Thoughts about conventional wisdom, cheap Chinese mono-lights and actual use and reliability.

 I've had a fair number of assignments that call for me to light stuff up to a degree that's a bit difficult for smaller, shoe-mount flashes. And I've had a fair number of assignments calling for good light that are on locations where running meters and meters of extension cords is neither safe nor practical. What I needed in nearly every situation was a light that could fire hundreds of times at half or full power with its own battery power, and one which could kick out enough light to be used 7 to 10 feet from a subject, through a softbox or umbrella, and still give me a solid f8.5 or f11 at ISO 200.

I took a chance last Fall and bought one of the lights you see above. I'm sure it's make with a different design skin under a number of different brand names but this one is Neewer Vision 4. It's a 300 watt second unit with a nice lithium battery, a simple wireless remote, a Bowens accessory mount on the front end and the promise of "Designed in Germany."

When I bought the first one I did so with much trepidation for about $279. Over the course of the quarter the price eventually fell to $219 and I bought two more. I've used them extensively indoors and it's nice not to have cables strewn about. But their real strength is in outdoor work.

I was photographing on a golf course yesterday and I had one of these lights on top of a good light stand, secured by a 30 pound sandbag. I'd created a little exterior working area where I could photograph golf professional, Zach Taylor, doing a grip-n-grin with about 50 people. The flash had an inexpensive 47 inch Phottix umbrella softbox on it as a modifier. I triggered the flash with the included and very simple flash trigger connected to the hot shoe of the (currently on probation) Nikon D700.

The flash worked well and the shoot was relaxed. The only iffy part to the day was the constantly changing wind. Sometimes it was wicked and gusty while other times it was mellow and constant.

The flash did exactly what it was supposed to do over and over again. The unit I was using is the first one I got and now has logged well over 10,000 pops. The idea of this kind of flash at this price was unthinkable just five or six years ago. We can talk about the extra finesse or precision of Swedish or Swiss brands but after having used most brands of electronic flash on the market I'm amazed at what a bargain these lights are and how consistently they've performed.

As I mentioned when I discussed these light previously the only thing I'm not thrilled about is the 30 second duration of the built-in LED modeling light. I wish there was a way to change the duration or to leave it on all the time. I know it would drain the batteries quicker but the convenience of an "always on" modeling light would outweigh the slightly shorter use cycle between charges. Plus, if I am only using one unit on a shoot I've got two others units from which to borrow batteries. With three batteries I should be able to shoot something like 1500 full power flashes a day. I can't think I'd need more than that....

Nice to be able to position my light right next to the golf course and fire away with abandon.

Just checked, the current price is $179.99 on Amazon. About what I would pay for a generic hot shoe flash.....

OT: A quiet celebration last week...

When Ben was young he thought I spent too much time in my office and 
not enough time hanging out with him so I set up a second desk in the office, complete with 
a "blueberry" laptop so he could work on his projects in the same space.
He was a good office mate; his computer rarely crashed and he didn't
drink all the coffee without having the courtesy to brew fresh.

Saving up for college was a long process. We started it shortly after Ben was born. We were pretty optimistic about our ability to save until it became apparent, far into the process, that he had his mind set on going to school out of state. The next escalation was his discovery of a private college that felt just right to him. 

With the help of our 529 account, my ongoing (and variable) cash flow and my partner's great management skills we were able to underwrite all four years. We celebrated last week as we wrote the very last check to his school. 

When we were childless, oh so many years ago, a celebration would have included a pricey bottle of Champagne and an evening at one of our favorite (and extravagant) restaurants. After shipping off so much money over the last four years our actual celebration consisted of sharing a $10 bottle of Prosecco and two chocolate lava cakes from the freezer at the local Trader Joe's. It seems that paying for a good education is, by extension, a good education for at least one former spendthrift parent. 

It's probably the same continuing education that led me home for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch today. As a bonus I had the opportunity to play with Studio Dog for a while before heading back to work.

We held back just enough cash to head up to New York for the commencement ceremony in May. It should be delightful.

My biggest current fear? The lure of graduate school.... 

My spouse still counsels me that the investment in Ben's education was money better spent than me investing in fast cars or medium format digital cameras. Who am I to argue?


It's Monday Morning and Photography is Simmering Nicely. Here are a few thoughts about the biz/art.


I've been so side-tracked by non-photo stuff lately that when I finally had the opportunity to do some fun, personal  work I felt a bit paralyzed and this led me to meditate a bit about the nature of sustaining my motivation to do my own, personal work. Cash flow is obviously a powerful motivator for doing the commercial work but after 40 years or so of shooting personal work it's interesting to understand the ways to keep a current or pulse of inspiration going during times of sloth or times of stress, or just during normal life. Mostly it's about honoring the work you feel most compelled to do for yourself.

I've always had the good fortune to make my own schedule and to lard in plenty of free time in which to play with my photography. Lately though life changed a bit, tossed in a quite a few curve balls and caused me to need to pay rigorous attention to things outside my areas of expertise (if they exist). I've learned a bunch more about banking, investing, elder care issues, probate law, and finance in general. 
I've spent a lot of time arranging care and participating in care for family members. But when one part of life gets detailed and takes more time something has to give. For me, in the last three months it's been my own, selfish, personal photography work. Perhaps that explains my buying outburst of ancient Nikon products.... A projection of the desire to grab back my previous freeform engagement with the craft...

Now that I've engineered a quantum more free time I still feel hobbled because as the little gems of my free time get more precious the artificial and self-imposed demand to become more picky with the resources I have left sets up some sort of false paradigm that pushes me to take everything more seriously. Or too seriously. What is photography, as a passion, if it's not laced with fun? Schedule be damned!

After much thought it was clear that my interest in photography is almost solely related to making images of people. At one point, reviewing my older work, it seemed that I was really most interested in studio portrait; encounters in which I had the main share of control --- at least technically --- but on reflection it's always just been about having the intimate interchange with the person on the other side of the camera, however fleeting and coming away with prints and other constructions with which to share the emotion and theatre of the interchange with an audience.

Brooks Jensen at Lenswork Magazine conjectured in one of his essays that the work his magazine sees fit to publish comes from people who have a depth of work in the genre they have come to focus upon with a sense of purpose. In his research he finds that the most interesting work has either come from people who have put in the time to evolve and then perfect a vision, with years of work and development,  or from the people who dive deeply and with almost single-minded application to their work; especially if they are pursuing a contiguous project. The people who do not get published are the people who sample every kind of image making, making glancing approaches to different styles and subject matter but without the requisite endurance of a singular vision. Aimed at a single kind of subject.

Resistance to doing your important artistic work is strong, according to writer, Stephen Pressfield. When I am really stuck and have photographer's block then, ironically, I waste a bit of time (not really a waste) re-reading Pressfield's, The War of Art, and my renewed understanding of my own resistance to doing my work abates for a while and I actually get good things done. 

My work is really about making images of people I find interesting, captivating, beautiful, strange and wonderful. The reality of life is that these subjects aren't available on short notice, they aren't sitting in a small room somewhere just waiting for my phone call. Since my schedule is variable and, to a certain extent connected to the whims of my clients and other chance responsibilities, it's not always possible to have a delightful person in front of me when I have a fleeting amount of open time available. My dodge over the years has been to grab a camera and go walking. I'm always hoping, on some level, that I'll meet someone during the course of my walk who needs to be photographed by me and somehow understands the value of the chance meeting and who emphatically wants to pose for me if for no other reason than to have moments of spontaneous exercise of their own subtle performance art. It's a pipe dream that rarely has fulfillment. 

But I walk and I shoot for the sake of shooting and then return home like a net fisherman examining the contents of my erratically flung net to see if anything interesting wandered into the catch while my brain wasn't paying attention. And it's gone on this way for years. 

This morning, over pancakes and scrambled eggs and sausage and hot coffee I realized that the majority sum of my "street photography" was a ruse to assuage my own psychic complicity with resistance to getting more organized, identifying the people I want to photograph and to move those studio or environmental portrait encounters to fruition. In a sense, for me, I'm beginning to see modern, random street photography as a place holder or addictive substitute for the photography I consider "real." The photography I should be doing.

Street shooting days have become peppered with ennui. It's like watching a video of Kai reviewing a camera on YouTube and of him taking random shots in the streets of normal people in interesting cities in order to show off some feature or performance aspect of some camera; the work is numbingly the same but, surrounded by his spoken (and sometimes humorous) manifestos you can almost see something interesting in it. But in the end it's just entertainment for his audience and a placeholder of the real photography he would no doubt love to be doing instead. 

The more I dabble across genres the less I get done. 

Leaving the house without a plan and a project is like shooting off an unguided missile in an unknown direction. it will get messy. It probably won't be productive. 

One of the things I hate about thoughtful writers like Brooks Jensen is that if I read carefully I almost always see where it is that my resolve has fallen apart. His words sometimes lay bare the shortcomings of my discipline. I generally always resolve to do something but sadly it's not always the thing I wish I were doing or need to be doing. 

I guess that's the nature of this whole undertaking. 

Bottom line today? If you are moving between making images of cats, then flowers, then buildings, then street scenes and then baby pictures and then food and then back to cats you might not really be doing photography, you may just be systematically testing your camera and lenses along with the state of your skill set. You could do that until you die but you might be better off thinking about what it is you are really interested in and finding a way to pursue that. 

I've got some mental organizing to do. I'll get on it just as soon as I finish my paying job at the golf course this afternoon. I hope the wind dies down, I'd like to use a softbox for some of the outside portraits....

It's Monday. This is probably the extent of my "deep" thoughts for the week. 


Old School Street Photography at SXSW and the Surrounding Area. No modern amenities exploited.

I thought I was going to go out and shoot today with my newest acquisition, the Nikon D700, but when the time came to exit the palatial Visual Science Lab headquarters I waffled a bit. I just didn't think I'd spent enough time yet getting to know my previous breathless acquisition, the Nikon D2XS. I figured I didn't really need or want to be discreet and low key in the middle of SXSW because there would be hundreds of people with cameras wandering around shooting with reckless abandon.

I checked the battery in the D2XS, put on an ancient Nikon 35-70mm f3.5, entered the information for this non-CPU lens and headed out. I spent the better part of the afternoon with the camera set to raw, aperture priority and ISO 100. With my new nano-coated, ultra acutance bifocal sunglasses focusing the hoary old manual focus lens was as easy as eating angel food cake. I did no intervention with the camera's exposure settings. If it wanted to use 1/650th I was just there for the ride. 

I am very happy with the results. No


I had a fun day flashing back to 2008 in my favorite camera store today. Bought another Nikon classic for a fraction of the price I paid for the same model a decade ago....

Nikon D700. Old School. No Drool. 

As I mentioned in a post this morning I've gotten into some sort of thought-loop about older cameras from the glory days of digital. More specifically I've become convinced that the move to higher resolution with ever smaller pixels versus lower resolution with big fat pixels is not an improvement but a compromise or trade off. 

Before you rush to vilify me for what might seem to you to be an obvious blind spot in this whole thought process please be aware that while I did own this camera once before (the year after it hit the market I bought one new) I have also owned and worked with both the Sony A7Rii and the Nikon D810 so I am not a complete stranger to either side of the pixel size discussion.

I found this D700 lounging in the used case over at Precision-Camera.com. I bought it along with two extra batteries. I always buy extra batteries. I've got a 50mm f1.8 on the front and I'll start reacquainting myself with it tomorrow after swim practice. Should be an interesting diversion...

I had forgotten how big, heavy and loud these cameras are. But I guess there are compromises everywhere.

Curious to find if you, gentle reader, have a similar eccentric favorite. Let me know.

What is it about the huge pixel size cameras that makes me want them? Instead of the high resolution/tiny pixel cameras I've owned?

Shot with a Nikon D2Hs many years ago.

I've been digging through my archive of digital files lately and appreciating the search options available in programs like Adobe's Lightroom. Over the past few days I've been researching the work I did in the past with big pixel cameras. Cameras like the Nikon D700, the Kodak DCS 760, the Kodak DCS SRL/n and the Nikon D2Hs. All of these have pixel sizes that are at least twice as large as the high resolution cameras we are served up today. 8 microns across instead of 4 or 3.8 or 2.5. It's obvious that the higher res cameras can resolve a lot more detail and can be blown up to larger sizes in a way that's more convincing (for highly detailed subject matter) but are there image qualities that the bigger pixels give that smaller geometry pixels have taken away? 

Once I started looking I started seeing that in portrait work in particular the smaller file, bigger sensor-ed cameras of yesteryear had a look that I really, really loved. It's hard to put into words exactly but it's a feel of there being a natural and defined edge between tones. Not a hard edge that comes from over-sharpening but a natural looking edge that more closely resembles the look of the acutance in film files. A look that may just appeal to people who cut their teeth on the older film technology.

At any rate I'm sourcing some of the cameras that I abruptly discarded in the mindless pursuit of endless consumerism to see if they still hold sway in the way I see them reflected in the work I'm looking at. With well over half a million images in my libraries there is a lot of material with which to do direct comparisons. I'm not saying one technology is clearly superior over the other but there may be visual differences that trigger different responses from viewers across the spectrum.

I'm jumping down another rabbit hole so I guess we'll see. Beats talking about cars again...

A morning of info-purging and space management. Mostly the space in my brain.

From Esther's Follies in Austin, Texas

Jobs these days seem more focused and people-oriented around my studio these days but it wasn't always so. In the early part of the century my business was that of a photographic generalist, I would make headshots one day, images of semiconductor image dies the next day and maybe circuit boards or finished high tech products the following day. There was more of a flow then to the work instead of the stop and start of the bigger but fewer projects we handle now. 

Those were the days when all of our archiving was done on CD-roms. Tons and tons of CD-roms. The CDs eventually gave way to DVDs as the camera files grew larger and DVD technologies and reliability improved. In a given week, while working with CDs, I or my assistant might burn up to 30 or more disks in order to do a 3X redundant back-up of a project. More if we were returning from a multi-day annual report shoot carrying envelopes packed with CF memory cards.

It was time consuming but having come from film we understood that digital file storage at the time was much more fragile and transient and we had yet to really experience the ever accelerating rise and quick fall of stat-up businesses. Most of our clients were venerable "blue chips" and we had every expectation that they'd be around for the long haul and might expect us to be able to access photograph from a decade or so past. 

At some point we woke up and realized that even clients like IBM and Motorola were not immune to the ravages of the markets. One of my biggest clients, Motorola, started bleeding resources like something had opened one of their arteries and in a short time span they spun off their body parts (different product sectors) like crazy. Our big piƱata was the semiconductor sector and it was sold off as Freescale which was then taken private, then relaunched as a new public company and then bought by NXP who may or may not end up selling the very diminished and debt laden remainders to Qualcomm. Each successive owner downsized the company and cut expenses. We've gone from working for them once or twice a week to once or twice a year. 

So, when I looked through my archives I found over 100 pounds of CDs and DVDs with old photos of microprocessor products long since obsoleted from the market, headshots against boring backgrounds of people long retired and even CDs of candid photos from holiday parties. The 100 pound archive/anchor is just images created before 2005. All of these went into the trash this morning and the process has just started but man oh man does it ever feel good to rid my brain of the task of keeping a running, sub-conscious inventory of all that stuff. The sense of closure for the previous decade is euphoric. 

We did a similar "cleansing" last year with old 35mm negatives. Mostly headshots against early century backgrounds like our "Dell Blue" headshots and our "Motorola Gray" headshots. Images that were uninspired at their time of creation and even more so today.

So, we're down to two cameras we work with and a jumble of drives. I no longer look at this profession as one in which we save images beyond three years. I'm thinking more like a consultant whose work has value in the moment or a carpenter who builds a project and then walks away. Keeping "forever" archives is like a permanent babysitting job with no pay off. 

We've amended our paperwork to limit the time we save and keep client files to three years. Don't like that? Don't work with me. Or learn how to save the files we send you. 

Unless all your work is done at the highest level you'll surely generate a fair amount of crap along the way. Nothing says you are required to keep the stuff that's starting to smell.


Start at the Blanton Museum for the Ellesworth Kelly then head down Second to the Convention Center and back on Sixth. Camera in hand. Intelligent Auto engaged.

The main gallery at the Blanton Museum. 

With all the hoopla the Blanton is putting on about Ellsworth Kelly you would have thought he was a famous photographer, but no, just a painter and stained glass window designer... But I figured I'd go and check out the new show anyway. (kidding. just kidding). Right on the UT campus is a new permanent installation of a Kelly "chapel" with remarkably cool, stained glass windows. About one hundred yards away, tucked into the main gallery on the first floor of the museum proper is an robust show of Kelly's two dimensional work and a smaller collection of his 3-D "Totems." The work is good and the installation is fun. If you like to take photographs