4.21.2018

Just checking out my new haircut in the reflective window at "The 360" condo project in downtown.


I find self-portraits instructive. I shot one last week and when I took time to look at it objectively I found that my uncut, unkempt hair was making me look like an out of control mad scientist who had recently escaped from a senior living center. That's when you know you're long past due for a decent haircut...

I've always been self-conscious about taking photos of myself but I do it anyway because it constitutes a visual feedback loop that's different from a quick glance in the bathroom mirror.

As I continue to regress in my camera selection I'm guessing I should go out int search of reflective windows so I can see how I look sporting an enormous, and anachronistic, camera+lens around with me on a daily basis. The photographic results might constitute the most compelling reason yet to toss the old DSLRs back into a drawer and pull the svelte m4:3 cameras out for a bit....


4.20.2018

A day spent defying logic and reason in the realm of professional photography.

Want a full frame camera cheap?
I noticed that our local camera store is 
full of used Nikon D600 and D610 cameras, 
most for less than a thousand bucks.
This post is about a different camera.

I have a client that makes physical stuff. Not software or vaporware or social networking opportunities, but real stuff made from metal or plastic and sometimes both. They fabricate everything from sheet metal enclosures for data hubs to wiring harnesses for the auto industry. They even populate circuit boards using surface mount technology. And like just about every other business they need to advertise, and market, which sometimes means that they need photographs and videography. Like most companies of a certain size they aren't rushing to have an intern create their content with an iPhone; they actually hire people with experience to come to their locations and make images. Amazing, right?

I did work for them back in 2012 and 2013 but I hadn't heard from them since. I never conjecture about where a client has gotten off to because having run an ad agency I know that some clients think of creative tools as a five year investment and some are hoping the materials people create for them will last ten years. Some times client circle back and some times they disappear and you never see them again. It's just the nature of the business...

At any rate, this particular client has expanded, they now have facilities here in Austin as well as in India, Mexico and China. They figured that with all the new locations and all the new services they are offering it's high time their almost six year old website (and print collateral materials) got updated. The ad agency they used in 2013 is gone; out of business, as is the production company that did their first and only video. I'm the last guy standing. Pretty weird if you ask me, but the company got in touch and they'd like me to handle the content creation. If I were rational and logical I'd just cherry pick the stuff I like to do, and which has the most profit attached, and ignore the rest. There is an old saying amongst therapists; it goes like this: "Just because somebody throws you a ball doesn't mean you have to catch it." But I am a slow learner so I agreed to make a new set of photographs for their Austin and Mexico locations and to try to salvage a good video edit out of the materials they were able to rescue from the now non-existent production company. My first call was to my favorite editor. That's the easy part; getting the client to do things my way is, inevitably, the hard part.

The first leg of our new journey together was to photograph a day's worth of material at their Austin location. This included images of their new surface mount circuit board assembly resources, their wire harness production line and a bunch of similar subjects. Just for fun we took another run through their machine shop to document the continued existence of their CNC machines and some of their precision mechanical toys.

When I packed last night I had every intention of using the Nikon D800e to do all the heavy lifting today; I packed the D700 as a back up camera, just in case. But this morning when I opened the backpack with the camera gear I just had the most contrarian impulse to pick up the D700 instead and to spend the day shooting it. So that's exactly what I did.

This was a "throw back" Friday for my photography. Armed with a raft of lenses that I've used in previous iterations of my business, and a stout and solid tripod, I sallied forth to capture photons across the big pixels on the D700 sensor. Out of a selection of eight lenses I mostly leaned on some ancient favorites like the 20mm f2.8 AF-d, the 24mm f2.8 AF-d, the 28mm f2.8 Ais, the 85mm f1.8 AF-d and, for ultimate flexibility, the 24-120mm f4.0 VR lens.

When I got to the location I was very happy to learn that the nasty old florescent tubes that flickered their way through our previous shooting had all been uniformly replaced by very nice LED tubes. One custom white balance got me through the entire day and my own LEDs were perfect for discreet fill lighting. What a time saver it is to have an entire facility uniformly lit!

So, how did the ancient and battered D700 fare? I'm going to say it did really well. Most of the images were of people engaged in their jobs; anything from fabricating braided cables to quality checking circuit boards. In a job like this people aren't moving quickly and the light levels are high enough to keep the ISOs under 640 (for the most part). I worked almost entirely on a large tripod and took advantage of the mirror lock up coupled with a shutter delay setting. I tried to figure out and shoot at each lens's optimum aperture but I did use the 85mm at f2.0 a lot in order to blur backgrounds.

What did I find out when I came back to the studio and started post processing in the newest version of Lightroom? I learned (for the millionth time) that your ancient D700 can look as good as the newer cameras if you take time to: Set a good custom white balance. Watch your histogram. Nail your exposure. Use prime lenses. Use prime lenses at their best performing apertures. Put your camera on a dense and vibration free tripod. Use the mirror lock up. Use the shutter delay setting. Stay close to the lowest real ISO on the camera. Focus carefully. Add fill light when needed (also called: instant dynamic range). 

I'm uploading 650+ images to Smugmug.com right now to share with my client. They all look great.

We'll be working on getting a concept nailed together for re-making their video and, in a couple of weeks, the CEO and I are heading to Mexico to shoot at their facility. I hate to make the dilettantes unhappy but I'll probably shoot that with the D700 as well. But not to worry, I'll take along the D800e as a back up.

And yes, we are shooting all the video as All-I 200 mbs 10 bit, 4:2:2 with twin Panasonic GH5's'; the video in the D700 sucks...

4.19.2018

An exercise in Nikon Nostalgia. Out shooting an assignment with a D300S and a D700.

Here is the dynamic duo that I used to complete a P.R. assignment this past Tuesday afternoon. The camera on the left is a D300S and the camera on the right is the D700. The D300S was equipped with an old, push-pull 70-210mm zoom lens with the D700 sported a slightly used 24-120mm f4.0. Why were they a good choice for this assignment?

Yeah, I know this is all a bit crazy but I've reacting to the widespread false narrative that working professional photographers need to be using the newest and highest performing cameras on the market in order to get the shots that pay the bills. Actually, I'm beginning to think that in many cases nothing could be further from the truth.

About a month ago I started getting interested in cameras with fat pixels. I think some of them, because the pixel sites are so much bigger, have a different look to their files. In many applications the files actually look sharper and better defined. I can't argue about situations where raw resolution is essential, vital or otherwise preferred but in uses where the file's resolution exceeds the resolution of the final target my preliminary dive into the issue seemed to confirm to me that there is an aesthetic difference that most people can see. I won't go into the "why" of the effect; I am certain there are smarter folks here on VSL who can explain the science or engineering behind my observations.

The obvious cameras to grab from the dusty used cases were the ones where the biggest sensors have the smallest number of total pixels because....each pixel is bigger. This led me back to the D700 which has pixels that are bigger than 8 microns across. For reference the pixels in my GH5 are about 3.3 microns across. My intuitive break point between bigger pixels and smaller pixels seems to be set at about 5 microns. At that size and smaller I'm thinking the pixels are small while at anything over 5.x microns the pixel are in the larger camp. Anything over 7 gets me into a zone that yields the visual effect I've come to identify as the big pixel look. 

There are several cameras I've owned that had enormous pixels and, even with the huge pixel wells they were still plagued with high ISO noise that was off the charts, so I want to make it clear that what I am seeing is not about noise or lack of noise but more about edge effect, acuity and the perception of file sharpness. The Kodak DCS 760, the files from which I was always impressed, clocks in with pixels that are 9.18 microns while another favorite, the Nikon D2HS has pixels that re 9.32 microns.

Even though the last two cameras are not full frame it's their pixel size that sets them apart in my mind.

In contrast the Nikon D800e whose files are nicely detailed but which lack, for me, a certain snappy look have pixels that are closer to those of my micro four thirds cameras at 4.87 microns. Even my D2XS and D300S cameras have pixels that are 5.48 and 5.51, respectively. This may account for the perception that the D2XS files seem sharper if neither the D800e files or the D2XS files are used in final targets at more than the native resolution of the D2XS. We get the benefit of the greater perceptual acuity of the older camera and its illusion(?) of greater sharpness.

At any rate my curiosity has led me to buy and borrow various cameras and to test their files at various magnifications to see, just perceptually, which ones yield files that look most photographic to me. (And be aware that this could be a prejudice of visual habit, of variations in each camera's contrast rendering and a host of other parameters). I've shot some files with a camera I never owned; the Canon 5D, and can see how it pushed the 5D line into prominence. Big pixels and nice tonality with an undercurrent of well managed sharpness.

Recently I added a D300S to the mix because I found a treasure trove of old concert photo files that I re-imagined in the latest rev of Adobe's raw converter and was pretty surprised at the quality inherent in the files. So my curiosity about bigger pixels is now intersection with the idea that older cameras created raw files that contained much good information that was neglected or sub-optimally processed by older raw converters which led us to conjecture that it was new camera hardware that was making newer cameras seem cleaner and better when, in fact, it may just be the continual introduction of much more processor power being available to process the files which has led software engineers to be able to distill more detail, color information and nuance from all files. This also seems to be apparent as I test more stuff.

But at some point you have to stop testing and go out to shoot some jobs for clients. Otherwise, how will we pay for the boxes and boxes of new stuff that we're hauling back from the camera stores?

I was asked to do photographic event documentation for the groundbreaking of the new site for the headquarters of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Austin. In our pre-planning phone call the marketing director let everyone know that the ten acres had just been cleared and that the dust and pollen on site was plentiful. A continuing dry spell wasn't helping but bulldozers pushing the dry dirt around were the biggest culprit. We would walk a quarter of a mile to access the space and the whole event would take place without a covering tent. We would be in full sun on the hottest day of the year so far, in the middle of an intermittent dust storm. I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this; if there was ever a case for having a couple of "trash cams" to take into the field this would be one of the front runners.

I chose the D700 because the full frame is a nice match of the flexibility of the 24-120mm f4.0, which is the only image stabilized lens I have for that system right now. I grabbed the D300S because it was a good match for my only really long Nikon lens right now; a lowly 70-210mm f4.0-5.6 consumer zoom which is actually very nice for outdoor stuff. I put each lens on its body before I left my car in an attempt to keep the sensors as dust free as possible. Then I stuffed both rigs into my all purpose Amazon photo backpack and trudged down a quarter mile dirt and dust path to the location.

With ND filters on both cameras I was able to use on camera flash to add many stops of dynamic range to the system which was very advantageous for shooting in direct sun. The flashes were used in a total manual mode with me riding the power settings for various distances.

I photographed a group of cheerleaders from a local school who opened the program. There was a drum band and then speeches by politicians, donors and board members of the organization. Every time the wind whipped up a cloud of dust and debris swirled through the crowd. By the time the event was over and I had ambled back to my car my dark brown hiking boots were covered with a light gray coating of dust. My cameras were speckled with dust every where and the fronts of the filters looked as though someone had misted them with dust.

When I got back to the studio I swept the dust off my boots outside the office door. I grabbed a can of compressed air and carefully sprayed off every square inch of each camera and lens, trying to make them as dust free as possible. I used an artist's paint brush to dust off any resilient dust specs before opening the memory card doors and pulling out the cards.

The files were uniform and good. The flash helped lift the shadows a good bit, putting them into a good level and allowing me to just finish off the files with a lift of the shadows in post. I edited down from 600 shots to 300 shots, color corrected and tonal corrected each shot (usually in small groups) and delivered them the same evening.

Shooting raw, setting a smart color balance and using fill flash judiciously were all ways of equalizing whatever improvements have been made in sensors over the years. The raw converter seems to lift all boats.

If either camera had been compromised by the dust and rendered unusable it would be much less sad than losing a shiny, new camera for which I had paid the full retail price. This was one of the many situations photographers work in frequently where just about any pro caliber camera made in the last 10-12 years would have acquitted itself well. The files are ample, the colors great and the overall look of the files generated is right in line with the work we expect from today's cameras.

If you think my P.R. client, posting images to the web and for mostly online use, really needed the latest medium format, 50 mp file camera to document an event like this----you are nuts.

4.16.2018

West Texas Landscape. Marathon, Texas.

West Texas Fence.

Olympus EP-2


Visual Note Taking. Active Looking. Passive Thinking.


You develop instincts with experience. You gain experience by trying many, many things. I carry a camera with me nearly everywhere, not because I think I'll make some piece of art that will grab a curator by the gut and make me famous but because the process of looking for visual patterns and then using the formal boundaries of the rectangle to fence in the patterns and cut them into neatly accessible notes about everyday existence. Why do it? Beyond the idea that hunting for images is a fun challenge and a nice pass time? Well, the constant trial and error of composing and exposing rectangular slices of scenes that catch my eyes seems to help me when making photographs for clients; for money. The language and rhythm of reducing three dimensional space to a two dimensional representation becomes more fluid when it can depend on hundreds and thousands of previous episodes of trial and error; and more importantly, trial and success. 

When I leave home with a camera and lens (and it's very rare that in my own private time I carry more than one of each) I choose a lens that I want to explore and I work with it for several hours; looking for visual constructions out in the world that will show off the focal length I've selected. 

Often I'll select a long lens only to find that the sky is brilliant that day and the play of light across wide spaces is glorious and fun. I momentarily wish I'd brought along a 24mm to lasso it all in but if I set my mind to it the shots might that benefit from tighter compositions, and even a bit of compression, start to grudgingly reveal themselves. 

There are other times when I've remembered the expanse of sky and landscape and I'll bring the 24mm only to stumble across beautiful face after beautiful face which I'm desirous of capturing in tight compositions, with backgrounds that blur to cotton candy and compression that pulls infinite space in to a tight wad of stacked layers.

My usual compromise, especially after a few disjointed forays, is to eschew both extremes and make due with the 50mm lens (or its focal length equivalent on whatever format camera I'm using at the time). As I've written many times, I think of the 50mm as a wizard lens which is able to emulate a wider or longer lens based on how you use it. The neutral focal length keeps one from leaning on the attributes of the wide angle or telephoto perspective in order to make an image interesting. And interesting is always more valuable that exciting. "Exciting" is something that grabs you once and then losses it's power. Like a huge swig of a sugar-laden soft drink which is followed shortly by the insulin pumping crash.

The neutral focal length gently insists that you find something inherently interesting to record. Something you'll find pleasant, or interesting, or informational on repeated viewings. 

On a topical note: It's the time of the season for tax filings. Afterwards you can sit in a dark room with a glass of cheap Scotch and bitch about government spending and the tight pinch on your wallet, or you can grab a nice camera, and a lens you love, and walk all through your city, town, rural landscape--whatever--- and do the thing you love = take photographs you'd like to look at again and again. Something soothing and smooth, or colorful and quiet, maybe even regal and glorious. And, in the moment, let your enthusiasm for the play of photography be the thing that informs your day. 

I filed my tax return today (Thanks to my CPA, Barry) and, after writing the usual check, I'm putting that task behind me and cleansing my palette with a lovely duo that's just right for today's walk; the Nikon D700 and the Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art lens. 

It's sunny, bright and hopeful outside. Let's see if I can harness the promise of the day and infuse it into my everyday life. It's all just a click away.


















4.14.2018

Just another Saturday morning. A new (to me) camera. Swim practice. Some shop worn rationalizations.


We'll start with the swim and get that out of the way first. The wind was blasting in twenty to thirty mile per hour gusts and the temperatures were hovering around fifty degrees this morning when I made my way to the pool. I was moving slowly after our anniversary celebration last night. But I woke up quickly when I hit the water and started moving. After a long mile warm up we did a set that went like this:

Swim 3x100's (25 yards butterfly+75 yards freestyle) on 1:40 intervals.

Swim 4x25's butterfly

Swim 3x100's (50 backstroke+50 freestyle) same interval

Swim 4x25's backstroke

Swim 3x100's (25 breast stroke+75 free) same interval

Swim 4x25's breast stroke (with a double pull out off the wall).

Swim 3x100's (50 fast freestyle + 50 fast "over kick" freestyle) same interval

Swim 4x25 freestyle sprints

followed by a "pyramid" that went: 

200 yards pull > 150 yards pull > 100 yards sprint swim > 50 yards sprint swim > 2x25 sprints
> 50 yards fly > 100 yards choice stroke >150 yards pull > 200 yards pull. 

We moved pretty quickly in our lane and didn't have much time to hang on the wall and chat. I was sore by the end of the hour and a half but I'm not sure how much I should blame on that second glass of Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon I had at dinner last night. 

My swim goal for the year is to be able to swim a 100 yard freestyle back under one minute. We'll see how it goes.... I really need to work on my turns. 

Camera errata: I've revisited the images here during the week, they were made in 2008 with a combination of cameras, including a Fuji S5 and a Nikon D300. The ones on display here are from the Nikon. I continue to be amazed at how well the image stand up (technically) ten years later! The tipping point for me was when I came across the images I shot in West Palm Beach in the same year with the same camera. Once I saw the color and detail in those images I decided to go ahead and commit to acquiring the clean D300S I remarked about a few days ago. At less than $300 I rationalized that I'd bought more expensive filters. The camera comes with about 25k actuations, two batteries and a Nikon charger. I picked it up midday yesterday and intend to put it through its paces on a walk this afternoon (I really need the exercise?). 

Surprise Lens arrival: In somewhat related news, I went out to check the mail yesterday and found a box addressed to me from a VSL reader named, Stephen. I carefully slit the tape and opened the box to find a wonderfully well preserved Nikon Series E 36-72mm f3.5 zoom lens! There was a nice note as well. I love lenses in this range and have found all the Series E lenses to be optically great. The cherry on top of the whipped cream is the fact that the lens is par focal (doesn't shift focus as you zoom) which also makes it a great candidate for video!!! The lens hasn't been off the D300S since it showed up. It will be part of my afternoon test.

THANK YOU VERY MUCH, STEPHEN. 

So, in the last month we've picked up a D2XS, a D300S, a D700 and a D800e; as well as an assortment of lenses. I'm labeling this "Old School Digital Photography Nostalgia Month" and will be reviewing each of these cameras in depth. What can I tell you right now? If you want good, competitive shooting tools from yesteryear the top two candidates right now are the D700 (for low light) and the D800e for just about anything else (still the best low light, full frame Nikon high density camera, according to DXO --- even better than the D850!). If you are a Nikon shooter and don't already have one a 24-120mm f4.0 VR is a good, all around work lens. So far, nothing over $1,000 bucks.... 

The rationalization: I started with the premise that the lower density, bigger pixel cameras might have a different/better look to the color and general acuity characteristics for files coming out of those cameras. I started buying older cameras in order to test this out. Most are available for a song... We already had many older Nikon lenses sitting around the studio. My blog will start a run on all this older gear and I'll be able to sell it at an obscene profit (seriously, probably not....). 

We've been slow around here this month, work wise, but next month promises to be non-stop with some out of town work, some out of country work, a trip to a college graduation in NY and some parental support for some minor surgery (time for someone's pacemaker replacement-- HIPAA laws prevent naming names...). Stay tuned for more exciting camera news from previous decades.....

And don't slack on that exercise program! You know you want to look great for bikini season (smile emoticon implied). 








4.13.2018

Austin selected as the "Best City in the USA in Which to Live" for the second year in a row by U.S. News and World Reports Magazine (And website). It's the blue skies, I think.


When I first moved here to go to school at UT you could get a decent apartment for about $85 a month and the cost of living was nearly the lowest in the state. You could not get a freshly baked croissant but you could find decent biscuits just about anywhere. The town was small enough and compact enough that most students didn't see the need to own a car. In fact, it was so cheap in the early 1970's that my parents could afford to have three kids at the University at the same time; including graduate school. And with fifty cent Shiner Bock beer in bottles and $7 ticket prices at the Armadillo World Headquarters (famous music hall) it was very cost effective to take a date to see the Talking Heads open for the B-52's. Or was it the other way around? And yes! we generally walked there.

All that has changed. You can get croissants pretty much anywhere in Austin but sadly now McDonalds arguably has the best biscuits in town. You need a car if you live and work anywhere outside of downtown, and it better be a comfortable car because the same magazine article points to traffic and road congestion as one of the few big cons of living here. I'll list another big con: the price of housing has been sky rocketing for years. 

We have the mixed benefit of living in a very nice neighborhood in the middle of the school district that just got named (again, and for decades running) as the best overall school district in Texas. Usually in the top 50 school districts in the USA. Demand to get kids into one of these top flight schools is red hot which means that we're deep into "tear down" territory (buying and tearing down an existing house to build a bigger, better one on the lot). People are moving here in droves from the west coast and they don't even blink at the thought of paying a million dollars for a basic 3 bedroom, two bathroom ranch style house just to tear it down and use the lot as the foundation for their new, multi-miillion dollar dream ranch style homes. There are currently five or six houses heading that way just on our block.

We are actually starting to think of selling our house and moving somewhere else. But we'll probably be overcome with nostalgia and laziness and just hunker down and wait until we're 65 and can lock in the homestead tax exemption....

I think the biggest attractions of Austin, beside the circus we call the State Legislature, are the beautiful blue skies, the great Tex-Mex food, and the fact that you can still paddle board right through downtown... 

If you decide to move here just remember to bring a big bucket of cash. Home prices continue to rise and, sadly, so do the property taxes...


Infinite growth. Like bacteria in a Petri dish...