Taking a break from a tough week to walk around Austin, get some exercise and work with an now obsolete camera and lens...

It was a tough week last week for personal reasons. I've been working non-stop for a while and I decided to take a couple of hours to get some exercise and fresh air with a walk through my favorite city, Austin, Texas. Had it been cloudy and gray I would have stayed at my desk and worked on stuff that has to get done. Because it was bright and clear and warm I decided to time shift the work till later this evening.

Kids Getting Ready to Jump into Lady Bird Lake from the Lamar Bridge.

In keeping with the spirit of not caring about perfection all the time I decided to take a favorite camera that's about to be obsoleted by a new model. I've been using a Sony a57 for about a year and I really like it. It's being replaced by a Sony a58 somewhere around the 20th of this month and, as any expert on the forums will tell you, the older model will stop working and start decomposing the minute the newer camera hits the market. As I've done some fun projects with the a57 I thought I'd take it out for spin. Given its creaky longevity in the market I thought it only fitting to equip it with an equally antiquated lens, the Sony 24-105mm.

New Condo Construction just north of the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge.

In the new spirit of capricious non-caring about technical stuff I set the camera to it's toy camera setting, adjusted it to "warmth", dialed in auto-exposure and headed to Barton Springs to celebrate Austin Spring in full flourish and then off to downtown.

Two Women Throwing Themselves From the Bridge.

The a57 and the small zoom lens hang gracefully from a Tamrac shoulder strap and have a graceful countenance that makes them pleasurable walking companions. They don't seem altogether serious and I've come to see that this is part of their charm.

White and Black Dog at the Barton Springs Spillway.

I made a conscious effort to approach the camera with the innocence and naiveté of a beginner. No twiddling of the dials and no adding a little "top spin" to the camera's decisions. It would succeed or fail on its own merit.

When you channel the mind of a beginner even your Avia track shoes are interesting.

Meanwhile, back at the spillway....

Shooting through the fence that divides the people who want to pay to swim and frolic at Barton Springs from those who just want to get wet.

Springs and ink.

The cyclists bring their dogs.

At this juncture it's in the low 90's and I've got my shoes off and I'm wading through the water with everyone else. I'm carrying my camera and lens and nothing else. No backpack. No camera bag. No water bottle or any of the other baggage that slows one down. My only concessions to uncertainty are an extra battery in my left pocket and a couple of hundred dollars in my right pocket. Not even a cellphone to intrude on my perambulations. 

Barton Springs Pool. Re-opened after six months of maintenance.

Looking across to the south shore.

The toy camera setting pumps up the colors and vignettes like all hell. Good, clean fun.

Narcissism rears its head once again...

I head across the pedestrian bridge going north. I'm heading toward the intersection of 2nd St. and downtown which, in my mind, is the center of the city. Everyone in Austin seems to be out running, cycling or walking but I know that's not exactly true because I see lots of people stuck in cars in traffic.

But no major traffic jams on this part of the lake.

I got to Jo's on 2nd too late for whatever party happened here... 

New stuff everywhere. No slow growth here. Just full speed ahead.

After an hour of walking I reach the far point of my journey and I take a seat at Caffe Medici for a classic cappuccino. I ask the barrista if he'd mind being photographed. "No Problem." Cool.

Leaving Caffe Medici I spy the makings of moving pictures. A classic interview in front of Congress Restaurant. Those video guys are snappy dressers...

Ahhh. The Austin Photographic Adventure Meet-up Crowd. A host (gaggle? flock? pride? coven?) of photographers waiting for two "models" to show up. They shoot as a group. Amazing. Not my style.

would it be a sunday walk without at least one image of the Frost Tower?

This is photographer, Stephen Elledge. He's shown standing next to his Crown Graphic 4x5 film camera. He uses it to make tintypes which he hopes will be a viable career undertaking. Good luck to Mr. Elledge. A fun rig and a fun idea.

edit 4/15: Here's a link to Stephen's Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/StephenElledgeMobileTinTypes

And here's a sample image he sent me: 
©2013 Stephen Elledge, All rights reserved. 

The models have shown up and the members of the Austin Photographic Adventure Meet-up Group jockey for position in the hopes that their images will be "unique."

The fun story this afternoon is one that I have no idea about. I was walking past the Austin Ballet headquarters when I noticed about eight white Chevy Tahoe SUVs with type on the side announcing, "Federal Protective Service. Police. Homeland Security. In each Tahoe, between the front seats, was an AR-16 or M-16 but there wasn't a uniformed or even un-uniformed agent anywhere in site. They also had this mondo big truck with big antennas sticking up. I took a bunch of photographs but no one ever came out and the drones didn't get me. I wonder what was going on. It was just a block from the federal courthouse........

 I headed back toward home with a quick stop at Whole Foods for a pint of Centennial IPA and then I retraced my steps. Another day wasted with a nearly obsolete camera and a substandard lens. Maybe I should have stayed home and watched sports on TV.
Oh well. Back to work.

Camera: Sony a57
Lens: Sony 24-105mm  3.5-4.5
Setting: Toy Camera...warm.
User input: none.

Gary Friedman's Book on the Sony a99 transcends a mere manual on steroids. It's actually a great read.

I make the same mistake so many people in my age group/demographic/education level, etc., make: I think I am smarter than I really am. Like most people I'm sure I'm pretty close to the middle of the IQ Bell Curve but my ego keeps prodding me to believe that I must be nearer to the more valuable end. Every once in a while common sense wins over ego and I relent and actually do something beneficial for myself rather than presuming I already know everything already. (See how convoluted that paragraph is? Proof of my argument...).

When I bought my Sony a99 I presumed that my Vulcan-like intellect (often disproven) would make mastering all the nooks and crannies and crevices of the camera's potential child's play. And so I labored in blissful ignorance until yesterday. Only yesterday did I really start to unlock the secrets that are making that particular camera even better than I thought it would be. How did this happen? How did I break through the dam of ignorance in order to start realizing the potential of my $2800 purchase?

I took the advice of some people on the internet and bought a book by a guy named, Gary Friedman. He writes books about Sony cameras. If the a99 book is an typical example then he writes very, very good books about Sony cameras. I figured he would cover a lot of filler stuff and that I'd have to pick my way through a junkyard of trivia to find a few gems but I was smacked in the face by how good and how well aimed toward more advanced users the book is.

I've read some sections in their entirety and some I've skimmed over and will come back to. There were two areas about the camera that I hadn't really mastered. One was the use of the flashes that are available from Sony. And, especially, using the flashes in wireless modes and with groups. The second area is in setting the right autofocus combinations for best results. And I'll admit that, with my growing interest in video I read that section twice.

In just those readings I came away with a much enhanced understanding of how to get the best out of the a99 system. The e-book is over 600 pages. It contains lots of color illustrations and Gary gives it to buyers in three formats: a very nicely designed and indexed PDF format, a mobi format and an epub format for Nooks and other readers. Wow. Across all formats. Generous and amazing. Can you say, "Customer Service?"

He writes in a very fluid and humorous way. His understanding of every little detail is obvious. I have never been as happy with an e-book on so many levels. The design is superb. The layout and functionality (at least on an Apple computer, iPad and iPhone) is so good as to be invisible, transparent and buttoned up. I grabbed the information I was originally thirsty for and then went out for dinner. Now that I have the book loaded on my iPad I'll be settling in over the next few days to read it cover to cover like a novel.

The book is best read on a device that has an active connection to the internet. This is because Gary has provided numerous links about subjects you might want to dive into in more detail. Or he provides links to resources like Kurt Munger's excellent lens tests for Sony and Minolta lenses.

I can only recommend the e-books as that's what I've experienced. I wish I could put an affiliate link right here and benefit from his writing genius but I can't. You'll be best served to go directly to his site and order his book directly.  It's right here: Gary Friedman's Excellent a99 book.

Don't shoot with an a99? Browse his site and look at all the other books available. As soon as I digest this one I'm moving on to the Sony Nex7 book. Sorry to the Nikon, Canon and Olympus Shooters....I wish we had someone who writes this well covering those brands. But we don't.

Using the Sony DSLT cameras as "Hybrid" production tools.

The typical mindset among photographers, when considering cameras, is to always go for ultimate performance, damn the cost. I've been having different ideas lately about video. While I reach for my Sony a99 when I know I'll be locked down on a tripod and needing to record controlled sound, I've found that there's a joy in handholding a camera and shooting with less need for control. I'll explain it like this: In the early 1950's the cameras of the day for "smart" and "professional" photographers were the twin lens, medium format cameras (as a minimum) and various larger format field cameras as a norm. But two photographers reject the idea that the "need" in their imaging was the highest quality they could achieve. They valued a fluid handling and relative discretion above lines of resolution and detail. Both Robert Frank (See: The Americans) and Henri-Cartier Bresson (The Decisive Moment) went out into the streets, honky-tonks, diners and fields of real life to capture the flow of existence in a way that never lent itself to perfect technique.

I'm feeling more and more like that's something I want to do with video.

Recently, in the world of video, I've done interviews with cardiologists and oral surgeons. I've interviewed artistic directors and a National Geographic photographer, and I've created video content for advertising and for giant projection in live theater. In all of those situations I've followed the standard production norms of the day. I shot in 1080p at 60fps. I lit the scenes and the subjects. I used off camera microphones in the proscribed way while monitoring their sound through headphones and riding levels via manual controls. And while this is the proscribed way to make technically good video it can also be a good way to make boring video.

As an antidote to the structured feel of my commercial video work I went out recently with my "non-professional" Sony camera, the a57. You can pick one up right now, as they are being discontinued, for around $500. As far as video goes even the cheapest Sony's are easy to use and produce really good files. The a57 offers settings that even some of the big boys from other companies do not. The two biggest advantages being the electronic viewfinder and the full time, phase detect (fast, very fast) autofocus. What's so great about those two features? Well, a clear and well done EVF means you can view your video shots right through the eye level finder even in the brightest sunlight. That means no more switching to slow-as-molassas live view and then strapping a Zacuto or Hoodman loupe to the rear LCD sreen of your camera. In even the top of the line cameras from Canon and Nikon, once you turn on Live View you can pretty much kiss autofocusing goodbye. The cameras switch over to a contrast detect autofocus mode that's pretty much primitive, not fast and sassy like any number of compact or mirrorless cameras.

If adding on a separate loupe while loosing any sort of focus automation doesn't sound like a deal killer for the hand held use of a video camera then you've probably never tried it. But believe me the Franken-Rig is a sucky way to do something that could be fun----using your camera as a street shooting video rig.

If you need fast focusing you can use the Sony cameras in AF mode but you will be limited to f-stops of f3.5 and faster. If you want full control you can disable AF and then go into any of the other modes: A, S, and M and use the camera almost as you would a still camera.  "Ah-ha!" you might say. If I want control over all the settings I lose AF. Well, that's true but it's hardly as big a deal as it would be on a Canon or Nikon camera because Sony has included a very well done focus peaking feature. It's like having a full screen range finder. As you focus the areas in sharp focus become outlined in a bright color. It's visual and it's relatively foolproof.

You know that I've sung the praises of the EVF for a year or more but this is another situation in which I find it irreplaceable. You see, the project I'm working on for myself: Shooting in the streets and around town in black and white video, is set up so that I'm shooting everything in black and white. But I want to see the subjects in black and white as I'm shooting. That's no problem for a camera with an EVF. I turn the creative function to black and white and the finder shows me black and white. Instant visualization. I'm not longer seduced or distracted by luscious colors or color contrasts. I can concentrate on the movement and the tones.

I've been shooting a lot of material in this fashion. And I've been using the camera overall in a less than ultimate way. I'm forgoing AVCHD MTS2 files and shooting in 1440x1080 mpeg4. It's easier to ingest the clips into any system and to edit it on just about any machine out there. Am I missing large chunks of quality? Not really. In fact, the only thing I'm really giving up is shooting at 60fps. And I'm okay with that. I come back with files that work instantly on the web, on my iPad and they work equally well in Final Cut Pro X. But working more simply means less work and less time spent on the part of video I like less, the back end. The processing and editing.

I'm writing a motion poem of life in my city. Everything from the sway of leaves in the wind to stolen kisses at the bus stop and disaffected  workers sipping coffe and checking (for the millionth time) their text messages on the other side of a Starbuck's window. I'm capturing sound only with the built-in microphones because I know I'll want to overlay a different song to the finished collage. I'm not the only person doing this but it feels different than stalking the streets looking for the still image. It has a different kick for me, a different charm.

Here's how I did it last time. I grabbed my a57 (I chose it instead of the a99 because all the bigger sensors get knocked down to the much smaller video size, ultimate quality of the sensor may only matter at extreme ISO's and probably not at all for black and white....). I put my sharpest lens for that camera on the front, the 16-50mm f2.8 Sony DT. I set the camera to MF. I set the camera to mp4 at 1440x1080.  I set the ISO to 100 unless the light gets low. If the light gets low I try to work at ISO 400. When the light falls apart I stumbled into the nose bleed territory of ISO with no fear.

I know I should be working at 1/50th of a second to match my 24p setting but I don't really give a crap about what I should be doing with the camera. All I care about is how it ends up looking. So instead of messing around with lots of neutral density filters to try and stay at that shutter speed I use whatever shutter speed I want and incorporate the different look into the blender of looks I'm working with for the project. You know what? It doesn't matter.  So, most of the time I'm working outside with the middle apertures and shutter speeds in the 1/125th to 1/250th of a second range. Inside I can lock myself at 1/50th for as long as I've got light and work with wider apertures and higher ISOs. That's the way it's supposed to work.

Purists decry the electronic image stabilization in video but I embrace it. Sony uses the same motion sensors as they would to move the sensor for the still implementation of IS but instead of moving the chip they crop a little bit of the image and compensate for your motion buy electronically moving the frame around. I've looked. It works. And you can see the effect in the EVF. Very cool.

The bottom line is that I'm being thrust into video with my work. It's shoring up the parts of still imaging that we've lost to iPhones and "good enough." Anyone CAN shoot video but it requires more skills to get good sound and good images and even more skills to imagine can capture good content. Hell, sound alone is enough of a barrier for most clients to not want to deal with.

I just figured that I got good at taking stills for business by making photography my hobby and passion as well. I decided that if I'm really going to be any good at video I'd have to immerse myself in the same way. And this time around I decided to ignore the little voices in my head, on the web and elsewhere that chant the mantra, "This is the best practices way! You must do this like everyone else. You must have Red camera. You must have a crew. You must shoot 4:2:2. You must etc."

I want to focus on making the images and telling the story. Not on getting every pixel perfect. We already know how to do that.

So, why do I have an image of a Sony a58 camera on the top of the page? Because I'm buying one on April 21st from Precision Camera to add to my toolbox. It's a 20 megapixel camera, with a state of the art sensor, that comes with a very decent 18-55mm kit lens, and costs only $599. Compared to the a57 I've been using as a general purpose image hammer it improves on the EVF by replacing an LCD based monitor with an OLED version. The new camera keeps most of what I like about the a57 in terms of handling, uniform battery across most of the DSLT product line, microphone in plug, and creative modes. In order to make it less expensive than the camera it replaces it's equipped with a plastic/composite lens mount ring and it loses a bit of buffer for continuous raw file shooting. It's adds the adaptive noise reduction technology introduced in the a99.

I figure that every generation of sensor design yields pretty clear improvements in image quality and I'm sure this will be no exception.

For months I'd been looking at fun carry around cameras like the Sony RX100 and the Fuji x20 but for my uses I couldn't really mould the cost/benefit ratio into a pleasing rationale for letting go of hard won currency. Comparing the a58 to those cameras (and camera design mistakes/mishaps like the Canon EM and the Nikon Coolpix A) the Sony a58 and kit lens is an absolute bargain. A combination of what I expect to be great imager performance with all the video enhancements (EVF, Phase Detect AF, in finder B&W, wide choice of files, microphone input, big enough body to hold comfortably, full use of Sony's entire lens line, ability to use MF Rokinon Cine lenses) makes this a great second camera for Sony pro users, an interesting secondary camera for people interested in a "throw down" street camera with great video chops for people with hobbled Nikon and Canon pro systems and a lot more.

I'll pass my current a57 along to Ben. He'll have two cameras and that's nice since he's doing some documentary projects at school that would benefit from a two camera system. This generation and price range of cameras is very interesting to me. The parallel in the film days was the introduction of the FM and FE cameras to the Nikon camera line of SLRs.  Since the film and lenses were the same as those being used on the flagship cameras the IQ could be identical, the only differentiators were feature sets such as the ruggedness of the bigger bodies and the ability to use faster motors. I think we are at an embarrassing moment for the big cameras manufacturers. With the exception of full frame sensors we've hit the point where the $600 cameras, for all intents and purposes, provide image quality on par with the $6000 cameras, and the $3000 cameras. The differentiators are things that most people are indifferent to such as hard core weather sealing or dense menus full of different auto focus sensor settings.

The hard, cold reality is that there isn't any more barrier at all, in terms of imaging parameters that most people use, between the entry level cameras and the most expensive cameras from the same companies. Sure, the Nikon D800 or Sony a99 might resolve a bit more detail at higher ISO's or at giant enlargement sizes but for mainstream video (not uncompressed video into HDMI recorders) and mainstream work, even professional work, you'll be very hard pressed to see any sort of difference. And that means we really do need to showcase our creativity and ideas rather than work on technical stuff.

A young photographer entering the market today, doing web video, head shots, events and other day to day work, as well as more creative imaging could be well served with a couple of bodies like the a58 and a couple inexpensive but very good lenses. The kit lens for the standard focal lengths, the 55-200mm DT lens for the longer end and one of many superwide zooms for the wide angles. Those could form the basis of a professional capable camera kit with a flash thrown in, for far less than $2,000. Small and light but packed with a lot of crossover tools that would allow a photographer/videographer to do good, sellable work. Nice.

It's hard to over-emphasize how much of a game changer Sony's cameras are. Even if they shoot themselves in both feet with bad marketing they've given us a taste of how good a cheap, hybrid still & video camera can be and how usable the EVF makes the camera. Once consumers experience shooting video with a well sorted tool like the a58 they'll demand the same kind of performance from whatever brand they'd like to support. The writing is on the wall for Canon and Nikon and they'd better take notice. It's all coming quicker than they think.