Thursday, January 19, 2012

Doting on the XZ-1

Immediately after my accident and the month and a half or so into the recovery phase that logically followed, there was one dominant priority at the forefront of my mind. Get a camera. On a personal level, it was a rather telling thing that the first thing that I felt compelled to address after such a traumatic event was the acquisition of a replacement imaging tool. Really solidified the importance photography has in my day to day life. The funds weren't present for immediate investment in a replacement system, what with all the medical billing shenanigans going on at the time, so I looked at the market of pro-sumer compacts that had always appealed to my inner minimalist and I dropped the necessary half a C-note on the best of the best available, Olympus' flagship compact, the XZ-1.

It's a tiny little thing. Pocket-able, unlike the Canon G10 which I used avidly maybe a year or so before. In the hand, it just doesn't feel like all that impressive of an instrument, more akin to your grandmother's Kodak branded point-and-shoot plastic box than a professionally oriented tool. But I'll be damned if the thing doesn't take occasion to put even my larger format systems to shame. It has some undeniable strengths.

More and more I find myself compelled to put the unique imaging latitude of the XZ-1 to use in favor of the E-P3 system, especially when the subject of interest in outdoors and in waning light. I couldn't possibly begin to express why it is able to do so, but the RAW files it produces have an absolutely magic quality to them. Despite the diminutive sensor backing it, highlights have a wonderful shoulder to them in their transition into middle tones (which I admittedly screw up almost habitually by cranking the recovery slider up to 100, an unfortunate instinct). The dynamic range of which the sensor is sensitive to is unreasonable broad for such tiny piece of silicon, very readily bringing out much detail in shadowed areas without the expected sacrifice of highlight retention typical of sensors of its size. Whatever programming mastery backs the unit is as wonderful as it is perfect. Colors, noise (up to ISO 200 anyway), dynamic range, they all simply... impress. And they do so with a very analog, candid, expired film look and feel that resonates deep with me as I'm often reticent to return to film these days. To have a sensor that produces images very much akin to the look of old, washed out film (but with enough digital pizazz to come across as clean and rendered with intent rather than happy chance) is like a dream come true.

My fondness of the XZ-1 is likely rooted with my introduction to photography in the thought-out, less casual sense. Sure, I'd snapped a few with old film cameras before, gone through my share of film for fun, but it wasn't until getting my hands on that first Kodak DCS digital camera, that 1 megapixel clunky behemoth that ushered in the digital era of imaging, that I ever took photography to heart as a serious art form. Up to then I was all about traditional media, charcoal, pen, colored pencils, occasionally paint. Perhaps the reason why mirrorless cameras resonate with me in general is based on how I learned to compose and photograph in the beginning. The viewfinder of that old Kodak was miserable and tiny, useless for most applications and especially in low light. It became a much more comfortable and second nature habit to use the live view of the larger back screen to compose the photograph, much like I would visualize a subject for prospective charcoal sketch or painting. It just made more sense to work in that way. Only years later would I acquire my first DSLR and learn what a viewfinder could actually be, but I still felt more comfortable composing on a screen than via pentaprism. Old habits die hard, I suppose. About the only thing the pentaprism permitted over composition on a screen was an abstract personal connection to the subject, something that only ever had poignant affect when photographing people, but that's a whole other subject entirely. Point being, I feel more comfortable composing on a large screen, at arms length, so to speak, because it hearkens back to the way I would visualize before approaching art in more traditional media.

It has its limitations. And I like that. The limits are the challenge the tool presents the user, and while most people depict those as shortcomings of a lesser camera, I take them on as personal challenges against which to combat, to force the strongest possible image and maybe even break that glass ceiling. That is perhaps what I feel myself doing every time I use the XZ-1 in place of its (at least technically) more capable older brother. Compacts aren't supposed to present a shoulder to tone curves. Compacts aren't supposed to be so damn sharp (and let me tell you, the Zuiko glass in front of that tiny sensor out-resolves it by several orders of magnitude, so much so that wide open it's unreasonably sharp). Compacts aren't supposed to present a width breadth of tonal range, allowing detail retention in shadows and highlights alike. They simply aren't designed with that intent in mind. Compacts are made for the casual shooter, or as a shoddy backup, not ever with the intent of being a dedicated, front line tool in the field. But dammit, the XZ-1 stands out among the crowd of premium compacts as being uniquely capable of standing on its own as a primary shooter, not a backup. Small as it may be, it has the core control functions demanded of any pro. The only way in which it doesn't stand up to serious field work is in the lack of impression it makes on clients (which is very much a similar problem experienced with even its older brother in the mirrorless camera markets).

Tonight there is a certain night shooting extravaganza planned to occur. While tempted to bring along the E-P3 and its 12mm f/2.0, I had a hunch that it would not be the preferred item for the venue chosen. I've always adhered to a minimalist approach to photography ventures, and tonight will be a venture most minimal. Just 2 pieces of equipment - the XZ-1 and a tripod. Like old times when I would wander out onto the streets of my home town at night, studying light and shadow, reacting to it, stopping for the exposure and then moving on. A truly minimalist, kneejerk approach. I'm looking forward to it. That little Zuiko lens' aperture produces some sexy fine pointed sunstars, after all.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

SOPA/PIPA Awareness

I'm usually one not to mingle business, pleasure and politics. Trifecta as they are for some, the directly interfere with each other most of the time for me. Particularly the politics one, it just doesn't seem to be trustworthy to play with anybody.

As some of you may have already realized, many websites today are either outright blocked or minimal in content in a form of active protest today against the SOPA/PIPA acts dancing through Congress riding on the backs of heavy investment by the entertainment industry. While at a shallow level they are bills intended to curb piracy, they are worded with loose enough language to quite literally destroy the freely growing culture that has defined the internet up to this point, and if history is any teacher it shouldn't be long before that loose language becomes the slippery slope down which the internet falls. We could very quickly have an internet much akin to that which China experiences, limited and tightly controlled, only instead of censored by government standards we would be at the whim of frivolous copyright infringement suits laid upon us by the largest of entertainment brands. Fair Use would quickly be a thing of the past, for who has the financial power to compete against the limitless funds at which we'd be mercilessly thrown against?

Please, take the time to do the research if you haven't already. And if you have, then take the time to contact your Senator, your Congressman, their secretaries, the President, someone, anyone with an inkling of power of this issue. This bill cannot pass into law, lest the internet be reduced to little more than commercialized radio or the shell of corporate cable TV. Keep the internet free and it stays the wealth of knowledge whereby anyone can learn about anything. Keep words free. Keep knowledge free. Keep creativity free. Keep the dream alive.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

System Disparity

Oh hello there, Kneejerk Imagery blog, I forgot you existed for a while.

Pardon my hiatus, but the period between my last posting and now was filled with rampant, indiscriminate photography in practice, and my return to posting has only occurred due to the tire-locking brakes put on my creative momentum due to a particularly persistent (and immensely annoying) cold. So please, allow me to present you with an update on the status of Kneejerk and its exploits in this (thus far) most glorious of New Years.

Perhaps by accident (but much more likely by surreptitious intent), I've acquired a new partner in my forays into the detritus of discarded Western architecture. The repeat subject of candid portraits I met rather late into last year, Kyle, has taken a particularly strong interest in the scenic subjects predominantly featured in my online galleries, enough to express interest in visiting them in person to satisfy his curious appetite. Normally I am one to keep these locations private, but having developed a solid working relationship with Kyle and having discussed in great detail his core motivations for wanting to visit there derelict locales, I saw an opportunity to further nurture the relationship into a collaborative effort in the artistic. Having engaged in multiple "explores" with him at this point, he may very well amount to one of the best partners in crime I'm had.

Our first outing he brought along a camera of his own, a solid Nikon superzoom, but given that his interest lay less in the photography and more in the simple pleasures of exploring the unseen, he often asked if I would like to put his camera to use. Subsequent expeditions he traveled sans camera completely, opting instead to bolster his assortment of equipments to include many tools that would make even the most hardened explorer drool with jealousy. With this local and very focused compatriot available to coordinate with for expeditions, I found myself willing to take far more risks with locations, expanding from my countryside locales deeper and deeper into the less pleasant areas of the inner city. While my guard is down in the middle of composing a photograph, Kyle manages to be ever vigilant, often volunteering himself to be the point man of the expedition, clearing areas prior to my entry. An appreciated service. I owe him more than he knows.

Interestingly enough, he and I have even encountered a couple of the worst case scenarios for explorers such as ourselves, what with flustered, shotgun toting property owners and thumping helicopters having been obstacles in the way of our benign objectives. In all such instances, his conduct has been most impressive - without a word needing to be uttered, he knew not to panic, and as if on some telepathic wavelength we operated as necessary in perfect unison to avoid unfortunate and dire consequences in pursuit of high art. Suffice to say he is a long awaited boon. I am proud to have him accompanying me on our little adventures.

What with the recent and successful pairing with Kyle on so many explores, I felt encouraged to escape the hermit shell of my former modus operandi of solo exploration and actually latched onto the reigns of the urban exploration community at large. Though my New Years Eve saw early conclusion in a 10pm bedtime, the first day of 2012 was spent with a couple of the community's more hardcore iconic figures on a day-long road trip to a neighboring city and great trio of successful inner city explores. An absolutely fantastic time, to say the least.

The third of the New Year's Day explores would stand as a personal landmark occasion on a private measure. For a long time I've harbored an irrational fear of heights. It has often left several choice opportunities for impacting images unfulfilled, such simple obstacles as a ladder or moderate climb over a ledge face standing as my ultimate undoing. On New Year's Day, the third explore of the group was a certain high rise building of ill condition. Though I have explored many a building of notably sour condition, this one in particular very much took the cake for being the superior deathtrap. It was a structural nightmare, with a majority of stairs collapsed, ceilings sinking in, and the rooftop itself was an imploding funnel of certain doom some double digit stories high above the concrete jungle. But dammit, I scaled that building, and I indulged in the forbidden pleasures of my first rooftop. And by god was it a gorgeous view, and among the most liberating of feelings.

A good start to the new year. Far better than the sloppy drunken mess that rang in the misery of 2011.

Energized by that Hallmark moment of conquering the self, I was invigorated, eager to punch forward at 2012 with a binge of exploration. With Kyle at my side, that vigor was expressed most magnificently. No longer was it suffice to stick to locales I'd explored before, no, I was encouraged to venture forth to new ones. And in the first week of 2012 I already had 5 new locations under the proverbial belt. Challenges were faced, but with a good partner and a keen shared instinct they were conquered. Honestly cannot think of a better way to have rung in this New Year. I can only hope it is replete with the successes it has been met with so early on its timeline.

To boot, with the ringing of the New Year, so came the opportunity to make the final necessary purchases to complete my Olympus System, not just bringing me back to the capabilities which I'd lost with the death of the GF1 and 20mm f/1.7, but expanding far beyond what capabilities that limited system had. For the longest time, I did not understand the greater appeal some had for the Olympus line of MFT products, far more endeared to the strictly utilitarian approach implied by the styling and function of Panasonic's Lumix line. My former inclinations have altered tremendously, and indeed my understanding of what makes a camera system genuinely resonate with the hands that bear it. Point being, it feels good to shoot a sexy camera, and the Pen line manage to tick all the boxes from a suave visual appeal, modular nature, peak image quality that just about caps out the capabilities of its sensor completely, and the control layout and handling ergonomics of some dream camera molded perfectly for my hands. To have the system completed is a wonderful thing. So now my bag (or lack thereof is occupied as follows:
  • Olympus E-P3 (In black, because it just looks better in the hands of one of my Mediterranean heritage)
  • Larger Grip for the E-P3 Body (Because it helps a whole hell of a lot to have a firmer grasp on such a minute body)
  • VF-3 Electronic Viewfinder (Facilitates that one-on-one connection when shooting a person to have the camera up at eye level... not to mention stability when street shooting off the tripod)
  • Olympus 45mm f/1.8 (The perfect portrait lens for MFT)
  • Olympus 12mm f/2.0 (The perfect everything else lens for MFT, especially interiors and manual focus in low to non-existent light)
  • Olympus XZ-1 (Not just the perfect backup, but also ideal for a different feeling image, something with a more faded, aged tonality that some scenes simply appeal to)
That last bullet features a point I'd actually like to touch on as it has become more and more apparent the more I shoot. At this point I am typically shooting both cameras in RAW, barring dedicated portrait shoots in which the E-P3 with its 45mm compatriot and e-portrait touched JPGs are impossible to pass up. I develop in ACR for both as well, which has a tendency to default any RAW image to settings most akin to the "natural" color and contrast settings built into most cameras. Whereas most cameras seem to develop in RAW with a similar crispness, a boldness that is something of a standard, files out of the XZ-1 differ in their almost washed look and lack of stark blacks and heavy contrast. I imagine some of this has to do with the compact sensor being utilized, which in turn would lead one to expect lesser sharpness due to compact-oriented glass, but the XZ-1's Zuiko lens even overturns that expectation, presenting a degree of sharpness even wide open that one simply does not expect from a compact.

What I have gathered to be the case is that the end result in this formula is the camera exhibits the sharpness of a larger sensor camera with a sharp prime in front, but the color disparity that should ultimately be expected of a compact sized sensor. The end result is something more akin to a polaroid or expired roll of Fuji Superia, faded, muted colors against random, fine grain (which looks all the better when slightly over sharpened). It's a look I've come to love, and although I bring the camera with me every day and take regular snapshots of what I see throughout the daily grind, I rarely post these images because I feel they cheat it out of the recognition it deserves as being a uniquely hipster-ish icon of photography. Not that I'd expect any hipster to waltz around carrying one of these expensive pocket rockets around, but if they actually showed genuine interest in photography and weren't simply grooming an image, they'd find a lot to like with the files it produces.

To expand on the above point, I feel compelled to pop the VF-3 off the E-P3 and try it out on the XZ-1 some time. It's a remarkable tool, the only thing lacking in its list of features being a built-in level, but there are certainly ways to survive without such a spoiling contrivance. Of course, then I feel neglectful of my mainstay in photography in general, and with the 12mm f/2.0 finally in my inventory I feel particularly ill chosen with naught but the XZ-1 at my behest. Oh well, that struggle will never get old.

So now that my assorted of photo taking goods is complete and I'm sitting pretty in the spoils of their capabilities, I can once again trek down the road towards studio lighting and other portrait-oriented goods, all ultimately leading toward realization of the business I set upon founding almost a year ago. This time around I have a far more rational, carefully constructed base upon which to start on the journey, a step-by-step plan concretely defined and laid out to bare in a business plan which will be my initial guide in my foray into this nebulous territory. More so, I have made some incredibly helpful contacts in my passive attempts at networking, people who are already steadfast and grounded in the business of photography and therefore the ultimate role models to follow (especially measuring by their success). Those contacts have even extended a warm invitation to open house venues in their respective studios, as briefly touched on in the previous post (unfortunately my subsequent invitation to the Graffiti Warehouse dissolved with the illness I'm still in the heat of combating). Though nothing is yet established, the grounds on which I intend to plant the business side of Kneejerk are very fertile, and come Spring I very much intend to bring the beast to life.

This is going to be a fantastic year.