day projects. Both were from Dallas and both were working on big campaigns for agencies here in Austin. One studio renter was a guy who specialized in photographing beverages. More specifically, beer bottles or beer cans with just the right amount of condensation and sparkle. I expected he would arrive with an entourage and tons of gear. He brought two lights, one ratty and yellowed umbrella and one well used wooden view camera with two lenses. He worked alone. He was methodical and self-assured. He called his client when he had a perfect Polaroid and the client came over mostly to sign off on the Polaroid.
The photographer let me look at the Polaroid and I was a bit surprised and very impressed with just how good the final photograph was. After the client approved the shot and left the studio the photographer worked on a few different angles, just for himself. Then I helped him take down his set and pack up. There was no camera clutter and no mental clutter about his work. Just the work. I had the sense that he could do amazing work with a cheap camera and a work light. The gear was just a clean window into his vision of the project.
The second photographer to rent my space and teach me a lesson that I apparently, quickly forgot, was a former student of mine from UT. She'd gone off to Dallas which, at the time, was the center of all cool advertising production in Texas. She had apprenticed with two different photographers: one a fashion photographer and the other a catalog photographer. By the time she showed up in Austin she'd been a regular shooter for the Neiman Marcus catalogs and also shot for two, big cosmetics companies. She was in town to photography The Budweiser Girls. An image of three beautiful girls in white swim suits lying on a big pile of sand (our studio beach?).
She rented her lighting from one of the neighboring photographers and her assistants set up a simple but very effective lighting design. My former student brought only her camera stuff with her. It consisted of one older Hasselblad film camera, a 150mm lens that looked as though people had put out their cigarettes on the front element, an ancient but still working 80mm lens and a Polaroid back.
She made some adjustments to the lighting, climbed a tall ladder and shot the image of the models hanging out on the beach. The shot would become part of a national ad campaign. There was not angsty indecision about what she would shoot with or how she would proceed. It was so clear to her.
The process was quick and efficient. She was also having fun. And, in the process, billing in a day what I might have billed back then in a week, or even a month. But she had a mental clarity about her work and she didn't stray from her vision and her purpose. Again, her gear was absolutely secondary to her vision.
This month off is helping me achieve a modicum of clarity. I no longer need to be a "jack of all trades" and I no longer need to be equipped with every permutation of camera and light necessary to shoot....everything.
I just wish I had been paying attention a bit earlier. That's all.
I wish there was a way to hold a big garage sale and make most of the stuff in my space disappear. But managing that seems equally odious. But I'm consolidating and I hope to get back to my earliest passion. Taking beautiful black and white photographs of most interesting people. Taken in a style that I like and not because a client has requested/demanded that it be that way.
It's hard to do. We've all (in the USA) been raised in such a mercantile culture. We are so quick to assign monetary values and class status values to everything we do and everything we own. It's a tough paradigm to move on from.
My presumption was always that moving on from the work that put food on the table to a "golden period" in which I could kick back and do my own stuff would be easy. But it's not. In some regards it's the routine stuff that gives one's life structure. Take away the work and you take away the structure. The money becomes immaterial but the awkward transition to adventurous leisure and rewarding self-assignment has its own discomforts.
How do you do it?