4.25.2017

Revisitng an older camera with a brand new lens. Just right.


....and, at the opposite end of the Sony a9 "Halo" spectrum sits the often overlooked A7ii...

I've lately been a bit unconvinced that the Sony a9 is the greatest thing to hit the camera world since through the lens metering. I'm also starting to think that my disregard for that camera grows in proportion to the sheer number of "news" outlets, blogs and review sites participating in the "gush-fest." The all out barrage of reviews and articles, concentrated into a short period of time seems almost disingenuous. Almost like Sony is trying too hard with their new model. The rush to review it also smells slightly of desperation as well. As if reviewers are so hungry to have a product to tout, and link to, that they've become little more than force multipliers for Sony.

While I am fairly sure that the a9 will be a nice camera and people will enjoy using it I am also fairly certain that it won't make people who buy it better photographers and it won't make their photographs any more interesting. Interesting photography generally only happen when one points a camera at something genuinely interesting. I am certain that the a9 will be an effective tool in aiding Sony's quest to pull more cash from people's credit card accounts. None of this has anything to do with what "pros" need or want. And none of this has to do with how much money it may (or may not) cost to switch systems.

So, this morning when the articles veered into an incomprehensible argument about the financial efficacy of switching entire systems I gave up reading everything and went looking for a camera that met my criteria; a comfortable and friendly camera to carry around. A daily user. A bargain. One that I already owned...

While I am still in awe at the amazingly detailed files achievable from the A7Rii and endlessly impressed with the 4K  video performance of the RX10iii (and its remarkable lens) the most comfortable and usable camera in my small collection is my particular copy of the plain vanilla A7ii. It's a camera I bought used for around $1,000. There was some scuffery on the rear LCD panels which made it much less than minty but since I only use the LCD for menu setting it doesn't affect my use of the camera.

The A7ii is the bottom of the rung when it comes to the newer A7xx cameras. The 24 megapixel sensor, while not state of the art, was good enough for those zany folks at DXO to rate it a 90. The body is small and dense, just the way I like my cameras. The finder is adequate and external controls are nicely designed and placed for me. I've even made peace with the menus; in fact, I know find them almost logical.

The camera is the perfect size for me but it also works well with an added battery grip. And sometimes it's nice to go for the grip ... it's great to have a second battery in the mix to allow for more shooting time and less battery monitoring.

The camera does nothing very special at all. It just combines a good, high enough resolution capability with a very usable EVF and a workmanlike 1080p video function.

But it's the lack of perfection or high performance (or high cost) that endear the camera to me. I am not reticent to use it hard, to carry it with me everywhere and to use it on just about any job.
I use the Rii when I need ultimate performance and I use the RX10iii for killer video but I use the A7ii when I want to be comfortable and at home with the camera in my hand.

I've recently and slowly been putting together a pared down travel system based around the full frame A7ii. The first choice was the inexpensive FE 50mm f1.8. It's a really, really good lens with nice performance nearly wide open and excellent performance when it gets to f5.6. The next lens in the plan was one of my all time favorite focal lengths, the FE 85mm f1.8. It's a fabulous 85mm. I think I have a good handle on lenses around this focal length having owned, and extensively used, the original Canon 85mm f1.1.2, several variants of the Nikon 85mm f1.4, the Canon and Nikon 85mm f1.8 lenses, the Zeiss 85mm f1.4 for Nikon and other "mystical" lenses such as the Leica 80mm f1.4 Summilux R and the 90mm Summicron R and M.

The new, $600 Sony FE 85mm f1.8 is just great. Nicely sharp wide open and exquisitely sharp a couple of stops down.

That left only one slot to be filled and that was the focal length range between 24mm and 35mm. I have several zooms that cover those focal lengths but I was looking for a trim little system that would fit well in a small Domke camera bag to take on the road and in my mind that meant finding a small, sharp focal length. A bonus would be a fast maximum aperture.

Sometimes I trust my intuition and sometimes my intuition waffles. I settled on the Sony FE 28mm f2.0 lens but waffled. I read a lot of reviews and then I decided not to procrastinate and I bought a new copy of that lens. It arrived yesterday and I'm smitten. It's small and light, fits well into the travel system, and is fast enough to work in just about any situation, in conjunction with the decent low light performance of the camera.

My initial tests show me that the 28mm is sharp in the focused plane, even wide open, and gets sharper and sharper as I stop it down. By f5.6 it's pretty amazing. It shows off amazing nano-acuity. I know that it has a good amount of distortion but this is 2017 and the camera corrects it in Jpeg files while Lightroom and ACR corrects the distortion easily when working with RAW files.

Now I have a happy system that delivers wonderful technical performance for the kind of impromptu photography I love to do. I have space in that bag for one more thing. I'd like to find a second well used A7ii body to toss into one of the side pockets of the bag, just for a back-up.

I walked with the A7ii+28mm today and I'm very, very happy to have it. It makes photography fun. Just plain, good fun.


4.24.2017

A day in the life of pre-production. And general laziness.

Portrait for a production at Live Oak Theater. Mid-1990s.

There was a weekend "outage" of many recent posts on VSL over the last two days. Don't know what caused it but I have a suspicion that some random server at Google died and it took a while to port the back-up files. Or, I pushed some button and then pushed it back again today, without paying attention. 

I've been a little burned out on the photography business lately. It seems to be like the definition of insanity: I do the same (type of) shoots over and over again and when they all turn out competently I am surprised. I keep expecting totally different results and have come to resent the banality of anticipation matching completion. Not that I want to totally mess up someone's project; I just think it would be nice if I "accidentally" shot in the way I generally do but ended up with images that were so amazing that people would weep tears of joy upon viewing them. Probably not going to happen that  way...

I could regale you with stories about shooting portraits or products but I think I'll reflect my current state of existence instead. Last week we finished up our federal income taxes and our state sales tax return. I produced a couple of photo assignments and completed the post production, etc. I took Belinda to see the traveling Broadway production of, "The Phantom of the Opera." We went to a dinner party. By the end of the day on Sunday I was just fried. And that brings us to today. 

We don't swim on Mondays (the pool is closed for maintenance..) so I started the day with a brisk four mile run on the hike and bike trail that wends and winds its way through downtown Austin, around the slow moving Colorado River. The weather was perfect for a run and, while my elapsed time for the run was mediocre, the trail was packed with pretty people and that helped keep my mind off that stitch in my side and the embarrassment of realizing that I am now slowing down to a ten minute mile pace. A part of the inevitable decline...

When I got back and cleaned myself up I checked messages and found one about an upcoming project that will take place out of state. We got budget and schedule approval to travel and do video and still photographs in the second week of May for a healthcare client. I headed to Southwest Airlines and booked flights that more or less match (arrival times) the flights my client booked for himself on a different airline. I had a trip credit I wanted to use and I also thought to save my client some money on baggage fees. SWA still allows two checked bags (under 50 pounds each) for no additional charges. I considered United Airlines but I don't know Kung Fu, haven't studied "The Iron Fist" technique and feel like I already spend enough on dental work...

I put together a note, with my itinerary, and sent it to my client. I also suggested that we meet for lunch to discuss pre-production. So, pre-production today about pre-production meetings down the road...

Later, I went all "old school" and actually dropped by the local branch of the bank I use for the business to drop off a check/deposit. I dropped off some bill payments at the post office too. 

I was in the middle of printing post cards when I got a call from an ad agency asking me to produce a bid. It's a "one from column A, one from column B" sort of bid because they may need one photograph or they may need three. They may need one talent or they may need three. They might also want to add video interviews to each variation. Yes, clients are now routinely asking for a side helping of video with their "main course" of still imaging. Conversely, they may want a still photography "dessert" along with their video "entree." Best to create the "bid matrix" and be prepared for any variation.

I did some quick research and tendered by bid about an hour after receiving the request. It would be a fun project so I have my fingers crossed. And, for all you cynical photographers who believe the industry is declining into a hell-state; my client closed our phone call about the bid request with, "Don't forget to include USAGE in your bid!!!"

In the middle of all this my mind had already started to break the first May project (60% video, 40% photography) into chunks. My brain likes to think about what to pack pretty far in advance. I think it's a dodge to help rationalize timely new purchases. B&H is having a sale on an interesting microphone so I picked one up as a back-up for my favorite shotgun style microphone, the Aputure Diety. Why not be over prepared? The job is mostly interviews and video...

The new microphone, coming with free shipping from B&H, (sorry, no affiliate links for that one) is the Rode NTG 4+. The plus sign at the end of the name denotes that this model has built in electronics and supplies its own phantom power via a 150 hour (rechargeable) lithium ion battery, which is also built in. The NTG4+ is supposed to have an improved microphone capsule when compared with the NTG-2 but the current sale (through the 27th of April) has the new microphone at or near the same price as the still good, but venerable, NTG-2. I look forward to putting it through its paces. 

In the same acquisitive vein, I am patiently waiting delivery of a lense that's been bouncing in and out of my mental shopping cart for several weeks now. That would be the Sony FE 28mm f2.0. I decided to forgo the pleasure of yet another long trip to the local camera store and to just click the button on the Amazon website. The pricing is identical and someone (hopefully) will deliver said lens right to my doorstep. Those of you who live in Austin will understand that traveling up or down Mopac Expressway to buy locally could easily eat another hour or two of travel time. Probably not worth it for a lens whose acquisition has already proven to be so arduous...

I'll finish up the pre-production day writing a few more deposit slips and doing yet another test on my Sony A7ii. We're testing to see just how good or bad it is for shooting as a b-camera in 1080P. So far, it doesn't look bad at all. 

Happy Monday.


4.22.2017

The latest "major issues" in the pursuit of photography.....camera insufficiencies! Oh my.


A few years ago many people were trashing new cameras if they did not come equipped with GPS. I never understood why and I still don't today. Very, very few people really need to have ancillary crap like GPS in their cameras.  People have rushed to explain the benefits of location tagging their images but I file that into the same folder as people who keep a meticulous record of every penny they spend in a day, or people who keep notebooks about the calories they've consumed. Meaningless informational crap. Might as well tell me how important it is to keep an Excel spreadsheet of your daily breathing patterns. You know, just for reference....

But this must be how they sell FitBits and "smart" watches that record one's workouts.

Well, the same compulsive and scary people have now decided on a new metric for all new cameras. They've decided that all cameras must now come with dual memory card slots or risk being labelled as major failures. The overwhelming rationale is that they MUST have an in-camera back up files for everything they shoot. Really? Most people who feel this way seem to be the same people who actually use their cameras to photograph their own lunches, their friends drinking coffee, selfies and bad landscapes. Hardly earth shattering reportage that would diminish the quality of life for anyone if the images were lost due to technical glitches...  And I can't for the life of me remember which film cameras we had that took double film just in case of lab accidents or mis-loads....

The cold, hard reality is that most memory cards don't experience failures on their own these days. If you follow the best practices of formatting your memory card, in camera, and never erasing images in cameras or when the card is connected to your computer, you will probably never experience a fault with your memory card. The other instances that might lead to failure are: the act of removing your card from the camera without first turning off the camera, or from a card reader without first ejecting the card from your computer.

Simple rules, and easy to follow. But no longer enough for a contingent of people who would rather try to buy their way out of incompetence and poor workflow protocols. They now demand that all cameras be equipped with additional "training wheels"  in order to be considered professional,  or even proficient. This is the same cohort that must have raw processing built into the camera as well as HDR settings and panorama settings. And all other manner of gimmicky things made possible (cheaply) by excess space on camera microprocessors.

But the very same people who demand all many of glitzy operational crap and unneeded redundancy will bitch and moan about the inclusion of first rate video on the same camera. Go figure.

OT: Saturday morning swim practice.



We had a cold front move through this morning. It dropped the temperature to 61 degrees. There was a slight breeze and the sky was overcast. Not gloomy grey but a sky bordering on a bald white. I drank a cup of hot tea with a half teaspoon of sugar and a little bit of milk in it, grabbed a towel, and headed to the Western Hills Athletic Club pool to join 25 or so like-minded swimmers for our usual Saturday morning masters workout. (For more information about Masters Swimming see the USMS website).

Most of us swim five or six days a week but some of the members alternate running days, biking day and swimming days. Whatever their schedule Saturday mornings are usually a priority. On Saturday and Sunday the workouts are an hour and a half and we try to get in a lot of good, hard yards. There's an early workout of the truly dedicated swimmers and they were exiting as I trudged up to the pool deck with my swim gear in hand. They looked tired, beat up and happy.

I've been trying to get back to a regular five day a week schedule lately and I can see the rewards; I'm swimming better and faster and the waists on my collection of pants feels looser... The benefit is being able to eat almost anything without tipping the bathroom scale in the wrong direction.

I swam in lane four today with Ed and Shannon. They are both a little bit faster than me but I'm able to hang with them on anything shorter than 400 yards. After a bunch of warm up sets our coach, Cheryl, concocted a brutal little set for us as the main entree. The set consisted of three X 50 yards on a forty second interval followed immediately by 4 x 25 yard sprints; halfway under water in each direction. We repeated that set four times. It's basically three fast sprints in a row with little to no rest. We call them, "touch and goes" because, unless you are really fast, you are hitting the wall at the 50, looking at the clock and then going again.

As a warm down after that fun set we did: 2x200's, 2x150s, 2x100's freestyle before starting the next set. It was an ambitious day in the pool. We did a bit more than 4,000 yards in our hour and a half and that seemed to satisfy even the most masochistic and compulsive exercisers in the group.

Following the workout a group of us did what we have done on most Saturdays for the last twenty years. We headed to a local coffee shop to drink coffee, talk about the workout, talk about swimming and just catch up in general. There is a core of swimmers who've been at coffee since the beginning and new ones who cycle in and out. But it's so good to have time to maintain the bonds. As we all grow older we have to make concessions in our training but if we are growing older together it's not as obvious, or as emotionally painful to deal with the toll of time.

I've been swimming with the same masters team five or six days a week since 1996. I love being in the water and have often thought that the five or six seconds after a swimmer pushes off the wall, in a good streamline position, is the closest most humans will ever come to flying without an aircraft. The aerobic fitness that a disciplined group workout conveys is vital to me as a working photographer. With the combination of swimming, walking, running and resistance training I've been able to work at the same physical levels I did in my 30's; with no back or shoulder issues. Staying in good physical shape may, in fact, be the most valuable investment I've made in my career as a working artist.

The wonderful thing about playing within a group of swimmers is the example set by everyone around you. They may be recovering from something dire, like cancer; they may have lost a loved one or had a misfire in their career, but they show up, put on their goggles and push aside the worries of life for an hour spent relishing their fitness and their ability to apply discipline to this part of their lives. And everyone in the pool is there to support them and push them forward.

In every set back I've had in my own life the medicine that worked best to get me back on track was the time I've spent in the water. I think I've always known that using a particular camera is far less important than having the fitness and discipline to use whatever camera you have with you to make your work.

We caught up with the group news while we swilled coffee. One of our group brought along a bag of hazelnuts. the chef in our ranks brought along some banana-chocolate bundt cake, we snacked and re-energized ourselves. An hour later we headed our separate ways. Some heading home to do chores, others heading in to tend to the businesses they own, and still others heading home for a quick nap or lunch with family. We only have coffee together once a week but it's a good bet we'll see most of the same characters at tomorrow morning's swim.


4.21.2017

Flipping the argument. Sports Photographers can now eliminate a major DLSR camera flaw...

(I write this somewhat tongue in cheek. Try not to get too bent out of shape if you are in the wrong camp...).

"I'm sure I would have been a sports photographer and, perhaps a very good one, but I just couldn't bear to grapple with one of the significant shortcomings of the modern DSLR. I'm sure you've experienced it if you've tried tracking a football player with a mirror-encumbered camera. Or perhaps you've lived with the mechanical menace of the DSLR when trying to keep a fast runner well composed.... We all know what the Achille's Heel of generations and generations of DSLR camera is but for some reason we've all chosen to ignore it, or to sweep it under the carpet and make our excuses. 

It's the dreaded MIRROR BLACK OUT. Each time we actuate the shutter the mirror leaps up (alarmingly) and blocks our view of the image we are so intent on capturing. Visualus Interruptus.
The image is there, in front of our eye, and then it's gone and replaced with a visual fluttering of blackness, accompanied by some raucous noise and then a decidedly unsettling vibration. Thwack! Bam! Kapow! Oh sure, it's only a few (or a dozen or a hundred) milliseconds but it interrupts our continuous observation of the objects of our (momentary) desire. The faster the frame rate the longer the overall percentage of time blacked out. The slower the shutter speed the longer the overall percentage of time blacked out. 

It's been there since we gave up our Leica rangefinders in order to use longer telephoto lenses. It's always been a grave compromise as well as a source of indiscreet noise and interrupted concentration. And anyone who ever shot with a Pentax 6x7 camera (the most egregious of the breed) probably deserves restitution for partial hearing loss from the loud shutter/mirror cacophony and for the sheer amount of time spent waiting for the massive mirror to rise and then smash itself back down again. 

I can hear the cheers already from legions of sports photographers, who felt they had no choice but to use Canon 1D series cameras and Nikon Fsomething cameras to capture sports photographs, as the new Sony a9 makes it initial appearance on the market. Imagine, at speeds above 1/125th of a second (the general realm of sports shooters) there is absolutely NO FINDER BLACK OUT AT ALL. NONE. Even at 20 frames per second. 

The EVF shows the image continuously, refreshing the finder image 60 times per second (about twice the speed of human perception). Never again will these beleaguered pros face the humiliation of finder blackout. Never again will they feel the ravaging vibration of the slamming mirror assembly thrashing around in their hands. And, if they choose, then never again will they spook a golfer or diver with their klaxon-like shutter noise. In one low key product introduction Sony has saved the hordes of sports shooters from their own self-inflicted mechanical hell. Oh happy days. "

Ah, but just now I am learning that the new a9 is too small and light to be a serious professional sports shooting tool. Too many chiropractors would be forced out of business...