7.12.2009

Practice makes competent. Plus some Sunday observations.







I don't believe anything I read on the web or hear from other photographers about cameras. If I did I would be walking around with a Nikon D3 or a Canon 5dmk2 and some giant zoom lenses. Okay. That's a bit of hyperbole. There are a few people out there who are pretty good at making the right case for the right camera but we don't always see eye to eye because there are so many factors besides sharpness and noise to consider.

Most of my friends think I'm crazy for getting rid of all the Nikon, Kodak and Fuji stuff and moving back to the Olympus cameras. And given the parameters that they think are vital they might be right for them. But after my first full week with my Olympus stuff I'm more and more certain that I made the right choice for me. And here's the kicker: I didn't make my choices based on the great reviews given the e620 and e30 Olympus cameras. Didn't give that part much thought. The lenses were half of the decision making process but the other half was pure romance. I'd just never gotten over my largely illogical but sincere and quixotic attraction for the e1 cameras. The e1 with the battery attachment always fit my hand better than anything I'd ever used and the darn things worked.

I'd let my brain be swayed by logical arguments into turning against the e1's when the megapixel wars started to heat up. "The AA filter is too strong!" everyone said, "You'll never get any sharp detail with an e1!" Then, in true herd fashion all the photographers I know decided that the only way to shoot was in raw. It must be raw to be professional. And it was obvious that the buffer in the e1 was just too slow. Gotta have the speed. The next thing was the enormous amount of time it took for Olympus to get the next professional camera out onto the market. "They just can't compete in the professional section of the market!"

Well. I bought the e30 camera last week so I could give the art directors who care a real 12 megapixel file without any explanations. And I bought some cool lenses so I'd be ready for wide ranging jobs like the three or four annual reports we do each year. But I really did it so I could keep shooting my own stuff with the e1's.

When you buy a new system, or return to an old system, it's vital to go out and burn it in. Shoot two or three hundred shots a day until your mind and your hands remember where the controls are and just how far you can go before you start burning out detail or blocking up shadows. I think the eye-hand-mind-camera interface is important to your success as an image maker. Much more so than which camera or lens you use. When I took a class with Gary Winograd back at UT in the 1970's he suggested that we take our Leica rangefinders with us to the movies, to dinner and anywhere else we were headed and practice setting the controls without even looking at the camera. We got to know how many shutter detent clicks it took to go from 1/500th of a second o 1/15th of a second in the dark. Most of us could load a Leica in the dark. For many of us a Leica M3 or M2 was our only camera and we knew just by the sound what our shutter speed was set at.

So much of the auditory and tactile references have been obliterated by new camera design. How do you count detent clicks when changing the shutter speed is done with a button and a spinny dial? Sure you an see the display in the dark but the whole idea is to be able to set it without bringing the camera to your eye or into your subjects consciousness until the moment you need it.

I knew that I'd forgotten so much of the e1 feel so after lunch today I went total photo geek. It's 105(f) here today so I put on the Khaki shorts and my rugged walking sandals. I rummaged thru the closet to find my white Columbia shirt that's made out of the really thin fabric that blocks UV and wicks away sweat. And I grabbed my rickety old Panama hat that's been sat on by several different assistants. Drank a big glass of water and headed downtown.

Nothing much happens in downtown Austin in the middle of a Sunday afternoon in the dead of Summer. The street people were out but there wasn't anyone to panhandle from. They were heading to the shelters. Heading to the library. Heading for new shade. No tourist on the streets. A few insane natives sitting at the outdoor tables at some of the restaurants on 2nd street. Car fumes and reflected heat from acres of black top swirling around them. Desperately trying to read the paper with salt sweat burning their eyes......

And then there was me. Walking down the sidewalk with an Olympus e1 fitted with a 50mm f2 macro lens. This wasn't a "looking for adventure" type of afternoon excursion. It was a "dial it in" afternoon. How well does the spot meter track the actual exposure? Where does the sharpening work best? How wide an aperture can you shoot with and still get sharp images? How well does the auto white balance work? what tricks it?

The beauty of a simple camera with straightforward menu selections is that once you've set the parameters you've come to trust there's very little reason to fire up the "menu" switch again. The ISO, WB, Compensation, and meter settings are all accessible via dedicated buttons.

I found some rotating doors on an old government building that I'd never seen before. I might actually get some images for my "industrial decay" portfolios. I found a painted sign (Joseph's) that just saw the light of day after decades of seclusion behind another building. I think the file I've posted is perfect in all regards. I shot stuff inside an old parking garage at ISO 400 and I'll be damned if I can find the noise I'm supposed to be tripping over.

Here's my quicky assessment after four quality hours in the Texas sun: The 50mm Macro lens is really great. I'm building a small altar for it in my studio. I put the camera down an hour or so ago and I already miss it. I'm so pleased with the files. The camera, even with the battery attachment, has a demur and stealthy feel. Especially with the smaller lens. My experience today makes me wistful. Here's why. I think Olympus made the perfect digital camera and nobody "got it." When I tried to explain why I got rid of my D700 i fumbled around with the foibles of a value system in a culture that doesn't really believe that inanimate objects can contain energy and intention. I blurted out that I didn't like the D700 because it didn't have a soul. And I really believe it with the same intensity that Shinto priests believe that all of nature, the rocks and all, have spirit. The D700 is the ultimate camera for a technologist because it "measures" well and tests well, and for some people it performs well.
It always vexed me. The monitor was indifferent to my need for consistency. Change ambient light, change monitor rendering. The files were always technically perfect and lifeless. Which may say more about me than the camera.

The opposite is true for the e1 and in fact for the e system in general. There are so many technical "gotcha's". The screens on the back are small and low resolution. The files are "plagued" with a new malady called, "low per pixel sharpness!". And to most reviewers all but the latest Olympus cameras are saddled with more ugly noise than all the early heavy metal music pumped through giant speakers in the back of a teenager's car. But. But. These cameras have soul. They connect with your hand and your heart.

I'll understand if you don't think this is rational. It's certainly not measurable. But none the less it's how I view the whole deal. Do I wish that Olympus cameras had great flash performance like the Nikons? You bet. Do I wish they had the high ISO noise profile of the Canon full frame cameras? You bet. But they've got at least two things going in their favor: They have wonderful lenses (and very rational focal lengths). And they have soul, energy and spirit. ( I wonder if this is easier to explain in Japanese?)

RAW VERSUS JPEG REVISITED.

I had coffee the other day with an old friend and he was talking about the Will Crockett, "Kill it and Bill it" philosophy. In a nutshell it goes something like this: With a good light meter, good work habits and well profiled cameras and assorted support gear you should be able to nail your images in Jpeg such that they need NO adjustment or post processing. No butt time. No layers and layers of adjustment and plug in massage.

I think he's right. Sure, if I was photographing the landing of Alien Beings in quickly changing light at Opray's wedding on assignment for National Geographic Magazine I'd probably hedge my bets and shoot in Raw. But for most of the stuff we shoot SHQ or highest quality Jpeg seems to be pretty fabulous. After hearing about this I've embraced it as a bit of a challenge and I'm getting a lot more careful about using and assessing my incident meter as well as shooting tests while tethered so I can have a much better idea of what the screen on the back of the camera is telling me as related to the image on the calibrated studio monitor. Even if I revert to shooting RAW I'd like to think that the practice will make the raw conversion process quicker and more effective. And even in raw lack of perfect exposure exacts a penalty. Always.

In a roundabout way I consider highest res Jpeg the "real" professional's format. Anyone can shoot sloppy raw and fix stuff. In a way it's like the old slide film versus negative film argument. The lab was the raw converter for the negative film. Interesting that the newest cameras give an unequalled amount of feedback, information and control and yet we feel constrained to hedge our bets even more. Where is the sense of challenge? Of mastery? Ultimately, where is the sense of control?

Finally, I've been reading a lot of books from my Publisher, Amherst Media. Most of the books I've read through lately are squarely aimed at portrait and wedding photographers. And when I first started going through them I was a bit dismissive about the information because we always saw ourselves as somehow more sophisticated if we shot advertising and corporate that the guys who did weddings and portraits. Fat chance. The one thing that comes thru loud and clear is the fact that there aren't any dilettantes in this group of writer/photographers. To their credit they see their business as a business and they have mastered the most important part. Not the purchasing and testing of new equipment. They've learned how to market and sell.

I learned something brilliant in nearly every copy I read. Cliff Hollenbeck's book was superb. It pays to read what other parts of our industry are doing. Just as many ASMP and other editorial photographers have discovered this decade: There's money in weddings and babies.

MARKETING NOTE: If you like the blog take a moment to check out my second book over on Amazon. I feel like it's the bastard stepchild. We named it, Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Studio Photography, because many of the lighting techniques were done in the studio or with studio lights. That's led a number of potential readers to bypass it because they don't have studios or they have perception that they'll need a studio to use the techniques. But, in fact, the theories and practicals are absolutely universal, and the book is full of good info about lighting in general. Maybe just go to the page and read the reviews......get your library to order a copy.


Finally, If you didn't find today's entry particularly scintillating or relevant, or you find it downright bizarre just remember I've spent most of the day walking around in the heat. The temperature may have addled my brain cells. Have a great week.