4.02.2021

A second review from the "reprint file." This one from 2009 of the Mamiya DL28. The camera actually worked well. I think the top photo is a good proof of performance.... This is a reprint just to look at what we wrote back in the "old days" of digital.

 Another Camera Paradigm Shift.  Mamiya Gets Sensible.   And a few end of the year thoughts.


By Kirk Tuck


Noellia gives the Alien Bees Ringlight a test flash.  Camera:  The Mamiya DL28.  Degree of difficulty:  Not much.


If you’ve read my stuff here this year you probably know that I’ve had the opportunity to test a couple other medium format digital camera systems.  And every one of them had a unique selling proposition.  But the one thing they all seemed to have in common was price tag on par with the sticker price of a nice BMW automobile.  If you’ve read my reasons for wanting a MFDC you know why I want one.  If this is your first visit then let me bring you up to speed.

I’ve always liked the way the longer focal lengths we used on film medium format cameras created portrait images.  The sharp areas were really sharp and then the images rolled out of focus very gracefully until the backgrounds were just a gorgeous amalgam of softness and mystery.  Somehow I’ve never been able to get precisely the same effect with shorter optics (giving the same angles of view.…) on 35mm style digital cameras.  


We also loved the sweeping image area of the larger format in film and by extension in digital precisely because it rendered images with a much greater subtlety than the smaller formats when all other parameters were equal.  In digital capture the sheer quantity of pixels goes a long way to making images look smoother and cleaner.  The larger pixel wells (when compared to high res 35mm DSLR’s) also contribute to very wide dynamic ranges.  In the Mamiya DL 28 system the Leaf back is rated at 12 full stops of d-range which is almost two stops more than the best DSLR’s (excepting the exceptional six megapixel Fuji S5 pro).


Finally, it is only in the MFDC realm that you are able to shoot with a true 16 bit imaging file.  This means lots and lots more gradations between tones and colors.  The big drawback to MFDC’s has always been the price of entry.  But that’s the paradigm that Mamiya shifted.  The entry price has plummeted.  The new camera package is just shy of $15,000.  That includes the latest Mamiya AFD3 body (usable with both film and a range of digital backs.…), a newly computed 80mm lens that’s been optimized for digital capture, and a newly released Leaf 28 megapixel back with an enormous touch screen.


Still a bit more money than a Canon 1DS mk3 or a Nikon D3x but maybe a much better investment in the long run.  How could that be?  Well, for starters the sensor industry isn’t standing still but none of the 35mm style bodies are currently upgradable.  That means a big breakthrough in sensor technology demands the purchase of yet another body.  With the Mamiya system it means trading in the back and keeping the camera you know.  It means being able to buy a back up body at a much lower price.  And while DSLR’s keep improving so do the MFDC’s.




The latest from Mamiya goes a long way toward separating a portrait specialist from the pack.  With state of the art autofocus,  digitally optimized lenses and an open standard interface for a wide range of backs, it may be the most scalable, practical and sensible professional system on the market today.


The DL28 is state of the art in a number of ways that give it leverage against competitors.  The Leaf back uses a new generation LCD screen on the rear that presents a lot of real estate for checking composition, histograms and relative color.  The back is also a touch screen and it makes setting capture parameters very straight forward.  Your clients will love the way this camera tethers to laptops and workstations because they’ll be able to see your work writ large.

The well protected touch screen keeps the camera design sleek and pared down.  I think it’s the nicest designed of all the MFDC’s on the market.  Note the battery for the back at the bottom of the camera.  The camera itself takes six conventional double “A’s”.  The back is good for 250 exposures per charge while I shot over 1200 exposures without budging the battery indicator for the body.


So why would you want to spend the money on one of these?  Well, if you are in the business of providing carefully composed and styled images to art directors or big portraits to families, this system will give you a better image than you’ll get with the latest generations of DSLR’s.  If you aim for the top of the markets you serve the difference in price will certainly be offset by the sheer quality improvement.  In some ways it’s an intangible but to the really picky customers you can rest assured it’s noticeable!


The second reason is pure marketing.  If you are truly the best (and most expensive) of the suppliers in your market your customer may want to know why you shoot with the same kind of camera as uncle Bob.  You may think the gear doesn’t matter but if you are in competition with someone who is equally proficient and just as personable as you (I know, that’s hardly possible.….) the choice of shooting gear may just tip the scales in someone’s favor.



If you were a Mamiya shooter back in the film days and you still have your gear you’ll be pleased to know that all the AF lenses work flawlessly while all of the manual 645 lenses can be mounted and used with manual aperture stop down.


Given my recent article about surviving the recession how can I justify singing the praises of a $14,000 camera system?  Simple, if it can give me the edge over several of my close competitors it could pay for itself in a week’s worth of shooting.  Besides, I’m not saying you need to rush out and purchase one of these without regard to the overall market.  I’m sure there will be plenty in rental and I think you’ll be wise to try one on the next large scale production you book.


Caveat!!!!!  If you are a fast paced wedding photographer who routinely slams out 4,000 available light shots per wedding then no medium format camera system is currently for you.  The frame to frame time is too slow (less than one per second), the autofocus isn’t as speedy as that on a Nikon D3, and the luscious, elegant files are Raw only and far too big to make speedy, templated processing fun.


If you are a methodical worker, a portrait photographer, still life shooter or architectural shooter one of these will certainly raise your game to a higher level.


Other News.  Making Book.


My second book is wending its way through the production process and will become available at Amazon.com and at quality bookstores around the country on April 1st, 2009.  It’s all about studio lighting and it’s aimed at advanced amateurs and working pros.  We all know a lot about photography but I might know different stuff than you.  It’s already up for presale on Amazon.




4.01.2021

One of the early photos done with the Panasonic S1 and the original L mount 85mm Sigma Art Lens.


Mary Bridget Davies as "Janis." 

A little over a year ago I was pacing through the Zach Theatre auditorium at the technical rehearsal seeing "A Night with Janis Joplin" on stage for the first time and trying to predict where I needed to be, minute by minute, to get good photographs for marketing and promotion. 

I'd purchased two Panasonic S1s and some great lenses and I had already shot the big Christmas play just before the tumble into 2020. One of the cameras I had over a shoulder was equipped with the 24-105mm f4.0 Lumix lens while the other was outfitted with the big, heavy 85mm f1.4 Sigma Art lens. The image above was done with the Sigma. 

The Panasonic S1 cameras were (are) a good choice for theatrical photography because their sensors are among of the best performing when it comes to high ISOs. I was shooting the camera with the 85mm at ISO 1600 but mostly because I was interested in setting a fast shutter speed (this was at 1/400th) and I wanted to stop down just a little bit. But as I become more and more experienced with the cameras I found I have no trepidation about using them at ISO 6400 and, sometimes, even up to 12,800 ISO. The files clean up nicely. The sharpness and saturations remain good. 

I really wish the theatre was back in full scale production, inside the main theater building, because I'm very interested in shooting a show with a Leica SL2 or SL on one shoulder and a Lumix S1 on the other. It would make for a great comparison between not just the image quality differences (if any) but also the overall usability of each camera. 

It's one thing to walk around and point a camera at stuff that's not moving or changing much and trying to catch a live show on a stage with ever shifting lights. That, for me, is the litmus test. 

The 85mm was great. Thankfully, so is the new version. And it's smaller and lighter. 

Pix from rehearsal below:


definitely the week of the 85mm 1.4 Sigma. Art.


As more and more Austinites get vaccinated we're starting to slowly creak the studio door open again and starting to play around with more portraits. Here's a blast from the good old days.

 


Back in the pre-pandemic days we felt a lot less constrained about inviting people into the studio to make portraits just for fun. Now we're starting to hear from friends (and even adult children of friends) who want to come over and collaborate in some portraiture. 

Tomorrow I'm putting some time aside to make some portraits and headshots for one of my video collaborator's daughters. It's a pretty open-ended brief as long as we get some great stuff. 

Austin seems to be doing a decent job at getting large swaths of the community vaccinated and it seems most natives are still abiding by the mask mandates even though the "personal grievance" political party is doing everything they can to sabotage the recovery. If we can cut down on tourists from the bright red, surrounding cities we might just have a chance to thrive again.

And that means more and more beautiful faces tromping through the hallowed halls of the studio. For fun and sometimes, for profit. 


3.31.2021

I came across a bunch of reviews I wrote for Studio Photography Magazine back in the early to mid first decade of the 2000s. I thought a reprint of what my camera reviews were like back then would be fun. Here's the Fuji S5Pro...

Re-publish of an article/review from 2007...


Is the New Fuji S5 Pro really ready for Prime Time?

By Kirk R. Tuck

We’re always looking for the perfect camera.  It’s human nature.  We all want big, luscious image files with super wide dynamic range.  We all want resolution that goes on forever and a frame rate that competes with an Arriflex movie camera.  And we all want this camera to retail for less than the price of a car.

The sad reality is that every digital camera in the marketplace is a collage of compromises.  But as business owners there are some features we need and some features we can do without.  The secret of investing in photography equipment is to buy a camera that provides the stuff you need to make money.  All the other bells and whistles are just icing on the cake. (To mix two metaphors.…..)

If you shoot sports you’ll need a camera that autofocuses with accuracy and speed, writes files with dispatch, and has a massive frame buffer.  If you’re a still life photographer you’ll want a solution with a staggering number of megapixels.  Autofocus won’t really matter and, since most still life professionals shoot tethered, the size of the buffer is pretty much meaningless.

When it comes to photographing people the camera attribute most photographers are looking for is dynamic range.  They want a camera that will handle a wide range of tonalities without loosing detail in the shadows.  And they definitely want a camera that won’t easily burn out highlights to bald white.  Portrait and wedding photographers, especially, live in fear of the “blinking highlight” indicator.  The nasty little blinking lines that mean you’ve blown out all the detail in anything close to white that may have been in your frame.  Important things like the heirloom wedding dresses with hand sewn pearls, the fine blond hair of the flower girl, the high light tones of the CEO’s face (especially the CEO who thinks make up is not necessary) and pretty much anything with diffuse highlights.

If you make your money photographing people in the studio and on location you’ve probably been searching for the “Holy Grail” of cameras since the dawn of digital.  I’ve always wanted a digital camera that produced film-like images.  You know, long tonal range with a nice “roll off” in the shadows and highlights.  I thought I found it when I started using the Kodak DCS 760 back in 2001.  That was a great camera,  if you always shot at ISO 80,  and if you shot tethered so you could see what you got on a real screen,  and if you were willing to shoot only raw, and……… I really liked the long tonal range of the Kodak files but the desire for all the creature comforts kept winning out.

Then Fuji came out with the S3.  I bought one and used it but never warmed up to the consumer class Nikon body and baby sized buffer.  Now we’ve got the Fuji S5 Pro and I’m impressed.  But I spend most of my time photographing people, so your mileage may vary.

I’m not going to give you any charts or graphs.  I’m not going to give you test photos.  There is an exhaustive technical review available at DPReview.com.  I’ll give you my somewhat Quixotic review based on owning the camera for six months and using it on a wide range of assignments.  You can read the review below, but here’s the executive summary concerning the Fuji S5 Pro:  If your business entails photographing people, and you use Nikon lenses, you need to buy this camera.  Here’s what it does well:

1. Beautiful, long tonal range images of people with a great, almost unreal, resistance to “blown out” highlights.

2. Built in “film emulation” settings that mimic the feel of our favorite “people” films, such as Fuji NPS 160.  (Many a professional’s favorite “face” film.)

3. Gorgeous flesh tones even from directly “out of camera” jpegs. Raw files can be even better!

4. Nearly all the great handling characteristics of the Nikon D200* ( A few caveats to follow).

5. Relatively clean high ISO files.  Very usable right up to 1600 ISO with careful exposure.

Here’s where the Fuji S5 Pro stumbles:

1. The processing is very slow and the buffer fills up quickly.  Don’t even think of buying this camera if you are a sports shooter.  You will not be happy!

2. The frame rate hovers around one and one half frames per second so you won’t be shooting any fast sequences.  You’ll need to wait for that “decisive moment”.

3. To squeeze the absolute quality out of this camera you’ll need to shoot raw and you’ll want to use Fuji’s Hyper Utility raw conversion software.  That’s actually a mistatement.  I should have said that you’ll have to use the Hyper Utility software because the quality of the files is unmatched, but you’ll hate every minute of the process because the program is as slow as rush hour in Austin.  And the interface is anything but intuitive.

4. If you’re already shooting with Nikon D80’s and D200’s you’ll be seriously miffed that the batteries have been chipped so that they are not interchangeable.

5. If you’re coming from a Nikon D2x you’ll really be annoyed that the file view on the rear LCD can’t be zoomed up to 100% for careful evaluation of focus!  The face recognition feature really works but that’s like saying that my car doesn’t have airbags but the radio is really good.  Sometimes you really need to be able to check details!

That’s it in a nutshell so if you’re still interested let’s get on with the guts of the review.  

Nuts and Bolts.  Fuji got the physical handling of this camera just right.  They used a Nikon D200 body as their starting point and that was smart, because even people who aren’t fond of the Sony sensor chip used in the D200 still have high praise for the ergonomics of this particular body.  Holding the Fuji S5 Pro, with a 50mm lens attached feels just about perfect.  The camera is dense enough so that its inertia helps dampen vibration, yet it is small enough to carry around all the time.  

The viewfinder is bright and clean, with very good magnification.  If you take the time to adjust the diopter carefully you’ll find that most fast lenses (50mm and longer) can be focused manually without a problem.  The well designed finder is a welcome step backwards in the evolution of cameras and it’s one of many almost intangible aspects of the D200 body that all add up to a happy user experience.

While the file size and buffer limitations won’t allow the S5 to shoot as fast as the D200, the shutter response time and general autofocus characteristics are nearly identical.  You will enjoy the feel of the shutter release and the solid feel of the mechanical processes “under the hood” no matter what systems you’ve used in the past.

So what’s the difference?  Up till now the big complaint of most people photographers has been the limited dynamic range of available digital SLR’s.  How does this limited range affect portrait, wedding and advertising photographers who’s livelihoods depend on gorgeous flesh tones?  The most obvious problem with limited dynamic range is that, with proper exposure, many of the lightest highlight tones in a photograph tend to burn out.  The detail just vanishes and there’s really nothing you can do to bring it back.  Back when the majority of people photographers still shot film they chose color negative emulsions with lots and lots of “latitude”.   The generally accepted interpretation of “latitude” was “I can overexpose by a bit and still recover the highlights in the printing stage.”

When we all started shooting digital the concensus was that these new cameras were like shooting with contrasty slide film.  Slide film was famous for having very little latitude for exposure error.  If you overexposed slide film the highlight areas were nothing but clear film base.  No detail remained and nothing could be salvaged!  All of a sudden photographers who were used to leaning on the latitude of films like Fujifilm NPS 160 ( A gorgeous color negative film designed to have the perfect characteristics for people shooting ) were using digital cameras that produced files more akin to Provia slide film in their tonal curves.

A general howl ensued, especially from wedding photographers who were trying to keep some detail in the black formal wear of a groom and the delicate detail and bead work on a white wedding dress.  These photographers were happy enough with the resolution they were getting from previous generations of cameras but they definitely needed cameras that could keep a handle on contrasty lighting.  It wasn’t so long ago that Denis Reggie was singing the praises of his FOUR megapixel Canon 1D’s as fantastic wedding cameras.  But none of the major photographic suppliers stepped up to the plate to deliver what they saw as a niche product, a camera that compromised speed and high megapixel count for increased dynamic range and image quality.

The Fuji S5 Pro changed everything.  Especially for Nikon owners.  Fuji’s new camera, while not perfect, is a big step in the right direction and is being adopted by wedding and portrait shooters around the world.  It’s the first professional camera that allows you to “dial in” the exact amount of dynamic range you require for your style of shooting. Fuji does this by sandwiching two sets of sensors on their chip.  Six million sensors are big fat, sensitive chips that help the camera achieve really good high ISO performance.  An additional six million sensors are smaller, less sensitive imagers that are resistant to overloading when confronted with high light levels.  Every exposure combines the information from both sets of chips into one very smooth and long ranged file.

The dynamic range menu.  When you set up the S5 Pro for shooting you have a menu option that allows you to set dynamic range, expressed as a percentage.  The ranges are spread out in these steps:  Auto,  100% (Standard),  130%, 170%, 230%, 300% and 400%.  In Auto, the camera computes the range of tones present in the scene and sets a level that captures the widest range of tones.  Here’s the one trade off of which you need to be aware,  the wider the dynamic range of the file, the flatter it looks.  This implies a bit of post processing.  If you set the dynamic range to 400 and you shoot a scene that is not very contrasty you will end up with a very flat image.  That’s okay by me because it’s a file that’s filled with good information.  I can go into Photoshop and make a custom curve that’s just right.  The obverse is almost never true, a file that is too contrasty will have already been shorn of important detail and information--especially at the two ends of the dynamic scale.

The good news for busy practitioners is that the “Auto” setting works very well for 90% of photographic situations!   

I don’t shoot  weddings but I do shoot a lot of portraits on location for advertising agencies and direct corporate clients.  I find that the same dynamic range capabilities are a real advantage to me.  We don’t always have the luxury of working with make-up people and faces can get a bit shiny in Texas in the summer time.  The dynamic range control helps to keep big, soft diffuse highlights on portrait subjects’ faces from burning out to white.  And I can still keep necessary detail in the shadow.

All this and clean Jpeg files into the bargain.  From their very first professional, digital SLR, the S1, Fuji has had a reputation for building cameras capable of producing very nice jpegs directly from the camera.  No user intervention required.  The S5 Pro carries on this tradition.  With the introduction of this camera and the introduction of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom we have a “perfect storm” of workflow options for busy shooters.  The camera delivers wide dynamic range Jpegs that look great.  Lightroom allows the same kinds of color and tone controls for Jpegs that have been traditionally only available with RAW files.  And now Lightroom can batch correct Jpeg files.  Wedding photographers should rejoice as they now have access to files that are nearly equal to the quality of RAW files with all the convenience of batch  processing and file management.  And that’s a good thing considering that the RAW files from the Fuji S5 are over 20 megabytes each.  The large, fine Jpeg files are about 3 megabytes each.

Let’s talk about the files for a second.  The bottom line is that this camera delivers great Jpeg files and even better RAW files.  The color and tonal quality of each is very impressive but there is a bit of confusion as to the size of the files.  Fuji advertises the S5 Pro as a twelve megapixel camera, and it’s true that there are twelve million pixels being used to generate most images.  But  in terms of real resolution the camera is taking two sets of six million sensors and combining their tonal data.  The real number of image sites is six million.  The camera uses  interpolation to produce it’s final twelve megapixel files.

You can set the camera to produce 12 meg, 6 meg, and 3 meg files in Jpeg but in RAW you are stuck with only 12 Megapixel files.  If I’m shooting for a client that needs immediate access to the files as Jpegs I routinely shoot them as 12 Megapixel files.  If I’m shooting portraits and will be going back to the studio to make web galleries or proofs I rarely go above 6 megapixels.  For most uses these sizes are absolutely fine, and with the six megapixel files I’m post processing files that around a quarter the size of the larger interpolated files.  That makes every step of the workflow more efficient.

If you’re looking for the highest quality possible you’re going to end up using RAW.  Most RAW shooters are control freaks and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.  There’s good news and bad new about using the Fuji S5 Pro as a raw camera.  Here’s the good news:

The files can be absolutely gorgeous!  Silky smooth skin tones.  Long, detail rich tonal values, and a sharpness that belies the real resolution of the camera.  If you have the time and patience you’ll be rewarded with rich color images.

Now, here’s the bad news:  To really unlock all the potential of the Fuji RAF Raw file you’ll need their $100 raw converter.  It doesn’t have the depth of control you’ll find in Adobe Camera Raw (the built in Raw converter for Adobe Photoshop CS 3 and Lightroom) but Fuji knows their own raw file better than anyone else and it’s the only program (currently) that recognizes camera settings such as dynamic range and “film looks”.  I used Fuji’s raw converter for the book cover shots of Sianelli and the results were smoother and more realistic than the same images converted in either one of the Adobe products.  In same way that Nikon NX delivers the highest quality from Nikon NEF files, Fuji has a decisive quality edge with the combination of their RAF files and the Hyper Utility Converter.

At the beginning of the last paragraph I stated that the need to use the Fuji HU converter was bad news.  How can that be if the files are wonderful and the conversion is a level above the Adobe Camera Raw conversion?  Simple.  The Fuji converter is slow, slow, slow.  If you are using an older Powermac G5 machine or one of the new Intel Macs, be prepared to wait for every single step.  Hyper Utility is also an very non-intuitive program so be prepared to do some “trial and error” training.  

My advice?  Buy the Fuji converter for the times when each individual image must be absolutely perfect.  But do all your sorting, web gallery proofing and general image administration in a faster, more flexible program such as Lightroom or Bridge.  Nikon users tend to spend most of their time dealing with NEF raw files in a variety of different programs, chosen for their speed and robustness.  When the client has made final selects most Nikon users turn to Capture or NX to ultimately fine tune color, tone and other parameters.  I suspect Fuji users will want to adopt the same strategy.

Moving on from dynamic range I find that my second favorite aspect of the Fuji S5 Pro is a menu that lets you set the “look” of the camera’s files to match those of some favorite films.  When you set this in Jpeg you are locked into a film look.  When you shoot RAW and process in Fuji’s raw converter you can change the settings during processing.

The menu lists four settings in additional to the default (Standard).  They are: F1, F1a, F1b, F1c and F2. Here is how Fuji defines each setting:  F1: Suitable for studio portrait work.  Similar to professional color negatives.  Suppresses flare in flash highlights. Also provides smooth tonal transitions in skin tones.  F1a:  Saturation is slightly increased in comparison to F1 mode.  F1b:  Reproduces skin tones with smooth transitions  Also provides vibrant reproduction of natural colors such as blue skies and is ideal for daylight portraits. F1c:  Increased sharpness in comparison with F1.  Ideal for fashion photography.  F2:  High color saturation like Fujichrome slide film.  Suitable for nature, product or architectural photography.

It’s obvious that Fuji brings a lot of expertise to the creation of digital solutions from their experiences as one of the world’s dominant film makers.

The final area I want to cover is that of high ISO performance.  This is one area that Nikon shooters have worried about for years.  Everyone seems to be fixated with the idea of shooting at ISO 1600 or 3200 for every day photo work.  The Fuji S5 Pro is the first camera to use Nikon lenses that gives relatively good performance at ISO 1600.  I’ve included some examples from a dress rehearsal shoot for a theater performance of “High School Musical”.  I think the Fuji does a fine job at 1600 ISO but I think all cameras do a hell of a lot better at settings between ISO 100 and 400 and that’s where most of our commercial work gets shot.

So,  to recap the positives:  Great camera body.  Really superior Jpeg files.  Outstanding RAW file performance using the manufacturer’s conversion software.  Dynamic range that will cut down on the need to retouch and post process. Fast enough in camera processing to handle most weddings and events.  A camera that can handle wedding dresses in sunlight.  An ISO 1600 that’s reliable and usable. The S5 can meter and shoot with any Nikon manual focus lens equipped with AI or AIS.  The ability to use most D200 accessories except for the ones you want to use the most---the batteries.  The camera is stingy with battery power.  Two batteries in an MB-200 grip will last you for at least 1600 exposures with lots of “chimping”.  And finally, the price.  I think $1900 is quite reasonable for a camera with all this imaging potential.  

Now to balance out with the negatives:  It’s hard to get used to 1.5 frames per second once you’ve shot with a Nikon D2x in the crop mode at 8 frames per second.  Even the D200 at 5 frames per second seems blazingly fast.  Many will want a “real” twelve megapixel sensor rather that a six megapixel sensor that uses software “voodoo” to get there.  I didn’t like the menus at first but now I’m used to them.  The raw file size is about twice as big as I’d like.

My totally subjective conclusion:  This is the camera I’ve wanted since I put down my Hassleblad medium format film cameras and started trying to make digital work for my business.  I know that when I shoot a portrait with Fuji S5 Pro I can light a little “hotter” and shoot a bit closer to the right of the histogram without constantly worrying about blowing out highlights.  I know that flesh tones will be delicately and accurately rendered, and I know the color will be right on the money.  Saving time and effort on post processing, combined with files that are rich and beautiful is a successful business strategy for any portrait professional.  I’m sold.

(About the author.   Kirk Tuck is a people photographer who works mainly for corporate clients and advertising agencies.  Based in Austin, Texas he works for clients such as Dell, IBM, Motorola, Freescale, Time Warner, Renew Data, AMD, Ziff Davis, and Tribeza Magazine.

Gear:  All current professional Nikon Digital Bodies, Fuji S5 Pro, 2 Sony R1’s, Rolleiflex Medium format cameras, Profoto and Alien Bee lights.  Apple Computers.

He has just finished writing a book on location lighting for a major publisher.  He lectures to college classes and is a successful speaker on photography and marketing.)


 

A first attempt to make commercial portraits again in the studio. How did I like using the Leica SL2 as a studio camera?

This photo is not related to the article below. It's just for fun.

 This is just a short post to talk about how well the SL2 works as a portrait camera. I photographed two business people in the studio today. I set up on Godox SL150ii in a 48 inch octagonal soft box and used it as close in toward my subject as I could manage. The second light was also a Godox SL150ii (LED light) aimed at the background and delivered through a small soft box. I used a 50 inch bounce reflector opposite the main light. 

I set up the camera on a tripod and set it do shoot in the 1:1 or square format. I also set the camera to shoot DNG+Medium Jpeg. With the camera set to preview and also deliver squares I could use it in the horizontal configuration which is most comfortable. The camera shows the square with the edges masked off. 

Here's what I liked about shooting that way: The sensor resolution is high enough that I can easily crop either horizontal or vertical. With many cameras when you shoot in a different format and choose to shoot in raw you end up seeing the whole frame in most post production software but with a white set of lines (a box?) showing you what the crop to format looks like. But with the Leica SL2 when I imported the files into Lightroom they resolve exactly as the squares I shot in camera. No extra work required. 

When I selected frames to upload to Smugmug from this morning's shoot I was able to convert all the selected raw files to Jpegs and all of them matched the square crop I saw from the raw files. No extra steps had to be taken. 

People have critiqued the AF of the SL2 for lack of speed or hesitant lock-on but I had zero AF performance issues. I selected face detect AF and the camera and lens did a great job at locking in on the faces. The eyes in every shot were perfectly focused and wildly sharp. Well...not too sharp but as sharp as they were supposed to be. (sorry for the nudge toward hyperbole...).

Since I used a custom white balance the flesh tones in the resulting files were absolutely perfect. The dynamic range also assisted in providing good highlight and shadow detail on the people. That makes for easy file correction down the road. 

I used two lenses today. The primary lens was the Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art lens (version 2). It's wonderful. Just the right thing for portraits cropped to square in this set up. The second lens was one I used to get a little wider frame so I'd have room to cut out the person in the frame if the client decides they want to composite an exterior landscape as a background (like the ones I shot yesterday...); it's the Sigma i series 65mm f2.0. It keeps up with the 85mm ART very well. Both are crispy and laden with details. I stuck to just a third stop further open than f5.6 as my working aperture and it was a good combination for getting enough depth of field but also giving me a good blur on the background. 

I shot from 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. and the files were globally color corrected and online in a gallery by 1pm. 

No hiccups from the camera or lenses. And I'd forgotten just how nice big bright LEDs look in voluminous soft box modifiers. It was nice. 

We're about 90 posts away from having produced 5,000. That's the goal I set for myself when I started this blogging adventure oh so long ago. I'm betting that we will end up getting there in less than 3 months. I'm not sure what will happen then.  I might choose a place in the center of the country and invite all the vaccinated VSL readers to join me for some sort of event. Or I may just ignore the goal and keep on slamming out posts. 

Maybe I'll quit writing and try V-logging instead. It's all unknown. Just advising you that life might or might not change for me when I reach 5,000. Advice? Or not.


3.30.2021

I took some photos with the Leica SL and the new-ish Panasonic 20-60mm zoom lens. It was encouraging.


When I decided that I'd probably never use a two pound, 20mm f1.4 prime lens; no matter how good it potentially is, I sold it and replaced it with a lens I'm getting a lot more use from. In my humble opinion it's an overlooked product. It costs $600, feels like it's made mostly of nice plastic, and it's slow with a variable aperture that starts at 3.5 and goes to 5.6. It usually comes bundled as a "kit" lens with the Panasonic S5 which, if you part them out, drops the price of the lens to $500. 

I imagined that the lens would be "adequate" but at least acceptable for my wide angle uses. I conjectured that if I needed a little better performance I could always bring out the 24-105mm Panasonic zoom which I've used a lot over the last year and never been disappointed. But I thought I should give the new lens a shake out and so I did a couple of week ago and I posted the results here

But I was at loose ends yesterday morning and it started out cool and crisp so I decided to get a few fast walked miles in and grabbed the recently acquired Leica SL and paired it up for the first time with the Panasonic 20-60mm. 

So, it's a fine lens. Really, really nice to have along when shooting and walking for hours. It even helps offset the weight of the SL pretty well. I've looked at the images very carefully and they seem nicely sharp and largely without the usual foibles of wide zooms. No discernible vignetting. No LoCa. No sloppy unsharpness in the corners. But, of course I cheated and used f6.1 which should be the sharp point for most of the focal lengths provided by the lens. While a Leica 24-90mm zoom might have been a smidge better I doubt I want to carry it on a heavy camera, on a strap, over a shoulder. So it probably would not have been invited along. 

The 20-60mm is nice. I bought mine used for $400 and now consider it a bargain. A $400 zoom lens on the front of a Leica --- and it was the star of the show. An odd photographic universe but that's why it stays interesting...


 
The city of Austin can be...odd. This is a big, metal, community picnic table.
the faux tablecloth is part of the design. This assemblage of lights and the table sit out
in the middle of a green space just north of Lady Bird Lake. 
I like how eccentric it all is.


Not seeing much distortion with this lens.





NOT my favorite BBQ restaurant. Not.


Leica SL does red. And blue.

I tried something different when I scouted a location today...


An P.R. agency I work with got in touch with me yesterday. They were in a small panic (but they handled it well). They have two client who are flying in from somewhere and they need new portraits taken of them to couple with a series of press releases. They said they'd like to do something downtown but would like to have the background "kind of blur out...."

We arranged to photograph tomorrow around lunch time so I decided to go back downtown and make some scouting pictures of likely locations. I did the usual scouting by taking note of places for the subjects to stand that would be out of the sidewalk traffic and places for me to stand while taking the photos that wouldn't be out in the middle of car traffic. 

When I got to my destination I had the idea that I might better show the client how this would all work if I blurred the background in the scouting photographs. It would be one less thing for them to try and imagine.

I was carrying the recently acquired Leica SL and I attached my favorite Contax 50mm lens to it. Then I set the focus to between five and six feet and opened the lens up to its widest aperture; f1.7.  

The world looks different when you intentionally blur it. We're overcast today and I hope we stay that way until I finish with this project tomorrow. I plan to bring a small flash and a tiny soft box. It doesn't have to be much, I just want to add a tiny bit of direction to the light. If we're in overcast it should all pan out just right. 

Since I was once a Boy Scout and really liked the motto ("Be Prepared") I went ahead and cleaned up the studio and set up a background and some lights there. If it's pouring down rain tomorrow, or crazy windy, we'll just move everything there and keep the process moving along. 

Now that I think about it I guess if we retreat to the studio I could use one of these ready made background in a composite and still get the shot they wanted. I've never "blur scouted" before so I wanted to share the idea with you and see what you think. Good idea? Stupid? Right now I'm thinking it's pretty cool....








A quick "thank you!" to my unwitting patron, the W Hotel.
I have used their fine restroom facilities through a large 
percentage of the pandemic. Nicely upscale.
Very clean. 


 

3.29.2021

My earliest days as an international photographer. (Smiley face emoticon strongly suggested).


When we lived in downtown Adana, Turkey from 1963 to 1965 I made friends with a lot of Turkish kids my age. Every once in a while I'd go with them to their schools and try to keep up in Turkish and follow the lessons. At the time it seemed like a big deal to the Turkish guys to bring an American along with them.  I really enjoyed two years, immersed daily, in a different culture and far away from television, English language radio and our interesting culture. 

This has to be the earliest photograph of me with a camera. The family had one camera and we shared it. I took it to school with me to make photographs of my friends and their teachers. 

It was a very simple camera and, if I remember correctly, it took 126 film. I mostly got allocated rolls of Verichrome film (even though it has "chrome" in the name it was black and white) which was much cheaper to develop than color print film. 

I'm the kid second from the left on the front row. The one with the camera. 

Early indoctrination? Probably. I was in second or third grade when this was taken. That's a pretty early start...


Photographic Homeostasis. Ingrained Resistance to Change.

 Photographer Kristian Dowling said: "As photographers we are only as good as the opportunities we create." 

Johnson City, Texas.
March 28, 2021

Biological Homeostasis is an organism's adherence to a set of constants. All systems from blood circulation to hormone production to breathing; even shivering or sweating, are all about maintaining a very narrow range of constants in a system. Homeostasis in a human body is really a nice deal since it keeps us alive and functional. And it's all done autonomically. 

But....I am pretty sure that homeostasis in the art field of photography is a strong inhibitor of the evolution of new art and new ways of seeing things. Our generation of writers who are joined at the hip with photography continue to mine the past (way past!) masters as though there have been no changes in style or content since the last century. All hail Weston. All hail Sexton. And, of course, All hail Henri-Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank. But after a while it becomes like visual elevator music; an endless loop of Beatles instrumentals as a self-reinforcing paean to work already accepted and vetted. And then re-done by legions of lesser talents...

The mining of the past goes beyond just a knee-jerk adoration of our formidable heroes and includes now a vast collections of work by other photographers rigidly adhering to the look, feel and even process of our forerunners. One has only to attend a photography workshop at Point Lobos to see a horde of wannabe Weston's wielding their 4x5 and even 8x10 inch view cameras with their tripods anchored as close to the spots where the master once stood. 

When I read essays by critics and "experts" of photography there is always the sly comparison to the manner in which one of the old timers handled their vision or their craft that is a wink and a nod of approval to the hoary and calcified status quo. And why not? There's no downside for writers and critics who work over the bones of past giants. They are assured that at least a fair number in their audiences will know the work and also strive to follow in their footsteps. 

In fact, as photographic writers age we are getting locked more and more firmly into an encapsulated and fully "approved" version of the history of photography. Why? Because the audiences are in lock step. They've read all through their careers, as hobbyists or professionals, about these giants. In printed photography magazines and in books.

It's a curatorial mindset that's a remnant of a time when we knew about the "famous" photographers from a limited set of sources. In the last century there were gatekeepers and photographic kingmakers who could make a career from a sow's ear. How else to explain the work of Stephen Shore (sorry if you happen to be a fan...)? Patriarchy and privilege bestowed directly by John Szarkowski to a teenager with a banal snapshot aesthetic. J.S. also gave us a number of shooting stars that flamed out in the brutal glare of retrospective, and the passage of time, and fell back to earth singed and forgotten. But current writers of a certain age are relentless in branding "art" photography as a quiet, solitary pursuit which involves large format image creation, fine art printing (usually in B&W), gallery representation and book publishing when, in fact, most progress in the digital age comes from the democratization of distribution. The absence of gatekeepers and the rejection of 20th century restraints. 

We of a certain age like what we like because we are familiar with it. The traditional publishers and museums ensure the homeostasis of their curated favorites by dint of their control of traditional distribution and vetting, and by the artists' sheer tenure in an industry that profits from having recognizable stars. But would the art of photography be (much) better off if we had much less emphasis on revisiting, over and over again, the past success of photographers? If we let go of the homeostasis of the familiar and replaced it with a new reverence for evolution and revolution? When can we decide that an artist's impact is inextricably intertwined with his/her temporal context? 

I know one thing for certain. If you want to achieve glory as a current photographer in a traditional venue you'll go further if you present in black and white and you produce in large format. These signature properties have had the historic blessings of the gatekeepers and curators of a certain age as surely as the mention of archival processing. 

Just a thought. The image at the top of the blog is my nod to every southwestern (USA) landscape photographer who worked in the 1940's up to the end of the last century. The color would be frowned upon but is now tolerated. Thank you William Eggleston. (As elevated by J.Szarkowski). 

Hope you are having a happy and productive Monday. I'm off to steal some secrets from the work of the late,  JeanLoup Sieff. 


3.28.2021

Is the Leica SL (the first version of the new mirrorless line) still relevant in 2021? Why buy one?


Leica by Leica. I photographed the new (to me) SL with my
(relatively) new SL2. I shot handheld at ISO6400. 
Looks okay to me. 

When the Leica SL camera launched in 2015 it seemed like the whole SL system was a touch-and-go sort of proposition. There were only three lenses available for the system at the time of the launch and only one was versatile enough to form the backbone of a new system. That was the 24-90mm Elmarit zoom lens which currently sells for around $5,500 new. 

The camera body itself was very alluring. It featured a level of camera manufacturing that was far beyond the processes used by competitors, and its level of build quality has, as far as I know, never been equalled. The shell of the body is carved out of a solid block of dense aluminum alloy; it's not a die cast frame. It's not a joining of separate pieces. At the time of the launch the electronic viewfinder was the first to exceed the 4 million-dot bar. And the finder optics themselves were, to my knowledge, the first to use all glass elements instead of a mix of glass and plastics. The body was extensively weather sealed but has been surpassed by it's descendant, the Leica SL2 which is basically the same body structure with a more ergonomic grip, one fewer button on the back, a sensor that is 47.5 megapixels, and the (highly desired) inclusion of in-body image stabilization. 

While the menu controls are not identical in content or layout between the older and newer cameras they are philosophically the same. But the original is a bit more minimalist by dint of not having any of the rear function buttons (excepting the on/off switch) labeled in any way. It's a bit challenging for anyone coming from the button and dial-laden cameras from all the usual camera makers but once you get used to the new interface and button functionality it makes sense and it's fast and easy. 

I have been eyeing the original SL since its introduction in 2015 and, in fact, my move into the Lumix system was partly predicated on the idea that I might one day change cameras, buy Leicas, and have a wide range of really, really good lenses which are interchangeable between multiple camera systems. At the time of its launch I wasn't ready to commit to the Leica way of doing things. But as assignments dried up during the lockdown it became less and less daunting to try new stuff since I would only be messing up my own work or my own flow and not wrecking any photo shoots for clients. 

I had never really handled an SL2 before I walked in to the store last month and bought one. I've been making my way through its learning curve. I like the camera (SL2) but it's too perfect to love. If you point it at things and push the shutter button the camera figures the exposures and focusing so accurately and convincingly that it takes all the fun out of my generally haphazard approach to photography. 

While looking for tutorials about a better approach to setting up and operating the SL2 I kept coming across video after video and review after review from Leica photographers who have been five year long users of the SL and, to a person, the common thread was about the look of the DNG files from the camera. The refrain was about a level of discrimination of color tones that made images seem more like what one sees with one's eyes. The second concept, repeated in every recounting, was about the way the files dealt with sharpness and acutance. There was a lot of conjecture in the early reviews of the SL that so much of the look had to do with the high performance rendering power of the new line of SL lenses but that assessment evolved as people worked with any number of adapted lenses but still reported the difference in rendering between the Leica SL and other makes of mirrorless cameras. 

I found, online,  a barely used SL at a camera store in Miami and had it shipped to me here in Austin. When the box arrived via UPS I opened it and found it packed layer by layer. First was the big, generic cardboard box. Inside were chubby styro peanuts surrounding a thinner, white cardboard box, inside that was the original camera box. Inside that were all the manuals and accessories packed as though the camera was coming straight from new stock. When I burrowed down to the camera and pulled it out of its bag I was surprised to find that it was, essentially spotless.

The camera retailer, Leica Store Miami, did an amazing job packing the camera for shipping and I was even more delighted to find the body had been upgraded to the most current (v3.7) firmware as well.

Even though the reverse is true, the SL felt denser and fractionally heavier than its newer model replacement. 

So, the box arrived on Friday evening and I charged the battery, went through the menus, formatted a card for the #1 card slot, and generally took a stroll through all the menus. Saturday was a busy day and I didn't get to shoot anything. This morning I headed to Johnson City. 

A friend of mine who shoots for Texas Highways Magazine told me about a Celtic Sports Festival that was supposed to start at 9 a.m. in the Johnson City park. The event was something like Scottish kaber tossing and all the participants were required to wear kilts and stockings. But when I arrived at 10 a.m. I couldn't find the event anywhere (and it's not that big of a town...). I texted my photographer friend and he got back to me a little while later to say that he'd just gotten a notification that the event had been cancelled. Well. It was a lovely drive out. I stayed around the town and snapped a few more images just for fun. Part of breaking in a new camera. 

I stopped by the town of Dripping Springs to wash my car and then headed back to Austin. A bit frustrated by not having ready targets for my new (to me) camera I decided to take yet another walk through downtown Austin. Partly for exercise and partly as an excuse to try out the new camera.

Here's my "first taste" evaluation. Short and sweet. 

The camera is big, heavy and solid. The lack of buttons is, at least right now, a novel thing but also a bit fraught since I am still new to the process and the art of double-clicking to get to different functions isn't second nature yet. If you love light weight and small cameras you will NOT want to buy your own SL. 

It feels much like the heft of something like the Pentax K-1 I owned. Solid and convincing but you will be aware that you are porting one around at all times. 

The camera is fairly fast and responsive when you turn it on. It gets ready to shoot pretty quickly. The surprise to me was the finder. I was expecting it to be as stellar as the SL2's EVF but it isn't as color accurate or as contrasty or visually transparent. I've been spoiled by the newer Leica and also by the three Panasonic S1 variants I own, all of which have higher accuracy finders than the SL. The difference, I believe, is that the SL uses an LCD screen whereas the S1s and the SL2 use the latest OLED screens. I could be wrong but I'm pretty sure I've read that in several places. 

The weird thing is that the rear external screen seems to be perfectly color calibrated and nicely sharp. It's actually a joy to use. But here's a note to those who like their cameras friction free.... The screen on the back of the camera is fixed, built-in, non-rotatable, non-swivel-able, not flippable. It's just right there on the back of the camera. But it's nicely color balanced and looks sharp and well done. 

The newer camera; the SL2, uses Gorilla Glass for its touch screen so it's a bit hardier and more resistant to scratches and other accidental damage than the older SL rear screen. Just something to keep in mind for you folks that like to thrash your cameras around. 

I had the camera on for about three hours today and took somewhere north of 300 images. Most were flushed into the desktop trash can within minutes of reviewing them but my point is that the battery life was better than expected. With a bit of judicious conservation it would be possible to make it through a full, but casual, shooting day with two batteries. And that's a good things since the batteries are currently priced at $275 each. 

I'm a center focusing spot, S-AF sort of photographer so you're not going to get much relevant information  about the camera's ability to track someone running in a zigzag pattern toward the camera. And that's because I've never needed to shoot anyone running in a zigzag towards me and my cameras. If someone were to do that I'd probably decide, at some point, to turn around and run away from them in a zigzag pattern. But anyway, when used the way I like to work with cameras the focus locks on quickly and it seems very accurate. 

I've used adapted Leica R lenses on the camera as well as L-mount Sigmas and even my Contax lenses and I have to say that the camera is able to meter and expose pretty well with all comers. I was a bit apprehensive this morning when I stuck the Lumix 24-105mm lens on the camera and then turned the camera on. I got a message on the screen letting me know that this lens might have higher than normal battery consumption. Interesting. I'd heard a rumor that certain non-Leica lenses drained batteries quicker on the SL and SL2. I turned the camera back off, turned off the I.S. on the lens and then turned the camera back on. This time I didn't get a warning message. I'm guessing that leaving the I.S. on all the time is just more battery intensive and the engineers wanted you to know that. It was good to know. 

So, if the finder isn't as good as cameras I already have and the camera lacks some of the video features as well, why would I want to buy one in 2021? 

In a nutshell, I think the body design is the best industrial design I have ever encountered in a camera. The aesthetics and the feel are unmatched; even by the newer Leica. I'll be happy if, after putting it through its paces, I decide I have other cameras that are better in the field, I just put it on a shelf next to my workstation and admire it for the next decade. But, the reality is that I think the files are different. Maybe not better but different. And I think it's going to pan out as a wonderful portrait camera. But we'll see.

I think the older camera is a bargain for anyone who is interested in sticking an exploratory toes into the Leica SL system waters right now. It's still relevant in terms of its 24 megapixel, full frame sensor, and it's useful selection of 4K video options. It's a fast and sturdy shooter and a great entry into the L-mount alliance systems as well. Worst case scenario? At least I have one more battery I can use in my SL2...

The purchase price of this used, premium camera was $2.000. A huge drop from its original selling price of $7450. And less than one third the price of it's 2020 replacement. 

An interesting point about the SL2. I paid $5995 for mine, new from an authorized dealer. I've just been informed that the price is going up to $6500 on the first of April. Yes, a price increase on a camera that's been out for a year. Not a price drop. Seems like it's also going to affect the price of used SLs. Maybe I got my copy just in time. Chalk it all up to nostalgia but the older camera makes me grin while the newer model just makes me smile. Yeah, it's worth it.

Added the next morning, after more reflection: There is a certain psychological momentum pushing the buyer of any longed for product to see it in the best possible light; to ward off cognitive dissonance by looking for the positive attributes of an acquisition instead of being objective. 

I haven't answered the question posed in the title as it relates to someone who is "not me." So here goes:

Would I recommend that you, or anyone looking for a good, utilitarian picture taking machine buy a Leica SL in 2021? Absolutely not. While the camera is a manufacturing and design marvel, and might well be appreciated just for that, as a picture taking device it's got a lot stacked against it when compared to more recent cameras. It is very heavy, other camera makers have caught up and surpassed the SL in terms of EVF resolution (which was a big feature in 2015 --- less stunning today), and the 4K video shot in APS-C is a dated approach. 

As long as we're on the subject of hybrid use I would counsel would be buyers to look carefully at video production considerations if considering this one. The 4K files written directly into the camera are all Long-GoP and 8 bit. But the real rub, if you want to use this as a compact and reliable production tool is the absence of a direct and permanent input for a microphone and a permanent output for headphone monitoring. There is a remote control port on the camera and one can buy a device for an additional $175 that will allow the attachment of headphones and a microphone but it's a small input/output port and a non-standard dongle which means that if you lose it or it becomes non-functional mid-shoot, you are out of luck. Unless, of course, you have multiples of the device sitting around...at $175 each.

After shooting and reviewing files yesterday I would also join the almost unanimous chorus of writers and SL users who've cautioned people away from using the camera as a Jpeg photography generator. It may be that I have yet to zero in the controls for Jpegs effectively but there are no "profiles" to select and the three parameter controls are coarse; with one step between neutral and "full on" for contrast, sharpness and saturation. I find the look of the Jpeg files a bit dated. They are less nuanced and subtle than the Jpeg renderings of the newer cameras, not just from Leica but from nearly all the competitors. But I guess you have to go into it understanding that you are comparing a model from six years ago with current, state of the art stuff. In reference to Moore's Law that at least three full generations back. And given Leica's stately pace of innovation I'd make it more like four gens.

So, big, heavy, slow, under-featured and still selling at a price that will get you a more modern and facile camera. And that's before you factor in the size and cost of Leica brand lenses. 

In retrospect I might have been more satisfied, long term, by waiting and saving a bit more money and buying the newly introduced Leica SLS, if I really needed a 24 megapixel adjunct to the SL2. If I was starting from scratch and not interested in the L mount system I would certainly be looking at something like the Nikon Z6ii. I've been bitten by the ergonomics of the Sony A7 series camera bodies too often to consider them even if they boast the best spec sheets. 

So, would I recommend this camera to you? No. Not unless you had money to burn, were into Leica or Panasonic L mount stuff and came from a long background of shooting medium format film, focusing manually, working deliberately and were the kind of person who enjoys or even invites a little friction into your process. If you were a sports shooter convicted of some heinous crime, and I could mete out a bit of justice to you, I would consign you to shooting fast action sports with a Leica SL for the rest of your career.....

Let's leave it right there until I've had more time to evaluate this camera in the studio. Doing the holy work of portraiture....











Good red seems to be tough for some sensors. The SL nails red.