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.