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.


11.18.2014

Zeroing in a new (to me) camera. You have to get your hands around it.

One of the sentinels of Barton Springs.

In a previous blog I wrote about buying a used Nikon D7000 and returning it because the back focus was sooooo bad it couldn't be fixed with the in camera focus correction tools. plus or minus twenty were both equally ineffective. But I really did want a back up camera for the D7100 for those time when I want to use that body commercially. You see, I am incapable of leaving the studio for a paying job without a backup camera that will take the same set of lenses and generate images of the same basic image quality. The best case scenario is two identical bodies (or, if prices fall low enough, four---as in my collection of EM-5s) but the next best scenario is the previous model having most of the same control interface and (importantly) the same batteries.

I'd read a lot since 2010 about the Sony sensor that found its way into the Nikon D7000, the Pentax K5s and various other cameras that shifted the way we thought about high ISO performance and dynamic range. I'd made a mental note to try another used one if it became available for and advantageous price. I found my next one for under $500 in very, very nice condition with about 14,000 cycles on the shutter.

The first thing I did was test the focus accuracy by shooting various Nikon lenses nearly wide open (which, coincidentally) is the way I like to shoot most of the time. I'm not really an "f8" kind of guy.
The camera absolutely nailed focus with everything and I was happy. But I wanted to see what kind of operational differences there were between the 7000 and the 7100 so I took the older body out for a walk around the lake.

Most of the buttons are in the same place and the finder is very, very similar. As Ken Rockwell would say (paraphrasing) "One shows information in green the other in white. That and the different density sensors are the only real differences."  I think I have to agree with him except for one thing. At the sizes I use the files the older camera has a greater impression of sharpness in the files.

But none of this has anything to do with the core message of this post and that is that cameras need to get, for want of a better phrase, zero'd in. I find nearly every body I shoot with has tiny differences to identical models. Little things like the way the shutters sound or the way the shutter button feels. When you accept a new camera you need to "wear it" for a while and shoot it until it becomes second nature. Only then are you ready to take it out and shoot commercially with it. If you don't shoot for money then the goal is to feel comfortable enough to use it for a "once in a lifetime" experience.

It may sound funny but the previous (defective) D7000 felt off. That's one of the reasons I checked it right away. The new one felt almost immediately comfortable. Again. It's just a hand, brain, feel kind of thing and not a series of magic metrics that I can measure on an instrument here in the studio. But it seems as obvious to me as f11.

Into the Nikon bag this one goes. Ready to leap out and soldier on should the D7100 falter or fall.

Interestingly, of the four EM-5s I have from three different sources, all with lower shutter counts, each one feels a bit different in action from the others...shutters sounds, hand feel and even the finders. I guess even in this age of ultimate automation there's still enough variance to notice.