2.21.2021

I rarely have nostalgia for a camera or lens that's gone but I always have nostalgia for a time, opportunity or era that's slipped away.

 

Olympus EPL-2 + 40-150mm kit lens.

I think a lot of my personal practice of churning through gear is a manifestation of my sadness and frustration, lately, at the way I used to do things is dissolving under the grind of a pandemic and also the worsening economic conditions of so many.  

The pandemic has forced us to don on masks that cover faces (and smiles) while social distancing retards the process of finding and working with new talent. But more than that; there's been an emotional change in people that's minimizing their flexibility and proclivity to go outside their basic daily routines. It's a survival instinct of sorts. As people lose jobs they have to concentrate on getting new jobs or interim work to make ends meet. Even people who've kept their jobs are having to channel more and more of their free time into making new processes and responsibilities work in the new, online workplace. When you add in the responsibility for taking care of children throughout the day while trying to do everything else it's little wonder that most no longer have the bandwidth to be a willing participant in someone else's ego projects. 

In Travis County, where I live infection rates of Covid-19 are still very high. It just feels wrong to ask friends or acquaintances to drop over and sit in a small studio for a while to be photographed. It also feels wrong to ask them to take off their faces masks for the process. If my rate of photographing people was falling off before then the pandemic of the last year pushed the number of fun portrait engagements off the edge of a very high cliff. 

When we face this kind of extraordinary downtime from our projects I think I tend to get into neurotic patterns of over preparing for future opportunities. To translate a bit: If an S1R is a great, square format portrait camera would it be possible that an SL2 would be even better?

I know, intellectually and rationally, that there's no reason under the (dark and cold) sun for me to go out and spend more money on gear since it's equipment that will mostly lay fallow in a drawer somewhere, or get pressed into the role of glorified jewelry, for the present time. It would make much more sense for me to just park the funds somewhere and wait for the inevitable thaw that will come with vaccinations and other means. But, as an irrational human I'm sure the acquisition of different or better gear feels, on some evolutionary level, as though I'm engaged in preparing for the future. 

The sun is out today and the temperatures are supposed to climb up to the 70's. That's 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The nice weather is most welcome. We're still boiling our drinking water but we were much luckier than people all over the state who've had countless pipes burst and no access to water at all. 

I'm sure you've read somewhere in the national news that when the republicans in Texas de-regulated the power industry a decade or so back it brought into existence the choice for many of either staying with a traditional provider, such as the city of Austin, or opting by go with a private industry provider who would sell you energy at the actual wholesale cost. Many people who did not understand the arcane fine points of the contracts they were signing benefitted in the short term by paying less, overall, during the year than customers on traditional, city regulated plans. But during this last cold snap we also had a supply failure in the natural gas markets and natural gas is the bulk fuel of our power generation in Texas. As supplies dwindled to "next to nothing" status the cost per kilowatt soared. Spiked insanely. And now the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of customers who thought they'd signed up for a great bargain are starting to see monthly bills as high as $17,000 for a normal-sized single family residence. To be fair, most are "only" getting hit with MONTHLY bills in the $6,000 to $7,000 range. 

Politicians are scrambling to cover their asses but the way the contracts were written it's going to be hard for many people to recover these outrageous amounts, some of which were set up on direct bill pay and are already sucked out of people's accounts. The legislators will posture, blame windmills (less than 18% of the overall power grid) and give their fellow Texans "Thoughts and Prayers" which I have come to understand means: "You're fucked and there's nothing I can or will do for you".

So, added to cold, thirsty and hungry, Texan can now also experience... bankruptcy. All as a result of a vicious, anti-government, bargain with the "devil." And to think that it only took a week to bring an entire state to its knees. Nothing like twenty solid years of bad, selfish governance to ruin a perfectly good state. 

At some point one's subconscious tickles the brain with the realization that you have no control over any of this. There's nothing you can do to change the giant hellscape. You can only help your neighbors and take care of your family. And work to change a severely broken system by voting out the scoundrels. 

Why were power providers so unprepared in Texas? They didn't have the money to pay for winterizing and to pay for adding more supply. Why didn't they have the money even though they are for profit enterprises? Well Texans are about to find out that bribes, kick backs and "campaign donations" are expensive, and after you've paid off all the sticky fingers there's very little left. If there is very little $$$ left do you think the CEOs of these power generation companies will waste it on "people?" Naw, it goes right into their pockets and the hell with everyone else. 

And today, as the snow all melts away and the temperatures get back to normal, I think that my compulsion to buy gear is a source of comfort, and a delusional feeling that I can control at least one facet of my day-to-day existence. When the power goes out, the water runs dry, the temperatures drop, at least I will be able to curl up with my new camera and dream about better days ahead. Kinda sad.

For all of you living in real civilizations, in countries that would never allow people with 6th grade educations to be enticed into signing binding contracts with terms even college economics professors can't fully grasp, I have to say: I'm jealous. If the fact that people in Denmark are the happiest in the world is true then bring on Danish socialism as quick as you can. The only people who won't benefit will be the likes of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. 

We've allowed people to lie about basic economics in the U.S. for far too long. It's time to fix a lot bad laws. And it's far past time for a lot more transparency. This last year might be the catalyst we need to emerge not only stronger but happier. 

Let those comments fly but remember, I'll be moderating stuff that's not true or viciously delivered. 


2.20.2021

Core Wisdom From a Danish Photographer.

 Get Out the Door By Thorsten Overgaard

The basic axiom of photography is to wear a camera. The next axiom would be to get out the door.

Just somewhere. It doesn’t matter if it’s Africa, Greenland, or down the street at the local library.

Just get out the door. That’s the most effective way to get photographs.

I never walk to get photographs. I walk to get coffee, and I happen to have a camera with me.

(Axiom = A self-evident saying or rule)


and I agree. 

2.19.2021

Just a reminder to Fuji X100V users... You can now update your camera via new firmware. As of Feb. 17th.

 

Look at these weird things that grew on my bench. Will they come off?

The Fuji X100V just became an even better camera than it was on Tuesday. That's because Fuji provided a firmware update to 2.0. The two things that I wanted and now have in the camera are:

1. You can now use the digital tele-converter feature, which gives you an interpolated 50mm and 70mm set of focal lengths in addition to your basic 35mm (equivalent to ff)  in Jpeg, when shooting in Raw + Jpeg. When setting the controls to Jpeg+Raw you'll get the cropped and interpolated Jpeg file as well as the full size raw file. If the Jpeg works you can forget the Raw. If you decide to change your mind after the fact --- there's the raw file.  I thought the feature worked great in Jpeg but now I'm shooting in Raw+Jpeg and loving the "safety net" of the Raw file; just in case. (updated at 4:17 pm. Trial and error). The teleconverter mode is not available with the camera set to manual focus because you have to choose whether the lens ring will give you focusing (MF) or focal lengths (S, C, AF).

2. When Fuji launched the camera they included an internal, four stop neutral density filter. We all cheered. Then we found out that you could only use it for photographs and we boo'ed a bit. NDs are great for video but not as useful for stills. Now we can cheer again because the ND is enabled for video. Yay!

(added at 4:21 pm CST). One more feature that I forgot to mention when I first uploaded this is that the camera will now work as a web camera for things like Zoom. Much better than the camera in my laptop.

These additions make the X100V an even better, all around travel and street camera for those who want to travel light but still shoot big. 

I'm heading out to shoot samples now. 

Fuji owners, it's here: https://fujifilm-x.com/en-us/support/download/

OT: Conditions at VSL H.Q. this morning.

 The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and it was 21° when I got up. 

Last night all the water ran out. The water district reported that they'd had an electrical failure at their distribution point and that we should shut off our main valves and drain all the pipes. I did that and also kept the outside faucets wrapped and covered with Styrofoam covers (after draining). 

This morning I checked in with the water folks and they said they were back on and pumping. They cautioned that it would take a while for full pressure to resume and that we should continue to boil water intended for drinking until notified.

I did an "eyes on" check of every faucet and pipe and then turned on the main connection. We have good pressure everywhere. Toilets flushing and refilling normally and no odd sounds or leaks; inside or out.

My last task of the morning was to turn the water heater back on. I followed written instructions to the letter and succeeded in reviving the hot water without blowing up the house. In about an hour we'll have a bout of gladiatorial combat to see who will be first in line for the first hot shower in days. Even though Belinda is the smallest of us she is a fierce warrior and the force is strong with her. We fear crossing her and will probably default. Then it comes down to Ben and me...

Looking forward, we're forecast to crest 41° today with bright sun all day. I can already see the ice melting where the sun hits it. I'm anxious to have the roads clear so I can see if I remember how to drive. I've been starting the cars every other day and letting them idle for 20 minutes to keep the batteries charged. I go through the gears to keep them lubricated. All the tires seem to be in good shape. 

My hope is that tomorrow will be clearer, warmer and drivable and that I'll be able to grab the Leica SL2 and go for a long, long walk. 

It's been uncomfortable at times but we seem to have made it through the worst of this weather catastrophe largely unscathed; unlike so many people in Central Texas. It looks like my volunteer activities are just about to get started. 

Thanks for all the great advice and all the "check-ins." You all made me really feel like part of a community and it was a source of comfort. Stay safe and stay warm. 

Thank you. 

2.18.2021

Some general and specific thoughts about the Leica SL2. And a short report on what's happening in Austin right now...

A weather/conditions bulletin for the Austin area:

As you've probably seen on the national news we're having a hell of a time here in Texas dealing with the horrible weather and the equally horrible planning on the part of ERCOT, a known den of thieves and charlatans who are responsible for mangling our electrical grid for the profit of a tiny few. So, here's where we are today...

We've had sub-freezing temperatures since Saturday evening. Everything that could freeze has frozen. At one point, just yesterday morning over half of Austin homes were without electrical power. A condition some have been dealing with since early Monday morning!!! What were initially supposed to be "rolling outages" turned into long term black outs. Interior home temperatures for some were down to 20 degrees with no remedy in sight.

The Austin city government opened "warming stations" but many people were reticent to go since just last week we were in stage 5 of the Covid-19 pandemic. But many, many more who would have loved to have been in a "warming station" were stuck in place because the roads were impassable. Black ice layered over black ice. With a dusting of snow as camouflage. Freeze in place or take your chances on a car wreck.

By the third day of the big freeze all of the basic services started shutting down. Grocery stores were without power and closed. Pharmacies closed. A few hospitals ran into low water pressure issues and started sending patients to other facilities. And then the main water treatment plant for the city went down with a catastrophic power failure and the city water service started actually shutting off water to large swaths of town. Imagine it. Your home is freezing. Your pantry is nearing empty. Sure, you have pasta but no stove to cook it on. The city advises you to boil your drinking water but, again, you have no way of heating it!!! The city advises you to seek a warming shelter but the public transportation has been closed for four days and you know you can't make it there in your car. With your kids. This is where about half of the central Texas population finds itself right now. Let your pipes drip? Not if you don't have running water. So next week will be the big reckoning as acres and acres of water pipes burst and ruin home interiors. 

We'd love to help. I helped my elderly neighbors find their water cut off valve and shut it for them. They were decamping to another neighbor's house and wanted to drain their pipes before they left. This morning one of my good friends, and a great video mentor, checked in via text. They've been without power and water for days. They live a 15 minute walk away. Their college age kids are living with them during the cold snap. I made a huge pot of coffee, put it in an insulated coffee jug, put that in a backpack and walked through the snow, on ice covered ground to deliver it do them. We're checking in with neighbors and friends a couple times a day. We're sharing firewood throughout the neighborhood. But the city services are nowhere to be found.

We've sent $$$ donations to the food bank and to various charities that house people in crisis. But this city needs to re-examine our basic infrastructure and spend the money to do things right.

We don't have ANY plow trucks. There is no attempt made to clear or treat any street; major or minor. We are basically being left to our own devices. It's a common sight to see people sitting in their running cars, in their driveways charging their phones and warming up. It should not be this way.

I'm a 65 year old ex-Boy Scout and I've lived in enough northern climes (two years in Ohio, a year in St. Louis and many Decembers in rural Pennsylvania) to know the basics. My house is tight. Well insulated. I went shopping for excess groceries five days before the first of the storms hit. My appliances are natural gas (water heater, heater, stove) and I live on the same grid as the main water treatment plant for the city. We've mostly had power. We lost it all day yesterday. We're now down to a trickle when it comes to water. But we have plenty already treated and put aside. We have buckets next to the toilets with which to emergency flush. We're fine. But my point is that people like me are outliers. We, as a society, need to make sure we build better safety nets for everyone. 

End of preachiness. It's going to get warmer tomorrow. The water is slowly coming back on line. We'll be boiling it for a while. The grid is now (here, near the end) getting restored. But lots of people were hurt and hurt badly. Lots of man-hours lost. Lots of hourly wage workers put into even more financial peril. People have been injured. People have died from exposure or carbon monoxide poisoning. 

Some here have suggested generators and yes, I'll consider one, but it's hardly a solution for people living paycheck to paycheck, especially when there's no paycheck if you can't get to work. Or the large numbers of people living in apartments. We need to renew our idea of the social contract and we need to do it now.




 Now, on to the Leica SL2.


I want to start this by letting readers know that this is “not my first Leica camera rodeo.” I’ve been an avid user over the years but almost entirely during the film era. This SL2 is the first digital era Leica I’ve actually purchased, though I have played with and reviewed the M8 and a handful of recent M lenses; including the Summarit line-up. I don’t really buy that Leicas are magical or mechanically perfect or anything else of the sort. Their real proficiency, and the thing that sticks out for them above the general market, has always been the lenses. 


I really liked the rangefinder Leicas but they just don’t make sense for me anymore. 


I think that Nikon and Canon are both capable of making lenses that are every bit as good as the Leica SL lenses; if they want to. But I also think that Nikon and Canon have different philosophies from Leica and design their optics to meet price points while Leica’s prime lenses seem to be designed with a “no holds barred” mandate. They have a much smaller line-up of lenses and one can readily see that their real focus is on making exemplary prime lenses while C&N are more interesting in making a “big tent” of lenses so that they can own nearly every category with at least a workable representative. I also think the more mainstream the camera market a maker aims at the more emphasis will be placed on popular zoom lenses while single focal length lenses are very much an enthusiasts and professionals niche. I think it’s becoming rarer and rarer to find new photographers or casual hobbyists (that’s not us, friends) to consider buying prime lenses when those same focal lengths are included within a single zoom lens. 


And from an economic point of view the entry level zoom lenses are very good, dollar for dollar, while the best primes are incrementally better. It makes sense for most people, whose final use targets are web-oriented, to stick with an all purpose, wide range zoom lens and be done with it. For these users their financial resources are probably spread over a wider range of goods and services while I will go without eating for days to afford just the right focal lens and lens design if I had to. (Not sure this is really hyperbole…).


What is the SL2 camera all about?


Probably best to start with the original Leica SL. In 2015 Leica launched their first mirrorless camera, the SL. (don't be pedantic and write to tell us that all M series cameras are "mirror-less"; you know what I mean...)


The SL was such a departure from the M cameras. It is a large and robust body with a new (at the time) lens mount and a very good, 24 megapixel sensor. The claim to fame for the SL at the time of launch was its tremendously robust build quality (carved from a solid block of unobtainioum) and it's weatherproofing. Even the most jaded fan boy from other camera brands would have to admit that it was built to a very high standard with premium materials.


The EVF finder was gorgeous and set a new, higher megapixel standard than any of the other cameras on the market at the time. It featured DNG raw files which makes the files a lot more "universal" than proprietary ones from other makers. And it was all wrapped in a beautiful body which featured elegantly minimalist control interfaces. 


It used contrast detect auto focusing so it was not a speed demon although the S-AF was always very accurate. Most importantly, it became a great platform for a new family of Leica SL lenses which their designer (modestly?) suggests may be the best lens line ever created. I can't speak to that because I don't scientifically test lenses but I can say that the lenses I have shot with from the SL system are extremely good. Even when used wide open. 


After four plus years on the market Leica felt that it was time for a refresh and it's obvious who they've been partnering with on their technology (Panasonic's S1 line up)..... And that brings us to the SL2.


The 47+ Megapixel SL2 is the second generation, professional, full frame mirrorless camera from Leica so it slots in with cameras like the Nikon Z7ii, the Sony A7R4 and the Panasonic S1R. All  of these are very capable, high resolution cameras and any one of them is equally capable of making great files. If we stick to only raw files most of the different output styles and parameters could probably be massaged enough in post processing to somewhat match each other. I’m sure there is a fair amount of color science choices, noise reduction, sharpening, and other ingredients included even in the most pristine or basic of raw files so there will be differences between the cameras no matter how much re-tweaking is done. 


So, if all the cameras in this class are equally able to make good images why would I chose a more expensive Leica SL2 over any of the others? Especially when I already have a Panasonic S1R which, based on most specs, shares a lot of image engineering and operational engineering with the Leica. Both the Panasonic and the Leica share the same lens mount so a convincing case can be made, if you believe Leica lenses are a cut above, and the reason to buy a Leica to just get the Panasonic body and spend your real cash on the glass. It’s a strategy that makes a lot of sense. 


The Leica offers some features that others might consider intangibles. Consider an analogy with Apple computers (and phones); the two reasons most people spend more $$$ to buy an Apple computer is to be able to use their very powerful and user friendly operating system, and also to own a product whose industrial design brings daily visual and operational joy. No other reasons. The OS makes computing very intuitive and straightforward and “hides” most advanced settings and constructs in order to allow the users to concentrate on the “why” of owning a computer —- to get work done, to consume entertainment, to create stuff; instead of dicking around with the technical plumbing. The fewer controls, menus and wonky stuff the more focused a user can be on their own tasks and less focused on maintaining the system. 


And in Austin I wouldn’t be caught dead using a non-Apple computer in a coffee shop. Talk about a boomer generation “marker”….it’s called a Dell.  (Remember when we used to be able to go to a coffee shop and sit for a while? With decent wi-fi? And people with smiling faces?).


Leica has gone down the same pathway, simplifying the physical interface, making the menus logical and navigable, and concentrating on design an industrial design package that brings joy when handled and used. 


The SL2 is built around a large and robust body. In terms of size and density it’s more like the Lumix S1R; larger and more robust than the Sonys or Nikons. I haven’t played with a new Canon mirrorless so I don’t have a point of reference there. If you go to the Leica website I’m sure you can find a page that discusses how the top and bottom sections of the camera are milled out of a solid block of an aluminum alloy rather than being die cast. It’s a very dense and solid camera and the only camera of it’s type on the market today with a true IP54 weather sealing so it’s truly designed to work in the elements and take a beating. The alloy body also makes a great heat sync so stills are never compromised and video can run all out for 30 minutes at the highest settings.


One example of their attention to build detail? The large, multi-function dial on the top right side of the camera has no shaft and no physical intrusion into the guts of the camera. Instead it transfers position information via magnets. No hole drilled in the top plate to create a point of potential failure of weather sealing. 


There are a total of seven controls on the back of the camera. One is the on/off switch. One is a thumb dial used to set modes, etc. One is a joystick. One right next to the EVF is a control for going to the EVF versus the rear screen. Then, as on current M cameras, there are three buttons on the left side, in a vertical orientation. The top is “play”. The middle is “FN” or function. The third is menu. That’s it. It’s a much cleaner camera back than I’ve seen in a long time. That means it’s easier to quickly learn what each control does and there’s a lot of space for your fingers to actually grip the camera while shooting and not having to worry about accidental button pushing. There are two programmable buttons on the top plate, along with the multi-function dial, and two on the front of the camera. This design is almost the exact opposite of most competitors who offer many more function buttons and individual controls for just about anything you can think of. 


Making something both simple and ultimately usable is, I think, harder to do that sticking controls everywhere and expecting photographers to devote a ton of brain power/memory to accommodate the camera interface. The exterior is very clean, Spartan and evocative of stripped down street shooting cameras of the film days. 


One of the features I appreciate is the 5.7 megapixel EVF along with Leica optics for the EVF finder. The huge diopter ring is wonderful and it’s great to see the exact setting you’ve arrived at so it can be quickly re-set should some else use the camera and change your setting. The view through the finder is wonderful. It’s the same resolution as the S1R but it seems a bit more crisp and contrasty. I think the viewfinder optics are better tweaked.


The menus are really good because they are more brief and less overly featured. For instance, I think the camera was designed to be a “raw only” device but that the Leica marketing people screamed and kicked and demanded Jpeg capability in order to be able to sell the camera to a wider audience. Even professionals like to use Jpegs from time to time. Not every file created needs to be endlessly tweaked and corrected in PhotoShop. In fact, if you are doing this photography thing well you should be getting exposures and color balance pretty nicely set in your original file.


At any rate I went into the menu on the first day to look for picture profiles, or “looks” or whatever they are called (depending on the brand). I could not find them in the regular, top level menus. Very odd? But there is a menu item called, “Jpeg Settings.” In the sub menu you now have choices including: JPG Resolution, Noise Reduction, and Film Style. “Film Style” is what other makers would call “Profiles”. Once you go into the Film Style menu you find only five choices and two of them are for black and white. The color settings only include three basics: Standard, Vivid and Natural. 


If you want to modify any one of the “Film Styles” you go to the bottom of the Film Style menu and hit: “Film Style Settings.” You can then modify each of the styles individually. You can change Contrast, Sharpness and Saturation. And each setting only has two setting points above null and two settings below null. Not a lot of choice, right? But I have to say that it’s refreshing not to be burdened with the idea that I need to make many exceedingly fine adjustments in the Jpeg menus. 


So, the menus as they are presented at the top level take up six pages. You need only go through them once or twice to know where everything is and how it’s labeled. If you need more detail you are welcome to go into very logical submenus. 


The menu button is another example, in itself, of a simple and logical execution. Instead of having a separate button for a “quick menu” you push the menu button once and you are presented with a basic (and user programmable) quick menu. It’s default settings work well for me. They include a top panel that shows: Mode, f-stop, shutter speed, ISO and EV setting. 


Just below them are: frame rate, AF mode, focus area, AF profiles (to fine tune AF-C), metering mode, WB, File type, an icon for re-formatitng your memory card without having to menu dive, a dial lock setting, a communication setting icon, and a button that takes you to the main menu.


It’s all touch enabled and easy to use. The idea, I am sure, is that once you have your sub-menu controls set you might never again have to dive into the main menu again.


At the top of the window you see “PHOTO” and “VIDEO.” Touching PHOTO brings up photographic specific readouts and controls (as I have described above) while touching video brings up the video specific readout and controls. The quick menu changes tone when you move from PHOTO to VIDEO. In video it’s black type in a white background while in PHOTO it’s white (grey) letters on a black background. You’ll see in an instant if you are in one mode or the other. 


The overall effect of a very logical and initially simple menu interface is that you have an almost intuitive sense of how everything works and how to access it. And that’s something I think is missing from most other cameras; including my beloved Panasonic S1R.


The camera has a number of video features that allow one to make very good content. It will shoot 4K at 60p and does record in 10 bit, 4:2:2 to the memory cards. It will shoot All-I .Mov files, even in a wider cinema format, at 400 mb/s, up to 30p. Following a standard set by Panasonic all the way back to the GH5 cameras, the Leica offers a full sized HDMI port as well as 3.5mm headphone and microphone ports. The camera comes with L-Log which is a low contrast log file meant for color grading. 


The camera seems to have been tweaked, as far as files and colors go, to appeal to a professional filmmaker, and the wide range of file types indicates that Leica have put a lot of thought into providing video producers with a very competent camera. If I was engaged to do serious video I still think I would default to the Panasonic S1H as it is even more video enabled, has no-limits run time, allows for the use of the very good Panasonic XLR interface and has all the exposure control feedback (vector scope, waveforms, V-Log LUTs) that a serious filmmaker wants. But for solo work or a very fluid movement back and forth between video and photography the SL2 is nearly flawless. And the video coming out of the camera is very good.


But, if you can duplicate all of the video and photography features just as well in competing cameras why might you choose an SL2?


Everyone has a different reason for choosing the cameras they like to work with. For my work use the Panasonics (going into year two with them!) are perfectly sorted for me. It’s pro paradise to have three perfectly sorted cameras; one for killer video, one for ultimate resolution and one all around, great high ISO, 24 megapixel, full frame work horse. But I’ve always liked making a demarcation between work and play/art so I was looking around for a camera that would provide that. When it’s not just a tool but also a companion then haptics and aesthetics become a bit more important. I’ll be clear, I can do anything the Leica can do with any one of my Panasonic S1 variants. All four cameras vastly exceed my real, day-to-day needs in photography—-or video, for that matter. 


But when I use a camera for my own pleasure entirely I want something that feels just right. You probably know that I've tested a lot of camera in my time. Many of them very good. And there are a few current ones that I'd settle for, happily, if I couldn't swing the budget for the SL2. It's just that the SL2 ticks all the right boxes for me. And it works with the gaggle of L mount lenses I already have splashed out for. 


As a personal camera the SL2 combined with a couple of the new Sigma lenses is just perfect. The 35mm and 65mm lenses are right-sized, nicely sharp and photographic and not budget busters. Eventually I want to get a Leica SL 50mm f2.0 just to see what the difference is for myself. A long term test. 


People routinely buy silly stuff. I have a friend with a passion for Panerai wristwatches. I can't understand why he loves them so much but he does. For him it's never about how well a mechanical watch keeps time but always about how beautifully designed they are. Some are frightfully expensive. $25,000 and more. It's a choice. 


A 70+ year old guy down the street from us just bought a bright red Ferrari F8 Spider. It cost more than most North American's houses. He didn't buy it for basic transportation; that's for sure. He bought it because he always wanted to own one and, if not now, when? 


I don't think the Leica SL2 falls into the same lux class as those watches or that car. The camera isn't really priced stratospherically high compared to a Sony A1 or a top of the line Nikon. Yes, the glass is expensive but the available lenses can be very cost effective if you like the Sigma L lines. 


I think the difference between luxury goods and the SL2 is the usability of the camera and the fact that you can use it in day to day situations to make art, document stuff and fulfill other photographic tasks. It's value is beyond the value of branding. 


Everyone seems to have different priorities. I know tons and tons of people who think nothing of spending fifty or sixty thousands of dollars on pick-up trucks. Others who spend that much on boring (to me) SUVs. I'm dismissive of their choices and happy with my under $30,000 Subaru. On the other hand, cameras have always been a priority for me. The Leica was something I've wanted for a good, long while. It's fun for me in a different way than my Panasonic cameras are. And I'm also finding out that it's a great photography generator. 


I'm pretty sure I'll enjoy this one long after I forget the purchase price. 


I was bored and constricted to hanging around the neighborhood. I thought I would pummel you, dear reader, with a bit of writing. I hope you enjoyed it. Stay safe, stay warm and do good. I'm betting you are already doing well.









2.17.2021

Just reporting in with a bit of Arctic-palloza updates.

Taken before the icing marathon.

There we were, skating along on my good looks and impeccable luck, and just about feeling untouchable when the power went off with a huge green flash and a loud bang. I thought we were at war and someone just dropped a bunker buster bomb on the water treatment plant about a third of a mile away. But no, it was just a catastrophic physical failure of a transformer cluster. We love putting them up on high poles so the wind chill works better, they're more of a challenge to fix (and who doesn't like a challenge?), and so the high school kids don't challenge each other to lick the HV wires. 

So, the power went off at 5 am and stayed off until just a little while ago, about 5:15 pm. 

But, the water treatment plant was offline for while so now we're under a "boil water" alert for at least the next 24 hours. I need to research how that all works. For now Belinda translated for me. It means: "don't drink the water unless you boil it for a while". Hope that boiling works on cryptosporidium. And brain eating amoebas.

Anyway, we have heat back. All the exterior faucets are alive and dripping well. But I also wrapped them around the exposed pipe area (but did not block the drip flow!). We are able to cook, microwave and shower. And we can do so at 68 to 70 degrees. 

We've been lucky but there are more obstacles to overcome. Tomorrow night will be out last night in the teens so we still have time to do one more round with no heat. The power has been out at the three local (to us) grocery stores so they've either had very limited hours or shut altogether. That's okay, I guess, because panic shoppers stripped the shelves, and the wait in line to get in and fight for the meager remainders was about an hour long. It makes shopping for groceries in the old Soviet Union sound better. 

I'm not too sad about the stores since it's still not safe to drive on the ice covered streets. Remember, we're not like all you "first world" states where people come out and sand or salt your roads for you after plowing them the minute they get dusted with snow. Nope, we get the old truck with the baldest tires and drive as fast as we can. The idea being that the longer you are on the road the more opportunities for something bad to happen. And if you are going to have an accident don't you want to get it over with quick? So you can get on with your day?

On clear roads Texans (and southern Californian transplants) drive 60 in a 30 zone. But when we have a mix of black ice and black ice they like to go just a little faster. Gets the adrenaline pumping. 

Hopefully we'll be getting back to normal by late Saturday. Probably just in time for an earthquake or an inconvenient lava eruption. But I would not rule out a pesky meteor shower..... You just never know with the folks in Texas. Might be a legislative pact with the devil coming back to haunt us. 

Safe and warm and thankful right now. Subject to some change. But always thankful. 


Just a quick note for Fuji camera users: They have new firmware available for many, many Fuji cameras today. I was interested in the X100V firmware. It adds the ability to use the built in ND filter for video now. Also allows you to record both Jpeg AND raw when using the two digital teleconverter settings. And lots more. 

2.16.2021

I actually bought the Fuji X100V to shoot studio still life photographs. Very cool and very counterintuitive.

 

The studio was warmer today. I was able to go out and shoot 
if I wore wool socks, insulated hiking boots, a thick sweatshirt
and a fleece hat. This is one of my "famous" still life images 
of a camera I recently purchased. For this blog post 
it's just a prop.

In the age of the cellphone even a faux rangefinder with a 35mm equivalent lens can lay claim to being a fine still life camera. I'm embarrassed because I avoided using a Fuji X100 series camera for a long time and then, once I got an X100V in my hands I just can't seem to let go. I'm using it in the streets, like everyone else, but I don't always grab for bigger, more expensive cameras when I want a nice still life. If it's not a "macro" shot I'm just as likely to grab one of the X100V's and blaze away. Handheld. Without even looking. 

I'm also embarrassed because I presumed that the X100 series cameras would be just as power hungry and battery savaging as the XH-1 and I didn't relish the thought of carrying around one or two dozen NP-W126S batteries. They are small enough but they add up and to carry enough for use with the XH-1 for a day of shooting would require big pockets. Huge pockets! And now I find out that the X100V is downright parsimonious with electricity. Two batteries is great. Yesterday I spent an hour out walking in 12° (f) and I reasoned that I should bring along an extra battery since cold weather is famous for the quick drain. 

I wore the camera on a strap, on my chest, like a tourist. It was outside my coat. No protection from the biting cold and the harsh wind. But an hour and 142 images later the camera display was still showing all of its battery level bars. Color me impressed. 

As you probably know, if you are a regular VSL reader, that I (brilliantly or with misguided, momentary enthusiasm) bought a Leica SL2 a week or so ago. Sadly, I haven't had much of a chance to take it out and really use it. The weather is breaking for the better on Friday and Saturday and I'm sure to be out with it then. And after our long week of brutal weather I have a hunch most Austinites will be out there with me trying to get warm and soak up some sunshine. But even though I've put fewer than a thousand actuations on the Leica I do have a bunch of observations I'd like to make and, usually, when I write an article about a camera I like to start out by taking a "glamour shot" of it.

The sun is out today and it's bright in the studio. It's all indirect light but it's bouncing off tons and tons of bright, white snow and it's more or less perfect to use for impromptu camera beauty shots. I put the Leica on a Smith Victor side arm and put the whole rig in a nice spot of light just inside my studio door. Then I grabbed a convenient X100V, set the aperture to 5.6 and let the camera choose the shutter speed and ISO. The camera and I both like 1/125th of a second so that's what I've got set as the bottom limit in the auto-ISO set-up menu.

I like a little bit of compression so I rotated the all purpose ring on the lens which set the focal length to 70mm. It's interpolated and it's a bit like gambling; sometimes the file is nice and sometimes it's got that over processed video look. Today the Fuji gods were with me and blessed me with a nice result.

I would have used a tripod but the cold has me moving as slow as a turtle and I'm sleepier than a bear stuffed with honey. I just frame up, got the green focus square where I wanted it and pushed the shutter button. Now I have a decent image with which to illustrate my ramblings and circular writing about the Germanic-Photographic-Heartthrob camera. That's coming as soon as I can stop taking naps and get more coffee into my blood stream.

The new(ish) Fuji camera has a very good lens on it and the 26 megapixel lens yield a wonderful amount of detail for web-illustrations. Even when cropped in to 70mm. I think it's my new, casual still life camera. At least for today.

On a lifestyle note: We seem to be dodging the rolling, eternal, electrical blackouts that hundreds of thousands of Austinites are living through. A neighbor down the street enlightened me as to why. It seems our houses sit on the same electrical grid as a huge, gigantic and vital water treatment plant. That sucker doesn't go down. Yes, we have blackouts limited to specific groups of houses but those are mostly caused by ice or trees on local power lines. Those are physical whacks that don't affect the entire grid. For instance, last year one of the close by transformers exploded. It was loud. The water plant was unaffected as were the houses on the other side of the street from us. I'm not sure if I totally believe my neighbor but it seems plausible. 

Belinda and I went out and walked in the sunshine today and were happy since the temperatures crested 20 for the first time since Saturday. We have three more cold (but not record-breaking) nights before everything evens out and a couple of ice storms coming in tonight and tomorrow but we can finally see both real and metaphoric light at the end of a short tunnel.

I'm focused on gently warming my exterior faucets in the hope that if I have the right "bedside manner" I'll be able to convince them to unfreeze but to do so without rupturing and ruining my weekend, and beyond. 
We've rehabilitated two so far so I only have two to go. I better not get over confident....

The side arm is useful when doing slide and negative copies with a camera. I'll write a brief, "The wrong way to copy slides, but the way I always do it" for a future blog.

Thanks for all the hints, tips and tricks about "enjoying the burdens of cold weather." I think I've used them all. Except for the hint that one anonymous commenter tried to leave about burning old truck tires on the living room floor to stay warm. We don't even have an old truck the tires of which we could burn. I'm thinking that is NOT a Canadian custom as he suggested.

2.15.2021

A long, cold day in Austin. A lot of time spent fixing stuff around the compound. A lot of time checking on friends. An hour walking with a camera.

 


It was amazingly cold when I got up this morning but the television newscasters tell me it's going to be even colder tonight. Then we have three more days that are warmer, but still below freezing, to look forward to. I re-wrapped and re-insulated exterior pipes today, resuscitated a toilet and created some wind breaks to lower the likelihood of more damage from wind chills that are forecast to be anywhere from minus five to minus 15 degrees over night. But I count myself among the lucky Texans. We still have power, we still have a functional, gas powered furnace and we still have running water throughout the house. We're working on rehabbing the exterior faucets as well. 

I did have the foresight to buy two pounds of organic, medium roast, Columbian Supremo coffee just before the roads became impassible and we're pounding through that with reckless abandon. The fridge and pantry are fully stocked so we're eating well and could probably shelter in place for a couple of weeks before running totally out of provisions. Our supply of wines is also adequate. And yes, we have chocolate. 

After getting everything as well set as I could I bundled up and took advantage of the warmer temperatures near the end of the day and walked up to the small shopping center at the end of our neighborhood. I once again brought along the Fuji X100V and was very pleased with the color and overall look of the casual files I made. 

I have a number of friends who've been unfortunate enough to have lost power in the middle of the night last night. It's 11 pm here and they're still waiting for power, or at least an estimate of when their power will be turned back on. I'm learning that, in some respects, old tech can be better than the latest stuff. Case in point. My friend Paul lost power late last night. His water heater is one of the "on demand" heaters. It uses gas, like my old fashioned water heater but it requires electrical power to control temperature and maintain safe operation. No electricity, no hot water. 

The city of Austin and ERCOT, the body that controls electrical distribution in Texas, have totally dropped the ball in this emergency. They originally stated that they were going to do rolling black outs which would last only 45 minutes per area. Once they got into the process they found that they couldn't bring people back on line because they'd actually lost, across the state, the ability to generate enough electricity. This was not a case of downed power lines that got iced up. They just didn't push all the smaller generating parties to adequately winterize, even though it's a mandated part of the program. Seems like someone wanted to save a bit of cash and now something like 2.5 million people in the Lone Star state will spend a couple of nights with sub-freezing temperature and absolutely no heat or lights. Sitting in running cars to charge cellphones has now become an Austin thing.  Heads should roll for the lack of oversight, but they won't. 

In a nod to basic survival the city and county have opened up one on the big, municipal convention venues, the Palmer Center, as a heating station for regular people who just happened to have found themselves without heat and without other options. Wouldn't you know it? The hotels booked up quickly. Especially the nice ones. 

It really sucks but you can't really push back on Mother Nature, and ultimately, that's the real problem here.

This is the last image I saw before I walked in the door and called it a night.
Looking west up over my front door. 

This was the sign on our neighborhood Walgreens Pharmacy.

This place is normally quite busy but every shop was closed and it was like a ghost town.

This is our place. The building in the front, just left of center, is my office and studio.
It's a nice space with lots of room but the one thing we never invested in was a good 
heating system. I guess that's going to change now.






I feel so powerless in situations like this. I'm waiting for the big thaw to see how many pipes will burst and how quickly I can turn off the main cutoff for water. Then we'll need to join what I think will be a very long queue to find a plumber. I'm sure it's going to take some time so I'm already looking at hotels because I don't think, at this stage in our lives, that we really want to go days and days without plumbing. Not to mention that we're still socially distancing because of the pandemic. 

But as Belinda constantly reminds me: It could be a hell of a lot worse. 

Leave those faucets dripping and pull out the down comforters. I can't imagine how people dealt with this kind of stuff 100 or 200 years ago. At least I've got some fun, weather resistant cameras and lenses to play with. 

Be safe and warm. Lights out. KT

Walking in a Winter Wonderland (and freezing my butt off.....) with a nice, easy to use camera.


I bundled up and headed outside this morning. It was a "balmy" 12° Fahrenheit and the wind was whipping around but I was determined to get some photographs of our record snow storm and deep freeze. I had two cameras sitting on the dining room table and it took me a few minutes to decide which to take. On one hand there was the Leica SL2 and a 45mm f2.8 Sigma lens. On the other hand there was a Fuji X100V. I decided to put the X100V in full program mode and take it because it's so easy to use as a point-and-shoot camera. 

When I stepped out the front door I noticed a pile of snow in front of the office door. The bank was about 3 feet high and I used a broom to brush it all away. I wanted to check and see how my office, the hot water heater and the utility space next to the outside wall with all the pipes running through it had fared overnight. 

Before I closed up and came in last night I placed the little radiator heater in the utility space to help keep pipes and stuff warm. A quick check with the digital thermometer said we were nestled right in at about 78° this morning which meant the small space with the good stuff was just right. The studio and office space was about 45°. I won't be working in there today because it would take a lot of energy to heat it and we all need to conserve. There are currently long, rolling blackouts across Texas. The utility space is less than 100 square feet, well insulated and separated from the office by solid core doors. The little heater didn't have to work hard too keep that space from freezing.

I ventured out in the snowscape and was immediately surprised when my hiking boots sunk down a full foot and a half into the snow. It was deeper than I thought it would be! 

I know this all sounds a bit silly to people who live north and deal with this for months at a time but it's different for Texans. I think. The cold is like evil magic to us and we don't have the metaphoric strands of garlic to ward off its curses. 

I'm glad I took the smaller camera with me because shooting in the cold with gloves on is crazy. All I wanted to do was push the shutter button halfway down, lock in the exposure and focus and then push all the way down. Sounds simple but the bigger your gloves the warmer your hands while the bigger the gloves the less haptic feedback there is on a shutter button. The Fuji works well in fully auto mode and I know the camera quite well by now which makes the whole process less thought intensive. Somehow, when it's too cold my brain seems to go all reptilian and thought processes slow down to a crawl. I tried to concentrate on showing what my neighborhood looked like the day after our record storm but ten minutes out my toes, nose and fingertips started their whiny protests and I called it a day and marched, slid and trudged back to the house.

After 20 minutes in 12° I expected the battery to be diminished but was happy to see all the indicator bars present when I got back to the house. Just before I walked in the front door I remembered about not bringing a highly chilled camera into a warm house (and, with all the power outages I was definitely hoping it was still a warm house!) so I stopped by the car to grab a plastic bag in which to wrap the camera for decompression and condensation protection. If any one is keeping track I took the black one out today, hoping it would absorb heat from the sun....Yeah. Right.

When I got home my fellow home residents informed me that one of the toilets was non-functional. This was something I had been dreading. I used the bucket flushing method to clear out the bowl and then got to the problem discovery part of the adventure. Yep, the toilet sits next to an outside wall and shares a cold water pipe with an outside faucet. Even though the faucet was wrapped and under styrofoam it seemed to have frozen over. It took the rest of the pipe with it...

So I did what any photographer would do and grabbed a monolight from the studio and focused its 150 watt tungsten modeling light on the pipe that extends in from the wall to the toilet intake valve. Then I went back outside and went insane on re-insulating and re-covering the outdoor faucet. Layers of bubble wrap, Polartec, styrofoam, foam insulation, duct tape and mylar all covered with a waterproofed cardboard box filled with construction insulation. Two light stands, wedged against a wall hold the huge melange of insulation firmly in place. 

About two hours later I checked to see the progress of the rogue toilet and was enheartened when it flushed normally and then also refilled normally. My family actually gathered around and cheered. It was so great to have a ready and appreciative audience for one of my few plumbing successes...

A few hours later and I'm thrilled to report that it's still functional. And nothing is leaking.

At sunset today it's forecast to be 18°. By midnight the forecast is 10° where it will stay for the next eight hours, with brief flirtations with 8 and 9 degrees. Then we warm up a bit tomorrow afternoon (if we've survived) and the day will cap out at 34 °  just before delighting us with a few more sub-freezing nights. This is just incredibly insane. But there it is. My deepest wish, in the moment, is to not lose power. I'll light a candle to the saints of electrical power generation, just to hedge my bets....

Here's some hasty photos:

A snow covered front yard.

A snow covered car. 


ATV tracks.
The VSL compound.

Peering north. Kids sledding down the hill.






Tropical plants facing certain death with quiet courage.






As you may have surmised, it's impossible to drive right now. 
And, it seems contraindicated to be outside. 
I'll go with the flow and hit the couch with a good book. 

Stay safe. Stay warm. 

Now, who is supposed to send the St. Bernard with the little cask of brandy?
I'll be waiting by the front door.

 

2.14.2021

Happy Valentine's Day. From the frozen, mid-Texas wasteland.


 Well. We're heading toward the coldest part of the current massive freeze. It's about to start snowing and the temperatures are starting to head down to a predicted 9°. Swimming got cancelled this morning, not because the pool isn't functional but because there is slick ice on most of the roads in Austin and it would have been unsafe for the coaches to get there. 

That's all okay. We're having a fine time settling in after a day of trying to find everywhere cold might get into the house and studio and then fixing it. I've made a few discoveries that seem to be working for me. 

The house stays nice and warm. The gas furnace seems to do a great job keeping the house at 70° with lots of umph in reserve. We have the fridge and pantries well stocked and the faucets dripping away with both hot and cold water. 

The office/studio is a bit different. I only have a small, oil filled,  radiator style, electric space heater in there and while it's great for our usual 40-50° winter weather, and serviceable for an occasional romp into the 30's, it seems to be overwhelmed by the 20's and teens. The space (about 650 square feet with high ceilings) is very well sealed and insulated, and all the windows are double-paned but without a big enough heat source it gets uncomfortably cold and I'm not yet resigned to working on my computer in a parka with mittens on my hands. The mittens, as you northerners probably know, make it hard to hit just the right keys on the keyboard.

I thought I'd sit for a while, give the situation some thought and conjure up some temporary fixes, and a few things that came to me under duress seem to be panning out well. 

At some point, when LEDs became reasonably attractive light sources for domestic lighting I went through and replaced all of the lighting fixtures in the office with them. I put all the older, incandescent bulbs in a box. Today, I went through and changed them all back. Even though there aren't that many they seem to be helping to maintain a more livable temperature even as the cold blows in from the north. 

With success on that front I ate some dark chocolate with almonds and sea salt and meditated about heating some more. 

The next thing that came to me was the realization that I have four monolights which each take a 150 watt, tungsten modeling lamp. I pulled out one fixture and aimed it under my desk. Now my feet are happy and warm. The glass desktop keeps the heat from rushing toward the high ceiling too quickly and seems to be sufficient to keep my fingers flying across the keyboard. My toes inside my hiking boots are toasty warm.

With success on that front I pulled out another monolight and stuck it into the equipment closet where, incidentally, the water pipes run through the south wall. I've got the monolight about four feet from the back wall and it's doing a good job keeping that small space acceptably warm. I have two more monolights but I think I'll take one into the house because the one space I like to sit and read in is the furthest corner of the living room from a heater vent and closest to a row of double French doors which, no matter how well weather stripped they are, seem to be less sealed than say, a sheet rocked wall. 

I think I'll put one of those monolights on a shorty stand and aim it at my feet for that little touch of....ahhhh. Should make some evening novel reading a bit more comfy.

One choke point for me, while coming and going between house and studio, is that the 15 feet of walkway is totally exposed to the ravages of the north and quickly gets icy. The one thing I forgot to stock in yesterday was a bag of rock salt or a bag of sand that I could use to treat the stone expanse. I thought about it in a panic this afternoon when I almost slipped and spilled my hot tea on the way back into the office. Then I looked over on the floor near the studio door and saw five film/photography sandbags. Four of them are 30 pound bags that are permanently sealed by one is a Tenba bag that's about 20 years old and has two compartments which seal with zippers. The bag is refillable. I originally bought it for travel. You could dump all the sand out, stick the bag in the luggage for plane travel and the refill it on arrival. 

I filled the bag once, years ago, and never did put it on a plane. But today I unzipped it and found 20 pounds of beautiful, dry sand, just ripe for the spreading. I used the sand from one of the two compartments and now have both a safe passage way between domicile and work and also a reserve supply of emergency sand in the other compartment. Nice. 

One more equipment note. You might not know this but if you park your car outside during an ice storm the windshield and back window tend to get covered with ice. I've already been cautioned a few times NEVER to pour boiling water on the iced windshield unless I want to drive in the bracing fresh air without the protection of an intact front barrier, but we've never had to buy a "windshield scraper." I wouldn't even know where to get one... and one day deliveries from Amazon aren't happening in Austin right now so I could not order one. 

Not to worry. I have found that plastic lens hoods are marvelous for the task. I try to keep that big, rigid plastic one I have for a 82mm filter size lens that's long since gone on to a different home in the car now in case I need a quick scrape. And it did dawn on me that it might have been a mistake to skip the heated front seats in my new car..... But since I have no talent for driving on icy, slippery roads it's more or less a moot point since I won't leave the property for the next 24-48 hours unless there is an emergency or a half price sale on Leica SL lenses....

The chocolate is keeping me alert, the monolights are keeping me warm, the "professional photographer" sand is keeping me safe, and the lens hoods are keeping my windshield clear. Any other multi-use photo tips for my cold weather edification? They'll be happily accepted. 

Ben, who is temporarily housing with us these days, is cooking his famous (and insanely good!)  Pasta Carbonara for dinner tonight, along with a fresh green salad. Belinda and I are making lava cakes for dessert. There's a nice Cabernet Sauvignon for the main course and a bottle of Prosecco for the desserts. Seems like we've been able to engineer a fun Valentine's Day after all. And the howling wind outside adds just a touch of danger and excitement to the evening. 

Hope you are staying warm, happy and engaged in your own homes. I know the weather is worser and worser (I know that's not correct!) the norther and norther you go so my best wishes go out to all of you north of us.  In a week it's forecast to be back in the 70's here. For once I can hardly wait. 

Kirk out. (No longer shivering at the keyboard. Oh the sacrifices I make....).