8.26.2014

Urban Lifestyle Specialist, ATMTX, pens a short (very short) review of the Lisbon Portfolio.

Worst Best Zoom Lens I've Played With Lately.

Oh my. I love/hate this lens so much.

The lens pictured above is the kit lens I selected to go with the Nikon D7100 body I recently purchased. My overarching rationale for its selection still stands firm. It's a camera and lens (and flash) combination to be used to make photographs at dimly lit galas and events. Places where accurate and well controlled flash is a must. In those situations having a wide range of focal lengths in one tidy package is a big plus and, for these things, the lens does well. Even more so because photographing groups of humans is one place where wonky geometric distortions aren't very noticeable. 

The lens sells for around $500 but they had some sort of special Summer pricing and if purchased as a kit the lens came out to around $250. So, let me talk to you about this lens.....

Here are the things it does very well: 

1. The range of focal lengths is custom made for event shooters. At 18mm you've got a 27.5mm equivalent that's perfect for big groups and fun, dramatic juxtapositions. If you are shooting groups with anything wider you've probably noticed that your lens (no matter how superb) is morphing the people next to the left and right (and top and bottoms) of the frame into giant blogs. Head grow like balloon heads in cartoons and hips become wider than billboards. I try not to do groups with anything wider than a 35mm eqiv. but sometimes you need what you need. 

2. This lens is a VR king. Nikon says more than four stops and I am a believer. This lens has almost convinced my photographer friends that all I'm drinking is decaf. Rock solid. It's in the same class as the OMD EM-5's I've been using. We don't need no stinkin tripods.... (But, of course we really do).

3. Can you say "sharp?" In the center two thirds of the frame at nearly any focal length, at maximum aperture, this lens is sharp, sharp. As in looking into the pores sharp. I tested it all the way out to the end and the results were pretty consistent. A bit sharper at the wide end but no slouching at the long end. 

4. For the number of focal lengths this lens replaces it's small. It's a comfortable and nicely designed package and it has both aspheric and ED elements as well as being an internal focus design. For $500 it's a pretty good "go everywhere with one lens" lens and for $250 it's easy to classify as a bargain....unless:

Here are the two things that the lens sucks at but you can only really blame the designers for one....

1. The lens has a slow maximum aperture. It's f3.5 at the wide end and f5.6 at the long end. With enough money and the allowance of enough weight you could design a lens with these focal lengths and an f2.0 constant aperture but no one would be able to buy one. And few photographers would want to carry it. The low max. ap. used to be a deal killer in days of old but now every camera does ISO 25,000 with dignity and aplomb so who really cares (sarcasm). But really, if you consider that f3.5 is less than a half stop over f2.8 and that f5.6 is just two stops over f2.8 and that camera sensors really have improved a lot in the past few years I think we can get by this. Especially for the price and convenience. 

2. And that leaves what, for some, will be a real deal killer.  The lens has the most extreme distortion I've seen in ages. At the 18mm end it's barrel distortion. And I mean a real barrel. Like a beer keg. It requires a minus 7 or minus 8 correction in raw conversion to get it into the ball park and even then it's not perfect. So at the wide apertures you're dealing with expansive lines bowing outward but at around 50mm it goes into a weird inversion and all of a sudden you've got pincushion distortion that's just breathtaking. Not sure if there's a lens profile out there for this one but I'm not seeing an auto correction in D7100 Jpegs or in Photoshop....

I'm keeping mine but if you do architecture or anything else with straight lines don't even ask for the sales guys to take this one down off the shelf for a demo. You'll be wasting everyone's time. I'll do my haphazard corrections and put a note on the lens hood reminding me to "never, never point this puppy at any straight line that I want to keep straight. 

And that's my review of the Nikon 18-140mm lens. Good for fast moving people mania! Horrible for straight lines of any kind. 


Yesterday's Historic Assignment. New camera, old artifacts.

This image of a Berlin street is included solely for blog decoration. 
It has nothing to do with the content below. 
I shot it with the quirky Samsung Galaxy NX camera
and the solid little kit lens.
I like the pretty colors.

I've said recently that we've been busy over the last two weeks. Last Weds. I spent a full day making wonderful available light portraits for a software company in a downtown bank building. I spent most of the next day doing the necessary post production and also having phone meetings about upcoming video production. Yesterday I had the good fortune to spend most of the day on an assignment for the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. It was a straightforward job but one that was almost meditative and very satisfying. 

The museum has a constant influx of artifacts that need to be well documented and I've been providing photographic documentation for them throughout this year. Since nearly every object must be kept on the museum grounds and can usually only be handled by a curator wearing gloves we definitely do each of these assignments on their turf. All of the artifacts are photographed on white backgrounds and during post production I create very detailed clipping paths so they can drop out backgrounds where necessary. 

Yesterday I loaded up the Airport Security case with the Nikon 7100 camera. A 35mm lens, a 50mm lens, a 55mm f2.8 manual focus micro lens and the wild kit zoom. I had a back up battery and, in case of catastrophic system failure, I had a Panasonic GH4 with assorted lenses in reserve. I also brought along a flash meter, gaffer's tape and some black wrap. Always black wrap. As an afterthought I tossed in two Yongnuo slave-able flashes.

In another case I had four Elinchrom moonlights with cables and speed rings and accessories. In the stand bag were a couple of soft boxes, a few umbrellas and my little, Benro tripod. Riding along with no case was a stout, tall C-Stand with an arm. It was joined by a thirty pound sand bag. I also brought along assorted chunks of white foamcore and black foamcore which is wonderful when you need to add or subtract light from a composition. 

I wheeled the case in right at 9am and we got set up with a white background sweep table in one of the big work rooms on the first floor. I used a medium sized (3 feet by 4 feet) soft box on the C-Stand's side arm (using it as a boom) and positioned it directly above the set. I used this light for almost everything, repositioning it and fine tuning it to match the subject matter. 

Occasionally I wanted to supplement the top light with fill from a spot near the camera position. I grabbed a Yongnuo flash, set it to "slave" mode and aimed it into a 42 inch white umbrella with a black cover. Being able to dial the power levels up and down and to not work about radio triggers or cords was efficient. 

As I intended I used the D7100 and the 55 macro lens for just about everything. I wanted to see if the combination of a "known" great lens and the 24 megapixel sensor with no anti-aliasing filter would give my images some sort of extra mojo. Having now imported everything into Lightroom I can see that the images, shot at 100 ISO with the lens at f5.6 to f8.0, are sharper than what I had previously gotten with good lenses on the full frame, 24 megapixel Sony a99 camera. Score one of the APS-C, next generation. 

My working method was to set the camera to the live view mode, zoom in to 8x or so to fine focus and then shoot a single frame, chimp the hell out of it, make whatever course corrections were necessary and then shoot two more frames: one to use and one as a safety. 

This shooting method ameliorates any battery advantages of OVF cameras and, as expected, I ate up 50% of the battery charge getting about 125 shots done over the course of five hours. I was also surprised to see, already, a dust bunny appear when we started veering toward f11.5+ to get more depth of field in shots of really small objects. I haven't seen dust on the sensor of a Panasonic or Olympus camera in.....forever. 

I did take time to shoot several of the images with the Panasonic GH4 and the 12-35mm lens. I wanted a direct comparison I could mull over. Here's what I found: The Nikon D7100 has a resolution advantage and the files seem more color correct right out of camera. If you were going to make huge paper enlargements the judges would immediately side with the bigger sensor-ed camera. But, at our final delivery size the advantages disappear (or are equalized by the common denominator of size).  From a working perspective I will probably switch back to micro four thirds for the next round of artifact documentation at the museum. There is a distinct advantage to the additional depth of field at the same angle of view when you are working in tight with a subject. 

Also, cameras that are designed to be in permanent "live view" via their EVFs are much more facile in operations like this with much faster focusing. Finally, I've gotten spoiled by the touch screens. Being able to touch the screen at the spot at which you'd like to see the focusing point is wonderful.
In DXO, up to the full native resolution of the Panasonic files there are few discernible quality differences. Certainly the trade off between a perceived small increase in shadow noise in the GH4 at 100% is handily offset by its ability to generate files that don't show dust spots....

You read a lot about the "overwhelming" superiority of one system or sensor class over another and even the most level headed among us can succumb to moments of doubt as to whether they've made good equipment choices. That's why I feel it's important to test things out first hand. To see what the reality of a comparison is. The nature of writing and blogging leads writers to exaggerate small differences to provide more exciting contrast in the written content. Nothing sells like bold statements and controversy. But once again I've found that careful lighting and technique are far more important than camera attributes and, that at conventional working sizes, the cameras and their files are less different than the fans and the manufacturers would like you to believe. 

Tonight I'm diving into the Nikon flash system. That may be an area where real differences make themselves known... But we'll see. Objectively. 

Hope you have great day.

8.24.2014

Sending the boy off to school. The countdown continues.


We're shopping and packing. We're having celebratory dinners together at all our favorite restaurants. The kid leaves to go off to college next Saturday and I'm already getting a bit mopey and feeling useless.  I've been hanging out with the kid since his forever and I'm actually going to miss getting up at 6:30 to drive him to cross country practice and driving halfway across Texas just to see him run for 18 minutes. His crew of friends are all peeling off this week to go on their own college adventures. His friends of thirteen or fourteen years are all bright and motivated. Their dispersing to good schools all over the country. Some are taking a semester off to sail out in the Pacific. A few are going to school here in Texas at A&M and UT. Few are going as far away as Ben. His school is 1850 miles from Austin in the northern reaches of New York state.

The whole idea of his leaving is really starting to sink in as we toss last minute stuff in the laundry and I teach him for the 100th time how to tie a necktie. The transition is effecting everything. I skipped swim practice so I could have breakfast with him at least one more time. I've lost my motivation to go to work, write a blog or head out for social functions because I want to hold on to every minute. It's almost pathetic.  He's ready to go, his mom is stoically spearheading the "pre-production" and I'm hovering like a lost art director, trying to figure out how to reverse time or at least slow it down since there are so many things I still feel as though I need to teach him.

But friends of the family who have known both of us for as long as Ben's been alive are quick to assure me that the boy is much brighter than I've ever been and as worldly and knowledgeable as they come. He understands already that compound interest is your best friend or your worst enemy. He know that the measure of a person is not how well that person treats you but how well he treats the "help." He flosses his teeth. He writes "thank you" notes without parental prodding. He truly understands calculus, statistics and, at least, the rudiments of physics. He's already made an award winning video and he's already earned money for being smart.

He has done things at 18 that I didn't get around to until my mid thirties. Opened a brokerage account, made good equities investments, turned down bad jobs, learned to drink black coffee, tasted vintage champagnes and developed a taste for bleu cheeses. Given me business advice that worked out well. Bounced around plot ideas for my next book. Reined in my tendency to go off into something without all the information and so much more.

I've been spending my time buying him warm, winter clothes. Gloves, boots, hats, sweatshirts, jackets, vests, parkas, ski jackets and even long underwear. He'll be able to pack and carry onto an airline only a tiny fraction of this giant, new (and to him, alien) wardrobe and the rest I'll have to ship to him. I've actually gone so far as to call the college to make sure they have adequate heating for the class rooms and dorms.

I keep telling myself that when he is safely ensconced in his scholarly enclave I'll regain my recently wavering motivation and hit the business and writing with renewed vigor. I guess we'll see. But if the blog seems a little spotty or "off" for the next week I can pretty much assure you that it's a reflection of my state of mind. I'm sure it will all straighten itself out. I'll rediscover an "amazing" lens or camera system and we'll be off and running.

Funny that the week prior to Ben's departure I'm busier with jobs that I've been for most of the Summer. But I don't regret the work because it keeps me busy and alleviates the constant hovering that I seem to be doing when I am momentarily directionless. It also bolsters the checking account which, I am certain, has just taken the first of many painful beatings. Ah, the life of the freelance artist...But seriously,

I know that nothing will ever be the same again.

On another note I came to realize that Ben has observed my progress and immersion in photography for quite a while so I took the opportunity at a recent lunch to ask him where he thought everything was going and what was next for the world of photography. He deflected my question a few times and then he pulled his iPhone out of his pocket and put it on the table. He glanced at it, pointed and remained quiet.

I'd been pressing him to come into the studio and select a camera to take to college. I've opened up the cabinet doors and asked, "film? Digital? Leica? Olympus?" The final answer was the iPhone. He's seen the trajectory of photography and it doesn't interest him (or any of his circle of friends) at all. It's not his "cup of tea."  That makes me feel conflicted. On one hand I trust his instincts 100%. If he isn't into photography nothing I can say at this point will change his mind. On the other hand I can't help wondering if, in this respect, I've been a poor role model and have only shown him the mechanical and business side of photography but have forgotten how to transmit the joy of it.

I didn't buy my first camera until my junior year in college. Only time will tell.

One week until the giant adventure begins.

To all of you who've successfully launched your children and are reading this blog post as though it is in the rear view mirror: congratulations. To all of you who have this journey in front of you: Good Luck!

8.23.2014

Kirk's Rules for Sharing Photographs Correctly.

This is not a portfolio show.

There is something deeply wrong in modern society. There are large groups of people who have come to imagine that the screens of their phones are appropriate venues for sharing their photographic images (or portfolios) with other people. If you are one of these people and your friends are as clueless as you then I guess it really doesn't matter, but...if you are trying to share your work with someone whose action upon having viewed your images could be helpful to your career or your cause then you need to re-think your presentation skills and recalibrate your ideas about what constitutes appropriate displaying and sharing tactics. 

Here's the hierarchy from best case down: 

Top Layer:  If you want people to look at your images in a respectful and even appreciative way then you need to control the environment in which you show them your work as well as the medium you choose to show them. The gold standard is the paper print. A color print at a large enough size to be easily viewed (but still easily handled) is the most impressive of the presentations. If the work is matted, framed and well lit, so much the better. Show this work in a room where the light doesn't come from multiple, glare causing lights scattered across a ceiling. Do it in a place where there is little noise and fewer distractions. Allow your audience to become immersed in the experience and don't ruin it by chattering all the way through the presentation.

Next layer down: If you can't show large prints effectively (and maybe it's because you've decided to make Starbucks your office and the tables are too small....) you should consider prints placed in a book. These can be handmade books or bound books but books allow you to show work that is right sized for easily viewing while offering a mechanism to handhold the work in a less than optimal space. Give the book to your reviewer and allow them to set the viewing distance and pace.

Next layer down: If you can't do big prints, or even smaller prints (8x10 minimum), or books, you will need to default to a high quality screen device. This will probably be an iPad or one of the copycat devices from a company with less creativity and design acumen. As long as the screen is wonderful, large (full size iPad, not "mini") and dense with pixels (think Retina screen) you'll be providing a decent viewing experience for your valued audience. 

Hand the person you crave to share you images with the device and let them proceed at their own pace. It's only fair that if they have to wade through your visual enthusiasm that they get to control the duration of their trial or joy.  Again, silence is golden and an environment without a lot of extraneous motion is an effective way to garner their full intention. A busy, busy coffee shop means that the hyper-vigilent persons are dividing brain space between your images and all the movement that may be primordial, evolutionary cues of danger.

If none of these presentations are available and the screen on your phone is the only thing you can manage then you are clearly not ready to show your work to other people. Especially people whose opinions you respect.  Stop. Don't do it. Don't cause other people to  politely nod as they internally calculate just how quickly they can get away from you and this painful situation. The only people who can clearly see the screen as it jiggles around in your hand are people well under 30 with perfect eyesight. And even they would vastly prefer any of the above methods. They have phones, they know how dreary and unfulfilling it is to look at another person's work on a tiny screen.

Any of the above methods always beats sticking your cellphone screen in a stranger's face in the equivalent of a bus station, lit with a batch of mismatched, bare fluorescent light tubes stuck in the ceiling next to the surveillance cameras, casting multiple glares across the tiny screen, and expecting that they will compliment your work, or offer you the chance to photograph their company's next annual report project. 

My take is that the crappier the presentation the less the presenter cares about the work. And really, who wants to see work by an artist who doesn't care enough about his or her own work to at least display it decently. And even if you are a genius and your work is stunning who would ever be able to tell when looking on tiny screens? 

The iPhone might be a great capture tool. I know they are good for making phone calls or texts from. But they are most certainly not decent portfolio tools. Never.

Learn every part needed to participate effectively in an art culture. It's a sign of respect to your work and to the viewer to present your images correctly. It's all about putting the best foot forward and making sure the audience is comfortable. Anything less is just torture of the innocent by the painfully narcissistic. 

edit note: Let me flesh out the reason for this particular post to satisfy an anonymous commenter who asked if this take was really just a "meme" or whether I had experienced the cellphone show. I was recently asked by a college photography student if I would look at his portfolio. I assumed we were making an appointment for a future showing because I sure didn't see a physical portfolio anywhere. When I agreed he pulled out an iPhone and started doing the obnoxious "finger sweep" through an assortment of images. I stopped him and told his that I hadn't brought along a pair of glasses and that rendered this kind of showing moot. He was a bit taken aback. I suggested a future date which he hemmed and hawed about.... 

I was at Precision Camera on an errand recently and someone recognized me from a speech I had given a year or two earlier. They proceeded to come over, chat and then pull out an Android phone to show me "what they had been working on...." 

I was at Medici last week when an acquaintance just had to tell me all about the new Nikon D810 he'd bought. He pulled out his phone to regale me with some of the "incredible" shots he'd gotten with the camera, all the while doing the "finger spread" motion to enlarge portions of each image. As though I'd be able to see the difference, on a cell phone screen, between his D800e  and his new D810. 

I was doing a photo walk downtown two weeks ago when a local photographer who is known for his iPhone "art" intersected with me and pulled me into the open shade to show me some "incredible" new work he'd been doing in the streets with the same phone. I've met this character before and the best way to defuse him is to keep one's sunglasses on (couldn't see the images because of reflections, etc. anyway) and nod until his fingers finished sweeping and unsqueezing his screen and then to wish him good luck with his project and move on. 

And how many people do I meet everyday who say, "You're a professional photographer, let me show you some shots from our vacation!" And they proceed to hold their phones up in my face with their hands trembling from coffee poisoning and swish through endless dark, grainy, poorly composed shots. 

There are times when it might be okay. I had coffee recently with a friend. He had just come back from a workshop and wanted to show me what two of the models looked like. We were inside, in air conditioning. I had a happy cup of coffee in front of me. I had a pair of reading glasses with me. I was curious as to the models one of my peers had chosen over in Atlanta. I was happy to see the content of the two images he showed me. And then he had the good taste to stop. I'm actually waiting with anticipation to see a nice print of the female model he showed me. Looked like a very young Angelina Jolie. In a good way. 

But yes, this is written from recent, first hand experience. By the way, are we using the word "meme" correctly? The derivations from mimesis? To take on the property of.....?  Just checking.

And, Anonymous Commenter, thank you for "letting" me take any angle in want on your requested article about printers. Normally I just do whatever a handy authority figure orders me to do....


By the way, if  you are partial to looking at cellphone screens and think I am wrong to object you might be pleased to know that you can get the Kindle app for your iPhone or Android phone and read "The Lisbon Portfolio" between portfolio shows....