11.22.2014

Cameras from the early dawn of digital. How could we have ever shot with such primitive tools?


I've been reading stuff across the web lately about the "eminent downfall of Canon" because the sensor in the 7D2 isn't exactly what DXO specializes in testing. I had to laugh. I owned the original 7D for a spell and found it to be one of the best all around cameras I've worked with. The tipping point that pushed me into the Sony system at the time was my idea that I needed to be doing video and, as it happened, the new Sony a77 looked really good (on paper) and seemed to have all the video gadgets for which I could ask. Looking in my very accurate past tense crystal ball it was very much a lateral move. For straight ahead still work the 7D was just as good as the Sony in most regards, had a much better infrastructure of lenses available and probably nailed focus better. But, as with all victims of ever gnawing equipment lust, it's only in retrospect that I understand how vaguely lateral the move between systems was.

I've played with the new Canon 7Dmk2 and while it's a great camera with an aging sensor it's one I won't be buying. At least not right now. But it's not because of the sensor. It's because I'm knee deep in two systems that I'm really enjoying and I don't really have the bandwidth or desire to spread by camera attention any thinner.

If I were a Canon user I might pick on up. I don't seem to fear the "cropped" sensor cameras the way others do and I think you can put together a killer APS-C system around this body. But you can do the same thing with the Nikon D7100 and, at this juncture, for about half the price (body comparison). The Nikon has a better sensor (by a little) and the same compromises on DX prime lens availability but once you've made your choice you tend to just nestle in and go with the inventory flow.

I'm into Nikon stuff lately. Which is just the third or fourth rotation of a series of circles dating back to my initial awe at the Nikon F2. The thing that keeps me coming back is the damn lens mount and a nostalgic memory about lenses.

There are some classics that Nikon made and which I love that are available these days for laughably low prices. And with some of even the latest Nikon digital bodies you can mount the lenses and even have them key in the focal length and max aperture. Which means you can meter in "A" and manual without having to stop down.

In the last few months I've bought a wonderful 55mm f2.8 Micro Nikkor, a 50mm 1.4 aid, and a pristine aid 105mm f2.5 ( which is my absolute favorite portrait lens around. Especially on a full frame camera... but even on a cropper).  Today I added to my little antiquated collection. I found a 25-50mm f4 zoom that's universally considered to be one of those lenses that makes images look 3D and which keeps on yielding better and better performance as digital sensors get better. In other words, up to 24 megapixels the lens is not running out of resolution gas. The price? a miserly $160. I put it on the front of a D800 and gushed a little bit about the perfection of the range and the correction of the geometry. I also picked up a more recent lens, the 60mm Micro f2.8D lens, again for well under $200. In perfect shape.

It's also a stunning performer. I bought it as a paean to the focal length I used to love when shooting portraits on full frame Leicas. Back then my favorite lens was always the 90mm. Sometimes a Summicron with its sloppy but glamorous f2 and sometimes on an Elmarit with its needle sharp f2.8. The 60mm on the cropped Nikons should get me into the ballpark.

Which brings up my next observation. People who shoot Nikon full frame cameras are crazy! Why do I say this? Because last year the Nikon D800 was largely considered the ultimate 35mm style digital SLR camera on the market. When I hit the doors at my local merchant, Precision Camera I counted fully eight good condition D800's on the used shelf. Nearly all of them are marked at $1899. But my sales person directed my attention to a sign in the middle of the used Nikon area which offered an additional 10% the purchase price of any used Nikon in the store. And that included used Nikon lenses! That put the price of a low mileage, technician checked, Nikon D800 at right around $1700. Or nearly $600 under the price of a new D750. Insane. But then again there are eight of them right there for the grabbing.

Now, I know the D810 is supposed to be a bit better but is the new model really, really worth twice the price? Especially when one can quickly toss a 24-50mm or an old but reliable 105mm 2.5 on the camera and have a primo shooting package for a nudge over $2,000? I love it. The camera market is weirdly falling apart and we are the beneficiaries.

If you are interested in one of the D800's call Ian at Precision Camera. 512-467-7676 and he'll take care of you. Mention the blog and nothing special will happen. Sorry.

And, in the full spirit of disclosure, I am not in any way affiliated with Precision Camera and will receive no kickbacks, payments, extra courtesies or even more free ballpoint pens for sending you in their direction. I'm just trying to match up people who want half priced, used Nikon D800s at what I think is a great value from a known, good supplier. Hope you're staying warm and having fun. I'm heading out to shoot in the rain with the 25-50mm on a D7100. Let's see which one fails first.....

Just to circle back to the original subject matter, the Canon 7D was a great camera and one I would still use today if I were in the system. I do think we've reached the point where all the cameras that yield 16 megapixels and up (DSLRs and mirror less) are equally competitive for nearly every use. Now the real issue is learning how to appreciate their capabilities through the work.

11.21.2014

Just to clarify a bit about the "camera reviewer" post.

I will most certainly review the Samsung NX1 camera but as an unconnected (from Samsung) blogger/journalist. I didn't feel like I could maintain the appearance of credibility and the inner objectivity to do a fair review if I was part of their program testing, playing with and shooting their new cameras.

Many of you have suggested that I negotiate this or that but the reality is that any quid pro quo connection kind of sours the milk as far as objective reviews go. How would anyone ever trust me to talk about an Olympus camera again if they had me clearly marked out as a Samsung fanboy? :-)

I'm excited to review the NX1 (and have been told that a test unit will be forthcoming) because the camera represents some big technical leaps forward. The sensor is way cool. The processor is supposed to be amazing, all the way down to the copper technology that replaces aluminum for lower heat and higher transfer efficiency inside the sensor (a technical advance I remember hearing about years ago during my assignments with IBM and Motorola). I'm already a big fan of their 85mm 1.4 lens and I'm impressed by their inexpensive (not the f2.0 to f2.8 version) 16-50mm power OIS lens.

By not being part of their shooting program and by not accepting gear I know I'll be able to talk about the things that work and the things I don't like without having to read the cries of "fan boy", "corporate shill", "Canon hater," etc.

One reader asked if perhaps I was flattered to be asked to participate in the first place. I can answer that easily, "Yes." You are never to old or too rich to be pleased when someone seeks you out for your expertise or your opinion. But there's also a time to cut cords and move on.

I am a big proponent of changing careers frequently. I am also a big proponent of changing camera systems regularly. In this case the cycle was complete and I was ready to do something new.

I think the NX1 is going to scare the crap out of Canon and Nikon (and Sony and etc.)  even if it's not a stellar market success. There's just too much good stuff going on under the hood for them not to be a bit shaken. And it's happened very quickly.

Whether Samsung got is all correct is a whole different issue and that's something we'll discuss when we get a sample.

My whole point in the previous post I've referred to is that I work better and think better when I do so without any real, implied or imagined constraint. But most of my VSL readers already know that.....

11.20.2014

A genuinely fun, thirty minute photo shoot. Roundtrip.

I do some work for a really nice group of attorneys. They are located about two miles from the studio and we've more or less set the visual look for their practice a few years ago and update it regularly in portraits. We started out with some studio portraits but one day I did a shot of a partner in front of a bookcase full of (out of focus) law books. They loved it. We re-shoot all the partners and associates in front of different book shelves scattered around the practice.

At a certain point we were set. Everyone had been re-photographed and the website was humming along as the advertising gods intended. Joy. Happiness. Completion.

But nothing is ever finished. I got a call earlier this week asking me to do one more portrait in the same fashion. The firm had a new associate and they wanted to get her portrait up in a timely fashion. Today worked for both of us. We settled on two in the afternoon.

Rather than re-invent every step of the shoot I went back to one of my little leather, pocket-sized notebooks and looked up exactly how we shot the last one. I had two battery powered, self-slaving Yongnuo electronic flashes, a wein infra-red trigger, a Nikon D7000 (having fun with it!!!) cameras, the 50mm and 85mm lenses, two collapsible umbrellas, two light stands and a tripod in or on my Airport Security rolling case in about five minutes. I knew where I was going and I knew what I'd be doing when I got there.

The secret to shooting a portrait with a wall of books in the background is to make sure that your main light is both flattering and also at such an angle as to not create reflections on the background. It's just like playing pool.

The second light, also with an umbrella was position to the opposite side of the main light and aimed mostly at the books, but still feathered just a bit toward my subject. When I looked at the overall location I knew that I'd be able to back up enough to use the 85mm which gave me some nice separation and made dropping the background out, even at f3.5, a piece of cake.

I preset the levels on the lights and asked my subject to step into the scene on the spot that gave me the perfect balance between nice light, suitably vague background and a good feeling of compression. The young attorney was very professional. She walked in, hit her mark and turned toward camera with a perfect smile. Not too big and cheesy. Not to grudging. Really, just right.  I took one test frame and all the parameters were right on the money.

I walked her through some different expressions; it's always good to have some neutral and serious looks in the image folder for each associate so the marketing people can select the gravitas required for each PR opportunity.

When I started repeating poses I realized we were done and thanked her for her time. I repacked, shook hands with a couple partners and exited the building. When I pulled into the driveway at the studio a few minutes later I realized that the entire transaction had taken right at thirty minutes. Easily my new record for a location portrait assignment.  It helped that all the travel was around 2pm and traffic was (un-Austinly) light.

Just before I started writing this I tossed the memory card into the computing machine, cribbed in my metadata and ingested the selected images into Lightroom. Yes, I also made a copy into a second location simultaneously. I warmed the images up about 200 degrees and opened up the shadows about 10%, then batch processed them and uploaded them into a private gallery. I'm in a race to see if I can get everything uploaded and have the link sent over to my clients before I head out the door with a different camera bag full of stuff.  I'm providing photography this evening for an event downtown at the Four Seasons Hotel (best banquet food ever).

Nice to have expanded my schedule and been able to see the work before I moved on to the next job. I wasn't intentionally in a hurry but everything fell into place without any pushing, and when I finished packing everyone was engaged in their own work; no time spent socializing. It's fun when you've worked on stuff so often you can guess the exposures before you even turn on the lights...


I was mulling over something today. To wit: Do I want to be a camera reviewer or do I want to take photographs?

(written yesterday): Camera reviewer or photographer? I'm not sure you can reasonably do both. Just as I am not sure you can be a successful and dedicated commercial or fine arts photographer and also be a successful workshop instructor. I think each disparate layer impinges on the layer of expertise on either side.

I was mulling something over today. I need to either commit or walk away from a camera maker's promotional campaign. If I stay with the program the camera maker sends me a pro level APS-C camera and some lenses that seem really cool on paper. I get the camera and the lenses for free. But of course there are strings attached. I need to use the camera on a regular basis and share five images a week for the next few months. I would also need to do a little bit of social media sharing which I never seem to be able to pull off sincerely.  Somehow it just doesn't seem worth it to me. I feel like I'm accepting some mink lined handcuffs.

I might love the new camera in the short term but with the gear attention span of a gnat I'm sure the love letter will last longer than the love (as we say in Texas).

I called a friend who has been a successful and well paid photographer for decades. His business didn't even slow down during the depths of the most recent ultra-recession. He's a great source of "no nonsense" advice. I laid out my dilemma for him and he said, "Well, I guess you need to decide if you want to be an online camera reviewer or if you want to take photographs. I don't think you can do both----well." You have to love friends who are totally frank with you.

I went through the same process when I decided not to do more photo workshops. I realized that the time commitment to do a workshop correctly is huge and the payback is disproportionately small. I'd rather hunt for cool assignments or do my own work than divert my attention and give up my scheduling freedom to teach. I've already done my stint teaching and I learned that teaching is the ultimate in procrastination for an artist. At least for me.

My friend also pointed out that while I am no superstar, no big name, famous photographer I do have roster of clients who are international companies and concerns. They pay big dollars for the work I produce. In fact, one good day of corporate shooting would pay for the camera the camera company is dangling in front of me right now. My friend queried, "why would I want to give them a stream of high value creative content, week after week, for what amounts to a small one time payment?"

Deep down I know he's right. On one side of the ledger is----a free camera and a lens or two. Another addition to the cabinets full of stuff I have already. That's pretty much it. On the other side of the ledger is the hassle of learning yet another menu, shepherding yet another type of battery and changer. More time spent choosing stuff for each shoot.  Spending time looking for shooting material to fulfill my obligations and the possible opportunity loss of working with other camera manufacturers and sampling gear that may be a better fit for my shooting style (and personality). It's also a lot of unpaid, extra work.

Of course, all of this made me look back at the work I've done on this blog. I enjoyed it more when I wrote about the direction of the industry or the methods of shooting well. My two favorite blog posts are still "Lonely Hunter, Better Hunt" and the one with the Joseph Conrad quote, "The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek." Not ramblings about EM-5s, various Canons and Nikons or endless variants of kit lenses and other crap.

The other problem with accepting a bargain to get free stuff is that you lose your objectivity/credibility, to some extent, with your blog audience and even with yourself.  No matter how hard you try to remain neutral. You start to question your own motivations when you select a camera or a subject to put in front of the camera. Subconsciously, you start to pander to the strengths of the tool instead of objectively using it in the service of your vision.

I'm knee deep in cameras and lenses and light on time. One more system might just bury the last ounce of resolve that I have to actually go out and shoot something that's meaningful to me. I guess I've made up my mind on this one. Now I just have to write the e-mail.