Finding our footing for the future in Imaging.

Two things kill formerly successful enterprises. The first is loving and holding on to the past too strongly. The second is not leveraging the lessons already learned. Seems contradictory on the surface but the argument is solid in both directions.

First, a simple observation from financial services experts: People are reticent to sell off a stock they've bought even when they are almost certain that the value is dropping, and will continue to drop. Why? because, irrationally, they are already emotionally invested in the stock and hope that it will rally. They are afraid they will lose what they've already invested if they bail out but might win by persevering. History tells us that a hasty retreat often prevents bleeding out entirely over time. People who take early action preserve the capital needed to try again.

An observation from business: Companies often spend enormous money in R&D to create a product which is then found to be unprofitable at the price points (and costs) at which the product should be sold. Most companies are slow to pull the plug on the product because they already have so much invested in the product. They can't bear to "lose" the initial investments. So they ride the product all the way down to bankruptcy. In our industry it now seems prescient that Samsung chose to quickly shut down their camera division in the face of compelling research about the overall sales declines anticipated, market wide.

If a real estate investor happens to get lucky by being in the right place at the right time, and happens to make a ton of money, they translate the "luck" into the idea that they are a superior investor, endowed with foresight, intuition, etc. Historically, most wind up losing their shirts on the next deals -- a result of relying on their subjective point of view about markets instead of hard fact. Witness Nikon's hamfisted entry (and now hamfisted exit) from the ILC mirrorless market. And the "Go Pro - Me Too!" market.

Often, as companies grow, they lose sight of their original mission; their core offerings and core cultures which brought them success in the first place. Kodak came to believe that their business was information technology and film sales. Their core business was really helping people to take better photographs and to help people simplify and enjoy the process of taking "pictures." By focusing on the nuts and bolts of manufacturing and distribution, and the enterprise markets, they missed the pivot to digital that was all to obvious to the bulk of their customers.

Apple Computer faltered when they decided that their market was a share of the commodity personal computer market. They rebounded and enjoy historic success after re-discovering that their real core value is to provide an easier way for people to communicate, work and play. A laser-like focus on the past, and their role as just computer makers, would have doomed them. The realization that they were offering beautifully designed, simple and powerful communication tools to individuals allowed them to look beyond computers to phones, music and entertainment.

I write this because I have been fascinated by the launch of the Sony A9 and the backlash against the A9 by traditional users. In one sense I think Sony is missing the big picture and the opportunity to do what Apple did and to create tightly integrated ecosystem for their imaging products. To optimize the software between camera and camera, and camera and phone and camera, phone and TV. I am amazed that there isn't a huge Sony channel on the internet that allows one to take "micro" courses about the best use of their products and mini-payment courses that help consumers to make better photographs and videos with all products (including Sony's) at their fingertips. Wouldn't it be wonderful if all their tools and menus were seamlessly integrated, and actually fun to interconnect?

On the other hand I am fascinated by the rejection of progress in deference to tradition that I see in the makers (and users) of traditional camera products. And even more amazed at how slowly the most expert and invested camera owners embrace future trends, styles and methods when compared to even the most mainstream users with simple devices like smartphones. The smartphone users have no long  term investment in the traditions of video and photography so they are not concerned that using new type of product to make a new kind of image or program will "rob" them of what they feel they have invested in over the years = mastery of traditional, technique driven methodologies. 

Traditional users continue to make photographs in traditional ways with traditional tools (and I am mostly speaking only about the commercial markets) because they are afraid to confront the implied loss of their knowledge investments. Their love for a reliably unchanged way of doing their processes also fosters the avoidance of new experimentation and hampers their ability to move beyond their current comfort zones; which is vital for keeping up with cultural evolution.  You see it most in traditional business like portrait photography. The advertising (and tradition) of portrait photography revolve around the mastery of studio lighting techniques and rote formulas for lighting and posing. Three point lighting. Softboxes. Monolights. Portrait focal lengths. Portrait Professional Software for skin detail obliteration. Vignetted edges. Sparkly catchlights. Muslin backgrounds.

The average corporate customers (and most potential retail customers)  are currently looking for environmental portraits taken on location. Portraits that might need to be lit but should appear to be done with available light. Portraits that are authentic. They reject many of the traditional poses and lighting schemes in pursuit of a more current visual aesthetic. The slow to adapt portrait photographers are not trying to push their clients into the future, rather the clients seem to be dragging the photographers (kicking and screaming) along for the ride. The photographers fear their loss of the investment they have made in the traditional trappings of their field, long after those trappings have started to lose their cachet.

We really aren't in the business of creating physical photographs anymore. Most of the techniques in that past were aimed at shoehorning the wider dynamic range of film onto the smaller target range of a photographic print, or printed, 4 color reproduction. We are now in a more wide-ranging visual communications business. We create visual content for our clients that is almost uniformly ephemeral and electronic, and its acceptance tracks its use. If we accept that there has been a massive shift in consumer consumption of visual marketing from the printed page and printed photo to the (ever growing) cell phone screen we can understand why clients are looking for tighter and tighter composition (more graphic = more easily readable messaging on smaller screens) and why images with movement are so attractive to our clients as they pursue results in their advertising.

We humans are invested with millions of years of evolution and training as hunters and gatherers. We are hardwired to notice motion, both for our personal safety and, until very, very recently, for the pursuit of edible things. Our stereo vision allows us to see in depth and our eye/brain system is optimized for noting changing patterns and motion. But because motion picture production with film was costly and technical we were "allowed" to ignore it and pursue photography as a "separate" medium. Now the effect of technology is flattening everything; from the way we bank to the way we create and consume visual media, and the people slowest to understand and embrace an obvious technology shift and aesthetic shift are the people who would most likely benefit from its application for clients. It's now as cheap to produce video as it is to produce still images.

There is very little required to make video beyond a good camera and its lenses. A microphone or two and lights that can be used continuously. Other than that one can edit with free software and distribute with free sharing channels like YouTube and Vimeo. If our core business is creating visual content, and the cultural value proposition of visual content is shifting toward video, how does it make sense to ignore it? Why not preserve profitability through continued education, and the application thereof?

I thought about all these things in the context of the A9 launch. To my mind Sony took a marketing step backward with that camera. The succumbed to playing the traditionalist's game. They are out to prove that their camera is "as good" or "slightly better" at doing exactly what the traditional DSLRs already do, and do quite well; tracking fast motion, and shooting quickly in sports and fast moving wildlife situations. Areas that actually have less to do with most commercial photography than the 7/10th of the commercial content creation iceberg we don't read about on popular websites. In competing in exactly those parameters Sony is stepping backwards and actually re-affirming a priority status to those narrow attributes/ feature sets as being vital to the photographer's mission ---- when they are anything but.

Panasonic has the market differentiation much more wisely figured out in their newest cameras. They repudiate the notion of single image capture inefficiency altogether with their 6k capture feature. You are essentially shooting 6K (18 megapixel) video from which you can review and snag the perfect frame from a continuum. Set a high enough shutter speed and you will freeze action. If you shoot sports you could capture long bursts at 24 fps and have precise moments captured. Since you are shooting video frames there is no black out and no buffer consideration. And it's current in cameras that cost less than $2000. It's already a proven technology. But it's a side step instead of a head to head contest. It's almost a way of yawning and saying, "Fast fps still imaging? That's so last century."

Had Sony concentrated on making the A9 a much more video-forward camera, and incorporated something like 6K or 8K video, they may not have won over Nikon and Canon traditionalists who might be ready to move on but they would have solidified the idea that the very nature of shooting fast action is changing and that they (along with Panasonic) own the new paradigm of sports imaging for now and into the near future. But they dropped that ball when they compared what could have been a fuel injected camera against a box full of four barreled carburetor equipped cameras in one of the few contests in which the old guard still hold relevance.

If you are engaged in traditional photography with a traditional camera and you probably either persist in photography strictly for your own pleasure, or you have found a photographic niche that is immune to the progress of media as it relates to popular (commercial) culture. You have no reason to do any soul searching or, in fact, consider moving on from any camera/style/art you currently enjoy. You certainly don't need to embrace video production. In fact, it might even be counter productive for you. But if you are engaged with advertising agencies, large corporations (especially tech and product oriented ones) or even local businesses that have  services and products that can be demonstrated visually then you are already engaged in the battle to stay relevant and to offer a changing menu of content services to your clients, and the companies you would love to have as clients.

I've made a conscious choice to pursue integrating video into the services that I offer. But I am not interested in pursuing video in a traditional manner. I'm not interested in going backward into highly complex and very expensive cameras or methodologies of production that require large crews and large capital expenditures. Those methods are for people who want to make movies and who have access to millions of dollars of production budget. I am much more interested in offering "right-sized" productions that nearly every client can afford, and which bigger clients can afford more and more often.

It's easy to get swept up in the "no holds barred" narrative of big budget movie making and to believe, by extension, that you must compete in your market with the same tools or be perceived to un-professional, but this is an irrational way of approaching your engagement with the medium. The expenditures constitute part of a risk/reward ratio. Movie makers spend millions on production (mostly on salaries and only secondarily on technology) in order to potentially make billions in ROI. They must bring everything imaginable to the table. But most of our commercial clients won't see the same risk/reward ratios in their engagement with the kinds of video that will constitute the work most of us undertake. Our clients will be happy if their CEO looks good and sounds good and doesn't flub his lines. The tech company will be happy if the video you create to show how to install their part in another product is bright, clear and detailed and shows the correct angles, steps and explanatory close-ups at the right times. Our medical client will be happy if we show off their flagship products with real people engaged in Activities of their Daily Lives and we capture some real emotion/excitment/new confidence in their subsequent "testimonial" interviews.

Technology that allows us to do both still photography and video interchangeably is here. The push from the clients to supply kinetic content is here. And the nice thing for us is that it requires mostly continuing education and experience and not huge investments in gear. For the person starting their pathway through the combined media the best "hybrid" camera is probably the one they already own. Whether it's a Canon Rebel, a Nikon D7200 or one of many mirror-free cameras on the market it will probably do a great (or good) job of making 1080p HD video. The tripod you already own can usually be used with the addition of a cost effective fluid head. There are any number of "good enough" microphones on the market for less than $150 that can be used directly, plugged into your camera's microphone socket.

You will spend a few months and a lot of practice editing your video. You will find your still photographs from a typical assignment that calls for both media to be very useful as additional visual content in your finished video. Nothing seems to make a marketing director happier than the act of their "team"  shooting a good, corporate, "talking head" video and then watching their artist click a few controls and then make a beautiful, photographic portrait in the same location...with the same lighting. And the same camera.

All of this is within our reach. All of it will be increasingly in demand from our clients. All of it is profitable.

In a week and a day I'll head out of town to shoot my twelfth video/photo assignment of the year. I won't be shooting it with a $12,000 camera and a $5,000 lens. I won't have a crew of ten. I am sitting here today planning the right way to right size the project for the budget and the targeted results. The video will be used on a corporate share sites in close proximity with dozens of other similar videos of widely varying production value. It will be compressed. It will be seen by a small audience of people who have a keen interest in the subject matter.

I'll go with a crew of two. Myself and an assistant. If we need an additional set of hands, to hold a reflector, we'll have a collaborative client in tow who values good teamwork. We'll be shooting all of the content in 4K video. I'll shoot the interview with two cameras. One will, no doubt, be the redoubtable Sony RX10iii. The second will likely be either a Sony RX10ii or a Panasonic FZ2500. All are quite capable of good performance when used with good light. I'll bring along a Sony A7rii for photographs and I'll bring it with just three primes; the 28, 50, 85 (all inexpensive but capable f1.8 or f2.0 lenses).

I'll bring three or four LED lights, probably a mix of battery powered and plug in models. We'll bring a couple of shotgun microphones and a set of lavaliere microphones (just in case). My total investment in gear, to work on this location, will be less than $10,000. We'll get work done that makes the client happy and ensures we get paid.

When I look into the future of imaging I see a blending of photography and video. Some people will still play in separate and lofty niches. Production companies will favor mostly creating video because the budgets are nearly always bigger. Former stills-only photographers will mix between media with abandon. Everyone will be cognizant that the overall advertising market is changing with the larger share of money now being spent on moving images and a declining amount spent on pure, still photography. Figuring out where you want to be and how you want to get there is the challenge.

I think we're up for the challenge. Change is scary but learning and mastering new stuff is a wonderful motivator. And new mastery keeps us relevant.


Everything seemed upside down at Eeyore's Birthday Party this year. Austin, Texas seemed to get its magic back..

inverted AcroYoga.

It was hot and sticky outside today. It was also going to rain. I was going to stay home but I just couldn't bear to miss one of the last remaining, pure Austin events: Eeyore's Birthday Party. 

It was cloudy and grey. The perfect day for a bout of black and white. Trusty Sony RX10xxx. 

In other news: We live in Texas. We should expect things like this, but it was still jarring to look out from the dining room and see a four foot long rattlesnake wrapping around the base of the tree next to the door. Oddly enough, a squirrel chased it from the tree and the snake slithered off toward the fence line. I went out to look for it later but had no luck. Or all the luck in the world....

Anyone can make a good studio portrait if they follow a few steps.

1. Learn the theories around photography. How cameras work. The effects of aperture and shutter speed. Different effects from different ISOs. How cameras render three dimensional objects in a two dimensional medium.

2. Learn the general and specific theories of light and lighting. Figure out how to make light soft, directional, beautiful, powerful, etc. Also, learn when to use each kind of light... how to accentuate texture or reduce it. How to work with different color temperatures in different light sources.

3. Figure out how to pose people so they look their best.....or, at least, interesting. Then figure out what kind of wardrobe would complement your vision of your subjects.

4. Learn how to socialize and converse with people that you want to photograph; how to engage them and make them comfortable in the process of being photographed. (Note: this may take time and some degree of educating oneself about interesting topics while figuring out how to delete the negative effects of ego from your interactions). 

5. Learn how to position a person in front of a background which will not compete for attention with the main subject but is still germane to the art of your photograph. Placement onsiderations will also include: distance from camera to subject, the right focal length lens to use, the distance from the subject to the background, and the distance between the lights and the subjects. Oh, yes, and the distance between the light modifiers and the lights....

6. Work for several decades, experimenting and learning about many different styles, until one day you observe that you have developed a unique style of engaging, lighting and photographing the people you find attractive and/or interesting.

7. Buy a camera and lens which faithfully reproduce the level of detail you desire along with the perfect blend of nearly intangible parameters, such as the quality of out of focus backgrounds and the meticulous separation of tones in the finished work.

8. Buy lights that have enough output to use to good effect with the modifiers that you have (through trial and error) learned best translate your vision into your style of photographing. Then buy light stands to support the lights and more light stands to support the modifiers and backgrounds that your style compels you to use.

9. Create an emotionally safe space for your subjects so they can let down their guards and relate to you as an interesting and engaged person in a mutually beneficial collaboration. On a more prosaic note, make sure your space is not too hot and not too cold; and doesn't smell badly. 

10. When all the parts come together push the shutter button.


Mixing media is what's making my transition to shooting more video fun. And appealing to my clients.

Video and photography have always seemed to be two different camps. One camp is dedicated to freezing the perfect moment while the other camp is equally dedicated to telling stories with moving images. For a long time the intersection between the camps was almost non-existent. Photographers were happy to leave video alone and concentrate on heading out in the world with their "optical butterfly nets" to capture perfect, individual images they hoped would grab the attention of viewers and hold them in the moment. Videographers grudgingly used still photographs in their edits when the topic of their work no longer existed in any other form. Think of the work Ken Burns did with his "Civil War" TV series... an impressive use of photographic archives and collections.

The inclusion of photographs in documentary video has largely limited to historic photographs. Old scenes captured mostly in black and white. Images of 1970's protests caught on slides and negatives but not always on video and certainly not to the same extent.

I've been doing a bunch of editing on my video projects recently and I began to realize how valuable concurrent photography could be as content in my moving picture work. I first started using still images to supplement video content for an interview I did with Dave Jarrott who played the part of J. Edgar Hoover in a play about President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The interview ended up cut down to about six minutes but we had not shot any b-roll and we only used one camera angle for the project. A week or so later I photographed the dress rehearsal of the play and made a point to shoot  as many images of Dave Jarrott in his role as I could.

I went back to the original edit (which includes what I felt was just the right content) and started layering in still images. Some of the additions were utilitarian; they covered visible edit points which were jarring but unavoidable. But some images I added because I thought their visual resonance added power to the verbal content Dave was sharing. In the end I mixed in over 50 still images over the six minutes of interview dialog. The dress rehearsal photos were in color and needed to stay that way to convey the feel of the stage lighting and the set design but that led me to convert the color interview footage to black and white which I felt very much enhanced the feel of the project. I shared the finished piece with the theater's artistic director and he was amazed --- and very enthusiastic about reposting the interview.


With this good experience under my belt I headed to Canada to shoot four more videos. This time I made the shooting of still images an important part of my process. I wanted a folder full of relevant images to pepper through the four interviews in order to re-inforce messaging and to help pace the overall presentation. The style guide of the client is to make the videos at least 25% black and white but not more than 50% of the overall video program. This helped nudge me in the opposite direction I had taken in the previous project. Now I was making the still images black and white and the main interview footage color and it seemed to work well for me as well as the client.

With each project I see more and more how I can leverage my still photographer's sense of composition and timing, along with lighting and effective post production to make content that enhances the flow of the videos.

By the time I was ready to interview the star of the "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" production, at Zach Theatre, I had already created still photographs at both the tech and dress rehearsals and had over 1200 still images at my disposal with which to edit. As the project came together I couldn't find a rationale for making some parts black and white and some color so I kept the entire project in color. The images capture emotional high points in the show that couldn't be easily re-created in the course of a quick interview (if at all). I was able to match the emotional feel of the images to the content of the conversation we created. It was remarkable to me to see how much more alive the interview became with the inclusion of the photographs; mostly because they are so precisely aligned with what Chanel is telling us; sentence by sentence.


To do the same thing totally in video might have been possible but not nearly as easy. Shooting photographs in raw allows so much post production enhancement to the images. Flesh tones can be matched and improved, microphones removed from the frames, shadows lightened and defined areas of saturation boosted. I could fine tune noise reduction and increase sharpness at will. In short, I could touch each frame with as much work as it needed to have in a way that would be extraordinarily costly and time consuming in video. All of this adds to the perceived production value of the final piece.

This method can be done by a team such as a videographer working in tandem with a photographer, or you can embrace the philosophy of "One Man Movies" and do what you need to in phases. It's not always easy to switch gears and go between video and stills seamlessly. I needed to shoot the dress and tech rehearsals strictly as still photography to make sure I didn't miss anything that was potentially critical for marketing and advertising. Video during that process would have been a distraction. And when I shot the interviews there was no way to re-light the stage, change costumes and shoot the hundreds and hundreds of different poses and emotional inflections I was able to get in the still images. Doing each separately was good for the process.

I've shown a fairly large number of regular commercial clients the final version of the "Lady Day..." video and they have been very complementary and quite interested in understanding how we can make the technique of mixing photography and video together work for their future projects. In most cases the best way to proceed is to interview first and then catch a combination of photos and video of the subjects covered in the interviews afterward. Some parts will lend themselves to video while some of the more "heroic" images might lend themselves to stills. Photographs that add value by dint of being able to be optimized, layered, composited, etc. are especially valuable because many of the effects one can do to maximize the impact of a still frame are extravagant and costly when done in video.

I'm booked on two more healthcare projects and we just bid on a mixed media project for a utility company. Each of the projects is a good candidate for the intermixing of stills and video and the art directors involved are on board. It's fun for me to make a transition across media without loosening my grasp on the art that's brought me so far along this journey. Just a new way to frame and deliver the photographs I've always loved doing while putting a big smile on the faces of my clients.

That I was able to make the second video  (Lady Day...) and shoot the stills with just one $1200 camera continues to amaze me. It's more and more obvious to me that the idea and the production is more important than the actual cameras at every step of the process. No magic bullets, no magic beans; just the joy of doing the work.


Revisiting an older camera with a brand new lens. Just right.

....and, at the opposite end of the Sony a9 "Halo" spectrum sits the often overlooked A7ii...

I've lately been a bit unconvinced that the Sony a9 is the greatest thing to hit the camera world since through the lens metering. I'm also starting to think that my disregard for that camera grows in proportion to the sheer number of "news" outlets, blogs and review sites participating in the "gush-fest." The all out barrage of reviews and articles, concentrated into a short period of time, seems almost disingenuous. Almost like Sony is trying too hard with their new model. The rush to review it also smells slightly of desperation as well. As if reviewers are so hungry to have a product to tout, and link to, that they've become little more than force multipliers for Sony.

While I am fairly sure that the a9 will be a nice camera and people will enjoy using it I am also fairly certain that it won't make people who buy it better photographers and it won't make their photographs any more interesting. Interesting photography generally only happen when one points a camera at something genuinely interesting. I am certain that the a9 will be an effective tool in aiding Sony's quest to pull more cash from people's credit card accounts. None of this has anything to do with what "pros" need or want. And none of this has to do with how much money it may (or may not) cost to switch systems.

So, this morning when the articles veered into an incomprehensible argument about the financial efficacy of switching entire systems I gave up reading everything and went looking for a camera that met my criteria; a comfortable and friendly camera to carry around. A daily user. A bargain. One that I already owned...

While I am still in awe at the amazingly detailed files achievable from the A7Rii and endlessly impressed with the 4K video performance of the RX10iii (and its remarkable lens) the most comfortable and usable camera in my small collection is my particular copy of the plain vanilla A7ii. It's a camera I bought used for around $1,000. There was some scuffery on the rear LCD panel which made it much less than minty but since I only use the LCD for menu setting it doesn't affect my use of the camera.

The A7ii is the bottom of the rung when it comes to the newer A7xx cameras. The 24 megapixel sensor, while not state of the art, was good enough for those zany folks at DXO to rate it a 90. The body is small and dense, just the way I like my cameras. The finder is adequate and external controls are nicely designed and placed for me. I've even made peace with the menus; in fact, I now find them almost logical.

The camera is the perfect size for me but it also works well with an added battery grip. And sometimes it's nice to go for the grip ... it's great to have a second battery in the mix to allow for more shooting time and less battery monitoring.

The camera does nothing very special at all. It just combines a good, high enough resolution capability with a very usable EVF and a workmanlike 1080p video function.

But it's the lack of perfection or high performance (or high cost) that endears the camera to me. I am not reticent to use it hard, to carry it with me everywhere and to use it on just about any job.
I use the Rii when I need ultimate performance and I use the RX10iii for killer video but I use the A7ii when I want to be comfortable and at home with the camera in my hand.

I've recently and slowly been putting together a pared down travel system based around the full frame A7ii. The first choice was the inexpensive FE 50mm f1.8. It's a really, really good lens with nice performance nearly wide open and excellent performance when it gets to f5.6. The next lens in the plan was one of my all time favorite focal lengths, the FE 85mm f1.8. It's a fabulous 85mm. I think I have a good handle on lenses around this focal length having owned, and extensively used, the original Canon 85mm f1.1.2, several variants of the Nikon 85mm f1.4, the Canon and Nikon 85mm f1.8 lenses, the Zeiss 85mm f1.4 for Nikon and other "mystical" lenses such as the Leica 80mm f1.4 Summilux R and the 90mm Summicron R and M.

The new, $600 Sony FE 85mm f1.8 is just great. Nicely sharp wide open and exquisitely sharp a couple of stops down.

That left only one slot to be filled and that was the focal length range between 24mm and 35mm. I have several zooms that cover those focal lengths but I was looking for a trim little system that would fit well in a small Domke camera bag to take on the road and in my mind that meant finding a small, sharp single focal length lens. A bonus would be a fast maximum aperture.

Sometimes I trust my intuition and sometimes my intuition waffles. I settled on the Sony FE 28mm f2.0 lens but waffled. I read a lot of reviews and then I decided not to procrastinate and I bought a new copy of that lens. It arrived yesterday and I'm smitten. It's small and light, fits well into the travel system, and is fast enough to work in just about any situation, in conjunction with the decent low light performance of the camera.

My initial tests show me that the 28mm is sharp in the focused plane, even wide open, and gets sharper and sharper as I stop it down. By f5.6 it's pretty amazing. It shows off amazing nano-acuity. I know that it has a good amount of distortion but this is 2017 and the camera corrects it in Jpeg files while Lightroom and ACR corrects the distortion easily when working with RAW files.

Now I have a happy system that delivers wonderful technical performance for the kind of impromptu photography I love to do. I have space in that bag for one more thing. I'd like to find a second well used A7ii body to toss into one of the side pockets of the bag, just for a back-up.

I walked with the A7ii+28mm today and I'm very, very happy to have them. They help to make photography fun. Just plain, good fun.