12.10.2014

Nikon versus Olympus versus how the camera will be used and who will be using it.


I get asked ( a lot ) about what camera a person should buy. If the person seems to be looking for an easy camera with which to document their family life, their kids and their vacations I generally always recommend whatever the cheapest Canon Rebel package currently available at Costco or someplace like that. I could tell most people until I'm blue in the face about mirror less or ultra high resolution or fancy rangefinder design but if they are looking for just a step up from their phone they are pretty much destined to buy the Rebel no matter what I tell them. 

For most people a Rebel outfit with two kit zooms is just the right kit with just the right price. It's a big step up from a cellphone and a 55-200mm is a surprisingly good focal length range, coupled with an APS-C sensor, to cover most of the buyer's outdoor, kid sports needs. The big benefit is that it's a brand they've heard of and when they head out to the soccer field about 80% of the other parents also have Rebels and they can happily group source their panicky technical questions. And, optimistically, they can learn together. Those are easy camera questions to answer. 

But in the last few weeks I've consulted with three other kinds of users and I've offered three different sets of advice. I got a call from a college student I know. Friend of the family. Against all advice he'd like to make a career as a photographer and video "artist." He's been through a bunch of classes, banged his way around with the family Canon Rebel and is now ready to get into the biz. He anticipates shooting stuff like products, portraits, landscapes and architecture and he wants to do it right. He's got some financial backing from his parents as well. I suggested that he get a Nikon D750 along with the 24-120mm VR lens and also a 14-24mm lens. This will get him started and the full frame camera with good video controls is pretty much a universal tool of the industry. I might be comfortable shooting with smaller formats but I can pretty much guarantee that he's going to need the psychological boost of bringing an "A" game camera system to all his early assignments. It's the old "talisman of power" thing where the "magic" of the camera conveys competence to its owner. I could have recommended the Canon 5D mk3 instead but the Nikon is more of a running start right now. Give Canon time to get the new sensors in play and then it would probably be a coin toss. 

This person took my advice and I've heard back from him. He is happy as were his first three, real clients. But this would have been the wrong advice for another person who came to me to see what I would recommend for a good travel system. Now, I have travelled with big, medium format cameras on several personal, international shooting trips and I wouldn't trade the big negatives I got from those trips for anything but times have changed. Airplane seats are smaller, there are no longer porters everywhere and we're all moving a lot faster. Add to that the fact that no one wants to pay for film and processing anymore.

The person asking for advice is an accomplished amateur photographer whose last camera purchase was a Nikon D2Xs. She just didn't feel like she could handle the big body, the two enormous f2.8 zooms she'd been carrying any longer and she was ready to ditch the tripod too and get something that could be reasonably handheld. We talked about mirror-free cameras and she liked the idea. Then we narrowed it down to Fuji versus Olympus and we made a trip over to the camera store to handle them both. She loved the EM-5 and the EM-10 and she ended up with an EM-10 and a single 12-40mm f2.8 zoom lens. I counseled her to load up on some after market Wasabi Power batteries and now she's set. Early feedback is that after helping her make her first plunge into the (onerous) menu she's thrilled with what she is getting from the camera system and it fits in her purse. She was pretty amazed at how far the high ISO performance has come in cameras since the days of the D2X. She never went above ISO 400 with that camera and I wouldn't have advised it either. Now she's got the auto ISO set to cap at 1600 and she feels like she's rediscovering the joy of shooting. Also, after years of only taking the "boat anchor" out when she anticipated shooting seriously, the new camera and lens follow her everywhere. Like a puppy. 

Finally I had a long, long telephone call with a fellow photographer and long time friend who shoots in NYC. He's doing portraits kind of the way I do them. He's been shooting there since the 1990's and he was complaining because the town has almost as many people constantly trying to break into the business in the city as NYC has rats. Everywhere he turns all his competitors are using one of the same two cameras: The Nikon D800 ( or some version thereof ) or a Canon 5Dmk3. They use the same 70-200mm zoom lenses and everyone seems to own or rent Profoto Strobes. He wanted my take on how he should differentiate. I told him about a mutual friend here who shoots only architecture. Very high end architecture. When his market got flooded with the same cameras and a whole raft of beginners who were shooting without lights and saving their images with desperate HDR he realized that he needed to rise above the pack and market himself as the top (and most expensive) of the photo artists in his field. Part of his branding was to cast off the ubiquitous camera choices (Nikon or Canon with 24mm TS lens) and take it all up an notch. 

He dropped serious money into the Hasselblad system and then discovered the Leica medium format system and transitioned into that. Now he's shooting his platinum level, $20 million dollar residential projects and his high rise commercial projects with a couple of the Leica S2 bodies and a case full of very, very costly but incredibly good glass. Clients really can see the difference, especially when the photographer starts whipping out detailed 20 by 30 inch prints. I figured my portrait photographer friend in NYC could undertake the same basic strategy. 

We talked about the Pentax 645Z and he jumped in. He only needs two lens, a normal for full length stuff and a 140 or 150mm for headshot style portraits. He's raised his rates and is busier than he's ever been. The camera was not much more money than the Canon 1DS Mk3 he bought nearly five years ago and he's been able to source some used lenses to soften the blow but to the clients the important message is that he's shooting bigger files on a bigger sensor than 90% of the competition and he can deliver images with less depth of field and more snap. 


gratuitous image from Fall in Saratoga Springs to sparkle up the middle of the article.


In the end I gave out three totally different suggestions for three totally different kinds of artists. Too often I think the magazines and websites that shill for the camera makers assume that everyone needs the same stuff. That everyone is chasing the highest degree of weather proofing in their cameras bodies, that everyone craves being able to shoot at ISO 100,000, that everyone needs 12 frames per second frame rates and tracking focus that locks on like a demented badger and won't let go even if the hummingbird you are trying to track in continuous AF buzzes chaotically through an obstacle course. But really? Everyone does photography in a different way and they each are looking for a different solutions that aligns best with where they are in their imaging journey. 

It would be sad if everyone shot with the same camera because in this art endeavor the tools really do nudge us in certain directions. When everyone uses the same kinds of tools everyone gets nudged in the same direction. When you make a truly universal camera I think you make a camera that really no one loves. Viva choice.


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Just working on an image and playing around with tones.


When I go into the studio to photograph a person I'm rarely looking for the "big grin" of the "happy face" shot. When I have the luxury of doing so I like to settle in with the person and try to find a point at which they stop role playing, let their defenses down and become real humans. It's hard to do in the work arena because the people we tend to photograph for big companies are on tight schedules and have agendas they have to follow. The most satisfying sessions for me take hours. I recently photographed a commissioned portrait for a real estate agent. She intends to use her final, selected images from the shoot for a wide range of professional applications and also on the social media sites she uses. In that session we ended up spending an hour and a half and going through three costume changes. I didn't mind because she was into my particular style and I was having fun.

Lately, the sessions that have worked best start with tea or coffee in the kitchen of my house. We might sit at the dining room table for a few minutes and just get to know each other. I always seem to ask directly, "What do you want to get out of this shoot?"  It's an honest question and it helps me know that we're either on the same page to start with or that I may have to compromise and do things in a way she'll appreciate and then also do a separate layer of work that I want.

When I think about photographing beautiful women the stories about two great photographers come to mind. The first is from an interview with Richard Avedon in which he says (and I am paraphrasing here...) that his best work comes when, during the session, he falls in love with the model. He goes on to say that when the session is over the spell is broken and life goes on but he strongly implied that there needs to be an emotional bond during the session that creates the impetus to make the person in front of the camera look amazing. I think this is true. The words might be wrong and the idea of falling in love may just be a clumsy attempt to verbalize a feeling or a thought that is about the nature of attraction more than anything else.

Occasionally I'll think that someone is not very attractive or engaging until they sit under the lights and face the camera and the dance between the photographer and model or portrait subject begins. There is a give and take in the conversation and in the best sessions almost an unspoken agreement to find a level of intimate sharing that unlocks emotions that are different from a routine session. But at the same time the interplay is different than a sexual attraction in that the conversation and collaboration is the vital ingredient rather than anything prurient.

I've seen many glamor shots that, while well crafted technically, are devoid of any sort of correspondence between the model and the photographer, as though the thing missing is some sort of real, human connection. Almost as though a person uncomfortable with intellectual intimacy compensated by trying to leverage the most titillating poses and exposures into the shots instead of taking time to find the interesting aspects of the holistic person. And these kinds of images are hardly ever compelling or interesting on any satisfying level.

The second photographer whose portraits I have always loved, is Irving Penn. He was the subject of an article by anthropologist, Lionel Tiger, who sat for a portrait done by the photographer. Irving Penn, via the article by Tiger about his experiences sitting for him, expressed very plainly that he felt a good portrait was the result of a certain intimacy between sitter and photographer. He was adamant that after his assistants had gotten the lights exactly right and had loaded enough film for a long session they must leave the shooting room at his studio and allow him to be alone with his subject. That audience reduction eliminated a lot of the self censoring that naturally occurs when a person splits his attention with two or more people of differing levels and interests. It also keeps people from looking beyond the camera to seek the tacit approval of the other spectators in the room.

Having been photographed before by a number of more traditional photographers Tiger expected to the session to be short and sweet. A bit of "look over here, turn your head, smile" and then we're done. But that's not the way Irving Penn conducted his editorial portrait sessions. He set up his camera and did not linger behind it. He seemed immune from technical concerns and engaged Lionel Tiger at length in a discussions about anthropology, art, music and culture. Occasionally Penn would trip the shutter.

Tiger pulled out all the routine "tricks" of a sitter trying posed pose after posed pose but eventually he tired of trying and a sort of sleepiness came over him at which point Penn, alerted to the falling of his subject's social "shield" began photographing in earnest. And those are the images that were used from the session. Essentially he needed privacy, time and shared conversation to move past the rote face, the clich├ęd pose, and into a series of expressions and manifestations that were a more genuine portrait of his sitter.

I learned early on in my career that people will rush you through a process whenever they can but I also learned from watching brilliant photographers that the ones who made photographs or portraits that I cared about made themselves immune to the coercion to rush through processes. They insisted on taking as much time as the art allowed. In anything I've done that is at all good the secret ingredient has always been my penchant to push back on the arbitrary clock and bring people to understand that time is part of the process. That and being bored. A portrait is a shared moment between two people. Three or more is a crowd.

The image above started life as a big raw file from a 24 megapixel sensor. It was shot in color as most digital images are. While the color version is good and useful I've spent the better part of an hour playing with black and white tonalities. Not because there is a single "right" answer but because the playing is part of a process of constant learning that informs our work going forward. Play. It's good for the brain.


The Modern Black and White Workflow for fun. At least this is how we roll in Austin...

Belinda in Verona.

I mentioned buying Tri-X and shooting "old school" in a blog yesterday. Yes, to the kinder-digi, shooting Tri-X means shooting with actual (not virtual) film. One of our readers wrote into the comments and bemoaned the lack of processing options, etc. in their town and opined that he hoped my darkroom was still functional. I thought I'd just outline my process for playing with film for the pure fun of it (as opposed to doing it for money as part of a commissioned "look"). 

If you don't have a film camera sitting around don't worry, you can pick them up from the used market all day long for under $250. And that's for something really good like a Nikon F2 with a 50mm hanging off the front. Everyone should have one good film user around even if it's just a souvenir of a different time.

Starting at the beginning I must council you that in the realm of black and white films Tri-X is the ultimate and most perfect black and white film ever created by the hands of man. Well, there are a few others that are close but.....you know what I mean. Don't pussyfoot around with lesser varieties of black and white film. I did go through a protracted Agfa APX 25 phase but that was another lifetime. 

Here in Austin we can walk through the front door of Precision Camera and one of the happy, courteous and knowledgeable salespeople will be happy to get you a fresh rolls (or ten or twenty) for the price of a large, fancy coffee at Starbucks (about $5).  Once you've got it loaded into your camera of choice you'll thank me for steering you away from the esoteric slow films and toward the ISO 400 king of black and white specifically because we've been trained via digital to shoot at higher ISOs and finally, here's a real reason to make that choice. 

I know that no lens is perfect and most of my older cameras have strange meters so I shoot my film as though it was really ISO 250 and meter with a handheld meter. If you are shooting outside the light doesn't change that quickly and the meter reading is valid until the light changes. You might find your exposures are more consistent without the constant intervention of new, smartypants metering in our current generation of smartypants cameras because they are not infallible and are prone to subject failure induced mis-metering. 

Next step is to shoot happily until the film runs out. Sooner or later it always does, unless you've loaded it incorrectly and it does go on forever and forever because it never got started. Many tyros have shot hundreds of frames on a roll only to discover that the film was never traversing the film plane correctly....

After I've shot my 36 frames of Tri-X I could find some tanks, mix some chemicals and take my chances with my agitation techniques or I can drop it off for same day processing at my favorite, local lab, Holland Photo on South Lamar Blvd. I can get the film back sleeved or I can ask them to leave it as a long roll and also to scan it and give me decent res files of everything on the roll. They will also make nice contact sheets for me which is almost a lost art. 

At that point I hit the next three way decision intersection: Print at home or scan individual frames myself or have the master printers at Holland Photo make prints for me. Or (sneaky) I can take advantage of Holland Photo's black and white rental darkroom and go back in and print my own stuff under a real enlarger. It's not that expensive and satisfies the need to get your hands wet (although I think they much prefer people to use tongs....). 

So, scan, print, have prints made, whatever. In Austin all things are still possible. Kind of like living in Photo-Camelot. And, having done a number of jobs in NYC and using the premier pro labs there for B&W I'll stick my neck out and declare that they've got nothing on Holland Photo!

Well, there it is. A happy black and white workflow. Now, just dig in and learn the Zone System and you'll have the entire adventure wired up. If you live in some hell hole with no film dealers and no black and white lab you can always use the ones we have here, you'll just have to do some shipping.
But it's a fun city and you might even want to hand deliver your film, spend a day snapping around town and then come back to the lab the next day and print your own stuff. You could have a self-guided B&W workshop all by yourself and probably at a good savings to boot.