Off Topic: Just thinking about exercise as the seasons change to HOT here in Texas.

Warm up lanes. USMS Short Course Nationals.

We're deep into Summer here in Austin, Texas. Our swim schedule at the pool gets modified to accommodate member's pool use. We have the pool from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. So we set up two, one hour practices to make sure there is space for everyone who wants to participate. No noon workouts in the Summer. 

All this week we could feel the water temperature creeping up. It might be counterintuitive but it's hard to swim hard in warmer water. At a certain point it can even be dangerous. On Tues. this week it was about 84 degrees (f) and we were able to get in about 3400 at each workout. After a string of temperatures over 100, coupled with high humidity, the pool felt closer to 86 today. 

We don't have a water chiller built into the filtration system at our pool but we do make good use of aerators which are basically pumps that spray water into the air and back into the water. The evaporative cooling helps a great deal but depends quite a bit on the humidity to be low. The lower the humidity the higher the cooling power. The optimum temperature for a practice pool for swimmers participating at a high level is about 78 degrees. Competition pools like the University of Texas at Austin pool shown in these photos are kept to a pretty precise temperature range somewhere between 77 and 79 for practice. 

If you are swimming in warm water and going hard you'll need to be especially aware of hydration. Pool water has a different pH than your body's fluids and pulls water from you by osmosis. I keep a bottle of water next to my bed and, if I wake up in the middle of the night, I start drinking early, in anticipation of the morning workout. It takes time to get water into your system so really, you are hydrating this afternoon and this evening in anticipation of tomorrow's workout. 

I find that I need a combination of dryland exercise and swimming over the course of each week for optimum health. I swim six days a week and, since we do an hour and a half on Saturday and Sunday that's seven hours of intense aerobic effort. But it's not weight bearing exercise so I add in four days a week of running in the cool seasons or four days of walking in the warm seasons. I think people over 60 need to increase the amount of weight bearing exercise they get to offset the tendency to lose muscle mass over time. Since we need to focus on muscle mass over the entire body it's critical not to just walk or run but also to do resistive exercise for your upper body. For me, a quick and easy approach is to do 25-50 classic push-ups a day. Shouldn't take more than five minutes but you will feel the results over time. A benefit of push-ups is that they can be done in the air conditioning and they will work equally well. 

A week is 168 hours so it seems reasonable to spend less than 10% of that time having fun, getting exercise, hanging out with exuberant people, keeping body weight constant, and keeping one's blood pressure low. I can't guarantee anything but I think being in good shape makes one a better photographer. It certainly keeps your ass from spreading across that chair in front of your computer.

I swam this morning but I'm always up for something mid-day. Ben just came into the office and asked if I had any interest in walking the four mile loop at the lake, downtown. I'm lacing up my walking shoes just as fast as I can.... 

Warm up lanes. USMS Short Course Nationals.

Slow times and the need for disciplined marketing. You're not a professional photographer if you don't have any work...

Steve G. for Ottobock Healthcare. ©2017 Kirk Tuck.

Over the years I've read a lot of stuff (mostly tangential to reality) about what makes a photographer a professional photographer. The definitions and fine points range from having complete mastery of your equipment to understanding all the theories of photography. I've also read too much about what you need to have in order to be a professional photographer. The lists include: Big, Heavy Cameras. Big, Heavy Lenses. European brand electronic Flash Equipment. Business Cards. A Website. A Logo. More Big, Heavy Cameras. A Laptop with which to Tether. A four wheel drive vehicle for transport to far flung shooting locales. An Entourage of helpers who fetch coffee and hold lights. Big, Heavy Cameras that shoot at 12, 14, 16, or 20 frames per Second. Black Vapid camera straps. 600mm f4.0 lens for Canon or Nikon. Truck with which to haul 600mm f4.0 lens. Latest iPhone for Instagramming. Coffee. 

The one thing I never see on these all encompassing lists of "must haves to be pro" is the single and only thing that makes a photographer a professional photographer. That one thing is: Actual Clients who can Write Checks or Transfer Money to you. 

Photographers put in so much time reading about new gear and then reading stories about other photographers who've just gotten the new gear and want to gush about it. Occasionally they read articles about how to copy the work of other photographers


The old song and dance. Another morning wasted shooting an old lens on a new camera.

10:15 a.m. Weds. June 28, 2017. Photographer re-acquires relatively new Panasonic G85 from top of desk (as opposed to "desktop") and pauses to contemplate a shooting scenario that might entail a walk and a revisiting of a barely used; but nearly ancient lens. Rises from desk chair and walks across the foam padded floor of his office/studio to an old, gray, Craftsman rolling tool cabinet. Wide shot of photographer in khaki shorts, white t-shirt and hiking shoes crossing the faux deck plate. Close up shot of him opening middle drawer. Extreme close up of his hand hovering over a collection of tiny, retro-looking lenses. Close up of him deciding and then pulling one small, silver and black lens from the drawer. The lens comes into sharp focus and is revealed as a 25mm, f2.8 Zuiko G, Pen-FT lens made for half frame film cameras long since discontinued. 

A similar lens with a focal length of 40mm and an f-stop of 1.4 is removed from the G85 body and placed on the top of the desk. The 25mm takes it's place on the front of the camera. 

The photographer checks pocket and then pulls out a battery for a Sony camera. He puts the battery in the second drawer from the bottom in the Craftsman cabinet and pulls out, from the same drawer, two blocky looking Panasonic batteries. He exchanges one of the batteries with the battery currently occupying the G85. He places the used battery from the camera on a small charger. He sticks the other battery in the left pocket of his short pants. He pauses to check and make sure an SD card is loaded in the camera. It is. 

He finds his keys and his sunglasses on the desktop and exits the studio. We cut to the photographer opening the front door of a house positioned just across a walkway from the studio. He pauses at the door and calls out to someone not seen by the audience, "Hey, Belin! I'm going to head downtown and go for a walk. I'll be back in a couple hours. By the way, I have a lunch with Paul at 12:45. See you guys soon."

He heads to his thrifty car, gets in and puts the camera on the passenger seat. Then he remembers that time he had to stop suddenly and the camera was launched, hard, into the dashboard and subsequently fell to the floor. He decides to cut out the middle steps and put the camera in the footwell of the passenger's side. 

Ten minutes later he is parked in a tree-lined lot near Zach Theatre, using his parking hangtag to skirt having to pay for metered parking. He leaves a small gap at the top of each window to prevent the car mimicking an oven on his return. 

The camera is set to expose manually. The ISO is set to 200. The aperture is set to f5.6. The shutter will be the wild card. During the course of his walk the photographer adjusts the shutter speed for optimum exposures. The camera offers focus peaking, and it is nicely accurate, but every once in a while the photographer uses the magnification feature to verify that the focus is accurately set. Over the course of the walk he comes to trust the focus peaking. 

His first series of shots are self-portraits in the window of an empty restaurant that at one time housed one of his favorite restaurants; Garridos. It now awaits a new tenant and the photographer seems to remember that it will be a popular Mexican restaurant called Pulvo's. He rationalizes that the self portrait will visually introduce the camera and lens to anyone who might later read his musings on a blog. 

The photographer is of two minds about his morning adventure. He would love to find many interesting and beautiful people to photograph. He would love to get in a brisk walk as cross-training for the energetic two miles he swam earlier in the morning. He realizes that every day involves luck and chance. 

The 25mm has the same basic angle of view as a 50mm lens on one of his full frame cameras. The view through the finder is familiar and the focal length is easy for him to compose with. There are few people walking through the city on this particular morning. He decides to make photographs of interesting (to him) new buildings while he hunts for more interesting subjects. 

At the far end of his "out and back" walk he detours through the convention center to see what sort of event is being held there. From there he heads into the Hilton where he intends to get coffee at the Starbuck outlet on the northwest corner of the hotel. He is distracted by activity that seems to be flowing toward the ballrooms and conferences on the second floor. He rides up the escalator to find about 200 people milling around on a break from some "informative" session. Most are dressed as informally as the photographer. He mixes with the crowd and helps himself to a cup of coffee from one of the tables that runs down the middle of the wide hallway. He chats with a forensic software specialist for a bit before heading back downstairs and out of the hotel with his cup of coffee in hand. Thank goodness there is nearly always an option during breaks to have coffee in either a ceramic mug or a to-go cup. 

The walk remains visually non-eventful and the photographer trudges back to his car and heads home. A day later he brings up the images from his walk into Lightroom and goes through his take, one image at a time. He thinks some of the people who read his blog might be interested to see how effective such an old lens is on such a new camera. That readers might be surprised to see how sharp and modern the images that lens creates can be. 

He chooses nine images to show and then sits down at the same computer to write a blog. He is feeling playful and so writes it all in the third person. Almost like a movie script. When he finishes he worries that no one will find what he's written to be the least bit interesting or amusing. He becomes depressed and vows never to blog again. But he knows that blogging is addictive and he enjoys the process even if he gets very little feedback from a diverse group of readers, most of whom he has never met in person. 

He hopes that someone, somewhere will take the time to comment on the script or the images in the comments just below the actual blog. It would make him feel as though he is not tossing words out into a black hole of futile nothingness. He wonders if it would be better for his ego to just write endless "reviews" about Canon and Nikon cameras, interspersed with lofty sounding articles playing one maker against another. People always seem to visit his blog for that and they often leave emotion laden comments as well.

Then he decides that would be petty and a waste of time. He would't want to sully his impeccable reputation for this, the 3300th blog post he's written for his site. He finishes typing and goes off to watch an episode of "The Big Bang Theory" on the television in his living room. 

Canon launches a sensible camera for everyone who doesn't like mirror-free cameras: The 6Dii.

Canon 6Diii. A Daily User. 

Canon just introduced the camera for all the users out in the world who don't want to use mirror-free cameras, don't want to abandon their Canon lenses and who just want a traditional, 26 megapixel, full frame serious shooting camera. I've always liked the "idea" of the original 6D; a no frills, but highly competent, picture taker that doesn't cost a fortune to acquire but, as everyone who reads VSL is probably aware, I do prefer cameras with EVFs. Still, if I had to choose a full frame, traditional DSLR this is exactly what I'd probably go out and buy in August 2017.

Here's what it doesn't have: Super fast frame rates. Continuous AF points spread all across the frame. Any 4K video capability (only 1080p at 60 fps, max.). An EVF. Too much weight.

Here's what will appeal to people who think differently than me: The camera has --- wi-fi and GPS. The camera has a touchscreen.  The camera has a traditional, optical viewfinder (albeit with a slight crop in the viewfinder -- it only shows about 98% of the actual frame).  Did I mention that it has a touchscreen and GPS? You'll know exactly where you were when you initiated "dirty baby diaper hold" on your camera so you could hold it at arm's length and shoot via the rear screen. Touching the shaking camera's rear screen as the sun glances off the surface of said screen and obliterates your view of the subject....

And here's the stuff I think everyone would agree is cool: It's priced (slightly) under $2,000 USD. The battery will last for many, many exposures. The body is very straightforward and anyone who has shot with a traditional DSLR will feel right at home. The 26 megapixel sensor is big enough for 99% of the work anybody does and the frame rate of about 6 fps is plenty fast for anyone who isn't desperately into shooting fast and erratic moving sports. (You would be fine shooting swimming with this because most swimmers are good enough at their sport to swim in straight lines....).  There are plenty of Canon lenses so you'll be able to find the lens you need for just about anything. 

An extra bonus in these times of fear, distrust and declining camera sales might also be that Canon is financially strong and currently leads the entire marketplace for cameras and lenses which means you probably won't have to worry about Canon getting cold feet....like Samsung....and exiting the market. You won't have to worry about the possible dissolution of your camera maker of choice, as Nikon and Pentax users have recently begun to grapple with. You can be more than reasonably certain that Canon will be there to honor your warranty and provide replacement batteries, etc. down the road.

What will you lose and gain by getting this instead of one of the many mirror-free choices? Well, obviously you lose the ability to use optimal, current viewing technologies in the form of the almighty EVF. You also lose the ability to adapt a lot of different third party lenses to your camera (if that appeals to you). You also gain stuff. You get nice, full frame acreage on your sensor which gives you the ability to create a specific look and to control depth of field in a certain way; with fast lenses. You get good battery life. From my experience with Canon you do get very nice handling. You get access to a big catalog of lenses and, more importantly, those lenses are designed to work perfectly with Canon camera bodies. You also get Canon's color science; which many people really like. 

If you don't want mirror-free cameras, or you have an irrational hatred of Sony products, I can think that you'd be able to do a lot worse than putting together a workable system for day to day photography using the 6Dii, the 24-105mm lens, and a couple of accessory lenses (I'd recommend the 70-200mm f4.0 I.S. for starters.....). Who knows, I may get all nostalgic for the old form factor and pick up one myself. It's a tug at the heartstrings of familiarity. And tradition.

Of all the stuff coming out these days, in a very conservative way, this camera makes a lot of good sense. 

Should be available around August 15th. Let's see if Sony can get their A7iii out around the same time...

The top panel looks a lot like every Canon I've ever owned. Maybe the grip is deeper.


I was trying to remember the first MF digital camera I reviewed. It was for Studio Photography Magazine in Sept. of 2008.

I thought it would be fun to look back at the state of the art nearly nine years ago...have a read.
(link to original with photos: http://www.imaginginfo.com/print/Studio-Photography/Leaf-AFi-7/3$4159 )

Leaf AFi 7
Satisfies a need for nostalgia

© Kirk Tuck

© Kirk Tuck

© Kirk Tuck

© Kirk Tuck

© Kirk Tuck

I spent my formative years as a photographer working the crank on a Hasselblad 500 CM. I spent years looking into the large, clean, square finder through a beautiful assortment of German lenses, and I never really appreciated the comfort, security, and potential of that way of working until it all came crashing down in the digital "revolution" at the turn of the century.
From a work point of view, we migrated from "the best possible" to "good enough" when we let clients (and our own "geeky" natures) push us from our tried-and-true medium-format film workflow to the "almost ready for prime time" arena of 35mm digital cameras. Every month someone would publish an article (on the web) extolling the charms of these new digital cameras. And they would show examples (on the web) of bright, cheery images that were purported to be the equal of medium-format film.
But as we professionals know, there's more to the equation than a noise-free rectangle of accurate color. During the transition, we lost the square format that had formed the basis of composition for several generations of portrait photographers, and we'd lost that really cool thing that a 180mm f/2.8 lens does on a medium-format frame. It creates a small area of exquisitely sharp focus that falls off in a most graceful way to a fabulous field of ever-softening focus with a liquid "bokeh" and a solid feeling of dimensionality. Admit it--you miss the way your medium-format film camera used to make images, even as your clients enjoy the near-instant workflow of your latest digital purchase.
For the last eight years I've tried to make the digital stuff work. I'm a Nikon shooter, so it's been a parade of D's: the D1, D1x, D2x, and D3. I longed for the "look and feel" that I could only achieve using a big square negative.
In the box for the test
The Leaf AFi 7 is a joint venture of Leaf, Sinar, and Rollei. It looks similar to, and operates like, my Rolleiflex SL 6000 Series cameras, and the lenses work interchangeably between the systems. The standard 80mm f/2.8 "normal" lens was included, as well as the most intimidating and luxurious 180mm f/2.8 lens I've ever handled. It proved to be one of the sharpest and best-behaved medium telephotos I've ever shot with. Also included were two batteries, a charger, a waist-level finder, and a 45-degree prism finder.
I won't go over the camera inch by inch or spec by spec--in the internet age, it's just as easy to send you to www.leafamerica.com. I will mention a few facts about the camera that may be important to the way you like to work:
• The camera with the digital back, 45-degree prism finder, and 180mm lens attached is a beast, weighing close to 10 pounds. This setup makes a Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III with an 85mm f/1.2L lens feel compact. It's much happier on a tripod--a big tripod.
• These cameras are no longer slow beasts of burden relegated to still lifes and stately shots of well-anchored models. Tethered you can shoot at 50 frames per minute with an unlimited burst depth. You can keep up that pace until your batteries die or until you fill a FireWire 800 hard drive. If you're shooting portable, a fast CompactFlash card will get you around 45 frames per minute, as each RAW file is a 16-bit, 33MP image. 
• While the camera takes its time starting up, it operates with excellent fluidity and integration once it's engaged. The metering is on the money, and the white balance is perfect. 
• It has evaluative metering and the full range of operating modes (A,S,M,P). I doubt you'd want to use one of these systems to shoot breaking news or a wedding, but the camera would be right there with you as far as metering and throughput was concerned. You can use this as a $36,000 P&S with a high degree of success, but why would you want to?
• The sharpness and detail go far beyond what I expected from just having more pixels at my disposal. Most lower-resolution cameras (under 16MP) need to have an anti-aliasing filter in front of the sensor. This actually lowers the sharpness (or the line frequency) of the image hitting the sensor to prevent moiré from occurring. Moiré is created when the frequency of repeating patterns in an image "resonate" with the Bayer screens on most sensors. The stronger the anti-aliasing filter on the sensor, the less likely the chance of moiré--and the less fine detail your sensor can resolve. The sharpness is interpolated after the capture. Now enter the medium-format digital backs, which have no anti-aliasing filter. Their ability to render extremely fine detail is just breathtaking--a major plus.
• In my month-long comparison, where I evaluated images from various competitors and from 35mm-based digital cameras, I found these image files to be the absolute best in class. If your goal is the finest image quality available in medium-format digital imaging, this is one of the three cameras and back systems that will make it into your final cut. If you love the square finder, and mainly shoot in the studio, this will be the number one choice for you. 
However, if you want the ultimate in imaging quality, be prepared to take a hit on several fronts: 
• The camera's autofocus is slow. Even with bright modeling lights, the camera and 180mm lens would hunt for focus in a typical portrait lighting setup. I've been told that the camera I had contained an earlier firmware version. Once focused, though, the camera creates killer-sharp images, even wide open with the 180mm.
• Let's move on to batteries. The camera uses inexpensive lithium rechargeables, and you'll likely want a pocketful. I've come to believe that the batteries can sense the four gigs of storage on a CompactFlash card in this camera and are ingeniously programmed to run out of juice just as you run out of frames. The supplied charger could get you back in the game in about three hours, but if you shoot commercially, your client would be out the door in less than half that time. 
I was sent two batteries to do my tests, and they moved back and forth to the charger a lot. To put it into perspective, four gigs is about 110 files for the Leaf AFi 7, given a reasonable amount of chimping on the rear screen. It reminds me a lot of my favorite old Kodak DCS 760. Buy five batteries. With smart management, that will get you through a long day.
According to my score card so far, the Leaf is six pros to three cons. But how does it look when you stop testing and start using it on a real job? This is one of those areas where if you know what you're looking for, you'll be blown away, but if you're a casual photographer, happy with your reduced-frame camera, you'll probably say "no big deal." But "big deal" really sums it all up.
Most cameras are working under the resolution limits of their sensor when you shoot files for prints up to 8x12 inches. And a well-exposed file properly processed will look pretty good no matter how big a camera it originated in. Picky photographers will note a different look to the depth-of-field and the "drawing" of the lenses, but most will see each comparative frame as being equally sharp with plenty of resolution. 
The magic happens when the files get bigger. The sensor in the Leaf is still working under the numerical limits of its sensor at print sizes like 16x24 inches, and when you get close to the prints, you can really see a difference. The prints are richer, more detailed, and much more filmlike. I did a print test using files from a Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II, a Kodak SLR/n, and the Leaf system. I made prints at 5x7, 8x12, 16x24, and 30x40 from each camera using the same model, lighting, and settings. At 30x40, the Leaf was much sharper and showed details not apparent in the other two cameras. 
Another facet to consider is the camera's incredible curb appeal. Art directors who've been around since the film days are clearly impressed by the look and feel of the Leaf. 
So, will I rush right out and buy a Leaf AFi 7? Maybe. I loved the detail and the sharpness of the files. If the U.S. market were a bit stronger, and my clients were pushing for larger images, I'd probably take the plunge and use the camera in my marketing as a premium differentiator. Do I think it's the best camera on the market for medium format right now? Well, it's got a square finder, and the camera is set up to handle the square format that I love, so that would be a strong consideration (although the backs are a 645 aspect ratio). The body handles much like the Rollei cameras I like so much, and the system is an "open" architecture, which means you aren't tied to using only one manufacturer's back. All are big pluses for the Leaf. 
The question is: Do you or I need a very high-end, high-resolution solution to service clients or to realize a vision?
You probably do if you're in a market that will appreciate the differentiation this kind of product provides; you routinely do images that end up in large, well-printed, glossy media or in point-of-purchase applications; you're in a portrait market and your high-end niche is to provide wall-sized prints; you're financially well-off, love to take landscape photographs, and have been butting your head on the limitations of the more mass-market cameras; and your ego demands the best.
KIRK R. TUCK (www.kirktuck.com) is a freelance photographer whose clients include Dell Computer, IBM, Motorola, and Time Warner, among others. His book, A MInimalist Guide to Lighting on Location is in its second printing by Amhearst Media.

Here's a link to my review/article of an early Phase One camera from January 2009:

And here's a link to my review/article of the Mamiya DL28 from that same year: http://www.imaginginfo.com/print/Studio-Photography/Mamiya-DL28/3$5017

It was fun reviewing cameras for Studio Photography Magazine. I'm glad the work is still up on the web. It's part of our history of ever changing digital cameras... They also published the article about Minimalist Lighting that sparked my first book project...

I finally got my website, KirkTuck.com, up and working. Endless tweaks and additions to come...

I wanted to update my site for a while and when a project got cancelled I finally got the time I needed to dive in and work on it. My old site didn't have any video samples on it but half our income in the last year has come from shooting and editing video so I wanted to remedy that gaping hole in my marketing. 

I used a program for Apple Computers called, Sparkle, to do the design and production work. I still need to work on sorting out the photo galleries a bit but I'm now distracted by some scriptwriting that's calling my name. I'll keep tweaking but I wanted you to see how everything turned out...



Are you getting your lighting instrument close enough?

Bigger and closer = softer light and quicker falloff to shadows. But we also make liberal use of flags....

Favorite Portrait Focal Lengths of Medium Format Hasselblad V Series Film Cameras.

A reader asked me a few days ago which focal lengths I used to make portraits with back in the 6x6cm film days. He'd seen my references to several commercial portraits and presumed we mostly used the famous 150mm f4.0 Zeiss lens but I actually used two longer lenses the effects of which I liked much more. In the mid-1980's Hasselblad came out with a 180mm f4.0 and it was a wonderful lens. It was long enough (90mm equivalent on 35mm for comparison) to be a convincing choice for intimate portraits and its other advantage over the venerable 150mm was its resistance to flare. (The 150mm needed to be carefully flagged when used to photograph subjects with white backgrounds or any kind of backlighting).

But the lens I loved was the 250mm f5.6 Sonnar. It's also a Zeiss lens and, along with the 80mm Planar, is one of the few lenses nearly always taken into space on NASA flights. Ken Rockwell has a good article on it's history here.

I think I was partial to the longer focal length because one of the first decent portrait lenses I owned when I was starting out (and short on $$$) was the 135mm f2.8 focal length for 35mm cameras. I shot so many fun images with that focal length and once I was able to replicate that sense of compression and isolation in medium format I was in portrait shooter's heaven.

The only possible downside I can think of with the Hasselblad 250mm f5.6 CM lens was its minimum focusing distance. It was eight or nine feet so extreme close-ups required extension tubes or diopters.
It was also important to understand bellows factor when working at the minimum distance. The closer you got to a subject the more light you lost to the lens extension. I generally compensated by a half stop to two thirds of a stop at the minimum distance, adding this amount to whatever my handheld meter told me.

As you can tell from the image above (unretouched scan from transparency) the lens is crisply sharp and detailed. I miss those halcyon days.

The Best Way To Test Your New Camera or Lens (or Both).

shot for CTRMA Annual Report.

The last few weeks show us that reviewers of cameras and lenses can: be subjective, make mistakes, mis-focus, mis-understand how to use new cameras and.... use the new cameras in a manner that may be antithetical to your actual, unique way of working. You may need a lens with smooth bokeh while one reviewer only values sharpness. You may need resolution while another reviewer may only value the bokeh of the lenses under review.

You might need a camera with fast frame rates while your friend who shoots landscapes and human portraits wouldn't care if the camera in question only had single frame shooting capabilities. I prefer EVFs while you might prefer optical viewfinders. When I review a camera (a rare occurrence these days) I mark a good electronic viewfinder as a big plus. If you love looking through glass and mirrors you'll probably mark the same camera down. The same goes for relative size and weight.

After reading about some tests failures, and then skimming through nearly a thousand comments about the vagaries of lens testing (and especially testing one brand of lens on a different brand of camera --- and then bitching about the AF performance!) I've come to the same conclusion that I came to many years ago. If you want to know what a camera and lens can do you'll need to load up and shoot the gear the way you like to shoot the gear and then see if it works for you. After all, if the way a camera feels in your hand is terrible it will hardly matter if its low light performance is 93 and its closest competitor is a 92.5. If you're smart, and plan to have the camera around for a while, I'm guessing you'll forgo the point five and get the camera that feels best. You might be disappointed once you start pixel peeping at 300% but the rest of the photographers (the ones who are not pathologically obsessed) will probably come to the understanding that it's a combination of handling, features and final image quality that matter and not one single parameter in isolation.

I've read reviews that ding cameras for not having just the right touch screen (as if that matters in the real world). Even more absurd, I've seen reviews that list as "cons" not having in camera raw processing. That, of course, is just insane. To me. People swooned and fell to the ground in agony when it was revealed that Fuji ISO settings might be less sensitive than comparable values in different brands.
And then there are the hordes who think the camera should focus autonomously and everywhere while thousands of objects move through the field of view. They call this focus tracking. Fourteen people in the world really need focus tracking.

The image above was shot for an annual report. By the time I made this shot I'd already used the camera for over 10,000 previous images. Same with the zoom lens I was using. I'm certain that I could have used a Sony or Nikon or a Canon (or Olympus, Fuji or Pentax) to make the image and my choice would have been transparent to the final viewer; the person looking at the image on coated paper stock that had been screened at 300 dpi and printed with four colored inks on moving sheets of paper. I was equally certain that any standard, slightly wide to slightly tele, zoom lens would have been more than up to the task to resolve all the detail I needed to do the job.

But it made me feel confident that I, personally, had tested the camera over and over again up until this point. I knew that the model I used, along with the lens I used, would be "good enough" to do the job.

This image may not at all reflect the way you use a camera. For me almost everything is done with intention and a modicum of control. Even when photographing a meet and greet with a former president and dozens of VIPs I like to take my time and get all the parameters just right. In the above example the image required lighting. We had to float a scrim over the subject to kill the direct sunlight. I set up an Elinchrom Ranger RX AS flash system with a softbox to get the lighting I wanted. None of this is random. None of this requires 20, or 12, or 10, or 8 or 5 or even 2 frames per second. 1200 watt second battery flash units, used at full power, couldn't recycle that fast anyway. None of this required focus tracking as the subject was confined to the pool of shade created by the diffusion.

Most pros shoot on a tripod in order to lock in composition. Then they can be sure the framing and subject relationships don't change while they are shooting, bracketing or just goofing around.

We've gotten to a point where camera reviewing is lost in the woods of generality. Every feature becomes a big deal; or a deal-killer. Every camera must be equally good at high operating speeds, resolution, handling, compactness, button intelligence, and the endless ability to be endlessly customized.  The reality is that in photography's most pure form the only thing that matters is: "Are you able to take the photograph you want with this machine?" Does it do what you want? Is the image sharp enough? Is the shutter fast enough? Is the sensor "quiet" enough at the ISO settings you need  to use? Are you able to focus the camera well enough? Once you've satisfied these basic requirements every other caveat, argument, pinhead dancing angel recital or bemoaning about the lack of 30 discrete steps of exposure bracketing is just showing off how weak you are as a photographer. And if you don't really use the camera for making art; if you just use it to make reviews, you are revealed as nothing more than a person who picks at nits on the edges of a craft with no real value (other than providing the entertainment of reading) to offer. Well, no value to the consumer but appreciable value to the manufacturer.

Touch screen? Might be as fun as a video game but not a photographic necessity; a working shutter is a necessity. In cars it's nice to have cupholders but they are not a necessity; brakes are a necessity (if you actually drive). In-camera raw processing might be convenient in the way heated toilet seats may seem convenient; but neither is a necessity. Having an idea about something to photograph is pretty important.  And on and on. Among their reasons to exist I think reviewers are here to make new photographers want the new features that no one asked for but which come (like glued on rhinestones) on the latest cameras. How else to make more differentiations between products? How else to provide continual gear fodder from which to distill valuable clicks? Wouldn't it be nice if reviewers just came back after three months of continually using the same camera and then told you what they liked and disliked about it; and then showed you several hundred interesting photographs that showed what that particular camera could do? Modern miracle, I'd say.

So, if you have an interest in a new camera because you need a new camera here's how to proceed. Grab a memory card and head to your local camera store. Don't have a local camera store? Get on a plane, go to New York City and go to B&H Photo. Or fly into Austin for nachos, margaritas and a trip to Precision Camera. Have the sales clerk put your favorite lens on the camera you are interested in, or bring along your favorite lens to put on the camera. Play with the camera for half an hour or an hour. Go through the menus. Practice the focusing. Shoot a bunch of test shots. Bring your hot girlfriend or studly boyfriend and have them pose for shot after shot after shot. Shoot raw. Shoot Jpeg. Use the buttons you would normally use. Handhold the camera. Put the camera on a tripod. Then take your memory card home with you and look at the images in your usual app. Blow em up. Print your stuff on your regular printer. Sit back and think about the camera.

Once you've decided on a camera and have tested it as above, buy it from a place with a good, fair return policy. Take the camera home on a Friday night, charge the batteries and read the manual forward and backward. Take the next week off from work. Shoot all day. Process all night long. All week long. Wear the camera to breakfast, and lunch and dinner. On the day before you would have to send the camera back (presuming you don't like it; didn't warm up to it, etc.) sit down and make a list of the pros and cons as you see them. Make a dispassionate decision. Is this the camera or lens for you? Are you still happy when you use it? Do the images look great to you? Can you afford it? If you decide to keep it that's great but the testing doesn't stop until you never need to glance at the manual again and you know with a fair degree of certainty what YOU will get out of the camera as you are shooting it.

The hell with the reviewer's expectations, or list of pros and cons. He's not paying for your camera. He doesn't shoot like you. He's got a job. His job is to create ever-fresh content about cameras to drive you to his employer's website. The website gets paid by bringing potential buyers in close proximity to paying advertiser's products. They hope the supposed objectivity of the site's content will confer subliminal value to their advertiser's products and that you will buy one of the products. The reviews really have nothing to do with how real photographers use real cameras in their jobs or in their hobbies. If configurability is the leading new feature of a camera you are probably already looking at the wrong camera...

Added 6-27: an interesting article about manufacturing and testing tolerances: http://www.imx.nl/photo/optics/optics/page62.html

The kid is back in town.

A photo of Ben from 18 years ago.

Time flies when you are having fun. If you are a regular reader of the Visual Science Lab blog you'll have occasionally seen images of my son, Ben, and read stories about him helping me in the business from time to time. He made his first real appearance in a few photographs in which he was holding light modifiers in my first book, Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Location Photographers.  He later advanced to shooting second camera in video (master of the b-roll) and also guiding me skillfully through the process of video editing. 

He just returned from four months abroad, studying at Yonsei University in Seoul S. Korea. I've slowed down on my posting here lately just to catch up with him and hear some the great stories he has to tell. The food stories alone are enthralling, and entertaining. But visits to the DMZ, mountain climbing with old people, teaching N. Korean refugees English, and carrying a full, multi-lingual course load limited more full bore engagement...

I'm finally getting back to my typical schedule and am back in the office drumming up business. I've been creating postcards to send out, via USPS, to clients referencing recent video and photography projects. I hand addressed sixty such cards on Saturday and dropped them off at our post office. 

Ben was instrumental in helping me a with several big video projects last year. I'm hoping his stay here for the next two months will efficiently coincide with at least one fun video project. I'd be happy to once again hand over the editing tasks to someone more patient, and capable, than me. 

I'd do a separate marketing campaign extolling his video editing skills but, alas, he's got one more year to go at Skidmore College up in New York and I'd hate to over promise to my client base. 

If you have an enormously fun project with an enormously large budget you'd like us to work on please go to the contact page of the revised website and get in touch. We'll be happy to spend as much as we can to create something as fun as it has the potential to be. But we've only got these two months to take advantage of the father/son team... Just suggesting. 


Portraits that look back at the camera/photographer.

I've seen effective portraits in which the subject is looking away, or presented in profile, and while I can appreciate them I find it very, very difficult to take portraits myself where the subject is not looking back into the camera; looking at the photographer; by extension, looking back at the audience for the work. 

Part of the joy of selecting your own subjects instead of always working a assignment or commission is that you get to lead the collaboration in a different way. There is an unwritten rule in an exchange of time that both the subject and the photographer will get to try poses or styles (within the range of the photographer's stylistic comfort zone) they each want rather than adhering to the desires of only one party. 

When I select portrait subjects, and invite them into collaboration, I am making selections by looking at their eyes and a certain range of interesting expressions. If I can't capture their eyes the way I want to see them then the image generally fails for me even though the same image may work wonderfully for my artistic partner of the moment. 

In this instance Rebecca and I were mostly on the same page and the poses and styles we experimented with fell into a narrow range. This is also an example of something that commenters on a previous portrait post discussed, the subject-to-camera distance and the role of longer focal length compression in portrait creation. 

I was using a Sony A7rii and a Rokinon 135mm f2.0 lens. The original frame was horizontal and I positioned the camera to fill the frame as you see it, from top to bottom, knowing I would be cropping the sides. In effect it is at the position that worked best for me in terms of composition and compression. I could have moved back a bit if I wanted more compression and then used the generous resolution of the file to crop in but I could not have moved in any closer without disrupting the exact frame and the amount of compression I wanted to end up with. 

I chose a shooting location that would allow me about 35 feet from Rebecca to the back wall. I knew I wanted to work with a wide aperture and was looking to accentuate the fall-off in focus. Additionally, I brought my lighting modifiers in as close as I could to her while still keeping them out of the frame. The 50 inch circular diffuser that represented the main light source (LED Light) was only inches above her head and slightly to the front of her. The close proximity of a large source is largely responsible for the soft skin tonalities and the prominent shadow under Rebecca's chin. 

It's one of my favorite ways to light a portrait. 


Imagining a mid-October workshop in Marfa, Texas.

The road from Marfa to Marathon at 5:30 in the morning. 

I have this recurring fantasy of creating a photography workshop for a week in Marfa, Texas. Here's how it would all play out. I would cast two models from Austin's theater scene. A beautiful and mysterious looking young woman and an equally handsome and vaguely dangerous looking young man of about the same age. We would hop in a big, black, rented Chevy Suburban and head West on I-10 heading for Balmorhea Springs State Park, about six hours away. We'd get there after a monotonous drive and we'd change into our swim gear and do laps in the big pools until the sun set and we were too hungry to think straight. We'd pitch three tents and I'd get the grill going and grill up some big ribeye steaks, pull out some nice side dishes from the battered, old Igloo cooler and sit around on camp chairs eating, drinking some nice Bordeaux, and watching the stars creep up into the darkening sky. Just the three of us discussing how the upcoming workshop would go...

We head into Marfa the next day around ten a.m. and head over to El Cosmico, an eclectic combination of Airstream Trailers and Teepees that constitute the coolest hotel/motel complex in all of Texas. It's here at El Cosmico that we'll meet up with you guys and start our workshop adventure. Over lunch on the deck at the Hotel Paisano we'd meet everyone and talk through our upcoming process. We'll have a multi-page shooting script that involves our two talents and we'll take turns setting up wildly imaginative shots, like scenes from movies, and shooting them. Fun, strange shots. A lover's quarrel in the middle of the Trans-Pecos desert. An intimate lunch at an abandoned rest stop, the couple sitting on the tailgate of an old pick up truck. Moments of betrayal. Moments of despair and abandonment. Swimming at dusk in the Springs. Dusty explorations of run down ranches. And whatever other story lines we can cobble together. The idea is to come up with concepts that involve our talents and then light them and shoot them, leveraging this desolate landscape and oddly jangly, isolated town as our stage and our backdrop. Our sets.

We'll set up lights and overpower the sun at midday. We'll put up big diffusers over our talent to control and combat the hard, high light. And every evening we'll retreat to a different restaurant to ask questions, share observations, tell stories and share more ideas. And then go out shooting into the night.

We'll lure my friend, James, into the mix to shoot behind-the-scenes video of us, the actors, the landscape, the action. 

We'll shoot tight head and shoulders portraits, medium length shots, wide, establishing shots. Pensive shots, joyous shots. No one will ask me if "Canon is better than Nikon" or whether "mirror-free is better than DSLR". No one will hit on the models. No one will break hotel furniture, or get arrested.

If you are an early riser you'll head into town in and grab coffee, maybe look at yesterday's paper. The rest of us will be sleeping in so we can work later into the night. 

We'll head over to Alpine, Tx. and slouch around the town, shooting our models in the streets and in one of the two coffee shops. We'll pretend they are students at Sol Ross University and photograph them walking hand in hand across the eccentric campus. And sometimes we'll just drive out to see what's over the next hill and soak it in. We'll use each other in our shots and that will work because we'll have each remembered to pack his beat up cowboy boots and an old straw Stetson. Old work clothes and nothing with company logos silkscreen or embroidered on.

We'll keep attendance small. Eight shooters; maybe. No one will make much money but we'll pay the models well and the generous ones amongst us will offer the talent the best of their photographic take to be used in the talent's portfolios. 

On the last night we'll crack open bottles of wine and beer and Bourbon around a campfire at El Cosmico and start planning our next creative outing at someplace daring....like Terlinqua. And in the morning we'll pack up, wish each other well and head back to our respective home bases to think about why we so rarely decide to go crazy and have more therapeutic doses of fun. 

It's just a thought. That's the way I'd do a workshop if I was coming up with something from scratch. How would you do it?

The ladder to the high diving board at Balmorhea Springs. 

Rocky hills in the middle of nowhere. 

A backyard fence in Marfa.

A musician passing through.

On the edge of Marfa.

The Forum. Marfa style.

historic desolation.

At Eve's Bed and Breakfast in Marathon. 

If I could design a camera and bring it to market what would it be?

I've spent some time recently transitioning images from older hard drives to a new RAID array and it's given me some insight into which cameras I've leaned on the most in the last couple of years and some ideas about why. Even though I've owned APS-C cameras like the Sony a6000 and the a6300 that format represents the lowest number of candidates overall. The leaders of the pack are the Sony RX10iii and the Sony A7ii but, when cross-checking with my Lightroom info I find that the RX10iii is clearly my most popular choice and the camera with which I have been most prolific. And I hasten to write that it has also been the most profitable camera I've bought in a long, long time. 

I've pressed that camera into use for corporate videos as well as photographic still life work in the studio, theatrical photography, street photography, and even portrait work (although my own prejudices keep the numbers up for the Sony A7ii, where portraits are concerned --- working on that...). I've used it on ten of the thirteen most recent video assignments and it was also the only camera I took to Eeyore's Birthday Party this year. (Eeyore's is a huge, daylong party in one of Austin's central parks. It's a nod to Austin's "laid back" past).

While all the full framers gnash their teeth and wax on about the sanctity of the full frame sensors and pontificate about how "real pros always use full frame" I think the reality in the current world is quite different. The application targets have changed and the cultural markets have a different take on what constitutes a "great image." I would argue that, with the exception of traditional architecture and product work, authenticity and mobility are the buzz of the day. Being in the right place with a casual camera, yielding an emotionally accessible image, that rejects perfection for the sake of perfectionism, is the dominant style. 

So, if I were hired as a wacky, outside the box, camera designer for a flailing originalist company like Nikon, and given cart blanche to design a new product, what would it look like and what would it do?

I'd start with everything I like in the Sony RX10 series. I'd want to use the one inch sensor because it does so much right and it's a perfect size for video production while capable of delivering low noise, high sharpness results for traditional photography. Where I would shift would be to keep the body big, easily handling and capable of holding a large battery and dissipating heat I would make the lens interchangeable and deliver the product to market with two dedicated zoom lenses. The first would be a delicious wide to normal telephoto with a fast, constant aperture. 

I'd make it the equivalent of a 24-120mm with an f2.0 aperture. It would be easy to handle and I'd spend the extra cash to make sure it was sharp and usable wide open. The second lens would have a bit of overlap but it would be a world class, 100-600mm f2.8 lens, complete with remarkable performance all the way out to 600mm. 
With the system set up for two lenses we'd skip over the compromises necessary in the design of one, all encompassing, super-lens and spend the design dividend on aperture speed. 

I'd have two bodies so I could go on assignment with one lens on each, covering every thing one would normally require from a photographer. Inevitably, someone will make an impassioned plea for a wider angle lens but I'd be resolute in not providing it. Instead, we'd make a dedicated variant of the original body with the lens permanently fixed on the front in order to ensure perfect tolerances and great performance. 

The bodies would be more square, like the old Hasselblad V series cameras or the Rollei SL2000 designed decades ago. Rounded corners, of course. And, like the Rollei, shutter buttons on both sides. 

The bodies would have five or six physical controls for things like focus hold, shutter speed, f-stop, ISO, and file type but no programmable function controls to mess up the design and cause confusion. And it would only shoot uncompressed RAW files, but would offer them in a range of file sizes. 4 megs, 8 megs, 16 megs and 20 megs. You size em for how you need them. And, of course, we would only offer center point AF because, really, that's all you need and it's easier to make it work perfectly if you simplify. Trust me, you'll be happy to get rid of all those annoying focusing points...

Since everyone else is making a fetish out of tiny, shirt pocket cameras I'd want to offer bigger, beefier cameras that people can get their hands around. Cameras that use a battery at least as big as the ones in the Panasonic GH5. And, I'd market the size from the beginning as a radical advance for quality photography with no compromise. 

By separating the body from the lens we'd open up the ability to upgrade bodies as higher performance sensors hit the market. You wouldn't need to walk away from your investment in the two good lenses. But we'd make the lens mount so damn proprietary no one could ever bring a third party lens to market for them. This would keep hordes of cheap bastards from putting crappy, soft, horrible lenses on our bodies and then blaming "the system" for awful performance. 

If I wanted to extend the lens line away from the two, "do everything" lenses I'd introduce 35, 50 and 85mm equivalents that are each f1.0; sharp and usable at that setting. Much easier to pull off with the smaller sensor. 

The bodies and lenses would come only in a light grey color and would be coated in a material that rejects radiated heat. For hotter climates we might also offer a reflective silver coating with a 99% heat reflectance capability. Kinda shiny but practical for deserts and tropics. 

Of course the cameras would feature state of the art EVFs but the rear panel would be a plug in. You could use it as an articulating screen the same way you do with current screens but you could unplug it from the camera and use it on an extension cord so you could position it wherever you need it for the best imaging. 

The camera would have, as an option, a small device that could be tethered so image files could be written simultaneously to the external device and an internal memory card. The device could be separated from the camera and used to transmit selected images via cell or wi-fi data streams. The device would have a large screen and be autonomous from the camera. This would allow me to design the camera as a pure photo and video tool instead of an all purpose klodge of imaging and share-ability parts. No extra camera battery drain, useful concurrent operation and no way to electronically surveil your position via your camera. 

There would be a grommeted port on the camera that would allow you to open up the seal and install a mini fan for times when high resolution in demanding environments is mission critical. Fan cooling the sensor and processors to reduce heat noise and component stress. Pulling the fan out and resealing the camera for the times you don't need fault tolerant video. 

Both lenses would feature real focusing and zooming rings with hard stops for hyper-focal focusing work and video production. 

We trade high frame rate still photography for rock solid shutter reliability. If you need more than 8 fps for stills you probably really need a movie camera.

The camera would have a built-in variable neutral density filter. And you could order one set up for left hand hold and operation; a mirror image version of the right handed one. You know, for the 9% of us who are left handed. 

On second thought I'm pretty sure no one would really want this camera but me... oh well. At least Sony has made a good start on this... Hmmm. A Sony RX 10 professional series. Holding my breath in anticipation...

All images shot with Sony RX10iii.