I read my own post this morning and I'm taking a two week hiatus to rework the whole VSL concept.

Seriously.  Today is Sunday the 25th.  I won't be adding new articles until sometime after the 10th of April.  I am re-tooling the concept of the blog in order to make it more coherent and relevant.  I feel like I've become a "tool catalog" and that was never my intention.  Please read the piece about criticism that preceded this one.  I think the points I make are cogent to the state of photography on the web right now.  You can disagree.  Vociferously if you want to.  Have fun and don't break the furniture while I'm on vacation.  And will someone feed the fish?

Belinda with 35mm slides.

LED Lighting Professional Techniques for Digital Photographers

The Vital Role of Critics and The Ongoing Sabotage of Art.

It's okay to say that a photograph sucks. If you put work in a gallery you are inviting the world to experience it and react to it.  You get your shot.  The critic gets his shot. And if you've spent money on framing and printing and boxes of mediocre red wine and baskets of chips and bowl of hot sauce and printed invitations,  it can sting when a critic calls your work into question.  But that's the nature of the beast and part of the function of having exhibitions.  You get to hear or read an evaluation of your work that your mother would never give you.  Either because she loves you too much or is indifferent enough to want to avoid having yet another difficult conversation.  Your role, as an artist is expression.  Not necessarily self-expression but expression that moves the dialog of social reflection forward by taking apart the cultural DNA in a new way.  But there's a limited bandwidth of gallery space, attention and oxygen in the world of fine art and the critic is like the big bouncer at the velvet rope who helps keep out people who are just taking up space.  And I am, of course, ignoring "decorative art" which functions more like furniture.  Which is a wing of the decorative arts....

The web is the same as gallery space.  Every entry either unconsciously dilutes the whole forward momentum of enlightened culture or adds another highly concentrated drop of "go juice" to the mix.  The middle ground is just a waste of ones and zeros. Art should have something to say.  It shouldn't just lounge around. But somehow, when we make the very public gesture of posting work in publicly accessible forums we have the expectation that everyone will play nicey-nice and say uplifting and positive things.  Like the art teacher in primary school who is deathly afraid that any criticism will damage someone's self-esteem.  Given the all but anonymous nature of the web (for so many years my readers have come to believe that I am a middle aged, professional photographer who struggles with issues of access and finance when, in fact, I am really a precocious 25 year old billionaire ex-pat living in my own building in Dubai surrounded by dozen and dozens of super-model wives while playing with hand made digital cameras from NASA while finger-painting over the tops of my collection of Picasso's and Renoir's. Go figure...) the minute anyone receives even a good natured critique that calls any facet of the work into question the original poster flies into a rage and goes into a defense mode akin to a dictator facing insurrection.  He is protected by the wall of his own anonymity.

But critics serve a few valuable purposes.  They point us toward really worthwhile work.  They coalesce and put into words our subliminal understanding that some work is just unmitigated crap, and they help us to understand what works and what doesn't work in a piece of art. Our biggest problems as an "art" culture are twofold:  1.  While there has been an exponential explosion in the number of people making and showing their "art", and a parallel explosion in the sheer quantity of "art" they are now creating, the number of critics has remained static or has declined.  The number of critics with a grounding in both the history of Photography and general Art History has remained the same or declined.  And as the sheer dilution by numbers and hollow mimicry of worthwhile work continues to move photograph en masse from art-to-craft-to-mindless automatic recording the talented critics remained leery of sticking a foot into this tar baby manifestation of declining culture and have chosen to work the more fertile and invested fields of painting, sculpture, performance art and the "photographic classics."

Our second problem as a culture, where critics are concerned, is that we don't want to believe that they have value.  Just as a garden must be perpetually weeded to prevent its total overrun by predatory and unwanted tangles of hardy and invasive weeds, critics really do serve a valuable purpose.  They metaphorically weed the gardens.  When we dismiss their intrinsic value we are basically saying that photographic art is just about feeling good and that everyone should get a trophy.  Especially now, in the age of the privileged amateur who wants all the benefits conveyed by the hard work of his predecessors with none of the heavy lifting.  We, as a culture, have chosen to ignore our own art history so that the re-awakening (like zombies) of so many past styles and subject matters is embraced as stunningly new and innovative.  We give more value to the retread than to the original because we have no understanding and no cognizance of what went before.  And how current art stands on the shoulders of its predecessors.

Of course we'll believe that every thing we come up with is gold if we've never actually taken time to see and understand real gold.  We don't value the good critics because we don't understand what they're talking about and we don't understand what they're talking about because we think our hobbies are shortcuts to relevant statements of art.  Without knowing or understanding that what we're mechanically re-imaging has already been invented, shown, harvested and appropriated.  And been done better.

We went to school to become engineers or doctors or lawyers and we disparaged learning about our own culture at our own peril ("why would anyone want to pursue the liberal arts? What will they do with that degree?").  By doing so, in the pursuit of commerce, we throw away the important messages attached to the past.

Maybe what modern photography needs is more, and more educated, critics.  I've often stated my opinion that if work had to be shown in a physical gallery to be taken seriously people would put a lot more thought and care into what they showed.  We'd raise the level of art and the level of discourse by several orders of magnitude because people would have real "skin in the game."  And they'd have to confront a public and intimate encounter with their audiences.  As it is now we hide behind the screens and can be as prickly and abusive to critique as our fragile egos demand us to be.  If we were giving a gallery talk, in person, the discourse in both directions might be more disciplined and collegial.

I post photos here that, in retrospect, have no real value.  I never get called on it because this is the web. I could pull a better construct out of an old camera bag.  I think we all have a duty as artists to do several things.  First, we need to understand the history of the field in which we want to do work.  We need to read books like Beaumont Newhall's, The History of Photography.  And we need to read the print versions so we can see the plates well reproduced.  We all need to go to many, many gallery shows of both old masters and new, rising stars, so we can see what prints (the gold standard) really look like.  They are the standard that we really work towards.  We need to understand that the web is just a transitional tool that shows us a representation of what the final, physical art might look like.   Once we understand where we've been, just how good work can look "in person" and what the manifestos around art creation and photography are all about we can then speak to new work in a language that has real meaning.  It goes beyond, "great capture. All the kitty whiskers are sharp!" to a more adult dialog of understanding a work's resonance and messaging in the context of a complex culture, separate from reality TV and Facebook.

I see the world of photography on the web as so much adolescence.  Not that the practitioners are teenagers but that the level of discourse is so course and simple and fractured.  It's not an "us versus them" scenario with me being on one side of a technological divide and everyone else being a futuristic expert.  I've been pounding away in the world of computers for decades, and bought digital cameras before the great majority of the Bell Curve had even heard of their existence.  What I'm arguing for is the idea that, before inflicting on our shared culture, another meaningless rectangle of bouncy color and vacuous content that we all have a responsibility to understand what it is we want to say, why we want to say it and how well we can talk.  Then art moves forward.

I would welcome more and more critics.  We need people who can say, "You Suck." in a way that makes sense, moves the discussion to a level of higher quality and helps to weed our gardens so that visitors can more clearly see the beautiful flowers that bloom there.

Before you rush to respond and accuse me of being an elitist and an ego-maniac let me say that I felt compelled to write this because someone who likes my work, on a forum, posted a link to my website galleries and suggested that people go and look.  One person responded that he didn't see anything special in my work and questioned the purpose of the link.  The critic was attacked again and again for not seeing the value.  But he made a valid point.  The work I have on the web is series of tiny representations of images that are meant to be seen really large and in print.  Reduced and denatured by the contraints of the web they lose the majority of whatever power they might have had.  As does all work on the web.  The naysayer was, in fact, assuming a responsible role as critic and showing that in spite of my rhetorical skills, which help to create fictive value to the work I've posted, the work itself didn't resonate as it would have in it's primary and physical iteration.  He was right to force the question.  And my defenders wrong for not pursuing the conversation based on the primary aesthetics of presentation and the value of an image reduced from 30 by 30 inches of selenium toned, fiber based print to an sRGB version at 1000 by 1000  pixels.

If I could wield supreme power over the internet there are a lot of things I would change.  Like eliminating all advertising... But one of the first things I'd do is erase all the images from every website and gallery, stock file and sharing facility and let people and culture start all over again.  But the TOS on every site would include, in all caps, "Please imagine that the work you are about to post could change lives, change minds, enliven culture and move our society forward in its understanding and compassion.  Don't post random crap just to post it."

The hell with photographic workshops and seminars and tutorials and all the other mindless dreck.  We have more than enough technically accomplished technicians.  Now we need to concentrate on history and taste and aesthetics.  We need workshops that take people out of their quantum jobs and immerse them in the "what and why" of our art instead of the "how to."  And we need to cultivate workshops all over the map that teach people how and why to have critical exchanges about art that don't end in gunplay.

edit: an interesting, related article by Alain Briot: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/columns/artistic_license.shtml

edit:  This is a brilliant take on photo criticism: http://www.photowings.org/pages/index.php?pgA196

William Gatesman wrote this wonderful piece: http://wmgphotoblog.com/2012/02/21/a-cubist-critique-of-photographic-art/

Unsure about critiques?  Here's a good place to start: http://www.pixiq.com/article/doing-a-photo-critique

And here's my favorite intro book to criticism for photography: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0240516524/ref=oh_o02_s00_i00_details

read first, disagree second. If at all.


Walk with toys.

 I'd heard the Jpeg engine in the Sony SLT a77 was bad.  Almost unusable so of course I wanted to try it out for myself.  I also tried all the toys.  Like the DRO, the in camera HDR and my old favorite, the Multi-Frame Noise Reduction.  Seems okay to me.  But then I'm not a forum professional.  All shot at 12 megs, Jpeg, Super-Fine.

 SLT. in camera HDR.

 Sony SLT, 50mm 1.8, ISO 25,000.

 Sony SLT, 50mm 1.8, 3 Stop in camera HDR.


Happy LED Demonstration.

I got an invitation to speak to a the Advanced Photography group of the Cap Mac group here in Austin.  The event was last Thurs.  It was fun. Most people are still laboring under the misguided idea that LEDs are not yet ready for prime time photography but for portrait lighting I think nothing could be further from the truth.  The WYSIWYG nature of continuous lighting coupled with the cool running of LEDs makes them a powerful argument for artistic applications.

On a side note I had two executives in my studio the next day.  I was doing portraits of each one.  I set up some classic portrait lighting with several LED panels, a diffusion panel, an assortment of reflectors and flags and we had a good time.  One of the execs commented that it was a lot easier NOT TO BLINK with the continuous lights because he wasn't anticipating the flash.  He didn't like being photographed with flash.  He found it distracting.  Out of 76 frames of him we lost two to blinks.

Back to the Thurs. event.  Organizer, Alex Saurez brought a couple good bottles of red wine to the venue about an hour before the whole thing got cranking.  We had a glass before we went on.  Very civilized.  This group meets once a month and I didn't want to be one in a long line of speakers who shows his greatest hits on an uncalibrated projector, drops the names of some big magazines he's worked for and peppers the presentation with a laundry list of big corporations who've paid him to shoot at least once.  I wanted to talk about something more interesting and out of the mainstream.  So I brought along some big LED panels, some Westcott Fast Flags (diffusers and blockers) and a few little, hand holdable LED panels and we got down to business.

I asked my friend, Andy, if he would come up and pose for the demos but he wisely declined.  Only then did we realize that we had, in the audience, a beautiful, professional model named, Luana.  She volunteered and we spent the next 45 minutes showing different techniques.  Lighting with continuous light is more like lighting for a movie set than traditional photo lighting.  We don't use as many softboxes and umbrellas and we use a lot more diffusion screens, light cutting nets and reflectors.  With a diffusion screen you can put the light closer and make a hot spot on a diffuser which gives a slightly "harder" (more contrasty) look to the light or you can move the light further from the screen, filling the diffusion screen evenly.  Which works to make the light softer.

We played with distances from the model to the diffuser and from the diffuser to the light source to show, very plainly, the differences and the artistic range a good LED light could provide.  With a model like Luana all the light looks great.

Sadly, I'd decided to talk about lighting with LEDs in order to try and sell more copies of my new book about lighting with LEDs but I got caught up in the fun of photography and forgot to do the "hard sell" on the book.  In fact, I think I forgot to mention the book altogether.

But the audience seemed to have fun and we all learned a few things.  It was a fun evening and I look forward to being invited back.

My thanks to Andy at ATMTX for documenting my "performance",  and to Alex for his kind invitation and good taste in red wines.  A fun way for a photographer to spend an evening.


What's up with this rumor about "Sony Slide Show Syndrome" with the SLT Cameras?

Just seconds after I bought my new Sony stuff and threw away the warranty cards and tore up the receipts I started hearing about the dreaded, "Sony SLT Slide Show Syndrome."  Scared the crap out of me.  It goes something like this:  "When you try to shoot sports or pan the camera for any reason the finder is so primitive that it's always ages behind the actual action.  You'll get confused and you'll always point your camera in the wrong place.  In fact, you'll be flying blind as the finder slowly projects previous image after previous image."  That would make the camera unusable for....anything that moves.  Oh dear God! What have I done.  Now I have a camera that's unusable for sports.  I was beside myself with terror and doubt.  Nothing this severe had occurred in my cozy little world since.........the Olympus EPL2 "Red Dot Scare !!!!!"

So I blindly believed all the pundits on the web and trucked the gear out to the city dump and.....Now wait a minute.  Why don't I test this for myself before I throw it all away and see what really happens?  Wouldn't that be a novel way to test your camera equipment?

My boss gave me most of the day off today.  Well, after shooting some portraits in the studio and promising to write some blogs in the early evening...  

So I did what good fathers all over the country do all the time.  I went to my child's athletic event.  In this case an invitational track meet.  Ben is the kid in the red shirt that says, "Westlake" across the front. He ran in the junior varsity 3200 meter race.  I think he did well because of two things:  First, I'm his dad and I'm supposed to think he's great (cause he is).  And secondly, because there's no way I could run two miles back to back as fast as he can.  No way at all.

And as I was sitting there getting ready for the race to start I suddenly remembered that I'd brought along a camera.  And a lens.  Sadly, I'd mistakenly brought the Sony a77 along so I started to put it away.  I'd been warned about "SSSS" from many quarters.  But then, in a moment of plucky intellectual independence,  I stepped outside the box and decided that fate had dropped into my lap the perfect opportunity to try the whole Shebang for myself.  So I put on a cheap kit lens (the 55-200mm) and set the camera to no review,  ISO 400, Manual Exposure, C-AF, and Zone AF.  Then I prepared myself for abject disappointment.  I could see myself on Monday at the water cooler hanging my head in shame as the meaner photographers from the Nikon and Canon camp taunted me and said hurtful things about my camera choice.

But then a miracle happened.  I started shooting the fast moving track guys as they whipped by.  The finder  was a little contrasty but it had none of the horrifying effects that I expected to see.  The camera and cheap lens dutifully locked onto Ben and held on while I shot frame after frame at 8fps.

And I can prove it.  See below.


It was a miracle.  I had the one Sony a77 body that could shoot sports.  And if I could shoot runners with a kit lens and get every frame comped correctly and in focus I knew that a slower sport, like swimming would be a breeze.  But now I'm in a quandary.  Why were all those people on the forums spreading these disquieting suggestions about the a77?  What did they possible have to gain by misleading me?

The moral of the story?  Convention wisdom is conventional.  If you can't vet the source it isn't a fact.  If you want to know what YOU can do with a camera you need to test it yourself. Two pluses for the Sony today.  And a good race for Ben.  Well done, both.

More Notes On The Sony a77. MFNR. Good?

The interesting thing about modern cameras is the wealth of hidden features.  Most you think you'll never be interested in.  I remember when Nikon stuck video in the D90.  All the stodgy photographers groused about having "to pay extra for a feature no one will ever use."  Fast forward to today and now contemporary photographers are switching back and forth between video and still imaging with reckless abandon.  People laughed about "eye-selection" auto focus in the Olympus EP3 until they experienced perfect portrait focus with their 45mm 1.8 lenses.  The most recent burst of exuberant extras came to me in the form of a Sony a77 camera.  It has lots and lots of "extras." 

I played with one of them today.  It's called Multi-Frame Noise Reduction.  It does something that Kodak introduced in their SLR/n full frame digital camera in 2004 (go Kodak !!!).  You switch the ISO to MFNR, set the ISO you want to use, and then hold the camera still and point it at a non-moving subject. The camera shoots a fast burst of images and then electronically stacks and merges them to kick out anomalous noise.  Being an old fashion, conservative, stuck in the mud, photographer I presumed that I'd need a tripod to make this work which would confine the feature to studio shoots or low light landscapes, with the camera held rigid on a heavy perch.

But I was feeling all saucy and Hipsteramic and I set the camera's ISO menu to MFNB @ 3200 and I pointed it at my friend, Will, and blazed away. Handheld.  The camera banged through a bunch of frames in a fraction of a second and then went into "processing" mode.  When it finished I pressed the review button expecting to see a mess of frames (I had been drinking strong coffee...) but what I got was a perfect exposure of Will's face with no grain or noise.  None.  I converted the image to black and white in Lightroom, just for fun.

Now, here's the kicker:  I shot the image with an 80mm 2.8 Zeiss Planar.  I took it off the front of my Hasselblad. I used an adapter to put it on the Sony.  I like the focal length and the way it renders stuff so much I might have it spot welded to one of the a77 bodies (hyperbole alert for those with Asperger's Syndrome.  I won't have it spot welded to the camera.  I was using an extreme statement for emphasis about my positive feelings for the lens in question ).  

Where the image is in focus the sharpness on Will's image is high and the contrast is good.

And that led me on a shooting frenzy so the close by coffee cup and wine glass were easy targets....

 The sample of the two glasses above was done at ISO 250 with no MFNR.
The sample directly above was shot with the camera set to MFNR @ ISO 3200.  Works for me!

The neat thing about "extras" on cameras is that they are mostly just firmware that someone in the camera company has come up with.  The manufacturers don't need to add complexity in production or add more parts.  It doesn't really add cost the product but for some people it adds a valuable tool.  You can even use MFNR at low ISO's for potential absolutely noise free still life work.  How nice.
But if you fall profoundly into the gear curmudgeon, "you'll pry my eye from the optical viewfinder when I'm cold and dead" camp you can just ignore the feature and pretend that it doesn't exist.

I like it and it rocks.  I also like putting those MF lenses on the a77's.  They are cool to look at and they make a cool look.

There's more stuff to try.  Bye.


The funnest stuff in photography.

Maybe you're a landscape photographer.  If you are good at it and your images are sincere then I can appreciate your choice.  But for my money the fun part of photography is all about meeting and engaging with people.  Real people.  Everywhere.

This is one of my favorite photos. It's not a "hit and run."  I've known this guy for a long time because for the last twenty years he's worked at my friend's bakery.  This is from his early years there.  He started as a dishwasher.  He's been a master baker for a long time.

One day, many years ago, my friend the bakery owner asked me to make fun images of everyone who worked at the bakery.  We talked about how to shoot them and she told me that she liked my style of black and white, environmental stuff.  Shooting unconstricted, with one or two lights and an open agenda, is my favorite way to go.

I walked into their big, bustling kitchen and the first thing I did was walk around and tell each person, individually, what I was doing and what we were trying to get out of it.  I had an ulterior motive.  I wanted to taste a little bit of what everyone was making.  This bakery is still famous for their Pennsylvania Dutch Chocolate Cakes, Tollhouse cookies and wonderful croissant.

I was working with a Mamiya 6 camera that day.  I bounced one Metz 54 flash off the ceiling.  We talked and kidded around as I worked.  It was over too soon.

Hot coffee.  Buttery croissant.  A warm and engaged subject.  No wonder I like doing this...


The Good, The Bad and the Ugly of the Sony a77 Camera.

Last night I photographed The Laramie Project, for Zachary Scott Theater.  It was a dress rehearsal.  For those of you who don't follow theater the play is about the murder of a gay college student by two home town boys from Laramie, Wyoming.  It's a powerful play.  My job was to document it.  

This was my inaugural break-in of my two Sony a77 cameras and two interesting lenses, the 16-50mm 2.8 and the 70-200mm 2.8.  I had tested the camera around town and in the studio and I was interested to see how it would perform with a dark stage and pools of bright light.

Let's do the good stuff first.  Batteries! I shot approx. 1700 frames between the two cameras and each one showed a remaining battery charge of at least 60% charge at the end of the evening.  I could say I didn't "chimp" much but with an EVF you are doing full time pre-chimping.  I carried an extra battery but was happy not to have to use it.

The method of shooting with an EVF makes shooting theater easier.  You see exactly what you are getting, in advance, with every light change and every color shift.  I kept the aperture relatively constant and just used the front control wheel to shift shutter speeds to match light changes.  When you can see the exposure results of your shift in shutter speed immediately it makes shooting faster and more certain.

Another plus for the EVF is that you can review shots in the viewfinder when you need to stop and review instead of on the screen, so the light doesn't spill out into the dark room and distract people behind you.

The focus was invisible to the process.  Right on the money every time.  I didn't even have to think about it.  In fact, for parts of the show I enabled face detection AF and that worked well too.  Both of the lenses are sharp and work smoothly.  No problems there.  The 70-200 is big but I like the "on barrel" focus locks.  

 Also in the good box: The shutter is much quieter than other cameras I've used recently because there's no moving mirror and I have the electronic shutter enabled for the first curtain.  The camera is very responsive.
I decided to shoot Jpeg, fine, full size, since the client was in a rush to get files to the media and we wouldn't have time to do frame by frame enhancements.  The files generally look good.  I do see a difference between the quality of the jpegs and the work I've done with the raw files.  There is a quality difference.  If I'd chosen Extra fine or Super fine (or whatever Sony's nomenclature for their least compressed Jpeg) I'm presuming that the files would be a bit better as well.

So, all the camera and lens stuff, from a mechanical point of view works fine.  Where's the "Bad" and the "Ugly"?

It happens as soon as you hit the menu and engage.........ISO.......3200.

The files (at least in "fine jpeg") turn to crap.  And not just manageable crap.  Real crap.  I started out the evening shooting at 3200 because I'd heard some anecdotal stuff on the web about being able to shoot there with a little work in noise reduction software.  Not true.  At least not for me.
The details get mushy (I was using the "low" setting for noise reduction) and the noise ramps up a lot from the relatively tame 1600 ISO setting.  

But here's the really ugly part.  If you are shooting against black or dark areas you'll get a speckling of tiny white dots randomly distributed throughout.  And noise reduction capable of eliminating the dots eliminates every bit of detail and turns the file into a plastic mess.  Please remember, I didn't shoot RAW, I was shooting Jpeg fine!  I chimped at 100% very early in the show and saw this. When I shifted the cameras down to ISO 1600 the white dots completely resolved and the images were much improved, technically.

 Now, here's the disconnection.  The camera is shooting enormous files.  They spec out to something like 13.3 by 20 inches @ 300.  When the images are reduced for normal use, say in page sized ad, the white specks don't show.  Crop then blow up and you'll be in a world of aesthetic hurt.

So, how does this affect my romance with the Sony a77's?  It's still too early to tell.  I know that if I use the cameras to shoot live theater rehearsals I'll make a point to keep the ISO at 1600 or under.  At 800 the files are great.  Next time I'll shoot at the highest Jpeg setting and, if there's time I'll try to shoot Raw.  On the other hand the test shots and portraits around the studio shot a ISO 50-800 are great.  The files are incredibly detailed and the dynamic range is what I was hoping for.

So, does one camera have to be the jack of all trades? Or is it okay to own cameras that do some things really well and a few other things less well?  For now I'm firmly on the side of the cameras that can make really nice images in my studio and in most locations.  Theater is pretty much my worse case scenario.

Truth be told I'll probably press the micro four thirds cameras into service for my theater stuff because I've assembled some fast and very high quality lenses that are a good match.  The 45mm 1.8 and the 25mm 1.4 are particularly good choices.
Once I figured out the safe spot for ISO I sat back and enjoyed shooting.  In my mind it's a trade-off.  I really like shooting with the EVF in these situations.  I like the responsiveness of the  cameras.  And I think the files are good at 1600.  As good as we need them to be.  Would I like them to be better? You bet.  This is an instance where both DPReview and Pop Photo called the limitations of this camera just right.

I'll spend some time figuring out how to suck the best high ISO performance out of this camera but for now I'm mystified as to why they even bothered to stick ISO 6400 in the menu.  I guess it's there for those times when you absolutely have to have something.  But don't bet on it.

If you live in Austin and you like serious theater you might want to see The Laramie Project. It's well directed, wonderfully acted and profound.  Each performance is in three acts with two intermissions.

If you are thinking of buying a Sony a77 for wonderful low ISO performance and great dynamic range, then welcome to the club.  If you want one because you love shooting low light and high ISO then STOP !!!  Get a Nikon D3s or a Canon 1Dx and you'll be happier.

I know there's a trade off in here somewhere.  I'm off on my search to find it.

More to come as I experience it.


Why are we afraid to make beautiful photographs?

I understand that it's fun to see just how minimal you can get with your gear and still pull out a recognizable image.  Recently the combination of iPhones and Instagram has given rise (once again) to the aesthetic of the "distressed" image.  It's like re-strip mining, in a sense, since Polaroid transfers already pulled up the richest lodes of the distressed movement years ago, before people got tired of squinting at the images to see what the hell they were really all about.  Before that it was Polaroid SX-70 film that was reworked during its development with the business end of chop sticks, tooth picks and other implements of art.  In the 1980's we all lived through "cross processing."  It was a groovy way of fucking up your film to get a different look.  Back then you did it through chemistry but now you can do the same amount of damage/inspiration? with the click of a button.  And, of course, there are Lomos and Holgas, and before them the seminal Dianas.  Plastic cameras that help you innovate by producing "distressed" pictorial results.  

I think every generation goes through this kind of experimentation and then, realizing that it is as much of a dodge as any other technique practiced for the benefit of the technique instead of the subject,  the real artists drop the schtick and the glitter and go on to create really original art or they move on to another hobby.  Perhaps "action painting" or bead craft.

We seem to have hit a point in photography where it's not enough to just interpret beauty.  If we photograph a woman we feel we must "enhance" her by smoothing her skin and using "liquify" filters to "thin her out."  We seem immune to the charms of beauty that is too obvious and even an inch outside mainstream constructs.  Same basic idea with men.  We've hit a pothole in the road of photography and now were stuck in the low gear of insisting that all photos of men be rim-lighted and have the "clarity" sliders maxed out.  Craggy skin tones and over the top lighting.  For every male over 21.

If you like doing all the distressed stuff don't let me stop you.  I'm not always right. You could be right.  Instagram could be the reincarnation of Leonardo da Vinci made whole for the masses.  But if you get a queasy feeling looking at one more "enhanced" portrait or one more Instagrammed snap shot.  If you start feeling vertigo at the non-stop progression of overdone HDR landscapes and city scenes you might want to join with me and ask:  "What's so bad about the reality of beauty?"

I think the appreciation of art follows the pattern of the pendulum.  A gifted artist tries a technique. The technique is antithetical to the prevailing ethos.  The technique finds popular and critical approval.  There's mass migration toward the technique and the new practitioners lack the original, driving idea that acts like a motor to power the technique.  Lots of derivative work is generated.  The technique reaches maximum cultural saturation and like fashion it goes out.  Old style.  Last year's stuff.

If the race, for the last five or six years, has been toward the grunge-ing of images and the instagramming of images for maximum nostalgic distressed effect then it seems logical that we're on our way back to the opposite side of the pendulum where beauty is consumed raw and quality is a technique that society is happy, once again, to explore.  Are we on the cusp of learning how to shoot well? Again.

How to use a tripod to gain clarity?  How to use our cameras to convey the richest manifestation of beauty instead of looking at beauty through layer after layer of dissembling electronic filtration?
Count me in.  I want to be part of the new trend.  I want to aim higher than a lame display on an iPhone or a quick hit on Twit.  How about you?  


A quick review of a lens for Micro Four Thirds. The Panasonic 14-45mm.

I get maximum image quality bang for my bucks when I use single focal length lenses on my Panasonic and Olympus cameras but there are times when you're walking through a crowd and you want to shoot instantly.  But you have the wrong lens on the camera and by the time you get into your bag and get the lens changed out the image you were lusting after is long gone.  In those situations it makes sense to use a zoom lens.  Panasonic and Olympus make a bunch of "normal" zoom lenses.  Most of the cameras come with one in the "kit." 

I've got a collection of them.  Lately, when I get them in kits, I try to trade them for pricey, name brand camera batteries.  But I also wanted a good one so I did my research on the various web sites that do lens test (Photozone, SLRgear) and decided to try the grandfather of m4:3 zooms, the Panasonic you see above.  It's small and light but a little bigger than the current Panasonic 14-42.  The newer lens doesn't have the Optical Image Stabilization switch on the body.  The older one does (see above).

I decided I needed a better lens when I tested the 14-42 that came with my G3.  It was consistently soft at the long end and got worse as I focused to infinity.  What did I have to lose?  I waited until one of those days when Amazon.com's dynamic pricing algorithm was in my favor and bought one for around $225.  Long story compressed to digestible tidbit?  It's good.  The center is really nice and sharp and stays that way from wide to tele.  It's sharp wide open (in the center 2/3rds of the frame) and that's where I like to use it.  I spent an afternoon shooting with it on the GH2 body and it's a revelation how much fun it is to shoot with a small and light camera and lens package.  


Transitioning to an EVF future. And then some.

I've been using and writing about electronic viewfinders for the last three years here on the Visual Science Lab.  My first real experience with EVFs was via the Sony R1 camera which, I felt, was a surprisingly prescient offering for its time.  It use a very flexible LCD finder screen which could be positioned as a wais tlevel finder and it had a low res but well implemented, true EVF.  When packaged with a large sensor (about the size of the Canon G1X sensor) of 10 megapixels and a very well reviewed Carl Zeiss 24-120mm (equivalent) zoom lens it became a great shooting camera for a certain kind of subject.  I used it extensively for interior and exterior architectural studies and many available light portraits.  It worked well in the studio for still life set ups with the proviso that I shoot with continuous light.  The low light capabilities of the finders weren't stellar and made use with flash a bit problematic.  But the sensor, which was rumored to be a variant of the sensor in the Nikon D2x professional camera, was amazingly detailed and well mannered.

Ben and I have also had the pleasure of using the EVFs in Canon's superzoom line of compact cameras, including the SX10, SX20 and SX30.  The EVF worked well in full sunlight for stills and video.  Ben and his friends have put a lot of miles on those cameras in the pursuit of their digital video art.  (Which reminds me...he promised to teach me Final Cut ProX when he had a chance..).

Recently much progress has been made with EVFs.  So much so that I found, recently, that I've been drawn to work with the Panasonic GH2 and the Olympus EP3 not so much for the nimble size and fun optics but for the instantaneous feedback of the well implemented EVFs.  Pre-chimping beats the hell out of post chimping any day of the week.

I love pulling the camera (regardless of brand) up to my eye and seeing a clear, clean representation of just how the camera would finally render the images.  The impact of exposure compensation, Jpeg parameter changes, dynamic range expansion schemes and more.  When I went back to a conventional optical viewfinder I always found myself wanting to see what the camera saw, not just the soft fall of focus caused from viewing a scene through a fast, wide open lens.  The scene might look one way with the lens wide open but have a different character when stopped down for shooting and with all the parameters figured in.  Seems like a little thing to wait to see the image on the back panel after taking the test shot but it isn't.  I also work a lot of days in the direct sun and resent having to wear a Hoodman Loupe around my neck for post shot examining of a camera's LCD screen in bright light.  Or any ambient light.  Every color cast changes your perception of color rendering...

So, when Sony announced the a77 back in August my attention was piqued.  But real life intervened.  The floods in Thailand threw a huge wrench in Sony's rollout and I finally put my hands on an a77 a few weeks ago and started an evaluation.  My first concern was the quality of the viewfinder but that faded in minutes.  The finder is great.  I love it.  But we'll talk about EVFs in depth in a future column.  My second concern was how the camera would handle situations that comprise the bulk of my paid work, portraits with electronic flash on various locations.

The a77 accepted my radio triggers and syncs up to 1/250th of a second with smaller flashes.  With bigger flashes is seems to sync better at 1/125th.  With one menu adjustment the finder shows a bright image of the person in front of me under conventional modeling lamps of 100 watts.  As the light drops (say in a dark room) the finder becomes noisier but is still usable for easy composition and feedback.  Shooting this way means that I do have to  post chimp to see the actual result.  But as I transition to shooting more portraits with big panels I can go back to the nuanced preview I like.

My first paying job with the a77 was making location portraits of doctors and the camera passed the test with good marks. 

When I went back to shoot with my conventional cameras I found that, of all the cameras I owned, they had become the least fun to shoot with.  And, at the ISOs I use (50-1600) the files where a toss up.  I made up my mind and decided that, for my "work" cameras, I would switch to an all Sony system.

I won't bore you with the details of the disposition of the previous system but I thought I'd share what I've started with in the new system.

I had amassed a collection of bodies over time.  Each had different menu set ups and the screens on the back of the cameras ranged from "good"on the back of the 5d2 to "horrible and punishing" on the 1Dmk2 (my oldest).  I had a bunch of disparate lenses and both of my most used "L" lenses were very sharp f4 lenses.  I really wanted to simplify the entire inventory. 

I wanted two identical bodies so the menus, knobs and settings would always match.  And I've signed a pact with the gods of photography to only replace in pairs from now on.  With this in mind I bought two a77's.  I read both manuals (kidding) and I set up both cameras to exactly the same settings.  Now I'm diving in and master each of the control sets and special settings.  I'm intrigued by things like the Multi-Frame noise reduction.  I want to know every control setting on the camera.
No fumbling with personal settings or custom settings that vary from body to body.

I wanted two fast zoom lenses that I could use to cover an event without having to change lenses.  I working in a lot of dust and grime last year and not having to switch lenses on a hot, dusty highway construction site would be...advantageous.  I chose the Sony 16-50mm f2.8 lens and the 70-200mm G series lens.  I've tested them at all relevant apertures and I'm happy with their performance.  

I bought the Sony HVL-F58AM flash unit and it seems to work fine.  It's flexible and it can be controlled by the in-cameras flashes on the a77's. 

I also bought a nice Hasselblad to Sony Alpha lens adapter and I'm very, very happy with the performance of the 80mm Zeiss Planar and the 120mm Zeiss Makro-Planar.  They have a different look.  I call it "authoritative bright."  It looks clinical, contrasty and clean.

In the end, all current systems are overkill for most of the photograph we do.  I do like shooting with the EVFs and I'm sure many will argue convincingly for OVFs.  I looked at aging inventory in one system and decided to start over again in an different system.  Working with new gear and a new style of feedback is refreshing and novel.  It makes shooting more fun.

I'm sure I'll hit some snags in the transition but you know I'm transparent enough to mention both sides of the equation.  I wonder if Sony marketing needs a pro user to sponsor?  

A quirky, fun and thoroughly enjoyable book overtly and incidentally about the hobby and art of photography.

This book is fun, smart and sly.  Click to see the Amazon Page.

My mailbox seems to be a mythical, magical place.  One day I came home to find a box full of LEDs shoved into the tiny, metal, barrel-vault construction.  One day I came home and found $45,000 worth of Phase One equipment next to my door because it wouldn't fit in my mailbox.  No signature required... Sometimes I find letters from readers from exotic places...

But last week I came home and found a nondescript but bulky envelope that contained a smallish book and a note from one of my readers.  His name is K.D. Dixon.  He is a photographer for fun and a serious writer.

His note suggested that I might like his novel about photography and called it, "A quirky catalogue of imaginary photographs, it is an idiosyncratic mix of character study and meditation--a glimpse into the life of a peculiar photo-enthusiast named Michael Quick and a questioning, if somewhat cursory, examination of his private obsession (photography)."  The book is entitled: The Photo Album.

Now, first a quick warning to my obsessive compulsive mathematician friends and non-fiction readers:  There are no equipment reviews.  No "behind the scenes" set up descriptions or diagrams.  No teeth gnashing battles between the forces of light (Raw files) and the forces of darkness (Jpegs).   You won't find principled discussions of the role of social networking in marketing your photographic enterprise.  Nor, in this book will you find any real discussions of technique.  I would also point out that while there are no color illustrations.  I hope we didn't just look 90% of the audience...

What you will find are 130+ really incisive observations about life and photography that made me laugh and smile.  Some are encapsulated discussions of the very things we talk about here, such as "why take photographs?" or why people like to take photographs of some things but not others.  There is no story line, per se, but there is an arc to the work that strings the pages together.  It's the kind of book that you can pick up, read until the sun sets or your glass of wine becomes empty, then bookmark; knowing you'll pick it up again soon and that you needn't remember the precise plot points of a complex narrative to enjoy your next dip into smartly written and questioning vignettes of everyday life through the eyes of a photographer.

There are so few books like this.  And there are so few that are written as well for photographers of a certain age and experience.  If you like the Visual Science Lab it is my opinion that you will love this little book.

I have one problem with this book.  I want to keep it and come back to it again and again.  In fact, there is one page that I'm going to use to open a talk with on Thurs.  But I also want to give it to one of my good friends who is a photographer as well.  I think he'll really appreciate the feeling of commonality among enthusiasts that this book conveys.

Hey.  It's the price of a decent lunch.  Buy a copy and see for yourself.  It's on my "Recommended for Smart Photographer Who Like to Read list.  Check it out here.


Wow. Wouldn't it be so cool to put real, German Zeiss lenses on a high res EVF camera ???

This is one of those new fangled EVF cameras from Sony.  It's 24 megapixels and seems to be pretty nice.  Especially for studio work.  Even more especially with LED lights.  All it really needed to be really functional were some authentic, made in Germany, Zeiss optics for portraits and such.  I decided to try it out with one of my favorite Hasselblad lenses, the 80mm Planar.

So I ordered a Fotodiox Hasselblad to Sony a (weird, squiggly "a") adapter.
And it came in today, right before we headed out the door to eat Indian food.
When I got back home I put the whole rig together so I could see if it worked.

If you want to do this you have to remember a couple of things.  First, this lens doesn't autofocus on any body.  It's surly enough to believe that if you want to be a photographer you can damn well figure out how to focus on your own.  Practice on a view camera for a while.  Then a 35mm style camera will seem as easy as pie.  Secondly, you have to stop down the lens to the taking aperture.

So, why is a Sony a77 such a good choice for use with all of the Hasselblad lenses?  Well...you can go into the control menu and enable "shoot without lens" so the camera will operate and shoot with then Hblad lenses attached.  Cool.  Second, on an OVF camera, once you start stopping down the f-stop the finder gets darker and it gets harder and harder to focus.  But with an EVF, especially a bright and flawless one like the one in the a77, the camera stays bright and conversant even when you stop down.  (I'd probably not focus at smaller f-stops than 5.6 for best accuracy...).
But it's still a manual focus lens.  How do you know when it's really sharply focused?
Because your a77 has focus peaking.  When stuff comes into focus you get red (you can select your own color) outlines of the areas that are in focus.  How cool is that?
I tested the focus peaking.  It works.

What does this really get me?
Well, it's a very geometrically neutral lens that works well for product. 
It has a famously beautiful bokeh so it works really well for portraits.
And the long throw of the focus ring makes it pretty perfect for 
serious video work.  If it's a focal length you like.

A quick glance in the Hasselblad drawer tells me that we have two other lenses that will 
give me fun effects with this camera.  There's a 120mm Makro Planar and a 150mm Sonnar.
The three lenses, used with the APS-C sensor give me approximately (in old, 35mm speak)
a 120mm f2.8, a 180mm f4 that focuses pretty darn close, and a 225mm f4 that's all bokeh-y and chrome looking and wildly sharp and unsharp at the same time.

Crazy thing to do?  Nope. The lenses already live here, they may as well earn their keep.  And the adapter was a whopping $60.

I've been waiting for the lens adapter to arrive so I could try out some portraits with the rig.
I also have a bitchingly professional looking compendium lens shade for the Hblad lenses so clients will think I'm much more professional than I was when I shot for them yesterday.

The 80mm is already my favorite.
This is going to be fun.

If you only see the world thru wide angle lenses it's probably best that you ignore this post.  
Nothing wide enough in medium format to even budge the needle on a crop frame...

An almost immediate edit: Now I have image stabilization for my Hasselblad optics. :-)