4.15.2014

Medium Format Digital, Here We Come. Hello Pentax.

Now we've got something to talk about.

In recent years I despaired of the chance that we'd ever have an inexpensive but powerful medium format digital camera that would bring back to we portrait photographers the thing we always crave: the long lens on the big sensor. I don't really care about total resolution but I do crave the equivalent of that big piece of medium format film. Now, after stumbling through the endless permutations of 35mm sensor sized cameras we finally have an entrant into the field that seems to check all the boxes I wanted and a lot more. Introducing the Pentax D645Z. My one complaint? I'd gladly trade ten or twenty million of those Sony pixels for a bigger, fatter sensor. One with more real estate for optical effect.

I won't go through all of the technical specs. Those are all over the web. But I do want to hit on the cool ones, from my point of view: The camera has a big sensor. Nearly 50% bigger than the sensors in the Nikon D800 or the Sony A7r. Yummy. Let's put a 110mm f2.0 lens on the front of this and see just how nice a portrait we can make. And now, all the lesser specs: The camera is advertised as weatherproofed. Yawn. It shoots pretty quicky. Okay. It uses a 51 megapixel CMOS sensor from Sony. Wonderful for those rare times when 16 megapixels are not enough (reminder: buy more hard drives....). ISO goes to a trillion. But rationally, it'll be great to have a medium format camera that produces relatively clean files at 1600-6400 ISO. It takes current and legacy Pentax 645 lenses. Cheap ones as well as expensive ones.

Will we all rush out to buy one?

I'm pretty sure a lot of people will. Especially professionals who are desperate to introduce some sort of differentiating value proposition for using them (with said camera) instead of uncle Bob who just happens to be a really good photographer, owns a D800 and dabbles in Profoto strobes. This will be the last ditch attempt to make gear the barrier to entry. I know I'll buy one once the dentists and cardiologists and hedge fund managers get tired of theirs and push them onto the used market in the under $5,000 range. May take a year or two but something else is sure to come along and dislodge the newest and freshest miracles of the present from the first wave's attention....

What's the lure? Again, for me it's not about the high ISO or the massive files it's all about being able to use longer lenses on a bigger sensor to get a kind of portrait that we used to get back in the film days. Does this mean my love affair with m4:3rds is already over? Not hardly. It'll take a while for the Pentax D645z to become Kirk-Affordable in the used market and not everything I shoot is a limited depth of field portrait. In fact, more and more of what I shoot seems to dovetail with the look and feel of the smaller cameras. 

But I do think that Pentax/Ricoh is doing something remarkable and disruptive. They join the two majors in the medium format digital racket in using the same Sony 51 megapixel chip. And I'm going to bet it's only a matter of time before Leica jumps on board as well. But the disruptive aspect is the selling price of the Pentax camera. It's less than $9,000 U.S.  It's about a quarter of the asking price of the Phase One product and probably some similar gap with the Hasselblad product. 

Is there some massive difference in the quality of the lenses? Having shot the Pentax in its film incarnation as well as the Hasselblad and the Phase One in their digital permutations I doubt that there's much difference at all between them. Certainly it will take a microscope and some patience to see the difference. For most working pros who actually need the big megapixel count and all the other bells and whistles the Pentax may actually be the most compelling choice because of their vast experience in digital with 35mm style cameras.  They have at the ready autofocusing modules, matrix metering modules and a twenty year history of making great autofocus in small and larger cameras. 

The original film 645 cameras had a reputation for being more reliable than Swiss trains and the handling was always superb.  The only differentiator between the four brands of medium format current still standing and staggering around might be from Leica who really can make lenses that are visibly more drool worthy. But whether that advantage is worth three times the price of the Pentax remains to be seen. 

I will predict one more thing: The Pentax will have the best flash performance of the group. They always have. 

My next camera? I'm tossing a coin to choose between grabbing for that GH4 or picking up another miraculous Sony RX-10. I'll take the path of least painful resistance. 



4.14.2014

Just watching my Studio Portrait Lighting Video on Craftsy.com








I sent a friend who wanted to learn about photography to one of my www.Craftsy.com classes and she came back raving. She loved the way the two and a half hour classes build, the feature where she could stop and start the video and automatically go back 30 seconds and she loved asking questions that I had to go online and answer. The course she took was absolutely aimed at beginner photographers and it's called,  Family Photography: Candid Moments & Storytelling

But the class I wanted to bring to my VSL readers' attention is my Studio Portrait Lighting course. In the studio lighting course we walk through different ways to light portraits and it's really a course in how I light a portrait. We cover different modifiers and different lights. I'm a big fan of continuous lights but the use of light and of modifiers works pretty much across the lighting spectrum (pun partially intended). 

I think the Studio Portrait Lighting class might be interesting to readers who haven't spent a lot of time shooting with controlled lighting but who might be interested to see how one person does it. With the code in the link the class is about $30. Once you buy a class you can go back to it as often as you like for as long as you like. You also get to quiz me online but it might take a day of two to get an answer. 

If you hate the course you can use Craftsy.com's money back guarantee to make yourself whole again and if you are particularly careful you can go and look at the trailer before you commit. 

I actually hate doing commercials for classes here on the blog but the classes are one of the ways I generate income and I've decided to be less shy about at least showing my readers what I have to offer. I like the way Craftsy.com does their classes and I'm taking one about making croissants right now. After that I'll find another cooking class that appeals. 

I have also taken Neil Van Niekirk's very good class on portrait lighting with small flashes and enjoyed it. These classes are much more condensed and easy to use than the free, multi-day classes offered at other sites. I hope you'll try one of mine to see how you like it. 

And if you have a friend who is just getting into photography and needs to go from understanding f-stops and shutter speeds and how to hold a camera and some remedial post processing you might want to point them to the Family Photography class. My friends who need the class are telling me they love it. 

I have to add, I learned a lot of new stuff about video production by participating as the instructor! Thanks Patty!

Redefining a changing business. Integrating new offerings with existing skills.


Since 1987 I have offered photography services to clients who are mostly in commercial enterprises. These services include: Executive Portraits, more traditional Head Shots, Product Photography, Food Photography and general, advertising oriented, LifeStyle Photography. We have also documented hundreds of events which have included celebrities like Elton John, Andy Roddick, Ben Crenshaw, Sugar Ray Leonard, three different U.S. presidents and many others. It's been a wonderful and varied career that ranged from being hunched over a still life of underground pipes (shot in the studio for 3M) to making "hero" shots of the first Apple/Motorola/IBM RISC processor to chatting with president, George H.W. Bush about wine while waiting for a photo session.

The common denominator of those 27 years has been that the majority of the work has been still photography. The cameras have varied widely. We've shot with 8x10 cameras for still life, pressed 4x5 inch film cameras into service both for studio product work and location portrait work, we've leaned heavily on medium format systems for hundreds and hundreds of editorial assignments and corporate portraits and we plumbed the depths of the Leica M and R systems for events and documentation.

Since the dawn of digital I've shot with everything from tiny sensored Canon G10's (most of the illustrations in my book on Photographic Lighting Equipment) to big Nikons and Canons, to Sony full frame and then back again to the Panasonic/Olympus micro four thirds cameras. Through all of this the cameras have been the most fun to buy but really have had the least effect on the imagery. The real work is in the lighting. And secondary to the lighting is just strategizing the shots. How to prop them? What angles to shoot? What properties to highlight? How to pose a person to make them look good? Or better?

But after this wonderful run of a career I am more and more drawn to creating moving images. In this decade that means video. I am hardly a beginner in the field. My first motion project, done in 1985, was to conceive and write the first television commercials for Bookstop Bookstores. We borrowed liberally from 2001, A Space Odessey, and built an 18 foot tall monolith of....books. Took the monolith to a rock quarry and, with a crew of 20 or so in tow we filmed our live action through one long night. Back then the production crew shot on 35mm film and we did our post production at Video Post in Dallas, Texas. David Byrne was in Dallas during the first run of the commercials and got in touch with our ad agency to see if he could use a 10 second clip of the commercial for his film, True Stories.

I've been fascinated with making video and film ever since. In the late 1980's I bought a Bolex Rex 5 16mm movie camera with an Angenieux 12-120mm lens and a few primes. In the early 1990's I bought a Canon XL-1 and then an XL-2 and worked as a DP for Bruce Maness on one of his personal movie projects and also on a series of videos about nuclear reactor waste streams. I used my Canon XL-1 and a long lens to do a series of shots with Rene Zellweger (yet to be discovered by Hollywood at that point in time) for a video about coffee.  And I worked as DP for Steve Mims on his award winning music video for Billy Joe Shaver (song: The Hottest Thing in Town). 

A little later I became interested in the Super-8 film aesthetic and bought a Nikon R-10 camera. We used it to do one of my favorite projects for a company called, TechWorks. The first half of the industrial video (made to be shown at Mac World shows) was all done in black with white Super 8 Tri-X and the second half all shot in color with BetaCam SP cameras. It was the kind of fun project I love. I got to concept, write the script, run the cameras and direct the talent. I sat in an editing bay with a very patient editor and we cut the project together during a very long day.... It was the last time I edited on tape...

Now I'm feeling a renewed interest in all things motion. I've done a number of projects in the last two years. Some with my friend, Will Van Overbeek, and some with my son, Ben, but mostly working pretty much solo. While film making is largely thought of as a collaborative process I love the way I've been building my new approach. I'll reach out for talent when I need it but I'm much more interested in my singular vision of the medium. I want to hear the words through the headphones. I want to line up the images in the camera and I want to sit in the studio and agonize, second by second over the edits.

So now I'm trying to craft a message, or an offering, to my existing and potential clients to let them know that I'd like to do these kinds of projects for them. And I'm grappling with the marketing side of the whole video process. I know how things are done, status quo, but (as usual) I am questioning why everything has to be so quantified and structured.

One thing that interests me is the idea of combining interviews and head shots. I've done a bit of this for the folks at Austin Radiological Associates but I want to expand it. The idea is to "light once and shoot twice." Set up lighting that works equally well for still photography head shots but can instantly be re-purposed for video interviews with the subject. I envision a time when every website that currently has a grouping of static head shots will move to having head shots which, when clicked on, open into a 30 or 60 second interview/scripted introduction of the person. "Hi, I am doctor John Smith and my speciality is pain management. At the Waco Witchcraft Clinic we offer a full array of tested methodologies to help our patients control and even remediate persistent pain. Our newest tool is the hybrid laser/leech therapy that combines the lost knowledge of the dark ages with the latest in medical gear bling. We are ready to help you with your pain!" 

On a more traditional note I really enjoy putting together industrial/corporate videos that combine a look into the nuts and bolts of a company's offerings combined with testimonials from clients and explanations from company wonks. Here's what we do. Here's how we do it. Here's how it works. Here are the benefits of using our product. Here's someone who has had success using the product. And finally, please call us for a demonstration/bid/more information, etc. 

I recently finished an industrial just like the one I described above and I loved every part of the process from writing the outline to picking the music bed. The project was successful for the client and everyone had fun.

What I learned during the project is that one can never have enough "b-roll" (images of the process or different angles of the speakers, etc.) and that one can never move the camera too much in the creation of the b-roll. To that end I'm adding a portable jib for the next project. I'm also looking at Varizoom's new Dolly Track system.

I guess in writing this I am really just noodling out my thoughts on how to proceed. I'm working diligently at putting more and more samples on my reel and I'm working with equal diligence on mastering every tiny part of Final Cut Pro X. I'm looking for more projects that I can handle without being encumbered by a big crew. I like working with an assistant, a sound person and a make up person. I like hiring graphic designers with expertise in the program, Motion, to create graphics.

But most of the work I envision doing in the short run is destined for websites, YouTube, Vimeo and general presentations (trade shows, corporate stage shows, etc.).  To my mind the intended use makes the selling proposition straightforward. We don't do big, splashy TV commercials. We don't do giant productions. We offer what we've really always offered. Good, solid content wrapped in well done technical wrappers.

I think our best feature/benefit is both my time spent working with corporations and understanding their processes, and my ability to write and coax good words from interviewees and narrators. Good writing and good directing are the keys to getting the information across well to prospective customers.  The clearer and cleaner I can make that process the more value we can provide to our clients.

In the next few months I'm bound to write more and more about video but I still have most of my commercial presence (my feet)  in the still photography arena and I'm not about to walk away from the equity I've built in that business.  We're working for mutually beneficial coexistence.

Times change and it seems to me that video is ready for a smaller, smarter crew and a more focused, less production intensive method of creating it. Web presentation is a relatively new medium and it requires different levels of investment and much more inventory if it's to be done correctly. We want to provide clients with good, clear messaging and visual content that's professionally done and fun to watch. Adding video and photography together is a way of leveraging both fields. Now the secret is to figure out the marketing....


4.12.2014

Am I consistent? Here's a blog from 2009. I thought it was fun so I'm reposting.

I guess that's like re-gifting but it's my blog so what the hell.

A Tourist In Your Own Town.

I'm sure you've done this many times. But if you haven't I think this exercise is one of my favorites for unblocking the creative gland and reforming the compositional capacitors that store pizzazz energy for the photo shooting part of your brain.  Here's the basic scenario:  You've spent the work week responding to e-mails, sending out bids for jobs (that keep getting postponed), you go to meetings. Some meetings are good.  You show your portfolio and walk away thinking that people like you and jobs may come your way.  Some meetings are dreadful, like the one with your banker who wants to redefine your business line of credit.  The worst meetings are the ones where horrible clients want to beat you up and get a better price on projects because, "the economy sucks".  And, of course, there are the daily obligations like sitting through your child's six hour track meet, fixing the refrigerator and trying to walk that fine line between saving enough money to go out for a nice anniversary dinner without blowing the regular budget.

So,  if you've survived a week of this you are probably sick of your office or studio, sick of the pressure and sick of thinking about things in general.  You've pretty much hit the wall.  Now is the time to grab your favorite camera, leave your family to their own devices and become a tourist in your own town.

If you live in a town like Austin you are probably aware that the city you know is in constant flux.  I like to take one Sunday afternoon a month just to walk around the downtown area with a camera and see what's new.  Today was a windy day with temperatures in the high 60's to low 70's and lots of bright, Texas sunshine.  We even had a few little high, puffy clouds.  I grabbed a Canon G9, stuffed in a four gig card and drove to the shores of Lady Bird Lake (part of the Colorado River which runs right through the middle of our downtown).  I parked on the south shores and headed for the pedestrian bridge which gives a great view of the downtown skyline. There are a bunch of high rise condo buildings going up and it's fun to photograph them against the stark, blue sky.

When the weather is as perfect as it was today all of Austin seems to show up to run, ride bikes and walk around the hike and bike trail.  Just the way a tourist in his own town likes it.  

I shot everything I saw as if I was seeing it for the first time.  The light fixtures on the bridge. The nearby railroad bridge and the river running underneath, littered with kayaks and canoes. Then I headed into downtown with stops at the power plant to shoot those big gizmos that look like ray guns in sci-fi movies and the anything with cooling fins.

I meandered through downtown shooting the sunlight licking the faces of my favorite buildings until my feet started getting sore and my stomach started grumbling.  I retraced my steps, walked past the car and headed to P.Terry's hamburger place for a single burger on whole wheat, all the way, minus jalapenos.  It was great to just sit in the bright sun on the wooden picnic table benches and slowly savor a chocolate milk shake.  I also photographed the P.Terry's sign for fun.

The little G9 or it's slightly bigger brother the G10 gives me some sort of license to shoot whatever I want.  My friends would laugh if I said I was shy but like everyone in post "9-11" America I am a bit reticent about pointing a big honking camera at strangers.  The G cams are so touristy, so amateur "wannabe" that they almost scream, "Look at me, I'm a perennial art student on a fine art scavenger hunt..."  and nobody but the drug dealers takes those folks seriously.  So, having a little "hand" camera is your license to peer into nooks and crannies, accost strangers,  shoot silly angles and generally lurch around trying to see if you got the shot by chimping the hell out of the LCD. (I know what I said last week about chimping but when you are a tourist you do whatever the hell you like!).

So what does this five hour hike around the monuments of Austin's attempt to be a real cosmopolitan metropolis buy me?  I think it gives me an excuse not to think.  An day of shooting without the pressure of having to turn out perfect work.  License to really experiment with the tools and the toys.  I know I got some exercise as I figured my route to be about five miles in all.  A chance to re-orient my engraved memory of what is downtown. And a good excuse to go off my very strict, vegan diet and splurge with a great burger.  (That last sentence was a joke.  I live for P. Terry's burgers and fries---even if it ends up knocking 1.2 months off my total life expectancy.....).

I returned home with 345 images on the little memory card and a real appreciation for what those little G cameras from Canon can turn out.  In bright light they are remarkable.  I think I'll get a few more.  

Now, here's the rant:  Stop buying big, super megapixel cameras!!!! Here's why: According to Ad Age, Adweek and the Wall Street Journal, the relentless march of advertising to the web has accelerated at a rapid clip during the last year.  Remember when we wondered when digital SLR's would supplant film?  And then it happened overnight?  What happens in trends like the move to digital imaging or the move from traditional print advertising to web and other forms of electronic advertising is the the momentum builds until the market hits a point of capitulation.  (From the latin, essentially meaning to behead the king.....).  Until the king is killed the armies keep on fighting but once the head rolls the armies stop.

We are on the cusp of print advertising capitulating to digital.  In a year or two the remaining traditional magazines will sit on lonely shelves and many of their trusty brethren will have been consigned to webmag status.  As photographers we have to understand that mastery of image files and the ability to summon tons of megapixels into the fray will no longer be effective barriers to entry to our field.  The D3x's and 1DSmk3's will become albatrosses that require learning the intricacies of downsizing.  No one will be looking for 50 megabyte tiff files they'll be looking for good compression and fast loading.  And more and more they will be looking for files that move.  As in video.

So where does that leave us as professional photographers? With the realization that many have already accepted:  We are content providers and it's time to re-orient our understanding of what constitutes content.  I'm nearly confident that I'll be doing my content in the near future with a laptop for writing and image editing and a couple of cameras like the Canon G series compacts for both still and video clip imaging.  All of a sudden there won't  be an endless need to spend on expensive camera upgrades and new models because web bandwidth will be come our new "line screen" and it will limit our need to provide huge files.  In  due time the new standard will be the resolution of HD screens and the schism between television screens and studio monitors will, for all intents and purposes, vanish.

When traditional barriers to entry into professional imaging are smashed we will have to compete and dominate the competition in three important ways:  First, we have to have better ideas. The ideas become our currency.  We'll have to be masters of lighting, at least as far as it serves our purposes in giving us an inimitable style. And third, we will have to infuse our content with intellectual assets that are unique to our own experiences.  Sounds lofty but what the hell does it really mean.  First. Better Ideas.  Instead of surviving as documenters or "picture takers" we will bring concepts and visions to the table and those will be our first line of commercial defense.  If someone asks for a portrait of a plumber it won't be on gray seamless paper with three point lighting but it might be in an underground labyrinth of crossed pipes and mysterious pools of lighting, complete with giant shrews and monsters over which our heroic plumber is victorious.  Second, the light on our plumber will be anything but formulaic.  The pipes themselves will glow.  We'll invent lighting that comes from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.  And third,  we'll use our dreams, our nightmares and our loftiest ideals as the fabric for our creations, making art so poignant that it brings tears to the hardest heart and smiles to the hopeless.  Or something like that.

And in the brave new digital world the walls between writing, filming and photographing will be liquid, pliable and permeable and we'll master all three the way Mr. Spock used to master three dimensional chess on Star Trek.  Because clients now understand that advertising is more like movies than it is printed posters in the town square.  And they are looking for directors and screenwriters, not camera operators and DP's.  

So,  right now is when you need to start working on your first video project.  But not with an eye for technical perfection but with an ear for the melodies of seeing.  And now is when you need to start learning to turn feelings and sensations into words that reach out and move people to try new.  New what?  New everything.

The convergence came but it wasn't the stars that aligned.  It was our creative occupations and it will never be the same again.  The tools are becoming invisible and irrelevant.  The ideas and execution are becoming the linchpins that hold everything together.  And it can all be done for next to nothing.

For those of us over a certain age the biggest hurdle will be recognizing that our previous skill sets mean next to nothing.  That we need to throw away the security blankets of "ultimate camera" and "incredible flash equipment" in order to rethink the entire process.  We need to go back to childhood and see new images and new programs thru the eyes of a child.  Our child. Our most basic and undiluted creative self.

See what a walk around town will do to you?

Making Hay While The Sun Shines (The missing post...).


I thought I would go radically off our usual subject matter and make a blog for the segment of photographers and videographers who are just starting out. Maybe you just graduated from college or maybe you're a little older and you've finally decided to quit your mind numbing corporate job and launch that creative career about which you've always dreamed.

I'd like to make a little suggestion: Save money. Save money all the time. Invest the money in something other than your photography and your really cool selection/collection of gear. Invest every time you get your hands on a check from a client. And do it for the long term.

Having a great year? Save the money. Having a crappy year?  Save the money. There's nothing worse than spending every cent you make in the glory years only to end up with squat when you hit your late 50's and the pool of people who think you are gifted, talented and of the moment shrinks down to a puddle. It's nice to have a bit of cash stashed away so you aren't 100% dependent on Social Security. When you freelance there is no governmental entity standing behind you quietly creating retirement accounts for you. It's all up to you.

But Kirk! What does this all mean? You prattle on incessantly about this camera and that camera and this lens and that lens and we've come to believe that you spend every cent that comes your way on an endless flow of gear.... Where is your moral high ground to stand here and write that we young, incredibly talented, creative people should listen to you preach about saving money?

All true. If you know me only through the blog you probably have concluded that I've never met a camera I don't like and that my family is subsisting on a mean gruel of beans, rice and government surplus grains (which actually sounds kind of healthy). But the reality is that we've learned (mostly the hard way) to save, save, save. Or even better; to invest wisely.

My secret weapon in this whole freelance game has always been my spouse who is good at scrapping the good money right off the top of every client payment. She's the one who sets up Roth IRA's and SEP retirement accounts and 529 college funds and rainy day accounts and all the rest. She smiles and listens to me rationalize just how much my "investment" in, say, a BMW M5 will return to our bottom line (as a flashy company car) as she takes whatever windfall cash put me in the acquisition mode/mood and shoves it into yet another long term (spousal talk for "untouchable") account and reminds me of just how much I like my Honda.

When kids hit college age many people are frankly shocked at two things: How quickly this whole thing sneaks up on you and how expensive everything having to do with college has become. Left up to me I would have tried to save up for the kid's college experience in one or two years as reality hit and panic backed it up. Left to my horrifying skills in delayed gratification my child would have looked forward to two years of community college and a hearty handshake.

Private colleges are now cresting the $60,000 per year mark and that effectively shuts down any sort of fast track savings plan for any of us in the middle of the middle class. But.....if you start saving for your child's college education every month from the day your child is born you'll at least have a fighting chance of making it all work out. My kiddo has spent the last part of this week up at a college in New York, checking out the whole lay of the enterprise. A text an hour ago tells me that he likes it. He's been accepted but he hasn't committed yet. Because my kid takes after his mom and not me he's made really good grades at a really competitive high school so nearly every college that's accepted him has offered to help financially with merit scholarships. Between what he's earned academically and what we've saved we can just make the spread and give him the kind of opportunity of which we've always dreamed.

But we would never have felt confident doing that if we had not also saved every single month of every single year that I've been a freelance photographer in SEP and IRA accounts. What it all comes down to is having one partner in every relationship be smart enough to make hard choices and to enforce them. To choose the retirement account over cable television. (an after tax savings of up to $300 per month if you figure that you are paying for your cable service with after tax dollars and then factor in the deduction you could have taken and the monthly opportunity costs...). That's $3600 a year and, with interest or dividends, at least another $100,000 over twenty years. Maybe more.

The same goes for choosing to buy new cars only when they've given up a proud ten years or more of service. Those cars under consideration? The cheaper the better. The lower operating and insuring costs the better. If you have to have the biggest and the best of everything you're probably not cut out for the freelance life style.

It's a way of thinking that filters into everything. We only vacation to locations where one of us has been hired to do a job or project. We eat out sparingly. We upgrade computers only when it makes financial sense in terms of time expended on projects. No shiny new stuff for us until we start squirming at the deadlines.

Look. The bottom line is that this is not a secure business. It never has been. It's one thing to make it in your twenties and thirties, surviving on a shoestring and sleeping on a girlfriend's couch, and a totally different thing to make it in your 40's and 50's. You'll sleep better if you've got five or ten or fifteen years of life expenses in your accounts and even some more tied up in your home's equity. Anything less is anxiety inflicting.

My advice to all budding creatives? No new toys until you've made your monthly financial contribution to your own future. And even then you should have a solid enough rationalization for buying the gear to get the expense past both your spouse and your CPA....now that's really creative.

We had a brief outage yesterday and a blog was "misplaced."


Some readers tried to log on yesterday evening and were met with a message that they would have to be invited to the blog to read it. The problem has been remedied although I seem to have lost the blog entry I wrote on financial matters for people jumping into creative jobs/careers. We'll see if we can't re-peice that one and put it back up.

It's Saturday. I had a wonderful swim practice with amazing coach, Kathleen Hersey (two time Olympian and amazing butterfly swimmer)  this morning followed by coffee with swimmer friends.

It's sunny and beautiful in Austin today so, after lunch with the family I'm heading out to see what's new. That's the extent of my blog today.

Camera in hand for the afternoon? The under appreciated Panasonic G6 with its new friend, the Sigma 30mm f2.8 dn.

Too much fun!

4.10.2014

Shooting your own feet. A choppy day of photographing, driving and reading bad novels.


All of the images above were done during the course of an assignment yesterday in San Antonio. It was a long day. I started it by driving Ben to the Austin airport at 5:30 in the morning. I am not really a morning person. At least not when morning is defined by darkness (and sleep deprivation...). 

My next stop was to an architectural firm where I needed to photograph some people whose schedules precluded them from attended our day long session several weeks ago. It was fun and the very first professional use (by me) of the new Panasonic 35-100mm f2.8 lens on the GH3. It's a magnificent portrait lens and I was very, very happy with the performance of both camera and lens. While the GH3, and Panasonic cameras in general, sometimes get knocks for creating files that are less saturated, snappy and giddy than some competitors I can tell you that, from a portraitist's point of view, they are wonderful files to work with and go a long way toward handling sneaky highlights. 

The shadows were nice and open as well. Maybe it's the lens but subsequent shooting with the Sigma 60mm makes me think there's something most people are overlooking in this camera in their race toward bigger, better and more modern. 

After making portraits of three different architects I packed up, headed back to the studio and post processed and edited the take. Then I hoped back into the car and headed up to Precision Camera where I purchased a brand new Sigma 30mm f2.8 lens. Look, I was blown away with the performance of the Sigma 60mm lens on the Panasonic GH3, how could I not want to try my luck again with the 30mm ? And while I was there I picked up another, smaller Benro tripod that's small enough to fit inside my roller bag (lesson learned from a recent shooting trip in Chicago and Minneapolis).

I came back to the house to change out of my studio cleaning, running around, Austin hippy clothes, take a shower and put on something more presentable for my trip to San Antonio. We needed to photograph in the public areas of a very, very posh downtown, high rise, condominium project and I decided I needed to be more urbanely presentable than is generally required in Austin. For the most part that just means shoes that aren't scuffed or covered with paint and an unstained shirt with a collar, all buttons intact and no wrinkles...

I packed a different collection of lighting gear (which I did not need) and added a Panasonic G6 to my Think Tank Retrospective camera bag. Then I played with the Studio Dog for half an hour, left her some interesting hidden treats around the house to find and headed for the shining metropolis of San Antonio. 

My primary objective, driven by a friendly ad agency, was to get a nice skyline shot of San Antonio at twilight. That's always a hard assignment because we have no control over atmospheric conditions, general haze, etc. But I was ready to give it the old college try. 

My secondary objectives were to make a group shot of the marketing team for the project in one of the majestic "great rooms" at the project. I also needed to do one environmental portrait and also a "two shot" of a successful sales team. 

The room came pre-lit with a wall full of floor to ceiling windows that faced South and picked up all the afternoon light, giving me a diffuse, glowing light source with which to work. The huge pile of lighting I lugged in stayed in the cases. 

The various marketing shots needed to happen quickly to satisfy some scheduling parameters on the client side. With that in mind I set up a main shot which would have a group of four to six. I tested and composed the shot in a general way while everyone was in a meeting. With that location nailed down I left the primary camera, a GH3 with the 12-35mm Panasonic lens, on a tripod and moved over to find a secondary location that would work for one and then two people. 

Once I found a background I liked and a corresponding big window/wall of light I set up a second camera (the Panasonic G6 ) added the 90mm Sigma lens and got that shot zero'd in. About twenty minutes later our group arrived and ten minutes after than I was dragging the cart with all the lighting gear back to the car. Oh well, better to be prepared....

The final shot of the day would be the twilight shot and that wasn't going to happen for several more hours. I knew this from the outset and I prepared by finding the closest good coffee supplier and then I came back and created a perch on the balcony of the 21st story penthouse apartment. Once I had the angles and crops figured out for my camera I curled up with a bad Vince Flynn novel and my coffee and mindlessly read mindless stuff. It was fun. 

At one point the action and adventure in the book got boring so I walked around and shot silly details with the Sigma 30mm and the G6. I like them both. And I like my shoes with laces. 









4.08.2014

This is an art installation. This is a billboard. This is a blog about wall painting and graffiti. And a tale of two lenses.

One of the areas in which I felt I had shorted the Panasonic system and one reason I kept shooting with the big Sonys was my paucity of wide angles for the smaller cameras. I bought an Olympus 12-50mm and while it was good it wasn't great. When I thought about fleshing out the system my real intention was just to get a 35-100mm f2.8 to replace my long, fast Sony zoom and then be done with the whole exercise. But with business being brisk again and with the opportunity to divest more of the bigger system I figured I'd just swing a bit harder and get the double dose, the 12-35mm f2.8 and the 35-100mm f2.8 Panasonic X lenses. Now I don't use wide angles very often. I'm not really an architectural photographer and there's very little I like about my own capability to shoot wide. But at least six or seven times a year I need something that goes to the equivalent of 24mm (as measured on a full frame camera). In fact, I have two assignments coming up near the end of the month that may both, potentially, need some wide angle love so----

I walked around in a cold, breezy rain storm on Sunday just to see how the lens worked. I shot it wide open to make sure I liked the performance but as you can see in the image above and the one just below my brain takes control of the zoom ring and tries to get it as close to the 50mm (eq.) area in which I am obviously most comfortable. I'll say this from my tests: The lens is wide angle proficient and normal angle excellent. Hmmm.

Cake makes all lenses taste better. 

Interesting to me that I could have a new lens in the $1200 price range land in the camera bag but have it take far less priority in my scheme of shooting than a lens that landed only a few days later, the Sigma 60mm f2.8 dn. While I am happy with the work-like countenance of the 12-35mm with its promise of high performance and its swaggering Mega OIS image stabilization I have to admit that I find the $230 Sigma lens a lot more emotionally compelling. Maybe it's the narrow confines of the angle of view and maybe it's the need for more careful handling that makes it a better emotional investment for me. I just don't know. 


But when Studio Dog and I put in our mandatory four hour work day and pushed back from our respective desk and fluffy mat we were ready to grab a camera and go for quality walk. I looked at the two lenses on the desk and, without hesitation, whisked the 12-35mm Panasonic right into the file cabinet drawer marked, "Proficient Gear," grabbed the Sigma 60mm, and a GH3 body, and a leash and got into the car. We ended up downtown at the Graffiti Park, just west of Lamar Blvd. I was eager to see what was new since my last visit and Studio Dog was eager to see if she could disrupt my "professional" camera hold by tugging at the leash in sporadic and unexpected intervals....




 The image above is one of Studio Dog's favorites. She barked at it with a mix of appreciation and apprehension. After all, it is a much bigger dog and has the advantage of wearing goggles...



Ahh....those Panasonic colors. 





Part Two: An Unguided display of someone's art installation. How do I know it's an art installation? Was it my short career teaching at the University of Texas at Austin College of Fine Arts? Was it all of the art history classes I sat through (wide awake)? Was it a 25 year career in the arts? My advisory position for a local college arts program? Naw. Look at the pictures below and you'll understand exactly how I knew that what looks like footwear is really ART.





End of art segment. Begin gratuitous, quasi-street photography. 

I have moved on from the examination of art and am now working to decipher just what is compelling and "sexy" about posing for photographs in front of disconnected graffiti... I am not making much headway. 

To recap: Panasonic zoom lens (12-35mm) = very good. And practical. Sigma 60mm f2.8 (cheap as dirt) lens = very good+fun to shoot with = score.  Park covered with Graffiti = colorful images.
Walks with dog = Existential give and take+treats.

Run Toward the Snarling Dog.


Two philosophical ideas for today. The first is about dealing with fear.  The fear of getting started. The fear of failure. The fear of not knowing enough of whatever it is you want to do. I read a story a long time ago about the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. As a small boy he lived outside his own country.  He would often have to walk with his retainers and entourage past an enormous house guarded by huge, fierce dogs. Most days the dogs were contained behind high walls or fences and the Dalai Lama and his people were safe from attack.

One morning the dogs were loose. They saw the Dalai Lama's group and starting snarling and making belligerent moves. Everyone around the young boy was very frightened, turned and started to run away from the dogs (and running from dogs is probably the very best way to get them to chase you...) but the Dalai Lama turned and ran toward the snarling dogs. He charged at them. And they stopped.
And the entourage regrouped and walked on.

Is it a true story? Does it matter? The takeaway thought is to confront your fears directly. To run toward the snarling dogs. Being in control, or even just having the conceit of being in control gives you power. Every photographer I know wrestles with doubt, anxiety and fear. Do I really know how to create a certain look? Do I have a style? Can I sell my style? Why am I afraid to show my work to potential clients? What if everyone rejects me? Where is the market going? How can I change gears? How can I get part of a new market? What if I am revealed to be a fake?

Most of us try to fortify ourselves (our self confidence) by delving as deeply as we can into the technical underpinnings of our crafts. We learn all 5,000 secret actions in Photoshop or we watch 10,000 hours of workshops on the web to see how everyone else in the world might light a simple image. If we are into video we study every web site and pull apart every movie to try and understand the entirety of the undertaking before we even lift a camera and engage the start button.

We do this because we are afraid to fail. We are convinced that we will get only one chance to enter the field and engage. And because we feel that we have only one chance we want to tip the odds overwhelmingly in our own favor. It's like a man who's been told he will be on Jeopardy (a TV show that tests your ability to memorize facts, names, events, etc.) in five years. For the next five years the man does nothing but study everything he can lay his hands only to find out that he was so over prepared that he had become paralyzed. Unable to answer.  Or that the show had been cancelled...
Or that five years of his life had passed him by and that cost was greater than any reward that winning the show might have gained him...

I watched myself do this with photography. Especially in the transition years between film and digital and I remember how much time I lost and how much useless information I squirreled away. And then the information (not necessarily immutable facts) hit the sell by date and we felt like we needed to start over again with new information. In crafts with a large technical component it's so easy to get stuck in an information acquisition loop and never get out, never actually start producing. It's part of the reason we're always buying something new...

I vowed not to do this with video. I jumped straight in. I'd done my learning curve on the aesthetics and mechanics of telling stories with motion back in the 1980's and 1990's as a creative director and copywriter, and also as a DP on projects for several directors. I was stern with myself this time around. I don't need to know any more than how to tell the story, how to turn on the lights and how to push the "start" button on the camera. All the other stuff is just more stuff. It's not the core of the story telling craft. And none of it is as hard as we believe it is.

My fear was some mythical learning curve. What better way to neutralize this fear than to pick up your camera and your tripod and your microphone and get busy telling your story. You work, you learn. You work, you grow. I started warming up with my own projects. Stuff I do just for me. And I learn good techniques by not being afraid to fail on my own stuff. And everything I learn goes into making client projects as good as they can be. I can sit and "learn" or I can walk out the door with fresh batteries and a fresh mind and look for a fun story to tell. A quick script on a napkin. A montage of visual notes. Something fun to edit together. I get up in the morning and remind myself to run Toward the Snarling Dog!

Part Two: Changing the world.

I always grumble that the world is changing too fast and not for the better. I wish people would put down their cellphones, I wish people would pay attention. There's so much about the world I want to change and all I accomplish by focusing on this angry need to change the world is to become frustrated and upset and push way the good things in the world as well. I think to an extent we all wish some things could be changed. The issue is that everyone feels that different things need to be changed.

I was reading the notes for Stephen Mitchell's wonderfully readable translation of, "Tao the ching" and I came across this passage; this thought:

"Do you want to improve the world?

Wanting to reform the world without discovering one's true self is like trying to cover the world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes."

It certainly made me pause and reflect. And if I print out the passage and put it up on my wall perhaps I'll spend more time working on my own stuff and a lot less time grousing about the state of the world. Now I need to walk the (small) snarling dog...

4.07.2014

On a lighter and less contentious note: My review of the Sigma 60mm dn lens for the Micro Fourth Thirds system.

This is the look I generally get from Studio Dog when I step 
out into the back yard to take a few casual snaps with 
new toys. She seems to be saying: "Really? No fetch?
No chase? No treats? Just gonna stand there with 
that damn, black box pressed to your eye?  Bad Dad!
Bad Dad!!!

So, I pontificated the hell out of the Sony A7s and raised the un-nerving specter of death re: printing in the modern world. Well, maybe it's time to take the angst down just a few notches and remember some of the fun stuff about still photography. Like the happiness of buying a new lens. The joy one feels when the lens performs really, really well and the pleasure of doing all this at a bargain price point. Okay. I can speak to that. 

Sigma's been in the photo news a lot lately because they've been routinely shaking up the big players in the business by making really cool lenses that outperform similar lenses from Canon, Nikon and Sony. Lenses that either outperform on pure technical metrics like sharpness across the frame or lenses that outperform the majors by being "just as good" but at a lot lower price point. A case in point is their new, 50mm f1.4 "Art" lens which is tearing up the competition in early reviews. Seems its only real competitor might be the Zeiss Otus 55mm 1.4 (but I'm willing to bet that there are a few 50mm lenses from Leica that are more than up to the challenge....).  Lots of serious photographers have lots of serious stuff to say about Sigma's 35mm 1.4 "Art" lens as well. 

And just to stay on a roll, they've been rolling out some incredible standard zooms too. 

When I shot with the Sony Nex-7 I bought two very inexpensive Sigma lenses that were made for the Nex cameras and the m4:3 cameras. One was a 19mm and the other a 30mm. Both were very good, albeit they did feel a bit flimsy. But for the prices asked the lenses were wonderful and as good as the bigger brands when it came to raw performance on the sensor.

When I moved on from the Nex cameras I also moved on from the Sigma 19 and 30mm lenses.

Now I've totally committed to the Panasonic/Olympus micro four-thirds system and after I added the (truly nice) 12-35mm f2.8 and the 35-100mm f2.8 lenses I went looking for some little niche petit bonbons to add to the system. One lens that caught my eye was the new style 60mm Sigma dn lens. All the reviews kinda gush about how great this lens is and then the reviewers seem almost embarrassed to mention the price. At $230 I figured it would hard to go wrong.

The lens is a sleek, modern art design. A paean to the new, cylindrical PowerMac? I bought the black one because I like the lenses to match the cameras but on the first day of use it was Texas-sunny and I wondered if I'd made the wrong choice and should have gotten the silver version instead---considering the heat load that is coming down the road into summer.

The lens is simple. No external controls. One giant slippery focusing ring. It's not a speed demon (which might explain why the optics are so good....), it only opens up to f2.8. There's no image stabilization inside. But so far I'm happy with how sharp the images are and how nicely drawn the out of focus backgrounds are when using the lens wide open.

I know I am guilty of grabbing new lenses and walking around in the bright sunlight in downtown Austin making images that can't help but be sharp and contrasty. Sunlight is sunlight....  But today the Studio Dog and I had a different idea for testing out the lens and we applied it. First, Studio Dog insisted we go to the park and try the lens out with some outdoor scenes; tree branches with fresh leaves, canoes, and that sort of thing. Then I suggested that we go back to the house and shoot weird little interior vignettes using a monopod. That way we could do stuff like use the lens wide open and shoot at non-optimal ISO's like 1600 and 3200. We could work with weird light. And generally play around with reckless abandon.

Here, with captions, is my gallery of test images:

My first test is always leaves and trees and the sky in the background. On the original file I can blow up all pixel-peeper style and see the structure of the individual leaves. Shot at f5.6. Works for me and I like the color and tonality. 

Studio Dog was transfixed by this ritualistic stacking of rocks out in the middle of Barton Springs. She was adamant that we go out and investigate but by the time I had my shoes off and my pants rolled up sheer was already newly fascinated by a log full of turtles sunning themselves. 

Old, weathered and scratched up canoes are a timeless favorite subject of mine. These are delicious. I should have used a Zeiss Otus on this shot instead of the 60mm Sigma but I couldn't figure out how to get one for the same price....

Amazing. Shooting stuff with a 60mm lens and a nearly open aperture means that some stuff in the foreground and the stream in the background go out of focus. Who would have thought this possible in a micro sized format....And yes, I like the colors and the, dare I say it? Bokeh. The bokeh is tricky and avuncular, wiry and complacent. With a hint of smoky oak.

Studio Dog saw the turtles and it was like a kid from a far away country walking into Disney Land for the first time. She paced back and forth alternately growling and whining at them. They ignored her which, I think, hurt her feelings. I was a bit put out that they also ignored my shiny new lens. That's just the way it is with turtles. 

 Tree. Large.  

 After our ambitious ramble we came back to the house for a mixed rice and sardine lunch. Yes, my dog loves sardines. It was over lunch as I looked around the house that I decided to test my new lens in the most domestic of settings. I grabbed a small monopod and worked on bracing techniques and zen-like photo-breathing and mostly used the Sigma 60mm lens at its widest aperture, f2.8. Above, my Tibetan stool on a wood floor next to a wall with two outlet plates. 
One of many bookshelves in the house with a tiny part of my Richard Avedon book collection. 

 Here I must ask, have you ever spent time looking at your old thermostat? Fascinating. And now that I've made a photographic interpretation of it I'm not sure I could bear to change it. Ever. It's so 1950's "Space Age." Yes, the lens focuses closely. 

A bathroom window. Looking for flare. Not finding it. 

 The boy's towel rack. Complete with Pokemon towel. 
 Baskets in the kitchen. Kitchen floor. 
When Studio Dog and I ate lunch today I was looking through one of our books on the history of western art. Were the Etruscans really the "bad boys" of the Med? That's what historians tell us. Really spirited trouble makers. 

You can tell this is the home of an "older generation" photographer because there are more framed photographs in the house than there are plasma screens or LED television sets. But I can't judge whether that is a good thing or a bad thing or if it just "is."

And what lens test would be complete without a diagonal shot of a window screen with the background out of focus?

Every day the Studio Dog and I are in battle over who will get the sacred chair. The rules in the family are that if someone is already there you can't move them. The dog seems to have radar to sense the times that I want to sit in the reading chair. I tried sitting on the floor trying to make her feel guilty. She doesn't understand guilt and sees my capitulation as an invitation to nap. Not even a stalemate....

Central Texas Book Case. Mid-first decade. 21st century.

 The grown-ups light switch. 

It was my turn to make the bed. I forgot. 

Playing with focus and the edge of my towel. The 60mm focal length is captivating. I already have the Olympus high speed version but I talked myself into this one because there are times when I want autofocus and program. But I can't recall when...

This old white chair, in this corner, is my favorite reading spot in the whole world. I can read by the light coming through sheer curtains from two, big French doors and I can see all the way down the long hallway to the front door. 

Light switch installed for the boy about twelve years ago. 

The one plant Belinda and I have been unable to kill for more than 28 years.

My assessment of the lens? Small, fast, sharp, cheap and able to do nice tonalities. Get one now for your small camera. If you are still using a monster camera you are out of luck on this front...