Monday morning observations from a (still) working photographer.

this is the 996th post.

If you've been here since the very beginning of the VSL blog you have at least as much stamina as me.  You've lived, vicariously, through my dabblings in the Olympus 4:3rds system (loved the 14-35mm and the 35-100mm;  not so much the e3), the Nikon digital camera family (nice and steady, just like a Buick---and just as sexy), the Canon EOS digital family ("can I please be like everyone else in the entire world?"), the ongoing affair with two flavors of micro four thirds (Panasonic and Olympus) and now the Sony Alpha series.  We spice it up with guest appearances by the Kodak venerable Digital Collection (SLR/n and DCS 760C), several medium format digital cameras, and I provide occasional gravitas by shooting, as God intended: With black and white film in a Hasselblad Medium Format Camera. Adventurous or compulsive?  Does it matter?

We've talked about the differences between film and digital, between phones and cameras, posturing and commitment and mostly we keep swerving back around to the idea of discipline.  The discipline to stay true to your own vision in a swirl of ever changing styles.  The discipline to master the tools that you need to use to express yourself, and the discipline you need in order to stay in shape for the ride.  Not to mention the mental discipline to stay on track and keep producing.

I bring this all up because the Visual Science Lab Blog is about to hit two milestones that seem like important markers to me.  Within the next few days we'll hit the 1,000th blog post.  More pages than a chunky novel.  One thousand forays to the keyboard in hopes of clarity.  1K thinking and writing about photography (mostly).  I've learned some stuff about writing:  the more you do it the more fluid it becomes.  The more you do it the more addictive it becomes.  The more you do it the easier it is to get started and stay focused on writing books and articles as well.  Writing a blog is also like playing scales for a pianist; it keeps the fingers warmed up...

I learned that thinking and expressing stuff is the harder part. I don't always agree with main stream thought and it creates some written work from me that gets lots and lots of push back.  I get frustrated when people don't see what I think of as the "obvious" big picture.  I don't write much about things that I know will enrage my readers and random visitors. I've learned that people are sensitive about their weight, their rationalizations about the happy mindless wonders of the cellphone camera in all of its glory.  Their ability to rationalize laziness when it comes to learning.  The puzzling and disturbing admissions of otherwise smart people that they don't enjoy, or read, fiction.  

Another hard part about thinking is warming up to empathy.  Seems that a good portion of my readers are extremely comfortable with logic and math but totally disengaged from emotion and irrational intuition.  I'll make a statement about how a camera coerces a behavior and the swell of self-righteous proclamations of mindful self-restraint and total mental isolation from any outside influence start to bubble up. "I am the uncontested master of my photographic domain!!!" (apologies to the Jerry Seinfeld show).  And I can't believe that  these people don't care about the opinions of the people around them and are so totally self-contained that their art is protected from any external dialog.  But aren't people who spend their days talking only to themselves........crazy?

But I'm learning which subjects to approach and which landmines to let alone.  Why "frag" oneself in the pursuit of a dialog?

The second, big milestone is the upcoming VAST NUMBERS event.  We will have reached 5,000,000 pageviews in the next ten days (if I haven't already pissed off the majority of my readers with a couple paragraphs above...).  I come from an age, in academia, where the publication of 2,500 books was thought to be explosive bestseller territory.  The idea that either one person clicked on my blog five million times or that a number of readers clicked a number of times makes me feel.....connected.  That so many of you come back to read again and again makes me feel like I'm connecting with like minded people and that my blog posts are NOT the random screaming of a mad man cursing the wind.

I'm not sure what kind of surprise party you all are planning for the 1,000th blog but I'm thinking it going to happen on Weds. and, as it happens I'm not booked with an assignment that day.  I'll be sitting here doing post production on this afternoon's project and tomorrow's full day of shooting and I'll just be waiting to see what you all come up with.  My favorite color is blue,  I like German Chocolate Cake and I'll probably feel like eating Mexican food.  Wednesday is a good day to visit Austin but if you are flying in from Europe, Asia or Oz you might want to get on the road  right now so you have a fighting chance of getting over your jet lag.  

At any rate, I'm happy I've done the work.  I'm happy to have posted over 3,000 photographs (mostly of coffee cups) and I think I'll keep at it for a while.  There's lots of work to be done keeping those cellphones out of your camera bags, pushing some more fiction and hawking my little collection of photo books.  Welcome to the next 1,000.

Buy yourself something nice to read:



Robin Wong's blog today. You must see it.


This is amazing, powerful and wonderful work. This is the kind of work that still gives photography relevance and meaning.  Robin is an inspiration.  I wish him and the people of Malaysia freedom, security and peace.

Film in the post film age.

Digital imaging and film photography have diverged and become two separate functions.  Digital is about endless choices and limitless resources.  Shoot til your battery dies, then recharge and shoot again. The only quantifiable downside to digital imaging is having to wade through the hundreds of thousands of image you might lay down in a year's time. Seems silly but I think digital teaches us that it's a good thing not to make up your mind and lock down a look. The endlessness of resources encourages us to believe that if we only shoot long enough and fast enough then, mathematically, one of the images will be a winner.

Film, with it's parsimonious resourcing teaches us the opposite message.  That given a paucity of frames we'd better go into a situation with something in mind and the chops to nail it down.  For this gentleman above it means getting your subject in twelve frames or less.  Twelve distinct shots, each interrupted by the need to stop and wind the crank to the next frame.

With my Sony Alpha camera I lift it to my eye and the autofocus is automatic and begins as soon as my face gets close enough for an optical sensor to read my proximity.  All I need to do is point the camera at whatever seemed interesting enough to me seconds before and then lean my finger on the shutter until.....I want to stop.  Or I get bored.  The camera will focus, expose, change ISO's to suit the prevailing conditions, all with very little involvement required on my part.

Yes.  I know.  You are a super evolved photographer.  Not only do you not care about what anyone else thinks about anything but you are also capable------no, driven, to use your camera in a  completely manual mode.  The rest of us are subtly influenced by our laziness and the ripe availability of all those modes. We hardly have to think about what we're doing.  It just happens.  Almost by magic. We get separated from the viscera of the process.

On the other hand, the owner of the above Mamiya will lock himself into a "color space" and monochrome or color choice before he even gets started.  No changes for the 12 exposures.  When he sees something he must do a mental calculation to decide how much the potential image really means to him.  When he decides to "go for it" it's assumed that the scene or subject is a "high value" target.  He must focus and compose on a fairly dark and uncompromising screen.  No green light will light up when and if he gets in the ballpark.  There's no meter in that camera either so he'll have to make a well educated guess, or consult a meter.  And then, because the "manual lag" between shots will be measured in full seconds rather than fractions of seconds, he will have to patiently but intently decide on the optimum moment to commit a frame.

Yes.  I know.  Even though you're shooting a digital camera that does 12 fps you are so well controlled; rational and self assured in your technique, that you use only one frame per object of enchantment.  The rest of us are less assured and anxious to hedge our bets.

We head home, slip the card into a reader and push the colors around on our screens.  We push a button and upload our "catch" to our online "collection" and we're done.

This guy will either need to head to a lab and drop off his film or crank up the wet darkroom and soup it himself.  Another chance to ruin 12 perfectly good shots.  And then he'll need to print or scan them.

Film is a process that thrives on slow and careful.  Digital just thrives. Like weeds in a well watered lawn.  They are totally different animals and the practitioners are practicing two different art forms.  Neither has higher moral ground.  And neither is "better."  But as a device for learning, film will go toe-to-toe with the toughest drill sargeant around.  And the lessons you learn stick harder because the film velcro costs more.  $kin in the game = retention.

I notice an increase in Austin photographers shooting film lately.  I wonder what their rationales are.  Think you're a great shooter?  Let's see you do it on some slow Ektachrome.

Photographing events. Being polite.

I'd been looking forward to Eeyore's Birthday party since......last year. It's kind of silly.  Some of my attraction is nostalgia, I've a been attending since the early days when there were fewer than six or seven dozen people in the park celebrating the arrival of Spring and the happiness of being in a wonderful little city, filled with wonderfully creative people.  No matter how the event grows or changes it's still a testimony to our city's spirit.  Our collective will to honor weirdness as a potent antidote to the relentless homogenization of world culture and, at the same time, a wonderful market differentiator for a city that attracts smart and creative people in droves.  

But honestly I love the event because I can go and immerse myself into the fun and take images to preserve what the spirit of the city was for future generations.  Or even just for my son.  The people who come to Eeyore's seem to welcome photography.  I would add that people in general welcome photography that they perceive as gentle and well intentioned and that's how I try to proceed.  But I'm only human, like the rest of you, and I slip over the ethical line from time to time.  I don't hide or try to sneak images.  I don't stand WAAAAAAY back and try to snatch photos with my 70-200mm lens or a 300mm lens.  I think it's only fair to be close enough and obvious enough to give people a fighting chance to object to being photographed, if that's their desire.  But unlike most street photography there's a hint of complicity and permission on the part of the subjects just by dint of coming out into the park in an unabashed way.  Costumed and on parade.  And anyone who has been to an event like this before understands and accepts that they'll be surrounded by our generation of new documentarians.

When I walk through areas of the park where people are in small groups I smile and ask first.  That might not work for your style but I'm less of a candid shooter and more of a photographer who is interested in a visual and social collaboration.  Conversely, if someone is making an ass of themselves in public they are abrogating the rules and become fair game for whatever your style of photography might be.  But that goes both ways.  If you, as a photographer, are in a subject's space without at least their tacit permission then you've also broken the unspoken agreement and are subject to disregard or push back.

While there are no real rules about what gear you drag along with you it would seem to make sense to me to travel as lightly as you can.  I'm a big adherent of one camera, one lens but I watched some photographers take a different approach, finding a space off to one side, setting up a background and a few slaved strobes and inviting party goers to step into the imaginary confines of their temporary "studios" to have their portraits taken.  Seems fun.  And if you don't want to be photographed you don't step into their "studios."

There are some photographers who seem like fish out of water.  They come loaded for bear.  As though they were on a once in a lifetime assignment for National Geographic.  They've got a camera criss-crossed over each shoulder on the fetishistic para-military strap of the moment (because, like their holsters for their handguns, their new straps give em western style "quick draw" capability...).  They've got the "big iron" long zoom on one body and the wide angle zoom on another body.  They've got a big, black camera bags with lots of attached lens sacks hanging like goiters off the sides.  They actually take up the "footprint" of two humans as they swing their optical baggage to and fro.  These guys (and it's always men) make the enjoyable, non-professional documentation of a happy party look like serious and painful work.

I saw my friend, Andy, there. In his usual elegant style he had one little Olympus EP3 with a 45mm lens on the front. It was all he needed.  So minimal that he didn't even include a VF2 finder.  He would just glance at the screen on the back and "use the force."

I saw my friend, John Langmore, there and he held a small Leica rangefinder cupped into one hand.  He was shooting black and white film.  Anything he needed, other than his one, handheld camera had to fit in the pockets of his pants.  No swinging, bashing bags for him.  

(I don't actually ask dogs for permission but I listen closely if they protest...)

In fact, this year most of the photographers who were working the crowd did so with gear minimalism in mind.  They mingled smoothly and seemed to be finding their decisive moments. 

I worked in a very loose stye this year.  I took one camera and one lens.  I chose the Sony a57 and the 85mm 2.8 Sony lens.  The whole package was light and mobile.  The 85 is kind of long on the APS-C sensor of the camera but it's so sharp, wide open, that I came to like it very much for its ability to push the background out of focus.  In the past I've worked in a very controlled way.  I used to shoot with manual exposure.  Last year I used a manual focus 50mm lens on an older, Canon 1DS2 body. This year I set the lens to f3.5, the camera to aperture priority and the ISO to Auto.  If the camera chose a combination that looked to dark I'd punch the exposure compensation button and dial in as much compensation as the monitor in front of my eye indicated would be enough.  It was a fast, fluid and almost unconscious (from a technical point of view) way to shoot and it appealed to me very much.

Since the camera is too new to have a raw conversion profile in any of my raw converters I chose to shoot everything as a Jpeg. If you can't nail shots outdoors without using raw you probably have some practice to undertake...

Using the full 16 megapixels and the highest  quality Jpeg settings I had the potential of cramming about 2400 images on my 16 gigabyte SD card.  No need to carry a spare.  I fudged a bit on the idea of absolute minimalism by sticking a back up battery in the pocket of my shorts.  Didn't need it.  I shoved $20 in my pocket and headed out for fun.

There were several younger people who didn't want to be photographed.  I didn't photograph them.  There were shy tourists in the crowd. Woman in smart polo shirts, Coach bags over one shoulder, beer in hand, gawking at the people in lavish costumes.  They didn't want their pictures taken either.  So I didn't photograph them.

Stylistic Camera Minimalism.

 Chimping with style.

 These guys did both unicycle jousting and unicycle football for an appreciative crowd.

I didn't realize till later that this guy's hat was a Green Lantern hat.  I wish I knew where he got it...

In the end it's really all about having fun and not being such a dick that you ruin other people's fun.  Doesn't take much to be a welcomed presence at a party.  Smile.  Engage in conversation. Don't stare.  Share.  Be open and honest.  And above all, remember that "getting the photograph" is really secondary to being a part of the whole function and helping to make it work for you and everyone else, equally.  There's something about putting a camera in some people's hands that makes them feel entitled to special privileges, to a better vantage point and to be included.  Most of us find out early on that inclusion is earned.  And access is more important than perfection.

The comments are open but....please don't argue that we have a RIGHT to do whatever we want with our cameras in public. I know that.  But sometimes manners make more sense.

Haunting public images.

I sometimes take images because they seem to be telling me stories encapsulated in a single frame.  But they are stories made up of questions instead of statements.  At the end of the day they are captivating but unfulfilling because I will never know the outcome of the stories or the answers to any of the questions that are raised.  We lived surrounded by stories made up of questions.  When we photography them we are no more enlightened than before.  Now we have reference material for our imaginations.  When we write we can fill in the blanks.

I'm more and more curious about WHY we photograph.  And WHY we photograph the scenes and subjects we do.  I assume it's akin to all the psychiatrists out there who seem to practice as a way to grapple with their own emotional drama.  We photograph the things we love and can't hold on to or the things that frighten us which we can't escape.  And lots of scenes in the middle.

Fuji Pro-X1 sightings at Eeyore's Birthday Party.

I had three sightings of Fuji's new, super deluxe, faux rangefinder camera, the Pro-1x at Eeyore's Birthday party yesterday.  I was impressed by the look of the bodies and the wonderful, retro, panache of the engraved white letters.  The body seems to be the right size and have the right look.  Time will tell if the images do the overall design justice.

My most joyful encounter of a new Fuji and its owner was near the main drum circle at the party.  There is generally an inner core of uninhibited dancers, surrounded all around by a diverse group of drummers who quickly get into unison and continue throughout the day.  Drummers come early and leave sporadically only to be replaced by new drummers.

There's an unwritten social rule at Eeyore's, that's been observed for decades, that the only people in the dance circle are people.......dancing.  And it's honored by most photographers, most of the time.  This year there was one lumbering brute with a camera who shoved his way in among the dancers and catatonically photographed them for, literally, hours.  But most people get that there is an ethical line you shouldn't step over.  The exception is for people like our hero above who bring their cameras into the circle and dance with exuberance.

I never caught this guy's name but we showed up early, when things were just getting started.  I noticed his camera because I am a camera nerd.  We all are. That's the nature of people who read this blog.  Anyway, he was standing on the outside of the circle snapping a few photos of the few dancers who were getting started.  Next thing I knew he kicked his shoes off and entered the circle, camera sometimes strapped across his body, sometimes in his hands, and he danced and danced with abandon.  Occasionally he would stop to catch his breath and catch a few frames but for the most part he spent the better part of several hours in rhythmic movement.  Who could begrudge him a few well earned frames from the inner circle?

The Attraction of Exuberant Youth.

I find it fascinating how we collectively lie about aging.  I hear 50+ year old people say all the time, "I would never want to be 18 again.  Who would want to go through all that drama again?  I hated xyz when I was that age...."

They are all liars. There is nothing wonderful and engaging about growing older in a young person's culture except for the wonderful fact of still being alive.  And the exuberance of youth is more powerful and captivating than any narcotic.

There's a cultural event here in Austin that happens every year around this time.  It's called Eeyore's birthday party.  It's held in Pease Park which is in the very center of Austin, just down the hill from the University of Texas at Austin.  It started out as a whimsical party, a playful Bacchanal to celebrate the arrival of Spring.  That was decades ago. Now it's evolved into an "event."  The city at large justifies its existence as a fund raising avenue for non-profit organizations.  The non-profits can put up booths for the event and sell food and drinks and even beer. And like every other event that gets "co-opted" and grows beyond it's "magical" borders it gets homogenized and watered down.

But I go every year because its vapors and its energy represent the core identity of an Austin that really did exist before the encroachment of the anything for a buck crowd.  In fact, I would say that if you never go, and let yourself go, to the little remnants of fun that remind us of Austin in freer and more fanciful days then you are either part of the problem or you are a cultural coward.

It's true that the event has devolved from a happening that attracted college professors, beautiful and handsome college students and counterculture people from the center of Austin into a blue collar tourist attraction.  For the last few years the ratio of people in costume who fully embrace the concept of Eeyore's Birthday Party (from the Winnie the Pooh stories) to the beer drunk voyeurs who come to catch a glimpse of the half nekkid hippy girls has become woefully skewed to the wrong side of the equation.  Now there are many more lugs with backward facing ball caps and big beer bellies than there are people in the drumming circles and around the May Pole.

The truth is that the hapless gawkers are only symptomatic of the two real issues that sap the magic from events like these.  The first is the parabola of popularity wherein a fashion, an event or even a city dies from the weight and momentum of its own popularity.  Start a conference or a concert series or anything like it and every year it grows larger and more unwieldy.  The core managers are replaced with groups that have tangential and divergent interests from the original concept. Traffic gets worse.  Everything gets crowded and eventually the whole process becomes little more than 90% crowd management and 10% substance.  Getting enough bottled water to the location to prevent death crowds out concerns about the look, feel and experience.

The second issue is the same that effects us all.  Every event ages.  Every event grows old.  The average age of participants at Eeyore's birthday party seems to have risen from late teens and early twenties (not too many years ago) to mid to late thirties now.  The party is growing old.  People bring folding camp chairs and frantically stake out shaded territory.  They are immobile.  They are nearly all huge.  They crowd the landscape with ice chests.

Ah. To be young again in a younger world.  To be able to freeze a great collective experience in life in a block of lucite and to be able to visit it from time to time and revel in its unchanging glory.  That's the implicit promise of youth.  And the realization that it can never be is part of the bitterness of getting old. How can a older photographer not crave the power, the endurance and the curiosity of youth?  But there is no question of giving up.

Gear notes:  I spent five or six hours at Eeyore's Birthday Party, yesterday.  I took one camera and one lens. It seems to me that this kind of  slender inventory is what the universe intends for these kinds of events. Anything more separates you from the crowds.  Anything more slows you down and fights for your attention. Any more choice makes you lazy.  I used a Sony a57 camera and the lens that is quickly becoming my favorite, the 85mm 2.8.  The total package is small and light and extremely photographic.  I cheated and put an extra battery in my pocket, just in case.  I needn't have bothered, the camera and I took 1200+ exposures and returned home with 33% left on the battery gauge.  Far better than the online specs would suggest...


Just a reminder that LED lights rock and that my book on LED lights is now available.

The World's First Book on LED Lighting for Photographers.

If you are ready to make the plunge into hybrid lighting that will work for video and stills, or you're just curious about how LEDs will impact the field of photography you will be interested in this book.  It talks about what is available, how to use it and why, in some cases, it is superior to the lights we're using right now.  If you are a still life shooter it may save you much time and energy.  If you are a fashion shooter it may give you a totally new look.  And if you are already shooting video it may bring you a cool new lighting methodology that will appeal to your clients and your staff.

Order a copy today.  Less than the cost of a decent lunch in downtown Manhattan...


Everything has changed. Including the way we interface with our gear.

Sony a57.  85mm 2.8.  ISO 100 Jpeg. AWB

(warning: content may be too long for some readers).

As unbelievable as it may seem to readers of my blog and my friends here in Austin, there was a time when I would buy a camera system and hold on to it for years and years.  I’d squeeze every ounce of value from every body and lens and the only time we’d upgrade is when a camera or lens had given its all.  Or paid the “ultimate price” in the pursuit of getting an elusive image.  I still remember losing a Leica M lens in the first intake tank of a wastewater treatment plant.  We were on a gantry, high above the swirling tank and something jiggled the gantry just a bit re-triggering my thinly managed fear of heights.  I made the unconscious decision to grab a railing and the lens, caught mid lens change, flew out of my shaking hands and hit the “water” fifty feet below with a plop.  I grudgingly replaced the lens.  My assistant had been unwilling to dive in after it...

When it came to medium format cameras we might dip a toe in the rangefinder waters by getting a Mamiya Six or one of the Fuji “Texas Rangefinders”  but we wouldn’t think of getting rid of the standard,  our Hasselblad system.  That was the system that formed the imaging infrastructure of our business.  The 35mm cameras were for events.  The big ticket items were done with the top grade stuff.  After all, that gear was time tested and proven. We’d mastered it.

From an accounting point of view we’d always depreciated the gear because our accountants had a realistic expectation that we’d keep it and use it for five to seven years.  Getting it “on the schedule” was absolutely routine.  If we had free time to think about the nuts and bolts of photography that was generally a sign that we needed to get busy marketing or get into the darkroom to print up more candy for the portfolio.

What I’m getting at is understanding the historic mindset of trying to find the “ultimate” equipment for our photography and then working within the paradigm of using that carefully selected gear for a long time.  We anticipated many happy years of companionship.  And most gear did seem to have a useful life as long as that of a well cared for dog.

But the entropy of digital has shifted the way we think about every tool and workflow methodology now.  Accomplished artists move (by necessity)  from dye transfer to inkjet prints.  From big camera film to micro four thirds.  Adobe upends the production universe by pricing “to own” software, resident on your machine, sky high while offering to rent it to you at a lower price, in the “cloud.”

We’re moving from the 19th century concept that owning the tools of production is paramount to creating value and wealth.  We’re moving from a craft mentality which demanded a long and detailed mastery of all areas of a discipline into a post-craft world where the latest apps and styles take cultural precedence over perfectionism.  Witness “Instagram and be there!”

“You do not have to depend on any material possessions, they depend on you, you create them, you own the one and only tool of production.” — Dagny Taggart  (Atlas Shrugged).

When we first embraced digital cameras and digital processing we kept our ideas of long term ownership of our tools, and meticulous mastery of our craft as defined by the tools, because that was the paradigm we knew.  When Nikon came out with the first really useful professional digital camera, the D1X, we had no way of knowing that we’d be moving from a ten year or five year product cycle into and 18 to 24 month product cycle.  But we’ve made that transition.

Marketing pushed us to revere professional tools like Canon’s One Series of Cameras or Nikon’s “Single Digit D’s.”  The argument being that these tools were physically sturdy enough to stand the test of time.  But why should we care now if the shutter will click a quarter of a million times?  We’ll be on to the next great camera long before the little rivets shear loose and bang around inside those hallowed alloy interiors...

Instead, consciously or unconsciously, we’ve progressed to the point where I think each of us, hobbyist or professional, has come to grips with the idea that we’re on a continuous upgrade path.  It’s a path that looks a lot like ownership of computers.  To some extent we have to “keep up” or we’ll be shut out of the game entirely.  And it’s all interrelated. 
The willingness to upgrade almost certainly follows some sort of curve.  There are artists who crave more and more performance and who are chomping at the bit to buy the next piece of gear because they think it will move their art forward.  I think of my friends who shoot landscape.  Last year they were happy with their Nikon D3x’s.  This year they can’t wait to get their hands on a D800.  The extra pixels and the increased dynamic range are the lure.

Somewhere on that end of the curve are people like me who work for the fickle advertising markets.  Whether it’s driven by our clients or our own imaginations we’re always interested in the “next great thing.” Because, in part, we can use that in our marketing to our clients.  We can show them samples with higher resolution and better color.  If the awarding of a job comes down to a “flip of a coin” we might rationalize that having the more recent, and more able gear will give us some sort of advantage.  Even if it is realistically just the psychological advantage we accrue knowing we have at least one quantifiable base covered.

At the other end of the rampant acquisition curve you have the practical, rational, linear people who are still using Windows XP on a machine with a Pentium  microprocessor hooked up to a cathode ray tube monitor who are happy to use their original Nikon D100 because it “does what they want it to do.”  And who can logically argue with that?

I’m on a tangent of the curve.  I’ve given up caring much about raw performance.  I don’t have my name on a waiting list for a Nikon D800.  I’m not waiting for the Canon 1DX or wringing my hands because the D800 seems to pound on the Canon 5Dmk3 in all the “important” metrics.  I’m embracing the idea that all of this stuff is changing all the time and that there is no “ultimate” right or wrong choice among the 35mm style cameras.  The right choice is “whatever is really cool right now.”
We’ve often made allusion to our camera’s “just being tools.”  But I think we were looking at them like power saws or dremels.  I think they are more like paint brushes.  Where you might have one power saw for slicing through boards, and you would use different blades for different kinds of materials, the camera is getting to be more like the blades or paint brushes.  Each job really requires a different choice.

This has given rise to the multiple system ownership syndrome wherein a photographer, hobbyist, pro or dilettante now owns his “Serious Camera System” (SCS) which might be a big Canon or Nikon and a carefully selected collection of premium optics, as well as a smaller system and, at the third tier,  a compact, all purpose, small camera.

The smaller system will probably be one of the new mirrorless systems from Sony, Panasonic or Olympus, along with a secondary collection of fun new optics.  The rationale is that these cameras are for use where the bigger cameras might be too heavy or cumbersome; say when you are out for coffee and you’d like to carry a camera.  Almost every shooter I know, pro or not, is building two systems as fast as their credit cards will let them.  And overall sales numbers point to these cameras as the fastest growing niche of cameras outside of the cellphone camera world.

And finally, there’s the mini-mini’s.  The Canon S95 and S100.  The Panasonic LX-5 and  an ample sample of similar offerings.  The rationale here is that all of these (with some shoving and wrestling) will fit in a pocket and therefore be available for near instantaneous use at any time.  
But no matter which cameras we get we’re still trying to work in that paradigm of owning and mastering the tools for the long term.  I’m done with that.  I think our society is done with that.  Our willingness to work with apps in the cloud instead of applications on a hot rod machine is helping to fracture the paradigm.

I am accepting that all digital cameras are a nasty melange of processing chips and confusing technologies that seem at odds with anything lasting.  Three years ago the quality engineering logic was that fewer pixels on a given slab of sensor space would yield the least amount of noise and give us the most visual pleasure.  That’s now been turned on its head and DXO, and other experts, tell us that everything we thought was wrong and now the pursuit is maximum pixel density in order to get low noise.  But weren’t we just decrying how the marketers were duping the masses by selling cameras based on how many megapixels they had?  What will be next?  The admission that the chips haven’t really gotten much better but that the microprocessors and the software has gotten fast enough so that good processing in camera is no longer highly compromised by image/data throughput?

If you can process an image four times faster you could also process it four times better instead.  At least in theory.

It’s my assessment that we have moved from being imaging owners to becoming imaging renters.  We still buy  the cameras and lenses but, in the back of our minds we are at least entertaining the idea that the new camera in our hands will be transitory.  There’s a good chance that we’ll be attracted to something prettier and with more promise within a year.  And, we’ll push our old camera into a maturing reselling/recycling  pipeline and use the proceeds to welcome the new camera into our stash.

We’re in the middle of a very interesting sales cycle for cameras.  Canon, Olympus, Nikon and Sony have all launched new cameras very recently.  And now more than ever I hear the fever to migrate and “upgrade.”  People who told me just a few months ago that the D3x would last them, happily, for many years are now eager to tell me how wretched is was to have a camera with no sensor cleaner!  They are trying to move them out quickly, before the values drop.  Canon users have been given just about everything they asked in the refresh of the Canon 5Dmk3.  A more solid body.  Much, much better autofocusing.  Better and easier video.  A more robust construction.  And yet they seem unhappy because the grass looks greener, today, on the Nikon side of the fence.  Now they’re starting to grouse about not having enough megapixels.
The many, many micro four thirds fans seemed almost rabid to get their hands on an OM-D (EM-5), even though the EP3 is still fresh and fun.

And I had the Sony a77’s in my hands for less than a month before I started craving a new model that would deliver less noisy high ISO files.

And I’m hearing the same stuff I heard at the last round of camera purchasing, “The D800 will keep my happy for years!”  “The OM-D is finally everything I ever wanted in a m4:3 camera.
Given that we are never quite happy with our purchases how can we ever effectively sift through the calculus of defining our “ultimate” camera?

I wish we could just head down to the neighborhood camera store and rent the camera we want in the moment, and use it until the spirit moves us to try something else.  Wouldn’t it be great to be able to walk into a store and say, “I’d like a Leica S2 and the following lenses for the weekend.”  And have the clerk bring up a box with your requested camera gear, complete with batteries and charger. You’d use it and bring it back when you finished.  The next weekend you might be feeling sporty and you might want to rent a Nikon D4 and a few long, fast lenses to shoot Formula One from your Sky Box seat.  And so on.

We’d still have our every day cameras for our everyday photos but maybe we wouldn’t be so focused on finding the ultimate camera, capable of  doing everything, because we know rationally that such a beast doesn’t really exist.

I am now shooting with Sony SLT cameras.  You know, the funny looking ones with the pellicle mirrors inside.  Why?  Just for something different.  You’ve heard the saying, “Evolve or die.” ? I’m not so binary.  I like to say “Try new stuff.  You might find something you like better.”  I’m resigned to the fact that we’ll never be happy with our cameras for any length of time.  We’ll be anxiously wondering when that D900 or OM-Dx will hit the markets, just a few months from now.
Then again, maybe all the crazy people are right.  Maybe all we need is an iPhone and an internet full of filters.


Preliminary Tests of the Sony a57. A walk through downtown Austin.

I finished up a day that saw all of my will bent toward marketing my services as a photographer.  Wow.  That sounded dedicated and diligent.  Actually, I did a swim practice first, from 8:30 to 9:30.  Then I dropped by Starbucks to drink coffee and check my e-mail.  I worked for a couple of hours doing marketing and thinking about cold calling before I headed out to eat some really good Tex-Mex food for lunch.  After lunch I headed to a medical client's office to make sure my LED panels could be corrected to match their florescent fixtures.  Then I can home and did a bit more marketing and by 6;00pm I was all wound up.  So I grabbed the newbie a57 camera from Sony, wrenched an 85mm 2.8 Sony lens on the front and headed through the random chaos theory of traffic and went for a walk through downtown.

I walked through Whole Foods, tasted some wine and shot all of these food shots with the camera set to ISO 3200.  Click on them.  Look for noise.  It's really wonderful.  When I looked at the rounds of cheese somewhere below I almost cried because the files were so clean.  The lemon tarts are marred by the reflection.  Or,  I intended the diagonal reflections to be there as an indictment of expensive tarts........Can't quite decide on the right manifesto.  So I ate one instead.

Also 3200 ISO.  Jpeg.  Fine.

The three images above are also 3200 ISO, f2.8 with the 85mm.

These are Jpegs I can be proud of.  The colors are great and the sharpness is high.  Very high. The Auto ISO kept the camera around 100.


This is Todd Williams.  He is a very well known fine arts photographer.  And a workshop instructor at the Sante Fe. Workshops, among other places.  He is not homeless.
Like a venal paparazzi I captured him outside the entrance of his tony, downtown gym.
Click on the images and look at the skin tone.  Everything automatic.  Right down to the ISO.

When I started shooting the a57 any reservations I had about the quality of the EVF image or the low noise attributes of the sensor just slinked away and ceased to even be relevant.  This camera is the perfect adjunct to the a77. One is the finest low ISO/Super resolution camera (the a77) and the other is the high ISO camera Sony's been looking for.  And a damn good "all-arounder" for just about any kind of shooting I can think of.  And, oh.  Yes.  The 85mm 2.8 is amazing.  More so when you consider that up until two weeks ago it could be had new for only $249.  I should have bought more.

That's my first full day of shooting with the camera.  I had my doubts.  When I saw the files I was sold.  End of story.


How many ways to rationalize a camera purchase?

Behold !  It's the latest camera from Sony.  It's called the Alpha 57 and it's biggest claim to fame (from my point of view) is that it uses the same sensor that's been making the rounds in the Nikon D7000 and the Pentax K5.  Both those cameras are known for two things: Very clean high ISO performance and very wide dynamic ranges.  By extension, using the same sensor, the Sony a57 should do well in both of those areas.  And I think this will be important for Sony going forward because as much as Sony shooters love the dense, detailed and dynamically well disposed digital files they've been getting out of the a77 and a65 cameras the feedback about high ISO is less than sterling.  I've written about the a77's difficulties with noise in previous columns.  I really like that camera and, for 90% of the stuff I shoot, I find the files quite good.  

When I shoot raw (a77) and use DXO Optics Pro or the supplied Sony software to abate noise I am happy with the output with no caveats up to 1600 and, at 3200, it's very workable with a little elbow grease and the right subjects.  At ISO 50 the camera just squirts out beautiful, long tone files with oceans of detail.  A little small detail sharpening and I'm happy.

But I'm also lazy and able to rationalize new purchases at the drop of a hat. I wanted to find an inexpensive addition to my Sony "work" system that would give me drop dead gorgeous high ISO files right out of camera.  Maybe even in Jpeg.  So I've been following the roll out of the Sony a57 and reading all the reviews I can get my hands on.  But nothing is as accurate ( to answer to your own point of view ) as getting a camera and writing your own review.  Amazon.com is backordered on the camera and the website last night indicated a wait of two to four weeks.  That doesn't work for me.  Once I decide on something I want that instant gratification.  I called Precision Camera here in Austin and spoke to one of the owners.  Wonder of wonders!  I had a camera in my hands the next afternoon.  And.... it's a mixed bag. But what it doesn't do as well as its bigger brother is mostly "cosmetic" to me so I think I'll keep the camera because it does what I asked for when I first rationalized its purchase. (Damn, that sentence doesn't make any sense at all but it's exactly true to my thoughts....).

I paid right at $700 and I headed straight home with the box, excavated the camera, tossed in a battery from my stash of "500" series Sony batteries, carefully inserted a 32 gig card and got to experimenting.  Here's what I found:

First issue.  Only one dial (on the front of the camera ) to control both shutter speed and aperture.  Yikes.  I know there's a way to switch between them.  Oh yes.  Hit the AEL button on the back. Disaster averted.

Second issue.  A bit thornier.  I started with the OLED finders of the a77 and find them quite good. Nearly as convincing as a big ass optical finder even if they get a bit noisy in low light.  But the finder in the a57 is not as good.  It's as big it's just not as crisp and clean.  It almost seems to have a little flare in the system.  Usable out of the box but not great.  I've played with it extensively now and have one tip for new users:  Set the EVF screen to the "minus one" setting.  The contrast on the screen looks better and it seems to be a good match for most situations.

The body is smaller and lighter than the a77 and the battery is supposed to give maybe 100 more exposures per charge than the bigger cameras.  The handling is great and the focusing is equally snappy and assured.

That leaves me with the pressing question:  How is the high ISO performance of the camera?  We'll have to do more extensive shooting but I spent all evening yesterday walking around the house shooting at 6400 ISO and I found it to be much cleaner than the untreated (jpeg default settings) of the a77 at 1600.  I would guess that it's on par with the Nikon D7000 or perhaps just a smidge worse, given the light loss at the mirror.  But, it's a big improvement and adds what I needed to the system for those times when I'm sitting in the front row at Zach Scott Theater trying to line up a shot of moving actors under dramatic, low light and I'm already at f2.8 on my big zoom and wishing for 1/60th of a second.  That makes up for a little loss of "EVF happiness" and banality of only one dial.

I've had the camera now for only a day.  Less than 24 hours.  I'll carry it with me all week long and shoot everything from the parades in San Antonio to Eeyore's (countercultural) Birthday Party here in Austin.  And every shred of life in between.  In a week or so I expect I'll have a fleshed out report on the camera.  Right now it feels like Sony needed sorely to get a camera into the SLT system that could go toe-to-toe with other brand APS-C cameras at ISO 3200 and 6400 and my preliminary tests show that they've largely succeeded.

Now, the process of rationalization.  Here we go:  As you know, if you read the blog regularly,  I dumped a two and a half year accumulation of Canon EOS equipment after using it for two and a half years because I like the whole idea of the EVF's (electronic viewfinders) and I find Sony's implementation works well for me.  I assessed the system and decided it would be a good fit for most of what I do:  Portraits and set up (lit) advertising images.  I also shoot video and find the Sony video to be very good. 

The disconnect in the whole house of cards is this:  I shoot theatrical dress rehearsals once or twice a month and I needed a bit more low light performance.  I'd also like to shoot more evening work without lights and better ISO performance would help that as well.  For only $700 I get to plug a hole in the system.

The camera has a nearly identical menu and overall operational workflow as the a77 so there was no learning curve when it came to picking up the camera and engaging directly.

The camera is smaller and lighter which makes it a nice "carry around" camera to have with me.  I put the 50mm 1.4 Sony lens on it yesterday and can't think of a good reason to take it off...

I could also write a long review about the camera, post it on my blog and then link the product to its product page on Amazon.com and hope that legions of readers, seduced by my clever words, would rush there and buy the camera thereby helping to claw back some of my purchase price through referral fees (which have no impact on the final price of the product to you, the customer).
The fly in the ointment is obvious, though.  Here I am writing about the one product  that is currently out of stock for maybe the next full month.  By the time it's back in stock this missive will long since be forgotten and relegated to the bottom of the blog pile.

Final rationalization:  Well, at least I'm running a photo business and will be able to depreciate my camera purchase at tax time.....

Say, that's a good rationalization.  I wonder if they have any other expensive lenses I might need to "review."


An observation about the increasing importance of raw conversion software in critical photography.

I loved the way the light looked as it wrapped around handle of this white dish.
Shot at 6,000 by 4,000 pixels.

When I looked at the file at 100% (ISO 400) I could see colorful speckles of grain.

I ran the file through DXO Optics Pro and it handled the noise very nicely. 

I have a confession to make.  I thought cameras had gotten so good that I could just shoot Jpegs and be done with the whole mess of post processing. I know some photographers relish the butt time in front of the computer as much as the rest of us dislike it but, given a choice I’d rather work on a book or  talk a walk my city around and look at the real world.

I recently bought two Sony a77 cameras and, for the most part, I’m happy with the system I bought into.  There’s one thing that bugs me, though; the files have some noise in them, even at ISO’s as low as 400.  Now I’ve read Michael Riechman’s  comments about the noise and the cameras and I know he’s probably right.  We’re too busy looking at this stuff at 100%.  The images at 100% on our screens would represent huge prints and there’s no way we’d be standing so close to them that we’d even be able to see the grain.  But it’s like knowing how they make sausage.  Once you’ve looked at your files at 100% you’ve always got that queasy feeling when you think about big prints and fussy clients.  

And that’s kind of nuts because part of the lure of a 24 megapixel camera is the idea that you’ll be able to print large.  Really large.  In normal sized files I thought the images looked fine and to my clients there was really no difference between what I’d given them, file-wise, from last year’s cameras or the cameras I owned a few years before that.  But the tragic thing was that I would know. Compulsive behavior rears its ugly head.

Here’s what I think is happening.  I think most sensors are noisy little devils on their own and manufacturers pull the images off the sensors and then progressively slather on noise reduction as the sensitivity goes up.  At a certain point you reach a hinge point where you can either have nice detail, peppered with noise, or you can choose a smoother look and sacrifice the impression of finely delineated hair on striking blonde goddesses. 

The most egregious manipulation happens to Jpeg files and it’s horrible because once the camera spits them out they are well nye impossible to fix.  Once they are slurped and greased you can’t un-grease them even with the best software.  Why do manufacturers do this?  I think it’s really a question of how much per camera they want to spend on real time image processing in the camera pipelines.  The finer the control and the tighter the quality integration the more processing speed and buffering you’ll need.  And there’s always a calculus of intersecting value curves that yields the most effective, “I’ll buy it - curve” in the world of marketing.

Sony builds great sensor semiconductors and they are in use in many great cameras. Including famously noise free cameras like the Pentax KR5 and the Nikon D7000.  But they don’t seem to get where the tipping point is on noise and noise artifacts, or what constitutes excessive blurring of the files.  For most people it really doesn’t matter.  It isn’t a life or death issue.  It seems that Sony wants to build in super fast frame rates and big files with skinny buffers and the way they make it all work is with rudimentary “on the fly” noise treatment. Strictly mid-tier.  Nikon and Canon are either putting more effective processors and more complex noise reduction algorithms in their cameras or they have a vat of fairy dust somewhere with which they sprinkle their outbound cameras.  Either way, they leave Sony product in the dust.  Or so I thought...

After reading around the web and revisiting some of the product essays at Luminous Landscape I decided to make an all out effort to make my Sony a77 raw files the very best they could be and to pit them against the high ISO files I’ve accumulated from the Canon 5Dmk2 camera which I owned.  This might seem to be a “Sony-only” blog post but nothing could be further from the truth.  What I’m writing here pertains to a number  of cameras that have gotten a bad rap for high noise (although nothing will save a Kodak DCS 760C at ISO’s over 160....).

I’m going to boil it all down for you.  The way to creamy, dreamy files with good bite and low noise, even at ISO’s like 1600 and maybe even 3200 is to do this:  Turn off the high ISO noise reduction entirely.  All off.  Shoot in raw.  Yes, big, fat raw.  Then bring your files into a conversion program like DXO Optics Pro and handle your noise there.  Or in Capture One.  Even the Sony Image Data Converter program.  You’ll have much more control over the noise reduction protocols and you can offset the reduction in micro fine acutance with adjustments to all the parameters in unsharp masking menu.

I like DXO Optics Pro because, with my Sony a77, shooting in raw, the program will correct for the most common lens distortions, vignetting, chromatic aberrations, known sensor anomalies and other issues all at the same time.  I can override the noise recipes in the program and fine tune each file if I like.  It takes more time and the program is much slower than Lightroom.  I’m upgrading Lightroom as my next step so I can play with the same kinds of controls there and see who have the best combination of speed, convenience and image quality.

What I’m seeing now is that my a77 files are a pretty good match against the Canon 5D2 files up to and including ISO 1600.  The process of running files through DXO is more time consuming up to a point.  But in truth we’re keeping to our basic workflow and only optimizing files in DXO after the client has made a final selection.
We may shoot a thousand images in a day or two and after an edit we may be sharing several hundred with our clients.  We ingest the files in LIghtroom 3.6 (currently) and do quick global and “regional” corrections of the images before resizing them and batching them into web res images for online gallery display.  Once the client selects their images I run them through the DXO process and then send the files as Tiffs to PhotoShop for anything that requires selections, layers, or spot color corrections.  And of course, the obvious cloning, healing and retouching.  Starting with a higher quality file that’s geometrically “mended” is a load off my mind.  And it adds a lot of value to my new cameras.  At lower ISO’s they are more than competitive with cameras like the 5D mk3.  

While they probably will never come close to yielding a low noise file at ISO 6400 I rarely shoot at those settings anyway.  It’s a lot more routine to try and shoot at lower ISO’s in order to get the maximum dynamic range. That's why we own various lights.  And at ISO 50-200 the Sony’s are as good as anything but a Nikon D800 for total dynamic range and endless detail.  And at less than half the cost.

The whole point of my blog post today is to point out how critical software can be in grinding out the very best potential images you can get from any camera.  Some camera makers actually make software that shows off the best of their cameras.  Nikon is one that comes to mind.  And some make kludgy software that barely passes muster (like Sony).  If you know where the issues are you can experiment with the best solutions for their resolution.  Whether inside the camera or inside the computer the changes all come down to different software and processing choices.  Sony is betting that most people will find their fast throughput, lower quality solution adequate.  Thank goodness you can choose to take their raw data and make it much better.  If you couldn’t improve on the pictures then no one would bother making and selling the aftermarket processing software.  
In the next few weeks I’ll try to shoot some images that clearly show what I’m talking about here but in the meantime don’t take the limitations for your camera for granted.  The internal software of your camera might be like the cheap tires on an otherwise high performance car.  They’re relatively cheap to replace and you may be in for a much better ride.

Now I’m happy with my cameras.  With the right processing software they do exactly what I want them to do.