Once upon a time we considered a 6 megapixel file to be the Holy Grail for digital cameras. Can you imagine going back?

Production Image from Aida.

I'm going back through a lot of older portrait work, looking for fun images so I can put together a presentation next week in Denver. I'll be presenting in front of video cameras for three days and I wanted to have samples of the kinds of images we'll be talking about and creating. Since I was in an exploratory mood I didn't put any date restrictions on my search but I did want to stick to good digital files and not get into a marathon of film scanning and post production.

Today's foraging brought up some images I hadn't played with in a long time and I was surprised when I found these promotional shots for a production of Aida at how much I liked both the lighting (which is simple and straightforward) as well as the tonality I got from the files. The color in the shadow to highlight transition areas is very clean and the transitions themselves are smooth and detail without much evidence of banding.

I was in Bridge so I checked the info on the file and was surprised to see that it came from one of my earliest professional digital cameras, the Kodak DCS 760. The image was taken at ISO 80 and lit with Profoto strobes. The lens was the Nikon 28-70mm 2.8 zoomed, used at f11 and around 55mm. The original file is 2000 by 3000 pixels but when I examined the file at 100% I found it to be tightly structured and fairly noise free. I tried a quick blow up just using the interpolation in PhotoShop CS6 and found that the file could be res'd up to much larger dimensions with very little loss in quality. I was impressed to see how well the old technology holds together in a modern workflow.

I have made a mental note to myself to go back soon and convert all the Kodak raw files to .dng files as I'm almost certain that fewer and fewer raw conversion programs will continue to support cameras from a functionally defunct camera maker.

Given that most work now goes up on the web I think this could still be a viable studio camera. This isn't the first time that the DCS 706 surprised me in a good way.  I guess that, and nostalgia, are the reasons I keep the camera, lenses and bit and pieces around still. That, and the fact that five pounds of hard alloy are good for driving nails when I forget to bring the studio hammer along on projects.

I sometimes feel that we've all been chasing the wrong rabbit. The cameras are fine, it's the education on why and when to use them that we should have been (should be) working on.

Metering is a wonderful thing.

I have two lazy habits that sometimes sabotage my best intentions when making photographs. I've gotten used to using cameras in automatic settings when shooting quickly, outside. I let the cameras set the white balance and the basic exposure. It make sense in a lot of situations but when you get into the studio and you are inventing the light it pays to do two things on every shoot. The first is to use a light meter. In my opinion an incident light meter is the only metering tool that works every time. The second thing I always do, if I am being mindful of quality in the studio, is to make a custom white balance. Here's the tricky thing: White balance affects exposure. Exposure affects white balance. I always meter first and then I do my custom white balance.

When I do a custom white balance I use the exposure I've gotten from metering instead of relying on the camera to compensate.

You may be able to make adjustments in raw to your exposures and your overall color balance but they will be compromises and you'll see it in non-linear color casts in shadow areas and you'll regret not metering when you find that the histogram in your camera convinces you to underexpose in nearly every situation. That under exposure robs you of detail in your shadows (if you want it) and adds color noise to the overall file as you "lift" exposure to get where you should have been all along.

We (collectively; not royally) tend to use RAW as a 24/7 crutch and a convenient excuse not to practice our craft with the diligence and mindfulness that we could. We've come to believe in an industry wide mantra which states that RAW is always better than a Jpeg file. I've done some technical digging and I'm here to tell you that a Jpeg file that is accurately metered and color balanced at the time of capture spanks the heck out of an underexposed RAW files that's brought back under control in post. And part of the problem is color shifts due to exposure differences.

I don't care what the web says on this. Every studio photographer and videographer needs to own and know how to use an incident light meter to work at a high quality level. And every photographer and videographer looking for consistency and quality should know how all their cameras make custom white balances. Over time it will save one much time and energy. Once you practice mindfully using your meter you'll walk off your shooting sets knowing that you've nailed the technical stuff. Getting the emotion right is a different beast. Don't let the technical get in the way of the wonderful....

And, yes, I get the irony of using a black and white image as the illustration for the top of the article. For all the literal folks, here's a color version:

A quick review of my time with the Leaf Aptus AFi7 medium format camera.

I wish I still had the Leaf Aptus 39 megapixel, medium format camera in my studio; especially if I had gotten to keep the 180mm Schneider short telephoto lens as well. At the time the files were much more detailed than anything we could have gotten out of a 35mm style DSLR. Nowadays? The only advantage might be the real 16 bit files but you'd have to be looking at great prints or a $2,000 monitor to really see the difference between those files and the ones that start out as 14 bit files in our current cameras.

When I found this file in my archives I looked for a similar file done with the Sony a99 and compared them both at 100%. The colors were close and could be matched without too much brain sweat. The shadows are more nuanced with the bigger file camera. But I can get very close to the Leaf in post with the Sony.

What I loved about the Leaf was the combination of lens and sensor size but lately I've found that a good 85mm at f2.8 gets me so close to the same look. And pragmatically, my audience has changed as well. Most clients are working more and more on the web and at 8 bits the discriminating factors between the files vanish. At that point any good business person has to consider the price of ownership differential and the cost/benefit analysis.

The medium format package as I was using it was close to $40,000. The Sony a99 with a Rokinon 85mm 1.5 lens tips the total to $3200. The Sony files are easier to do the day to day plumbing work of photography with and the camera is much more agile in use. I'm glad to have kept the extra $36,800 in my pocket. It went a long way toward shepherding my business through some tough times. Sometimes the only way to make a real assessment of the value in your hands in to put the gear in your hands and try it. Anecdotal stories are too imaginary to use as decision making metrics. Now, the real question is whether or not the Sony/Zeiss 85mm 1.4 is worth the difference. I'm getting one to test. Should be an interesting and potentially embarrassing run through. More later.