5.25.2018

I recently wrote that I resisted temptation at the camera store because a potential purchase didn't match my game plan. Readers were stunned to know I might have a game plan for camera and lens purchases.

Noellia helped me test medium format digital cameras a few years ago.

What!? Kirk has a "game plan" for camera purchases? We would never have guessed...

So, what is it?

Some people like consistency and routine; others don't. I have photographer colleagues who bring the same lights, the same cameras and the same lenses to the same kinds of jobs for years on end. They upgrade cameras only when there is a significant leap forward in the performance of new camera that comes from the same brand they've invested in. And for many of them it's tough to change even this one small part of their working routine. It's disruptive for them and means having to figure out where the maker moved the switch they used all the time on their previous camera from the same company. They decry having to learn slightly different adaptations to their working metholodogies in PhotoShop or Lightroom (and they absolutely hate it when things change around in the software...). 

These same photographers only replace lenses when they've succeeded in scraping every last photon's worth of value in the lens. You've probably seen these lenses sitting forlornly on used shelves looking as though someone had alternately, and repeatedly, pounded on the barrels with jagged hammers and then dragged them along through harsh mud. These users would laugh at you if you told them you were trading a lens you bought two years ago because a new one came out that was sharper in the corners and didn't focus breathe (as much). 

In the same way that they look at their gear (consistency, consistency, consistency) the also look to their work. The same softbox goes on the same stand which goes exactly this far from the subject. The camera is set at the tested parameters they decided they liked when they first used the camera.  Color, looks and style are consistent and the same. Overlaying the same structure to every kind of job. 

Yeah. I get it. It's efficient. It's cost effective. It's logical. And if I had to work this way I think I'd check out and never touch a camera again. 

Last year's game plan was to go all in on the Panasonic GH cameras. They are pretty remarkable and the available lenses (and the lenses I've bought for the system) are very, very good. As the guy behind ODL Designs often writes, there is very little you can't do with this format. I mostly agree.  

But there is something about the lure of bigger formats that drives me back each time into a full frame camera system. In the past I made the mistake of believing that one set of cameras (the holy grail) would be able to handle everything I could throw at them and I've searched high and low for that ultimate system. But, for me, I've come to a realization that it doesn't work like that. One company doesn't have the overarching magic sauce or brilliant feature mix that works for everything.

While the Panasonic GH5s are the best video cameras I can imagine (for the price) I have to say that compared to my older Nikon D810, and to the Sony A7Rii I also used for months and months, the smaller format can't compete with the lower noise of the recent full frame cameras. There is something addicting about the noise profile difference that gets me when I compare the cameras for certain uses. 

In the past I would struggle with whether or not to just sell the Panasonic cameras and go "all in" with a full frame system from Nikon, Sony or Canon. But now I'm just giving up taking responsibility entirely. I'm keeping my collection of Panasonic and Olympus m4:3 gear for all those times when I want more depth of field in a still life shot, want incredible video performance, want/need a smaller, lighter solution for day long shooting situations and fast breaking, hybrid jobs. 

But I do want a couple of full frame cameras with high megapixel counts for those times when I'm trying to deliver an "ultimate" file to a client or when I'll need to do a lot of post production and want to start with really big, 14 bit uncompressed raw files. 

I've lately been using the Nikon D800 series cameras and, over time, I'm learning the differences between what might be fun to own and what might be the most advantageous gear for the business. And where to draw the lines. 

With my kid out of college and my expenses much less "expense-y" than they have been for the last four years I am also interested in buying a quality level in the full frame system that I didn't need exactly for the business but want just for the hell of it. 

So, I'm sitting here with the Panasonic system and I'm making a stand against trading it for anything else. I'm also sitting here with three interesting Nikon cameras (D800, D800e and D700) as well as a hodgepodge of lenses; including two that recently died....

What's the plan? By the end of the year I want to winnow down cameras bodies and end up with two D850s. They seem to be on back order everywhere so I'm not in a hurry. The D800e and D800 vanilla are doing their jobs just fine. Mostly I am looking at moving up to get a much quieter shutter (even in the regular drive modes) better autofocusing and enough improvement in video to make each of them a viable "B" camera in situations where we need lots of coverage. 

The lens I use for so much fast moving work is one I'm pretty happy with. It's a 24-120mm f4.0 VR that is sharp, contrasty and wide ranging enough to be used for lots of applications. Most of the other lenses I have are less convenient or offer less performance. 

I'd like to end up with four lenses, in addition to the 24-120mm. These would include: The Sigma ART 24-35mm f2.0. I owned one three years ago when I was shooting with the D810 and I've regretted selling it ever since. If I need to go wider than 24mm I'll borrow or rent. But this lens is amazing within its limited focal length range. I currently have the Sigma ART 50mm f1.4 and it's perfect. No changes there. 

Next up would be the Sigma 85mm f1.4 ART lens for those times when I want skimpy, skimpy depth of field but want it coupled to high sharpness. I'll keep the Nikon 85mm f1.8D lens around for those times when I want more mobility....

Finally, I want to get a new copy of the Nikon 70-200mm f4.0 for all those times when I can't get closer to the stage in the theater but want to crop tightly. I found it to be a better lens than the previous generations of f2.8 Nikon zoom, as long as you don't need the extra stop (most of us don't...). 

This is not a lightweight package by any means. It's not cheap either but it represents the focal lengths and speeds I want to shoot with  coupled with a high definition camera. Most times when I work on annual reports and in industrial sites everything is in a Think Tank roller case and we're also dragging around a lot of grip and lighting gear. Seems like we'll be able to pull this off and change gears again. 

Anyway I look at it the two systems give me more options, more choices, more chances to screw up and learn more. At any rate, that's the plan (today). Always subject to change. 


5.23.2018

Ah. The leading edge of the tipping point...the rush to professional mirrorless cameras.

Zach Theatre Production Stills from "Two Guvners"

We won't have statistical assurance until the numbers start rolling in at the end of the year but I can feel the vibes everywhere these days; mirrorless professional cameras from Sony have just created the front wave of a tipping point that has professional photographers moving from their traditional Nikon and Canon gear to Sony's newest A7iii and A7Riii cameras. In droves. 

I was at my favorite bricks and mortar camera store, Precision Camera, yesterday when a thirty something photographer brought in his nearly new Nikon gear and traded in about $12,000 worth of current lenses, and thousands of dollars more in camera bodies, in order to switch to Sony A7xxx cameras and lenses. (Yes, I considered buying his Nikon stuff from the store but remembered that I have a different game plan in mind...). 

Earlier in the day I got a phone call from a photojournalist/advertising photographer I've known since college---a decades long Canon full frame shooter---who was calling to pick my brain about several menu options on his new Sony A7iii cameras. He'd just shed his collection of Canon gear completely and was "all in" on the newest Sony product. 

I was driving back to Austin from San Antonio this afternoon when one of my video/still hybrid shooter friends called to "pick my brain" about how to choose between three different Sony full frame camera models. He called back a bit later to let me know that he'd ordered the new A7iii camera body (he already shoots with an FS-7 video camera and so has a lot of Sony, and converted, lenses to play with...). 

Two days ago a photographer on the east coast called, presuming

5.21.2018

How did my "take" from the 2006 production of "Rocky Horror Picture Show" stand the test of time. Twelve years later.....


I've had an interesting re-entry into daily work life. One of my clients whom I have worked with for nearly three decades called to see if I had "the files" for a project I'd done for them in 2000. They were preparing 50 year anniversary campaign and were looking for images taken in each of the five decades during which their company had flourished. I went over to the CD and DVD archives, stuck on a Metro shelf in the corner, and looked through the material. Nothing. No sign of the work. Perplexed, I looked at my notebooks from the time to see if they held any clues. Of course they did. Making notes is the secret to long term understanding...

2000 was a transitional year in my business. It's the year that 35mm film started to jump the shark and morph into digital. Somewhere in that year I abandoned 35mm slides and color negative film almost entirely and started depending on digital cameras as a replacement. There were still a few years left in which I worked with medium format film for the more intricate and very high image quality assignments but, as digital cameras continued to improve, these too fell by the wayside and were replaced with ever advancing digital images.

I found an entry in the notebook about the job in question. We'd done the pre-production marketing images (the highest value stuff) with medium format film and a little assortment of Hasselblad cameras and lenses and then had done the higher volume, less exacting work with a 35mm SLR film camera and Nikon zoom lenses. By mutual agreement the client had held onto the film as it was proprietary and they had bought exclusive usage rights, paying in 1990s prices. 

I talked through this turn of history with the client and they went through the process of contacting a procession of previous marketing directors until one of them led the current custodians of corporate branding (over the phone) to a small closet in the basement of headquarters, where the images languished in black notebooks, in banker's boxes, on a series of shelves. The original requestor had scanned the images he needed at the time and filed the "take" very professionally and with every intention of revisiting the work. But that was two careers ago. 

I wondered how the old work would stand up in today's market. Would the old 35mm slides and plastic pages of big square transparencies seem hopelessly outclassed

A self portrait. Narcissistic or exploration?


There's something about mirrors that calls to me like a moth to a flame. When I walk by a mirror or a highly reflective window, and I just happen to have a camera over my shoulder, I feel a compulsion to pull the camera off and document what I look like. I think it's mostly curiosity; to understand how I look to everyone else, who live outside my brain and ego. 

I was in the Tang Museum at Skidmore College last week and I kept finding mirrored surfaces. I had a camera with me that does wickedly well with image stabilization and I tried every permutation I could. Now I know what I look like when I'm in a museum on a cold, rainy day and I've found a way to understand what my exterior presentation is all about. Does the Columbia rain jacket make me look fat? (implied smiley face emoji). I think we should all post some self-portraits. (And we should call them "self-portraits" unless we shoot them with a cellphone.....then we can call them "selfies").



I'm back. We're back. It feels strange to be back at work after a big weekend celebration. But there it is......




Heading into the Special Events Center for commencement. 

I've been out of pocket for the last five days but it was for something important. At least it was very important to me and my wife, Belinda. We headed up to Saratoga Springs, NY to watch the kid graduate from Skidmore College. He looked dashing in his Converse All Star High Tops, dangling his honors cords (both Magna Cum Laude and English Honors...) from his black robe. 

I took it easy, at least from a photographic perspective. I brought along one camera and one and a half lenses. I decided to take the GH5 because I continue to be impressed by just about anything that comes from the Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 Pro lens. It's a big lens but it's damn sharp and it just floats in place with its I.S. The half lens refers to the Panasonic 42.5mm f1.7 lens which is so tiny that it only counts, in my estimation, as a half lens. But it's as sharp and well behaved as any lens I own and its combo image stabilization (body+lens) means that the camera+lens combo is probably steadier than putting a non-stablized rig on any number of cheap and spindly tripods. Toss in a couple of batteries and a coupe of memory cards and you've got a powerful kit for traveling through the weekend. 

We worked until midday on Thurs., checked in to the airport and whipped through the TSA Pre Check line. Our flights brought us into the Albany airport a bit after midnight and we spent the night at an adjacent Hilton property, picking up our rental vehicle the next morning. After a good breakfast and nearly enough coffee we got into a Chevy Equinox and made the 25 minute drive to the northeast. 

First order of real business was to meet Ben, and my friend Fred, at a favorite sushi restaurant in the small, downtown area. Fred is a VSL reader, musician, photographer, instrument maker, bon vivant, and swimmer who lives in Saratoga Springs. He introduced himself to me when he put two and two together and realized that my kid intended to be in his town for a while. It's been great having someone you know on the ground.....just in case. He's saved me tons of analyst's bills by cutting down dramatically on my separation anxiety from the kid. Fred is funny and bright and we're planning a secret foray to Michael Johnston's place sometime this Summer. 

We might be mature, call in advance, have a genteel lunch with Michael, chat about heurmeneutics related to the worship of all things photographic or we may go to our default and just show up to toilet paper his house. You never know.... But Fred would be a great accomplice either way...

After lunch and a break to check into our AirBNB (first time for us and first rental for the AirBNB homeowner!) we headed to the college for a "Brick" ceremony. One of the things the college does to raise money for scholarships and grants to less affluent students is to raise money by having your kid's name inscribed on a brick which is then laid out into an ever growing sidewalk or plaza area. Kind of a permanent reminder of each alumni's time at the school. From 485 participating families the school as able to raise $1,300,000 this year. A pretty amazing total for the 2018 Parent's Fund Donation. 

Having surpassed their goal by several hundred thousand dollars the Parent's Fund committee went ahead and had a brick made for each graduate. It was a warm gesture of inclusion and appreciated by everyone involved. The brick ceremony was short and sweet and followed by a reception for students and parents at the college president's house. I brought my camera along but didn't find anything compelling so I let it swing on the strap, kept my Champagne glass in my left hand and left my right hand for greeting a shaking. 

We knew all the restaurants would be packed full on Friday night because a number of students come from families that live "in state." We rightly assumed that many would come in to town for the evening, do a big dinner celebration, hit the commencement activities the next day and then scoot out of town in the mid-afternoon on Saturday. We decided to do our fanciest dinner on Saturday night and it turns out our plan was flawless. That left us to D.I.Y. on Friday evening.

Since our AirBNB was spacious and well appointed we headed to a little specialty food shop called, Putnam's Market, and bought wonderful sandwiches; some with roasted vegetables, goat cheeses, and fresh tomatoes, others with various Italian meats and dressings. We tossed in a chocolate torte and a bottle of Champagne and had a wonderful, casual dinner at the house. We talked for hours.

The next day the college prepared breakfast for anyone who cared to come by and eat before the commencement event. The quality of the breakfast was a good summation of why my food oriented child chose this as his school over plenty of academically equally good schools. Skidmore is consistently rated as having some of the finest food in the country in their sprawling and beautifully design dining hall.

Coming from Texas, where the temperatures had been in the upper 90's last week, the commencement was an interesting change. It was cool and rainy, and the rain picked up just as the event started. The speeches and ceremonies were held at an outdoor amphitheater which is covered. We were safe from the rain but we Texans were happy that we had been warned to bring warm clothes! It was in the high 40's to lower 50's all morning long. OMG, it's the end of May!!!

Belinda and I shot photos of the commencement; me with the Panasonic and Olympus blend, Belinda with her ancient iPhone, and we hugged each other in mutual congratulations for getting the kid at least this far and this well. Then we gathered the kid and headed back to the campus for yet another reception and a wonderful lunch back at the dining hall. 

We dropped Ben off at his apartment to continue packing and we headed back to nap and listen to the water play on the roof of our temporary home. We picked Ben up at 7:00 pm Saturday evening and headed to our favorite restaurant in the area, Max London's. We had a wonderful meal and, in a first for Ben, he was able to order a glass or wine without being carded (asked for I.D.). He took it as a sign that he had truly graduated. 

We all flew back together on Sunday and Southwest Airlines worked like a Swiss watch. The capper to the weekend was the incredibly joyous reception between Ben and Studio Dog. She just couldn't believe her eyes and her nose. The (un)prodigal child had finally returned. 

I looked through my images today in Lightroom and nothing rises above rote documentation and family memorabilia but I share a few here just because a fair number of readers have watched me and Belinda raise Ben over the years and I wanted to put a chapter marker on this phase of our lives. 

That, and to write that it's possible to work in the arts and still have the normal middle class expectations we grew up with pan out. Not everyone needs to be an accountant, a doctor or a lawyer in order to get through life. (Not that accounting is in any way a bad thing....). Artists tend to hear an unceasing drumbeat from family, acquaintances and media that tells them they will be poor, live poor and die poor but it doesn't have to be that way. We just need to do a better job teaching our artists about handling money. 

The camera choice was, in this case, totally immaterial to the event. I could have done just as much with my phone and few gimmick add-on telephotos. In one regard though the weekend was very re-freshing. I could not wait to get back home and get back to work on my own stuff. Sometimes even a short break is enough to prime one's creative engines. 

The hardworking, ever present content creation professionals do their thing.

Ben gets his degree from the president of the college.

We all file out into the rain and temperatures in the upper 40's. 
A day very unlike the day prior in Austin, Texas, when it was 97 degrees..

The Parent's Fund raises money to provide scholarships to economically
disadvantaged students to ensure diversity among the student body.
Some of the funding comes from donations given to get a "named" brick for your student.

485 families donated to the fund via the "Brick" fundraiser.
They were able to raise 1.3 million dollars....

Ben's Brick has been placed.

5.17.2018

I love it when the media picks up one of our public relations photos for the Theatre and does a beautiful job showcasing it.

https://www.blacktexasmag.com/home-1/2018/5/14/zach-theatre-announces-cast-for-sunday-in-the-park-with-george

This shot is one of the promotional images we did two weeks ago for Zach Theatre's upcoming production of Sundays in the Park with George. 

I used Aputure LightStorm LEDs to light everything because we also had a video crew shooting some behind the scenes stuff and low powered modeling light alone would have made the video crews' job a nightmare.

If you are in Austin this production promises to be really stellar. We'll be shooting the dress rehearsal and tech rehearsal the week after next.

Fun to see work published all over the place... still.

5.16.2018

An Image I made back in 2009 with a Leaf A7i medium format digital camera. It's time to make a print....

This is Ben ten years ago. 
Leaf sent me an Aptus A7i, 40 Megapixel camera
to test and I started photographing everyone in sight.

Like all other nerds I can't keep from comparing things. In my world some of the most fun and easiest things to compare are the files from various cameras. When I acquired a Nikon D800e and a D800(vanilla) I first shot a bunch of test frames and then I sat down in front of the computer and started to compare the files from the medium format cameras I've shot over the years, wondering how they would stand up to the Nikons. I'm not sure I can see a real difference and I'm not sure that, if I saw a difference, it would be anything more than a visual placebo. Then, of course, I would have to figure out how much difference lenses make in the overall appraisal of image quality in a given set of photos. 

At their lowest ISO settings I think I prefer the older, medium format files but it's a difference that's so minute that even a slight discrepancy in focusing would be enough to massively skew the results. And therein lies the whole problem with hobbyists and professionals who embark on trying to test and judge the differences between cameras. Tony Northrup once did a video in which he talked about this subject and noted that even the give of a wooden floor beneath a solid tripod might me enough to grossly affect the results of any rigorous test. A slight focus shift. Differences in temperatures between tests. And I think it's a fool's errand to do any sort of test of cameras if you must use different lenses for each format or each model. 

Having "tested" and written about three different medium format cameras in the past, and having compared those files with newer files from the D800, D800e and my old D810 convinces me that using any of those cameras without the assistance of tripod, or at least the image freezing aid of a short duration electronic flash, lowers the effective resolution by enough of a percentage that these 36 and 40 megapixel cameras are then reduced to competing with their 24 megapixels competitors when it comes to how the photographs look in various media and how resolution is experienced.

As to lenses I think the only directly comparable testing situation is one where a tester only compares results from two cameras that share the same lens mount. In that way the same lens can be used during each test. If each camera is focus at high magnification, in live view, with all other parameters being tightly controlled then we can tell something about the differences between two models or different generations. 

When it comes to lenses I think the scores and DXOMark are more interesting than the scores they apply to cameras. I was comparing several 50mm lenses on their site with all lenses tested on a D800e. Their lens tests show the actual lens resolution on the sensor, in terms of megapixels, versus what one would expect from the full resolution of the sensor. Using the Nikon D800e as a test base I compared the Nikon 58mm f1.4G lens with the Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art lens. The Nikon lens allows a user to take advantage of only 25 megapixels of actual resolution. The Sigma lens scrapes out 35 of the 36 possible megapixels of resolution that the camera can deliver. 

Now, more than every, it seems that cherry-picking your lenses can make a drastic difference leveraging the image quality and performance you pay for in today's state of the art cameras. And, you can imagine, that if a testing site uses a perfect lens on one brand's camera and a similar but less perfect lens on a competitor's brand, that the stated results in the review would be much, much different. But how much at fault is the sensor and how much degradation is the lens really responsible for?

I remember one site that used the Sigma 70mm f2.8 Macro lens for every camera test. They invested in hand-picked and tested units of the same lens in order to eliminate as many variables as they could. To not test this way is tantamount to just throwing your hands up and declaring, "It's all subjective!"

I wonder if the folks at the bigger test sites think about things like this or whether they interpret the results they get from a myriad of different lenses through the lens of their own preferences. 

But here are my thoughts about the differences between the MF and the Vintage Nikon 36 megapixel full frame bodies: In stringent test I'd probably select the images from the MF cameras as slightly superior, but this would only apply at base ISOs and at optimum apertures, and each test would need to be rigorously vetted and repeated a number of times in order to null out frame by frame anomalies. I do remember that the image of Ben (above) was shot with a $7,500 Schneider 180mm APO lens. I can only assume that was a big "assist" to the file quality. My 85mm Nikons aren't quite in that class but the images I've taken lately with the Sigma Art lens (50mm) seem to rival the pricier glass. 

After looking at a bunch of work, printed and otherwise, I'm going to say I'd be happy with any of the full frame, 24 megapixel cameras. In the sizes most of us actually work in the differences between the 24 and 36 (or even 40) megapixel files will only show up in the most critical and disciplined sort of work. 

A bit of news. I'm leaving tomorrow afternoon for New York to watch my kiddo graduate from college. He texted me this afternoon to let me know how the semester turned out and I'm very happy to say that he is on the Dean's List for the seventh consecutive semester and will be graduating on Saturday Magna Cum Laude. 

We'll have a busy schedule as there are dinners scheduled, as well as many receptions and ..... the ritual clean out and packing up of his apartment. This means I may post fewer blogs than usual and be even slower on moderating comments (which I love to get...). 

Following on this happy news.... I have made my last payment to the college and we are all celebrating Ben earning his degree without anyone taking on debt. I feel like I just got a huge raise!!!
(Let the unfettered camera buying begin!!!).

Studio Dog, the VSL security team, and the house sitter will remain in Austin to prepare for the boy's auspicious return. Some one has to dig the BBQ pit. Right?



5.14.2018

All of a sudden we're getting tons of spam comments. I'm spending too much time moderating them.


 One of the glorious benefits of writing a blog for anyone who cares to read it is that sometimes your open access leads to being slimed and spammed by gutless anonymous web wankers. I'm getting so tired of it that I'm considering drastic measures. Maybe drinking a lot more red wine so that I can't even bother to care about the recent groundswell of trash, I'll be too busy thrashing out medical problems.  Or perhaps the best approach is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to hunt down the physical location of the spammers and then drop in with Mitch Rapp, Court Gentry and Dominic Caruso (all of their "heads on a swivel" ---swear to God, I've read that line in every action novel out there) and laying waste to their homes and offices with heavy weapons and even heavier action text and dialog. (reference to action heroes from three different novel/thriller franchises).

But mostly I think I'll just use this space to ask the spammer nicely, "Please Stop." Go and spam someone else. Maybe Tony Northrup or Jared Polin. They probably have staff that have time to read your stuff...

If it continues (and seriously, I'm getting from dozens to massive dozens per day) I'll just shut down the comments for a while and you sweet and loyal VSL readers can call me on my land line and give me your comments and thoughts directly.

I  hope it doesn't come to that. Not that I don't want to hear from you but I'd be chained to my desk. And I'd have to presume the spammers will start calling too..... grrrrr.

Have any of you ever, ever had your e-mail spammed (big cynical smiley face implied)?