11.05.2014

Really anxiously anticipating the arrival of the Samsung NX-1. The initial specs and good reviews from a photographer who is already shooting it may be what ultimately has kept me from buy a full framer.


As many here know it takes me a while to warm up to some things and I am an "early adopter" of others. For instance, it took me nearly two years to be civil with the Olympus OMD EM-5 but I bought one of the very first EVF enabled Olympus interchangeable lens cameras to hit Texas (the EP-2 with VF-2). I embraced the EVF in the Sony a77 even quicker. But I've been a slow study with the various cameras that Samsung has sent my way. I've always been happy enough with the actual imaging but the operational aspects of both the Samsung Galaxy NX and the NX30 left me wanting something more.

I mentioned in an earlier blog today that I had occasion to compare files from two different cameras on the same shoot recently. We shot the initial images back in early September and the client involved just made their final selections a few days ago. This morning I opened a raw image from a Nikon D7100 and a raw image from the Samsung NX 30, both outfitted with 85mm lenses, and I compared them. They were of the same person in the same lighting and in the same location. A pretty convincing test I thought.

The caveat with any test like this is in the use of two different lenses. The Samsung had their 85mm 1.4 while the Nikon sported their very well reviewed 85mm 1.8G series lens. I won't bore you with the long winded discussion but suffice it to say that I was notably more impressed with the Samsung file version even though, by all measures, the Nikon should have been technically better. I went back and looked at a number of other cross samples from the same shoot and it nearly every instance the image from the much cheaper NX30 was----better. A subjective analysis but true to my vision.

After I finished doing the post processing which consisted of smoothing some skin and taking care of some wispy black hair against a light blue background I started reviewing what I knew about the newest camera from Samsung. The NX1.  If what I am hearing from the company and from one of the photographers shooting that camera bears out in the final, delivered product it may represent exactly what I want in a camera. Dear camera gods, please help them get it right.

The imaging sensor should be one of the best in its APS-C class in that it's an all new, BSI technology sensor which means more space for chubbier, happier pixels. With 28 megapixels and no AA filter it should be within striking distance of the resolution of the Nikon D810 but at less than half the price.

Stop and think about it for a second. 28 million pixels on a low noise chip in a $1499 camera. But the amazing thing is that it will shoot at 15 frames per second with full AF instead of the 6 frames per second of the 810. I'm still trying to wrap my brain around that kind of throughput.

While I think that's pretty cool, gee whiz technology I'm rarely worried about the shooting speed of a camera as much as I am concerning about the usability of a camera. In that regard the NX30 wasn't bad it was just a bit slow and a bit rough. The EVF is okay but needed more resolution and much better contrast. That's supposed to be fixed in the NX1. Not just fixed but "best in class."  The other handling issues were all about interface responsiveness. The switch from LCD panel to EVF was too slow and subject to uncertainty if there was a high amount of ambient light. In the first iteration the time from button push to menu implementation was too slow.  And the camera was too light to feel like a precision tool.

If the viewfinder is great and the imaging quality of the sensor lives up to the initial fanfare I think it will be a camera that clouds the issue of full frame versus EVF for me. While most people seem to think that full frame is better no matter what I'm not really on that team. Fast, good glass makes up for the difference in out of focus backgrounds and fast focus fall off. The advantage on the other side of the coin is that there are probably more professional situations where it's more important to get what you need in focus than have the out of focus effect. And APS-C as well as m4:3 both do better in that regard.

Here's my hope for the NX1. A wonderful, glamorous and transparent EVF. A wonderfully done sensor with a heaping helping of dynamic range and low noise up to ISO 3200. (By that I mean that shooting at 3200 should look about like shooting at ISO 800). And fast camera response to the controls and the menus. If they get that right I'll be happy to use the camera to make enormous numbers of great portraits with the 85mm 1.4 lens I already have and love. It has always seemed like a brilliant lens looking for a compatible camera. I'll know in a week or two if that's how the story turns out. I'm not ready to be a total photo snob and only buy from long established vendors. Sometimes a bit of disruption helps move innovation while providing curious users with fun tools.

I am a little surprised that I am anticipating this one to a greater degree than most cameras. I guess the bigger the promise the greater the interest.

And, of course, I am sure our loyal VSL readers can hardly wait for me to wring out the video and see how it performs....  (a tiny bit of sarcasm..).

Won't it be funny if after their few false starts Samsung creates a camera that leapfrogs over the leaders? Well, not to surprising since they already get how important the EVF is going forward....

Why would any reasonably smart photographer buy four identical camera bodies? What the hell is he thinking?

Taking advantage of muscle memory....
...or just giving into compulsive behavior?

Photography is a crazy way to earn a living and there are at least as many opinions about how to shoot and what to shoot with as there are camera models. Everyone is so different. I have friends who wouldn't think of using anything other than a Leica S2, some who feel like I'm insane to not understand that the Nikon D810 is the world's best compromise and others who can't understand why I'd want to haul around an extra camera body, let alone two or three extras.

I shoot a pretty rich mix of assignments. In the last two weeks I've done exacting product shots, celebrity grip and grins, candid social photography, studio portraits, location portraits and even a few interior architectural photos. Try as I might to convince my clients that I'm a portrait guy they are having none of it. In their minds if I can make a nice image of a CEO on the 26th floor of an Austin high rise with the city skyline in the background than I should be equally able to make a rack full of servers sit up and smile. As long as they keep writing the checks who am I to argue?

And if you've read the blog for any amount of time you probably know that we've got a range of cameras we can bring to our jobs, selecting them ostensibly because they are just right for the project at hand. But most camera now can do most of the jobs we come across. The cameras have different visual personalities but in most cases the files are equally good, even if they do have slightly different rendering characteristics. Just this morning I was working on some post production that entailed five different poses of a female executive.

The day I shot this woman's portrait I was vacillating between the Nikon D7100 with an 85mm 1.8 and the Samsung NX 30 with an 85mm 1.4 lens. We weren't in a rush and I thought it would be a good idea to try both cameras in exactly the same shooting configurations. Reviewing them with the filter of time in place I was a bit surprised to find that I much preferred the color rendering and the lens look for the Samsung combination. Their 85mm, shot at f2.2, had just the right blend of roundness and high resolution. Flattering but sharp at the same time. I would have thought the supposedly superior sensor of the Nikon would have won the day but that's the disconnect when there are so many interconnected parts to deal with.

In a good month I shoot and process a lot of files. In October we shot well over 20,000 images across all manner of cameras. For the most part I leaned on the Panasonic GH4 because operationally it is as close to perfect as any digital camera I have ever worked with. But at every opportunity I shot whatever I could (personally and in the business) with the Olympus OMD EM-5. At this point I'll sheepishly admit that after avoiding this particular camera model for a year and a half I am very smitten with it for its combination of eccentricity, handling and image quality. Is it a better imager than any of my other cameras? Hell no. But is it more fun to shoot than anything else in the studio? Hell yes!

As I said, it's a camera I warmed up to slowly. I was put off by the micro size and the daunting and chaotic menu but having now spent a couple of months mastering both I feel like I've put a lot of equity into the camera and finally feel comfortable with it. But comfortable is too generic a term. It feels like a girlfriend in college who was not a "nice" girl, blessed with good social graces and a nice disposition. Instead the EM-5 is the passionate bad girl who inevitably seems to land you in a lot of trouble but who will make the ride so exciting that you don't care.  She may break your heart but you wouldn't trade in minute of the experience. Well, maybe this paragraph is a little over the top but there it is. The camera is fun. A lot of fun. And it does deliver the images you think you want---most of the time. But really, why four of them?

Did I mention that we've pretty quickly acquired four? It didn't start out as a conscious, rational plan (obviously) but after I returned a wayward and troubled, used Nikon D7000 camera body to Precision Camera for front focusing so far you could photograph Dallas without leaving your front porch in Austin, I still wanted to buy myself one more camera for my birthday. On the day I returned the compromised Nikon my eyes stumbled across the used shelf and there was number four.  Precision Camera was also the culprit in the 3rd acquisition. They could see my eyes get wider and my pulse rate increase and they just keeping dropping the prices on the stuff I want until I'm forced to capitulate because the deal is too good. But the first pusher was my friend, Frank, who dangled Olympus candy in front of me until I was well turned. Then he had the nerve to offer me one for a song. I sang an aria from a Puccini opera right there at Starbucks and he sold me the camera dirt cheap just to shut me up....

But back to the original question; why so many? I could answer it like this, "Did you ever go into a clothing store and buy a really cool shirt and every time you wore it everyone in the world told you what a great shirt it was? And when you wore it you always had good luck, like winning the lottery and getting great cameras cheap? And the shirt was easily the most comfortable thing you ever wore and at the same time it made your stomach look three inches smaller? And then you spilled something on it that stained it permanently and the sleeve got caught on someone's dagger blade and ripped? So you went back to the store to buy another one only to find that it was no longer made? Sure, they had a newer models but they just weren't the same. And you remember that whole experience even years later? And you still wish you had the shirt?  Almost as sad as when Leica took the self-timers off the fronts of the M series cameras.....sniff....

According to friends in the mental health field it's a reaction to feelings of anticipated scarcity but to a pro photographer it's all about "back up" and shooting fluidity. Honest. So here comes the rationale.
When I shoot events or document riots, concerts, parties or coronations----even when I shoot theater---I'm always shooting with more than one camera. At the theater I'm shooting with three cameras. One has the 70-200mm equiv. while a second has the 24-70mm equiv. and the third has a very high speed medium telephoto. You want all three bodies to be the same and to be set up the same way so you can drop one and let it dangle on the strap while you grab the next one to make use of a different set of focal lengths. You drop that one when the lights dim and you need the fast prime.  That's three. Makes perfect sense, right?  Of course, and the fourth one sits in the bag just in case a one of the three active cameras comes down with a throaty cough and a high temperature. When the sound of the shutter goes from a warm bummmb to a klaxony jack-hammer. Then you dump the dying body into the bag, put the lens on the new body (already set up like the other bodies) and you get back into the shoot.

This rotation of cameras means you never have to change lenses during a shoot. No dust, no dirt and no time lost. This also means that you aren't putting all of your imaging eggs in one basket. If a camera or lens develops an undetected defect or a memory card goes rouge chances are good that you've got two others that are still happily delivering the goods and keeping your from the unmitigated wrath of a client spurned.  If all four cameras share the same batteries you get to keep shooting longer, even if it means pulling batts from the less glamorously lensed (and less popular) cameras and feeding them into the home coming queen camera.

When all the menus, batteries, settings, accessories and lenses are interchangeable you never even have to think in terms of reliability or recovery from on shoot accidents.

This is the reason that I almost always refuse to enter new camera systems unless I can afford to buy at least two of the cameras I'll be shooting with. And it's even more important if you like to shoot with prime lenses. I was in a location last weekend where I was picking out faces from a social function to photograph candidly. I was experimenting with a 60mm 1.5 manual focus lens on one camera, backed up by a 35-100mm on another EM-5 body. If I needed to focus a fast series of images I could switch to the zoom but when I had the leisure to do so I could experiment with the prime and its faster maximum aperture. I also had a third body over the other shoulder with a 17mm f1.8 in case a couple or small group came over and asked me to take their image.

In the days before zooms were universally loved people swore by single focal length lenses that were obviously saturated with great powers and magic. A journalistic assignment might call for a range of four lenses in order to quickly and fluidly cover a happening. There would be a 20mm wide (21mm on the Leica) a 35mm lens for establishing shots, a 50mm for two person shots and a short tele like a 90mm or even 135 mm for anything you couldn't walk closer to.  A nice way of work actually since you actually had to make fewer choices than you would with a set of zooms.

But even with zooms I often opt for at least a three camera/lens combo which might consist of the EM-5s or the Panasonic GH's with the 7-14mm, the 12-35mm and the 35-100mm. Nice to know there's always an extra body along for the ride...

So, back to the original question: Why the OMD EM-5 X4 instead of the same number of GH4's? Simplest answer? I'd trade them all for a few more GH4s but not because the imaging is better, just because the GH4s are more robust and have a much longer battery life. I use the multi-combo of EM5 because besides liking them viscerally I am able to afford to have four for about the price of a single GH4 body or a single full frame body. Also, when one of them gets dropped (inevitable) the funeral for the body won't be anywhere near as wrenching...

If I shot only in the studio I could get away with using one camera and having one similar back up. But I wouldn't have nearly as much fun. All four of the EM-5 were bought used and total up to about $2,000. The depreciation and resale value had pretty much been wrung out of them by the time I got my hands on them which means that the value won't drop that much over the next year or so.  Just enough time for everyone else to fall in love with the OMD EM1 Super type 2 so I can buy up the new used inventory....

Would I have done this three or four years ago? No. Back then the cameras were still improving by leaps and bounds and EVFs weren't as good. Now we're buying new features and improvements that take our shooting from 94 to 96%. But last time I checked 96% was still an "A" and my mostly poor technique (and yours too) mot probably masks any performance difference in the cameras.

My biggest revelation after shooting about 10,000 frames with the combined EM5 collection? They are just as good as the Nikon D7100 at focusing in low light. Second thing? If you turn off the image review the batteries last forever. Third thing? Even though high speed EVF performance sounds cooler the normal setting makes the EVF look best.

After looking at everything I shot over the last weekend (4500+ exposures) I can honestly say that all the current (in Kirk's inventory) collection do an equally good job creating the nuts and bolts of images. The Olympus cameras were far and away the most FUN to shoot. If you are a very logical (Spock) person that will be just about meaningless to you. If you are a very emotional and mercurial person (Captain Kirk) that will mean the universe to you. After all, on Star Trek (the original series) who made out best with all the hot extraterrestrial babes? Right?

Spread sheets or hot dates. It's all in the cameras. ( meant as humor.... ).

Imagine life at high speed. Imagine the adrenaline on all the time.

The pleasure of shared relaxation.


Imagine that you are sitting on a train. You're sitting in the seat next to a window. The seat faces the back of the train and you are staring out the window. It's slightly warm in the train car and even though the compartment is full no one is talking. They are all staring at their phones and pecking at the tiny, virtual keyboards. You look at your fellow passengers and then you look down at the phone in your own hand. There is a text. The text reads: "When will you arrive?" You have no idea who it is from.

You turn and look out the window. The landscape flashes by. The train must be traveling at 70 or 80 mph. Unless you turn your head in time with the forward motion of the train, anchoring your vision on something outside the window and moving with it as you careen by you can only see the object as a transient blur of color and contrast. A shape without detail.

The train speeds up. The images outside the window close to the train become harder to resolve. Now only objects further and further from the window seem to be in sharp focus and only because the long distance makes them appear more persistent. You get another text and it reads: "When will you arrive?" You still have no idea who has sent you these texts. You look back into the compartment and you see that the people have changed. They seem like the same kind of people but their faces are subtly different. The jeans are worn out in different places. The dresses have changed colors and the lines on the faces run in different ways.  Everyone looks down at their hands to see what might be on the screen of their phones. Several people use the tiny, almost imaginary, keyboards to peck out responses to something they see on the screens.

You look back out the window and the train seems to have accelerated. Now even distant objects are starting to be framed in a hysteria of blur. Nothing outside the train is really completely recognizable and the speed of the train deprives you of anchor points that would help you resolve and understand what you are seeing flash past your window.  You are one of the last people in your cohort to wear a  watch. You look down and see that you've been on the trains for hours and hours. You look down again at the screen of your phone. You are almost certain that you felt a phantom vibration that signaled a call or a text had arrived. The screen lights up and you see the same text. It says: "When will you arrive?"

You look up as the train accelerates even quicker and the compartment and all the visual stimuli begins to fade and blend and get darker. In a few minutes everything goes black. Nothing else happens.

Have you been paying attention to the way people are engineering their lives in the past few years? They seem to move from experience to experience at the speed of light and sound. Like ripples in a puddle that's only a fraction of a centimeter deep. It's seems like they are looking for something but what they are finding is a series of endless shallow puddles that they splash through on the search for another shallow puddle.

Have we engineered a society in which an ever accelerating series of shallow puddles of experience is the nature of people's daily lives? Have we lost the ability to be alone with ourselves? Have we lost the ability to share face to face time with other humans or has the geometrically expanding availability of screen delivered content decimated our ability to be present and share?

I watched people interact at several events recently and the leitmotif that ran through every event was the boredom that set in so quickly when experiencing real moments. It was a boredom that seemed only to be relieved by the succor of a cool screen glow. People would be engaged in a conversation over drinks and then the conversation would pause as one or more people disengaged to compulsively check their screen. Was it a repudiation of the person or persons in front of them? Were they searching for more exciting fare? Or have people, through habituation, just become incapable of holding a thought or experience in their own minds longer than a few minutes? It's almost like smartphones have replaced cigarettes and the excitement of the screen has the same narcotic and addictive effects as nicotine.

Whether it was at a cocktail party a dinner or a mass event the pattern was the same: Engage till situated in the real event and then begin the rotation from virtual reality on the phone, back to our more solid but equally fictive reality and then back again to the phone to see if something "better" had arrived.

As I drove home one evening you could tell that it was about to rain. The clouds were swirling, the wind was brisk, the temperature was dropping and we had that unusual kind of light you get as two weather fronts collide and reduce the sunlight to a bizarre and kaleidoscopic melange of warm hues. I pulled off the main road and drove up to nearby parking lot. I got out of my car to watch nature put on a show. I stood there and felt the wind drive the temperature and down and down. I felt the first stinging pellets of rain splatter down and watched as two layers of clouds, one above the other, sped in different directions across the sky.

Then, when the rain came down with a show of force, I climbed back into my car and headed home, still fascinated by the power of the weather.

Sometimes experiencing something with undiluted intention is the only way to either enjoy it or even understand it. If the train is going by so fast that nothing makes sense to your senses it's probably a very good sign that it's time to get off the train for a while....

What does this have to do with photography? I don't know. What does anything have to do with photography? It's a process of sharing a visual contemplation, right? But if life is moving too fast to effectively capture what can you possibly end up sharing?  Just thinking out loud. Everyone's answer will be different.

We don't get extra life points for having a million different (faux) relationships lived remotely and virtually. A deeper experience has a value beyond its own measure.

When will you arrive? Are you here now?