12.19.2014

I'm amazed. It's the end of another year and I'm still in the business of taking portraits and other images for clients. Yippee!

Michelle R. From the 1990's.

I love the photography business. It's so chaotic and so personal. I know people who are making really good money doing work they love and I know others who are struggling to get ahold of each dollar and are doing any kind of work that comes through the door. Having done this full time (with brief sabbaticals to write books) since 1988 I think I have the business figured out. You have to be good at what you do, work well with people and get out and show your work all the time. 

I hear all the time that the gear doesn't matter or that "a real pro could outshoot an amateur even when the pro is using a disposable camera," and I have to say that I don't agree. An artist is wed to his tools and, used well, the right tools help him create the look he's working hard to bring into the world. But what matters most is the experience and perspective that a photographer brings to the work and the joy that he brings to the process of doing the work. That's the crux of it. 

I have some images in my filing cabinet and in flat files that I show again and again because people love them and I love them. The image above is one of them. Michelle is one of the most beautiful and engaging people I have ever photographed. Much of any power that resides in the image I like to think comes from the time we spent working on the process of getting a good image. We spent time to get to know each other and to align our intentions to make a wonderful portrait. We trusted each other to make good aesthetic decisions. We kept working until we both felt some certainty that we'd achieved some success. 

In the end those were the ingredients that made the image one that I keep leaning against the wall, matted and framed, in the studio. It serves as a reminder in the dark moments of the business that we have been able to achieve an image like this in the past and there is a good degree of probability that I'll be able to do work as good in the future. 

We talk about the tools a lot but the tools have changed and keep changing. Film was instrumental in the technical look of this image because of its unique characteristic curve. A larger format was helpful for the quick and graceful fall off of focus. A long lens was critical to create the combination of compression and narrow depth of field that rivets our eyes to her eyes. But we can make incredible portraits if we put our minds to it with today's tools, the digital camera and computer, if we want to badly enough. 

The reality is that, going forward from right now, this is the golden age of photography. We are alive. We are working. We are successful. Not every photograph in the world has been done with my unique vision or your distinct point of view.  How else to describe a "golden age." Rather than pine for the past the best people in the business will find ways to make their current tools sing beautifully and in five years, and then again in ten years, people will look back at the work we did this year and next year and they'll no doubt say, "Oh, those were the golden years of photography." 

I'm proud to be a professional photographer. This is a unique undertaking and with it comes a coveted invitation to drop into the lives of celebrities and everyday people and to make images that reflect our understanding of their unique positions in the world and in this time and to celebrate them. To interpret them and share them with our audiences.  Right now is the golden age of photography. Don't let anyone tell you it isn't so. 

But to leverage all the promise of this amazing time we have we must go out and do our work rather than sit in the darkness and stare at the glowing screen of an online catalog full of the latest gear that promises to do only what we can really do if we fight inertia and entropy and stand up and get to work. 

I managed to do that for most of 2014 and it makes me proud to have made a good living doing a craft and an art. I look forward to 2015.

What's on your wish list for 2015? I've got one big wish.



The biggest thing on my list is something that still doesn't exist in the wide world of photography: I want a digital camera with a sensor that's at least two inches by two inches square and comes with some fast lenses in the focal lengths that would equate to 60mm, 80mm, 100mm, and 135mm on a 24x36mm format. Big square+medium telephoto lens variety.  And I want all of those lenses to get started at f2.0. But not a weak-kneed, whiny, sissy f2.0.  I want brilliance at f2 so I can see some sparkle in a person's eyes while having the backs of their ears well on the way to angel cloud softness. By the time we get to hair behind the shoulders it should be a visual mystery.

We can put a freakin'  satellite on a comet for goodness sake, how hard can it be to make a nice portrait camera?

added a few minutes later: Hey Nikon! As a compromise you could always make a mirror less body and use that honking big D810 sensor in it. And since it's mirror less and will have a gorgeous EVF let's go ahead and give me a choice of exactly what aspect ratio I want to use. In the finder and on the file.

I know someone will write in and tell me that their mind is so compartmentalized and robotic that they can imagine crops from anything and then duplicate that crop in post. Well, good for you but I can't and I don't really want to read about it. I want my camera to show me the boundaries. They work for us! (the cameras).










12.18.2014

This is the best wide angle lens I've shot with in a long, long time. For APS-C camera owners it's a treasure.

Above is the Rokinon 16mm f2.0 wide angle lens for smaller than 24x36mm cameras. It's very good.

This is an article written to talk about the virtues of one lens. I buy Rokinon lenses because I've never been burned by the company. Everything I've owned has performed flawlessly. I bought three lenses from them that were sold when I abandoned the Sony a99 and it was sad to see them go. The most used of the three was the 85mm 1.4. I used it almost exclusively to photograph the partners at three different law firms in town and I used it at or near its widest aperture many times. It was reasonably good wide open but stopped down to f4 it was remarkably good. Better than the Zeiss 85mm 1.4 (MF) that I used to own for the Canon system.

The second Rokinon lens I bought was the 35mm t1.5 Cine lens for the Sony Alpha mount. It too was a fine performer. Not perfect wide open but by f2.8 it was darn sharp and didn't have many visible flaws, even hanging over the from of a full frame 24 megapixel camera. The final lens, also a cine version was the Rokinon 14mm t3.3. While that lens had geometric distortion galore it too was very sharp and there were many resources for lens profiles that tamed the honking big barrel distortion with no sweat in Lightroom and PhotoShop.

As I dive deeper into the world of APS-C it becomes obvious that the underserved part of the lens spectrum for those cameras is fast, wide angle primes. They mostly don't exist from the big name manufacturers. There are variations of zooms galore but damn few fast single focal length lenses. And the wider you go the fewer the choices.

And that leads me to......


The lens I wanted most for the Nikon D7100 and 7000's, a fast focal length around a 24mm equivalent (based on traditional 24x36mm). I looked through the Nikon inventory and the Tamron and the Sigma catalogs but I didn't find the "Goldilocks Formula." I found it in the Rokinon offerings. And, frankly, I trust the lens design and construction of these simple, manual focus lenses a lot more than I trust everyone else's over featured, zooming and stabilizing lenses. Call me old fashioned but my past life training tells me that the simpler the design and the few the number of moving pieces the more reliable a piece of equipment will be. I nosed around on Amazon and found just what I was looking for; the Rokinon 16mm DX f2.0 Asperical lens in a Nikon mount, complete with a chip that tells the camera what the f-stop settings are and enables autoexposure and accurate exposure.


The lens is solid but purists will gnash their teeth and rip their garments when they discover that the filter ring is plastic as is a fair proportion of the body of the lens. I don't care because I know plastic can be more indestructible and reliable than metal. The lens feels great in action because it features a smooth, wide throw focusing ring that's as smooth as Hollandaise Sauce. The lens is made up of thirteen elements in eleven groups and that includes two aspherical elements. The front of the lens has a 77mm filter ring and comes with a hood and a pinch style lens cap. 

Since I never take an untested lens for granted I could hardly wait to get out and put it through its paces but Austin weather hasn't been cooperating. It's been unseasonably cloudy and gloomy here, not nearly the usual paradise of sunshine and open outdoor bars that December has featured in the past. So after I finished all of my work and answered my e-mail and went to swim practice (yay! swim practice...) I grabbed the D7100 and the Rokinon  16mm and headed over to the Blanton Museum where I could act like I was enjoying the new, James Drake: Anatomy of Drawing and Space (Brain Trash) show (which I actually did like very much) but instead I was using my attendance at this venue as a foil for my real purpose, the testing of the lens.  Here's what I found:


While it's never easy to manually focus a fast, wide lens on a small sensor optical screen with no good focusing features like peaking or split image focusing aids live view makes up for a lot of that. The lens is very, very good wide open. Sharp as a lancet over at least 66% of the frame, from the center out. Stopped down to f2.8 it's sharp everywhere and by f4 and even more so by f5.6, it's a monster of exquisite sharpness over every nanometer of the frame. Top to bottom, left to right.


I started with wide shots at f4 and f5.6 and went from there. Here's the ceiling (above) over the main atrium at the Blanton Museum. I looked at the image at 100 % and I can't find the flaws. If I can't see them there then they don't exist for me. 


The above image of the square tiles is a great test of left to right, edge to edge sharpness. I hope I've given you a big enough file to look at. I can see lots of texture and detail in the original 6000 x 4000 pixel file. The lack of an AA filter really does benefit the fine detail at lower and low/middle apertures.


The lens does have some gentle barrel distortion that I found easy to correct in PS. I left the frames intact, as shot, so you can see what the lens actually does when you shoot it without corrections. 


My friend, Ross, at the pool just before noon workout. I thought I'd switch to black and white to neutralize the effect that color has on our subjective appraisals of sharpness and contrast. Shot wide open on a gloomy day and you can see the limited depth of field as you look at the background objects. 


More below....


This is a look down the walk way in front of the Blanton Museum. I find the lens and the huge depth of field at f5.6 to be amazing. At the very end of the frame is a mom and a small, young girl who are heading to the museum. I thought it would be interesting to go more than 100% and see how the lens handles blow-ups and detail. See below for a small part from the image above...


I think the response of the lens and the camera sensor is pretty amazing and I can only imagine how much better it might have been had I had the camera securely attached to a stout tripod. Again, at 100% the sharpness is very, very convincing. 









Below are two interesting tests. On one hand I wanted to see just how much I could open up a severely underexposed frame from the D7100 before experiencing banding or objectionable noise. I was able to bring the image up directly below by 2.5 stops to create the image just below it. An amazing feat, and indicative of just how far digital cameras have come, and how close we are to seriously "good enough" technology that serves to stave off the rhythmic buying of ever newer products. 



The frames just above and just below were shot at the widest aperture of the lens and an ISO of 800 in a dim room. I was really getting premium practice in hand holding a camera and lens at between 1/15th and 1/25th of a second. Nice to know I can still manage a few sharp frames....


Since I love the Battle Collection of statues I spent some time photographing the heads. I switched to the monochrome setting and tried to use the lens to its highest purpose: Images with enormous feeling of depth. That calls for one to get as close as possible to the primary subject. While I don't shoot this way often I was really feeling it today and I love the effect in the black and white image of the heads just above. Be sure to click in--- the eye closest to the camera really is quite sharp.




After I exhausted my targets at the Blanton Museum I went across the street to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum and tried my luck with an airplane engine. Below I have two versions. The top image is shot wide open at f2.0. Where it is in focus it is critically sharp. 

I then did the same basic shot but with the lens stopped down to f5.6 and I am still amazed at how sharp and satisfying this lens is. 

Shot at f2.0

Hand held and shot at f5.6, brace against a railing. 
And, of course, let's zoom in on the same frame and see the real details.....


A crop of the image one above the image just above. Sharp enough for me any day of the week. 

In the end what do I really have here? It's a trade off, of course. The lens is slow to focus and you have to have your technique down to get a sharply focused open aperture frame. Live view is your friend with any fast, wide optic. For around $300 I'm getting a razor sharp, eye slashing acutance and a nice, wide frame that seems to have been designed to be just right on an APS-C camera. I love the lens. It's great and I'll keep it in the bag along with its 14mm brother that I replaced this Summer with a Nikon mount version. The 16mm is a stunning lens for the price and I can hardly wait to press it into service at my very next architectural or lifestyle-ly shoot. For $300 it's a classic bargain. And it makes me really curious about Rokinon's new 50mm t1.5 Cine lens in the Nikon mount. Everyone here should know that I'm a real sucker for 50mm lenses. Especially fast and sharp ones.




Added the next day.  While I lay in bed this morning I had the idea to try this lens on a totally different camera from a different system so I grabbed the Panasonic GH4, along with a converter/adapter and put the Rokinon 16mm (Nikon mount) on the camera. Now we're peddling in the right gear! The lens is a 32mm equivalent with a fast aperture and the EVF+focus peaking makes operation and viewing an absolute joy. Now I'm able to use this lens in a quick, snapshot mode, with impunity and immunity from mis-focus. Is it sharp enough for m4:3? We'll look closely at some tests but I'm already thinking yes, just based on reviewing a few test shots on the nice rear screen of the GH4. Much better handling situation that any MF lens on just about any non-EVF camera. KT

12.17.2014

Martin and I did too good a job on our Zach Theatre " This Wonderful Life" Holiday photo shoot last year....

Mr. Martin Burke, Master Thespian...

Here's a look at the play as marketed on Zach Theatre's site: http://www.zachtheatre.org/show/wonderful-life

They used the image above, with type and design elements, on posters, duratrans and direct mail last year. The response to the advertising images was so good that they didn't want to mess with success this year and re-used what we'd created previously. Feels good to create images that stand the test of time....until you realize that you just cost yourself an assignment.  :-) What the heck, I love the image too. And I loved working with Martin Burke, one of Austin's amazing dramatic talents.

The play is an amazing blend of the old Frank Capra classic, It's a Wonderful Life, and a madcap recap with Martin playing all 39 main characters+narrator. It's warm, funny and joyful. Just right for the holiday season. I'm hoping to get tickets for one of next week's shows. See you there?

sony a99 and 45mm lens.

Saying goodbye to a system. Wishing its creators the best of luck.


I was pleased when Charles asked me if I'd like to participate in Samsung's Imagelogger program. The program aimed to put new Samsung cameras in the hands of bloggers and photographers of every stripe and to provide them with a venue to show off images (and videos) made with the cameras. I worked in the program from Spring of 2013 right up until October of this year. I was given the opportunity to shoot a very quirky but very brave and innovative product, the Samsung Galaxy NX, in Berlin for nearly 10 days and I was asked to present work and shoot with the product at the 2013 Photo Expo East show in the Samsung area along with brilliant photographer, Nick Kelsh. 

While I didn't always agree with some of the Samsung camera designers when it came to feature sets I was always very happy with two aspects of every system they gave me to work with: 1. The sensors had great color and tonality and made beautiful portraits. And, 2. A number of their lenses are absolutely competitive with the best from their competitors. In fact, I fell in love with the 60mm Macro and the 85mm 1.4 lenses. They are both lenses designed for photographers. 

But with every camera I had a bit of (non)-buyer's remorse. While the NX 300 was very well designed and, in combination with its kit lens, a reliable and accurate camera I could never understand why they didn't include an EVF. Even if the EVF had to be an accessory in a port like those on the Olympus Pen cameras. Having to shoot solely by composing with the LCD on the back of the camera moved me to almost permanently graft a loupe on the back to I could see the image and not look like a hipster doing the "dirty baby diaper" hold. When the NX300's tenure in the program came to an end it went promptly to a nephew who needed a good camera and still has the eagle eyes of youth. 

The very next camera I got was the Samsung Galaxy NX. It was (is) an interesting product and one aimed at just about anyone but a professional photographer. It is based around a big rear screen and hosts a full on Android operating system and the operating system was, without a doubt, its Achille's Tendon. Its John Edward's Haircut


Every full on operating system, like Android, is powerful and capable of running many different kinds of apps in addition to the camera control app that a pro would consider to be the mission critical app. But the very nature of having a big system like that means it requires lots of time to start up and load. Like 25 or 30 seconds. The implied benefit of the camera was its connectedness which for me was also its main flaw. All the wireless nets and additional apps were memory hogs and a drain on the dynamic system. This led to freezes and periods of enforced non-engagement. Over time Samsung made great strides in fixing many of the issues and that's great for new buyers but for cranky pros once a camera lets you down in a shooting situation you never really trust it again. 

I wish that camera had come with perfect firmware and a headphone jack. It could have been a remarkable video camera. The big screen on the back would easily have made a fine monitor and the almost vestigial (because of color issues and low resolution) EVF would have helped in high ambient light situations.  I think a photographer who grew up with a cellphone in his crib would have loved the camera as the interface was all touchable and swipe-able. Everything about the user interface was screen centric and therein lies the curse for a person who has used a wide range of cameras for many years = a prejudice for the immediacy and binary nature of physical buttons. 

What else did I like besides the giant screen? You have to go right back to the stuff they got right, the sensor and the lenses. Mighty fine features. And to be fair other photographers love this camera for workshops and demos because they can upload big, delicious files in real time to enabled HD monitors and have an interactive workshop situation that's fast and seamless. Linking via wi-fi or cellular data or blue tooth. Amazing for something like the shooting demos we did in NYC. (And you'd better have your shooting chops together when you are shooting live in front of dozens or hundreds of picky spectators....).


I've never been a shrinking violet so I talked to the company about what I liked and what I didn't and that led them to send along the next camera in the timeline, the NX30.  That camera had a lot of promise but for me it failed to deliver in the early months. The firmware that shipped in 1.0 was a bit buggy and, most perplexing, slow. Once the final version of the firmware got delivered the camera was a good shooting tool. The eye sensor that switches between EVF and LCD was still too sensitive and flaky but the general operation of the camera was competent and actually quite fun to use. 

I used the camera with the 85mm 1.4 lens for a number of professional, paid assignments and everyone from the client right down to me was very happy with the results. I'm not sure the camera ever got traction in the market and part of that was probably down to the early firmware (when will manufacturers learn that the first opinions of early adopters make or break products?) and the fact that the value proposition versus price point was a little out of whack. The camera should have been introduced at a lower price point to take into consideration their newcomer status. Trust and value is earned. So is market share.

My interest in shooting with the products waned a bit as other cameras from other makers offered a combination of performance and features that were a better fit for my needs. But take that with a grain of subjective filtering salt; I'm a luddite when it comes to accepting and using some of the new sharing technologies and to be fair the interconnectivity of the Samsung cameras is one of their strongest suits. 

By this time I'd amassed a little collection of lenses and the bodies were piling up. Along with Olympus, Panasonic and Nikon gear. As each Samsung camera neared the end of its promotional tenure I sent them off to various friends and family. The NX30 went to a hard working and generous brother in law, along with a couple lenses I thought he'd get good use from. He's already using the camera to produce video and from what I've seen the old saw of,  "It's not the camera it's the videographer" is quite true. The camera is capable of great imaging in more capable hands than mine...


Then I was sent a couple of cameras that really make no sense to me at all while being perfect for lots of other people in other market segments. The NX Mini shown above is a one inch sensor, interchangeable lens system that fits into the proverbial jean's pocket and certainly into all but the most microscopic purses, and it does a really good job of making photographs, especially selfies. It came with the ultimate selfie lens, the 9mm (24mm equivalent on a full frame camera) and a screen that flips up over the top of the camera so you can compose yourself. Wink at the camera and it will shoot a burst. Who doesn't need that? Well, me for one. Especially in white. I took the camera out and shot with it and it's a great performer, on par with the image quality from the Nikon 1 series cameras, and I've kept it around. Why? because it's a great loaner camera for friends who need something small and light for a trip somewhere. Go selfies! And of course it comes complete with ample interconnectivity options. 


The mini was followed by another white camera which came complete with a white strap and a white flash. I am amazed that Samsung didn't follow through and finish the system off with a white lens cap. Inside this camera body is an improved version of the sensor that was in the NX 300. It's a great sensor and the camera came packaged with a white lens (which I initially disparaged) that is one of the best kit lenses I've ever shot with.  The camera, while capable of shooting great images was once again a handling catastrophe for me simply because it once again depended entirely on rear screen viewing and composition. The screen did flip up into selfie mode but once again, I am hardly the target market for selfie creations. 

After playing around with it and testing it the camera went to a swimmer friend of mine who just retired from work, survived a couple serious bouts of cancer and needed a new camera to do art with. I still feel guilty because I kept the white lens (high performance!) and switched out an 18-55mm lens (very good) onto the white camera.

I have found good homes for all of these cameras for one profound reason; I couldn't commit to the time the program would have required if I had accepted the new, NX1 camera and the premier zoom lenses. Also, while I wanted to believe that Samsung has gotten everything just right in this camera I didn't relish having to bring along two camera systems to every shooting experience until I got to the point where I totally trusted the new product. It would have been too much information and too many concurrent menus to handle for my admittedly limited bandwidth. Something had to give. 

Will I have regrets when the NX1 turns out to be the best APS-C camera system on the planet? Or the best mirror less system on the planet? (could happen).  Probably not. I'm happy being unfettered and unobligated at this point. If the NX1 is the promised camera (the Neo of photography gear) I can always sell off other gear and inflict more damage on some poor unsuspecting credit card. But for now I am happy to mess around with multiple systems unencumbered by the guilt of any obligation to shoot with one over the other.

The folks at Samsung are incredibly nice to work with and I can sense them zeroing in, camera model by camera model, to the sweet spot of the whole market. The processors in the NX1 are at least a generation and maybe two generations ahead of their competitors. The video, once the software support is in place, should be amazing. I'm just a bit tired of being too close to the cutting edge. 

I know some of you think that my office must just be a warehouse for gear but I wanted to write this to let you know that inventory moves along. Some things are given away to good homes and to people who care a lot less about state of the art than in just getting stuff done. Most go to good homes that are brand agnostic. Some gear gets sold back into the used markets (goodbye everything I ever bought from Canon) and some stuff gets stored for continuing and future use (hello Sony R1s).

I know one VSL reader in France will be happy to read this. She never approved of my camera promiscuity.

A reminder: The Lisbon Portfolio, my action/adventure story of intrepid photographer, Henry White, is currently on sale for the meager and insubstantial sum of $3.99. It will be available at that price as a Kindle book on Amazon until the beginning of 2015. Get your copy before they run out. When you get to the book's page you'll see that you can also get a printed copy (not on sale). It's your choice...




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