6.26.2017

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 photographers 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. 

6.24.2017

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. 

6.23.2017

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. 




Why I have stopped believing in test and review sites for cameras.

Tight crop from Panasonic fz2500
The Original uncropped frame

I'm not a big fan of gobbledy-gook, jargon and half-understood scientific word constructs meant to justify a visceral opinion in the service of marketing (and don't get me started on the satanic nature of acronyms). By this I mean that having a rationale for why something should be better or worse is not the same as a camera or lens actually being better or worse. So much of testing is still very subjective and, when it comes to issues such as focus, current cameras have far too much complexity for most users, which seems to exponentially (see what I did just there?) increase the things that can go wrong; or be mis-set.

Two recent things affected my ability to believe without question the results of one of the most famous camera review sites on the web. The first was their declaration that the Leica lens on the front of the Panasonic fz 2500 was mediocre. I was able to prove (at least to myself) that much, if not all, of the softness some people were experiencing with that lens had to do with the automatic focusing modes and their interface with the touchscreen, and the tenuous software that binds them together. If the camera is set up correctly for your individual use targets it is capable of lens quality performance rivaling its closest rivals.

Some tinkering with focus modes should have given the wayward reviewers more insight, at least into the quality of the lens itself, so they could re-focus their attention to the vagaries (not faults?) of the focusing system itself. The bottom line is that the Panasonic bridge camera is capable of making wonderfully sharp images, in the right hands. 

But the final, jarring, sledgehammer blow to the credibility of this corporate band of reviewers has been the ongoing exuberant praise, and alternate active rehabilitation, of the Sony a9 camera. A camera which sets the record for the most lines of text written in the service of naked marketing ever seen in the hyperbolic history of camera reviewing. 

The coup de grace to the credibility of the site in question was their re-re-testing of the a9's sharpness via a series of tests, the methods of which diverged from the parameters of tests done with hundreds of other cameras, for no other reason than to increase the sharpness score for that particular camera. Of course, a new testing procedure means that none of the previously tested cameras can be objectively compared, on that site, with the a9 because they were not given the endless chances to finally excel which have been lavished on the Sony product. Nor were test procedures previously modified to compensate for the shortcomings of other products. If you want objectivity and  also want to believe in the scientific method you can't have it both ways.

Just jotting down "fibonacci sequence" doesn't validate method. (They never mentioned Fibannaci Sequence but I'm making a point about trying to intimidate readers by trotting out phrases or arcane procedures that just don't match the situation...). 

I sympathize with the review site. It's a tough way to make a living in the post camera buying era. Click throughs become absolutely critical. But I find there's no substitute to living with a camera for a sustained period of time in order to understand it on a more holistic, even visceral, level. Most of the current cameras can only be assessed as part of a system. I prefer "hands-on" shooting to chart tests. This is not "String Theory" and the reviewers are not all Phd. researchers at Cal Tech. 

Just to be clear: Objective testing should mean all cameras get tested the same way

Now, if the reviewers want some non-Sony a9 work that would actually be continuously helpful to real photographers, who want to know if they should buy a certain piece of gear, they should consider re-reviewing cameras that have already been reviewed each time a big firmware fix is unveiled. There is much consensus that some cameras have been made amazingly better by new firmware and yet the old reviews stand as fact. The world iterates. Reviews should too. Right up until the camera in question is retired from the market.

(no ad for the Sony a9 here...).

added 6-27: An interesting article by Erwin Puts about testing and manufacture tolerances: http://www.imx.nl/photo/optics/optics/page62.html

The relentless migration to minimalism continues....slowly.

I was walking on 2nd St. in downtown Austin when I walked past a couple
sitting at the outside bar at Jo's Coffee House. I did a double-take when 
I saw his t-shirt and turned myself around. The first photography book
I wrote was entitled: "Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques
for Location Lighting" (Amherst Media). I have been working
on Downsizing my inventory ever since.

I have to say that success in the rigorous job of paring away unnecessary gear; and keeping shiny new (unnecessary) gear at bay, has been mixed. There is always the promise that one piece or another will solve all of my technical and creative roadblocks and propel me toward a life of artistic satisfaction. It ain't necessarily so.

Last week I took the last of my big, 29 pound (empty), Pelican hard cases to Goodwill Industries in the hope that they'll find someone who needs valuable protection for their gear and also has the strength and endurance to wield that protection. I've given up. My newer cases are much lighter and offer much the same level of protection. 

This week I was able to pass along four big, Fotodiox professional fluorescent light fixtures. At one point they seemed to have so much promise to me. They satisfied my need for continuous light that didn't also emulate the heat profile of a blast furnace but they've been superseded in my kit by much smaller, lighter and more color accurate LED lights. 

Last month I met a young, student photographer, struggling to use a 4x5" inch view camera on a spindly and much abused, lightweight tripod. I walked back to the car and grabbed a medium sized Benro tripod and handed it over with no strings attached. Anyone attempting urban street photography with a 4x5 in 100(f) heat at least deserves a stable platform, and it helped me reduce down the tripod inventory to a still embarrassing five models. On a cheerier note I'm down to only two monopods!

Today's clumsy waddle towards minimalism in the studio is about picture frames. I have dozens in several sizes, from local shows I've done over the years. I am in the process of pulling the prints out and cleaning them up for another trip to Goodwill Industries where I hope a struggling artist will discover said frames and mount their first big show in repurposed rectangular boundaries.

I understand what drives us to try new stuff and experiment but I'm now coming to grips with the fact that it's equally important to let go of things and reduce the clutter that takes up space; on our shelves and in our minds. And if we can pass the pieces along to be re-purposed then all the better. 

Loved the man's t-shirt. I need one like that to wear during the sporadic studio purges.

6.22.2017

Focal length is a big part of a portrait vision. I prefer longer focal lengths. This portrait was shot at 189mm.


Given the choice I'll nearly always shoot longer and longer rather than shorter when it comes to making portraits. There is something about the compression, blended with lighting that helps accentuate the topology of a face, that makes a portrait seem more real to me. When the first digital cameras with interchangeable lenses hit the market in the early part of the century almost every model came complete with an APS-C sized sensor. I was amazed at the number of people who thought nothing of shooting portraits with their 50mm lenses on those cameras. While the 50mm focal length translates to about a 75mm equivalent on a full frame camera I think that's still more than a bit short for good compression when making portraits. 

We could be pedantic and suggest that the 75mm user back up a bit and then crop and that the results would match a longer lens but we know there's other stuff at play. In the early digital days part of the equation was a resistance to cropping in order to ensure there were enough pixels left over to make a decent image. I'd say that if one is shooting on full frame cameras and cropping square the same reservations apply. 

In the best of all possible worlds I'd use something in the range of 135 to 200mm for a studio portrait and I'd also specify that my background be yards and yards behind my subject instead of mere feet. The further away the background the easier it is to drop out of focus and also to light as a totally separate plane. If we put the background very far back we soon see another reason to go longer with our portrait lenses. A shorter lens will show the edges of the background sooner and will limit our ability to push it back as far as we can. In essence, a long portrait lens, delivers more options for the relationship between the subject and background. 

There are a few downsides to using a long lens for a portrait. If you light faces in one of the current styles that calls for flat and even light across a face you'll find the compression makes the face seem wider; fatter. This is rarely a benefit to the subject. When we compose with long lenses I try to create light with quicker gradations to shadow in order to create a more three dimensional rendering to the face. I'm trying to bring back a normal geometry to the face with my lights. 

One more thing about lighting. I like to make sure that the bottom edge my main light is up well above chin level on my subject so a shadow drops in under the chin and gives a visual depth between the chin and the neck/throat. Alaina certainly does not have a double chin to worry about but many corporate subjects do and it's benevolent to make sure that a well placed shadow, created by correct lighting, does its part to conceal certain...flaws. 

The photograph above was done with a Sony 70/200mm f4.0 G lens on an A7ii camera body. 

Of course, you can always ignore these conventions and shoot wider. But eventually you'll come to hate the look and probably give up photography altogether. Wide angle portraits can be that bad... You'll notice that even Bill Brandt only dabbled with wide portraits a handful of times....

6.19.2017

Why I prefer cheaper cameras now.

Studio shot with Panasonic fz2500, one inch sensor camera.

I've been watching with interest as one of my close friends, a working, professional photographer, goes through the process of searching for the holy grail of cameras to use for his work. He has a few Canon cameras; like the 5D3 and the 5DSr, he also owns the Leica SL with the honking big (and superbly pricey) zoom lens; but the cameras that fascinate and repulse me are the most expensive of his inventory. He's on his second Leica S2 medium format camera having been through a previous iteration and also a Hasselblad MF digital camera....system. 

To be clear, the MF digital cameras he's been buying are the price of a decent car. A new Honda Fit, or Toyota Corolla, at least. But there are two interesting consequences to dabbling in such rarified heights. One is that the lenses he must adapt to the cameras for his use; tilt and shift lenses, are frightfully expensive and kludgy on those cameras. Most are adapted from older systems. So every time he wants to shoot with a new focal length his minimum new investment seems to be in the $5K to $7K range. A bag of lenses along with one of the S2 camera bodies may have a combined value north of $30K. That's a lot of K. The cameras are slow to use and most of the lenses he's using are manual focusing. Even the AF models are nothing to write home about --- if you've used any decent 35mm style AF lens in the last ten years. 

The second issue is that his "hit rate" seems to be much higher when he's using the Canons or the smaller Leica camera. There's less missed focus and less missed opportunities and, when push comes to shove, the only place he sees a bit of imaging superiority in favor of the bigger camera(s) is when they are mounting on a stout tripod and used with great care. Even there I am of the opinion that the gains he is getting in terms of increased detail and dynamic range could be easily matched by using a much less expensive camera on the same stout tripod and then using new camera features to combine three quick exposures for more dynamic range and more resolution. A very viable consideration since most of his work is immobile architecture. 

So, does spending more money to buy the state of the art camera really translate into better images and better efficiencies with clients' work? Based on the variety of cameras I've bought and used in the past five or so years I'd have to say no. My friend's work has always been good, with or without the new MF cameras. I think having the ne ultra plus of cameras (or of any tools or even marathon shoes) does more by way of delivering a placebo effect to the owner. An emotional life jacket that assures one that they've covered all of their bases. That no one will come back to them and argue that they didn't make every effort to deliver the best. 

I've become a true believer in the idea that there is a big range and all of the quality metrics across all the good, current cameras are bunched up tight at one end of a long performance curve. By that I mean that most current cameras, when used for typical photo shoots and casual artistic use, generally are capable of hitting the 92 to 96% quality range. In fact, I'd say, based on years of observation, that the real appeal of the highest quality camera is nothing more than the machine providing a buffer against the sloppy techniques of the user. Most people would be better served working on their technique if ultimate quality was really their goal. 

The cool thing about cheaper cameras is that the features per dollar ratio is better and sometimes trading off the ability to do sharper, nicer 40 by 60 enlargements is righteously offset by cameras offering features unavailable on the priciest pro-targeted cameras. One feature I think is in many cases a better value is the inclusion of a long, sharp lens. I've had many opportunities to take images that I would never have had before the launch of cameras like the Sony RX10 series and the Panasonic fz1000 and fz2500 cameras. The long, fast lenses on those cameras are unique. Getting the same angle of view on a full frame camera like a Sony a9 or Nikon D5 would cost a fortune, weigh as much as my inkjet printer and be devilishly hard to handle and move around with. For one tenth the cost I get to shoot with a focal length the likes of which I would never have invested in before. And I can carry the whole rig easily over one shoulder.

Another set of features shared by the two one inch sensor cameras is profoundly good 4K (UHD) video. It's better than the video out of most high end, interchangeable lens cameras because Sony designs this as an important feature instead of a check list afterthought. It's much better 4K video from either of the small cheap cameras than video from my old Nikon D810, or the D750, or the Canon 5Dmk3 - 4, etc. etc. etc. With the Panasonic my low budget fz is a complete video solution: Just add a microphone and some lights. That makes the process of creating high value video dirt cheap and easy. 

I have an expensive and well specified Sony camera that's nearly the ultimate in image quality. When I bought it the price was $3200. But I hate taking it out when I'm shooting casual, daily art because it gets used too hard. I need to preserve its working condition so I can use it for bigger paying jobs. Sweat, heat, dust, water and all those other things aren't good for precision cameras. I'd hate to trash the A7rii just to get a couple of street images to share on the blog. I guess that's meek on my part but sometimes replacements are backordered and service is a great unknown. I'd rather preserve the integrity of that camera and trash a camera at a third or less of the price. That's why I have a Panasonic G85. For $900 I've got a camera that is weather sealed, comes with a weather sealed 24-120mm equivalent zoom lens and boasts killer image stabilization. It's also a very decent 4K video camera. Since the sensor is smaller the lens is also smaller and lighter. I can carry this camera everywhere and never stop to worry that some accident or misuse might cause its destruction. 

And you know what? The images taken out in the streets and around town are fabulous. It's a wonderful all around shooting camera; especially when I consider the performance for the money. If I drop it hard, in a mud puddle, and it gets trampled by horses I won't pretend it has a chance at survival but the loss won't be monumental or profound. It's also less complex and actually makes better use of its battery power. A win for everything except giant posters and double truck print ads ---- now, when is the last time we saw one of those?
Sony RX10iii. Long lens, close shot.

In the recent past the idea around spending big bucks for high end cameras swirled around the idea that you got a lot more rugged reliability mixed with higher overall performance, but when even budget cameras are capable of 8 -10 fps, focus quickly and well, and have wonderful color output the value equation shifts dramatically. Add in the fact that almost all digital cameras have become quite reliable and the only reasons you might choose a more expensive option (beyond the mysterious forces of ego...) would be better focus tracking and better continuous AF performance. And maybe a bigger buffer. 

It's all a matter of degree and use. I rarely have to track race horses or Usain Bolt. Swimmers are easy to track. I mostly set up my shots in the studio (where I have nearly complete control and can even use manual focus happily) So I am not the target market for super-hyper focus speed even though my income is derived from making photographs. I like the G85. If I wanted some more performance options I might migrate to a GH5 but that would still be just a third the price of a Nikon or Canon top of the line camera and less than half the price of Sony's new a9. For most people the differences (if any) between those cameras and a GH5 are probably more imagined than real; with the exception of the bigger sensor. 

At some point it pays to be honest about our camera use. Most of use know what we use our cameras for and I think most are aware that, for all intents and purposes, we are the limiting factor on the imaging chain. If I am honest with myself I'm happy with the actual performance of the G85, the RX10xxx and the fz 2500. I was happy with the imaging performance of my older Olympus EM-5.2 cameras (although I was swayed to change mostly by the bigger and more detailed EVFs on the cameras I migrated to). And I have been happy with other less prodigious cameras. 

I guess the real question is whether the final use is really worth the bigger drain on your own finances. I know that these purchases all add up. But they add up more slowly when the purchase price is lower. And there's little truth to the old German adage of "buying cheap means buying twice." since the sensor tech is the ultimate source of obsolescence and affects the proud and the modest cameras equally. 

Just some thoughts on why I keep enjoying my cheap cameras more than my pricier toys....

Sony RX10iii

The 2017 version of the Nikon FM. Or the Canonet.

video studio in a backpack.

want indestructible? Wrap a cage around your favorite camera.


A high ISO, long lens, handheld shot with the fz2500. Cheap and spectacular is a good combination.

I had a nice website yesterday, made a few changes this morning, crash fest and a largely dead site now. NOW FIXED.

Too Serious.

Anything that requires many minutes of uploading into some mysterious folder at one's ISP is fraught with peril and frustration. I read the comments left by my thoughtful readers yesterday re: my re-do of the website and, fresh from a relaxing father's day, I hit the studio this morning to make some tweaks. Most involved just removing duplicate files, changing the automatic slide show timing for the galleries and making the thumbnails in the galleries one size bigger. 

Then, unexpectedly, all hell broke loose. I tried to publish to my site from the design program only to have the program crash again and again. I tried to save the files to disk but would get 90% of the way there before the program crashed again. I tried uploading what I thought was a completed save to the ISP only to see that major parts and pieces are missing and now the site is a catastrophe. A meteor crater of programming.

It will, no doubt, be during this time period that the senior art director for Apple will decide to take a peek at my site as a prelude to offering me an exten$ive project.... And then J.J. Abrams will drop by to see more about that great novelist he's heard so much about (all fantasy). 

I may have fixed the issue. I'm trying another upload now but, as with all things modern, I am very doubtful, pessimistic. 

Well, at least I'll have the memory of having once had a mostly completed site up for a while....

edit: Hmmmm. It's wrong to always presume that we've done something wrong when it comes to computers, ISPs, web sites, web hosts, et al. Today I re-loaded application software, changed security protocols for uploads, cleared caches, cleared folders on the web server and all kinds of other stupid voodoo only to finally talk to a human at our hosting company and finding out that they did a huge server upgrade over the weekend that played havoc on their firewall settings. It got resolved around noon and I found out about it just a few minutes ago at 3:42 CST. 

We are now in the last throes of yet another upload to the kirktuck.com server and everything that I've been spot-checking looks pretty good. On days like this I re-decide that my hatred for technology is not misguided. Happy only for air conditioning, and cures for polio, tuberculosis and other assorted diseases; as well as refrigeration and Fed Ex delivery from Amazon.com. Every other advance largely proves to be more trouble that it is worth and comes with unexpected consequences. But, for the moment, it looks like I'll have my new website back. Pretty happy since I dropped days into construction. Whew.

6.17.2017

Friday June 16, 2017. Fragmented Comments About Photography and Video.

Six days till homecoming. (Image: Ben from many years ago). 

I've just spent the last few days redesigning my website and I'm in the arduous process of uploading it to my internet service provider. It contains new images, a dynamic interface and a gallery page with 13 videos on it. I'm watching the small progress graphic ( a slowly connecting circle) with much anticipation. If I were in S. Korea, home of the world's fastest broadband connections, this all would have been loaded before I even started. I can only hope we don't regress back a decade to the time when I would get 95% of an upload stuffed up onto the web only to have everything crash. Then we'd start all over again. 

Note: The upload went fine and the site is now live at: www.kirktuck.com. As with most websites it is a work in progress and exists mostly as a resource to show clients what I do. The update was motivated by my need to add video to my galleries.

Older readers will hate the large text type but probably read it thoroughly, looking for typos. Younger readers will love the large headlines and read only the largest type on the pages, opting to look at the photos and video instead.

If you have suggestions please offer them in the contents. I guess this amounts to crowdsourcing valuable feedback but, of course, there is no guarantee that I'll follow through with changes. There is emotional inertia that keeps me as far from website production as I can get. 

The Benjamin countdown continues. He is scheduled to get back sometime on Thurs. evening and we're making all kinds of plans for his welcome back. I can't decide if the banner should be discreet and elegant or if we should just go ahead and wrap the entire house. I am also considering painting a welcome sign on the roof; just in case he is able to see it from the air. We've kept his scheduled arrival a secret from Studio Dog because she is hazy about "future tense" and will start looking all over for him if we tell her "Ben is Coming Home." I don't want to see her going from door to door and window to window looking hopeful and yet confused for the next five days. 

External recorders. I wanted to also report on the use of the Atomos Ninja Flame. As I expected, the improvement in the files depends to a large extent on how much you push the files coming from the camera. If you are filming at ISO200, in good light, with little camera movement, good color balance and careful exposure I am going to tell you that an external recorder won't magically and radically improve the video image. You will not hear angels singing. You won't have upgraded your shooting rig to match the files coming off your friend's $60K professional video camera because you will already be operating in a universal sweet spot. 

It's a different picture if you need to work at high ISOs, make big color or tonality corrections/modifications and if you routinely underexpose. Then, in post production, you'll probably see what I see: More detail, an easier to correct file, less noise and a greater range of color separation. 

Is the expense of $1200 or so worth it for people making video with DSLRs and mirrorless cameras? Only you can really decide if the units fit your value equation positively, but for me  there are three or four aspects that make a great external video recorder/monitor well worth the expense. The first is the ability to use vector scopes, wave form monitors and false color to fine tune (and nail) exposure and color balance. Meters solve a lot of issues. Second reason is the much enhanced ease of use for focus peaking and just plain focus evaluation. Having a high resolution screen that's multiple times bigger than the LCD on the back of your camera is a  godsend for achieving consistent and accurate focus. Punch in on a sharp, seven inch screen and you can see precisely where fine focus exists. Even with smaller sensor cameras that have the mixed blessing of deeper depth of focus/depth of field. 

Finally, having the video files already converted to a less compressed and very standard editing format means you don't waste time transcoding your video material before you can start your editing process. Plus, the transfer from the SSDs is remarkably fast. All in all, a good productivity tool. 

Speaking of video...I have to say that I've been shooting some video with the Panasonic G85 and I wish I was more impressed. It's not bad in 4K; not bad at all, but it's not as crisp as the fz2500 or the Sony RX10iii and doesn't come close to the high ISO performance of the  A7Rii in crop mode. It's a good enough camera but even the image stabilization is a bit disappointing because it's not at all stable if you are handheld and changing direction with a pan. There are artifacts. For a sustained, handheld shot with little camera movement it's fine but when the camera starts to move the issues come into focus. I'm disappointed but I'm still, on the whole, a fan of the camera because it does a very, very nice job with still photography and the video on a tripod (in 4K) is just fine. There is no free lunch. This camera is just a discounted lunch. 

Lenses. I want to call out two lenses that are more or less obscure, have been on the market for a while and have, in the minds of most consumers, been superseded for attention by the subsequent, relentless product introductions in the lens market. They are the Rokinon 100mm f2.8 macro and the Rokinon 135mm t2.2 (cine version) lenses. Both are manual focusing and neither has any electronic connection to any camera but both are exquisitely sharp, even wide open. I had occasion to use both recently and came away with a new appreciation for them. The 135mm is especially interesting as it gives a very sharp core image wide open and, on a full frame camera gives an exquisitely narrow depth of field when used there. Look around for used copies, cast off by people with short attention spans, and buy them cheap. They are well worth it if you are casting around for a certain sort of look from your full frame cameras. 

Weather. As I understand it California, and places west of Texas, are being pounded with heat from an intransigent high pressure dome that's propelling the heat up into the 110-120 (f) range. It's expected that the temps will stay there through the next week. Here in Austin we've had a period of high humidity with actual high temperatures near the 100 mark which makes for a dangerous heat index. Not good weather for exterior shooting. Thank goodness I've been inside, working on the darn website. 

Swim Practice. We've had some great swims lately. The coaches are getting more inventive as we go along, and all of them must be frustrated engineers since everything they write on the board has complex patterns of increasing and decreasing distance coupled with negative splits and descending interval times. Good times. If you aren't exercising you might want to consider doing so as an investment in your long term ability to be mobile with your camera. No fun trying to do street photography from the couch....

A Final Note. I am have contracted to be a photography instructor for a travel company. We are on track to begin in 2018 with a fun trip (in the Fall) to Iceland followed by a December adventure in England. More details as they become available. As a warm up I'm planning a trip in late Summer to Mexico City and in the Fall to Tokyo. As the kid finishes up his senior year by May of 2018 more and more funds seem to become available for the kinds of travel we used to do before those dreaded years of parental responsibility. Stay tuned.

Feedback on the website is welcome but really, try to be nice...




6.15.2017

Today is Wacky Portrait Appreciation Day in Lichtenstein. Celebrate with Gusto.


We've entered an alternate universe here in my corner of Austin. It's a universe filled with wild life. There is a skunk (or perhaps a herd of skunks) who makes the rounds though our yard every week or so. For a while it was attempting to burrow down and build a nest in my back yard. With the clever use of high intensity light, and the application of water, I think I was able to thwart those attempts. But it's still making the rounds. Which means I have to be careful when I take Studio Dog out at night. She got sprayed once when she was young and it was a dismal experience for everyone in the family...

We also have a recurring itinerate armadillo who likes to make little cone shaped divits in the front yard. I don't mind it quite as much.

Then there was recent, four foot long rat snake that climbed down the tree next to the kitchen window in a baldfaced attempt to scare Belinda half to death. I won't go into detail about our trials and tribulations with the squirrels; they clearly have no regard for boundaries and no respect for poor Studio Dog who is hellbent on catching one for dissection...

No, the capper this week is the feral deer. Apparently a doe gave birth to a fawn behind the house on the corner. The residents of the house are out of the country so the deer apparently found a yard with a bit of ongoing privacy. But the house is on a corner and the street is busy in the morning with people walking their dogs or, in the case of Studio Dog, dogs walking their people. At any rate, the deer is amazingly protective of the area she now considers her territory and is singling out dog walkers and their dogs for active harassment. Aggressive harassment.

She has mapped out a six house area and, within those confines she charges at dogs and humans in a menacing way, telling them to move along and get the hell away from her space. When I came home from swim practice Studio Dog and Belinda took turns telling harrowing tales of their latest deer confrontation. The deer was following them so aggressively that a police car causing by stopped and the officer interceded, to the extent that he could.

Now, I get parental protectiveness, and I get that the deer were (ostensibly) here first. Bur really, can't we all just share the space now?

I'll remember that thought as I go after the four or five growing wasp's nests gathering in various spots under the eaves of the house...  How wonderful to live amongst nature.

This is why I am happy to be celebrating the more urbane pleasures of Wacky Portrait Appreciation Day here. I know it's considered rude to appropriate from other cultures but the requirement that we all drink Champagne and then nap through the hot parts of the afternoon (ALL afternoon) sold me on the need for more authentic holidays such as this one.

Wacky portrait supplied above. Done with a recent model of down market digital camera.