4.24.2018

I was out shooting this morning with an old camera and an even older lens. I think they are pretty nice...


I spent most of yesterday cooped up in my office responding to requests for stuff. I didn't want to get trapped today so I made coffee, read the brief news and then headed downtown for a brisk was and to spend time playing with a camera I was about to replace. The camera was the Nikon D2XS, outfitted with an ancient (almost primordial) 55mm f3.5 ais, manual focusing macro lens from the 1970's. I shot it mostly with a circular polarizing filter on the front of the lens and with the ISO locked to 100. I stayed with apertures between f4.0 and f5.6 for most of the walk.

I went straight from the walk to the noon swim practice and felt really mellow as I finally sat down to get to work around 1:30 in the afternoon. 

I like the D2XS a lot but I returned if for a refund this afternoon. My sales person from the camera shop let me know that they had taken in a very nice condition Nikon D800, with very few shutter actuations and looking mostly pristine. He felt like it would be a better camera for me in a work/play dynamic. I was able to get a full refund for a couple of my recently purchased old cameras (NO! Not the D700 !!!!!) and he offered me a price of less than $1k for the D800. I could not resist. 

Now I have a working set of a Nikon D800 and a D800e, along with the D700, for those times when I want the effect of a full frame sensor combined with a fast, short telephoto portrait lens. It's also a great trio for high ISO work; if that ever becomes necessary. 

So, we're back to two systems; the Panasonic for all things video and a fairly complete Nikon full frame system for those times when clients need to go really big or need depth of field that's really shallow. That's two m4:3 cameras and three FF cameras. I'm even good for lenses across both systems right now. 

The rest of the images here are just a poem to the D2XS when used right in the center of its "wheelhouse." 












4.23.2018

During your tenure as a photographer is there one camera which you regret having sold? Why did you sell it and, just as important, why did you regret it?

I sold off a Nikon D810 and ended up with a Sony A7Rii. I wish I could have had a "do over."

The Nikon had better files. The Sony had a finder I liked better. But in the end it was really the better files I craved.

Your experience?

Interior Mexican Cuisine and one of the owners of El Naranja Restaurant in Austin, Texas.


I like photographing food so when one of my advertising agency clients asked me to make some images of the food at El Naranjo I jumped at the chance. Mexican cuisine at its best is so much more than crispy tacos and the like. There's an emphasis on fresh ingredients and unique blends of flavors. Fresh vegetables, spices and herbs seem to make for the most interesting food photographs.

Most of my work was done by leveraging the very nice available light coming through the windows on all sides of what used to be an old house on Rainey Street. I set up a shooting table on which to shoot a number of prepared plates and used a 40 inch portable, circular reflector to bounce light into the areas of the photos that might need a boost in the shadow areas. I also used a 40 inch round diffuser to temper the sunlight that started to come in more directly as the day wore on. 

On that particular day I was working with a Sony SLT a77 camera. It was an interesting camera with a permanent, pellicle mirror instead of a moving mirror and it created very nice 24 megapixel files from its APS-C sized sensor, if you stuck to ISOs under 800. Actually, 400 and under was the better choice...

I used Sony's ultra-cheap and plasticky 30mm macro lens as well as the much more solid (and expensive) 16-50mm f2.8 zoom lens.  Most of the shots were done on a tripod but the portrait and the shot just below were handheld.

It's funny, as I go through the shots I've taken since 2008 there are few distinctive signatures or tell tale signs that would identify any particular camera. It's almost as if they had become interchangeable. With the nearly constant use (in controlled situations) of custom white balances there isn't even a different color inflection that gives away one camera model from another.

There is something I miss about most of the cameras I've used over the years. Some got replaced for good reasons (battery life, noisy shutters, etc.) but most of the replacements were just bad judgement on my part. I could easily have skipped whole replacement cycles and kept the cameras that worked for years longer with no diminution of quality in the work. 

Here are the cameras I've sold and later (much) regretted having sold: The Canon 5Dmk2. The Nikon D810. The Nikon D750. The Olympus EM-5ii. None of the Sony's or Panasonics that I've sold have generated much regret but the cameras I've just listed poke at me repeatedly as I look through my older and more recent files. It could be that times were different and I was somehow more engaged in the process of work but it could also be that each of those products were mature and reliable working tools whose image quality ventured far beyond the narrow strictures of sufficiency. 

It's interesting to think about because I'm of the opinion today that it was my boredom with assigned work in general that led me to churn most gear. Why? Because it was more fun to shop and learn that to deal rationally with the work in front of me. Clearly a very first world problem....





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.