Monday, August 25, 2014

Moving On

I've spent the better part of the last 3 years shooting exclusively with the Olympus E-P3 along with a strong assortment of M. Zuiko primes. The system coalesced into transparent, functional bliss, easily the best pairing of camera and lenses ever to grace my bag. Alas, with the recent acquisition of Olympus' OMD E-M1 and its first pro zoom, the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8, I already feel the comfort and reliability of my relationship with that former system falling into an obscure area of fond nostalgia. I'm sure I will at least return to the lenses over time, they are still functional with marginal advantages in certain situations compared to the new kit in my bag. But inevitably it feels as if an era has ended and I have stepped waveringly into a new echelon of photography.

Many of us who practice our shutterbug impulses for any span of time start off with the baby steps of kit zooms on smaller formats. Those of us who truly acquire an affinity for the art inevitably make the jump into the world of prime lenses. We intentionally limit the flexibility afforded by zooms for sake of abstract qualities like shallow depth of field and the unique way in which we learn to manipulate the fixed field of view to imply emotion. Perhaps those yet above me on the ladder look back fondly on the days when they returned to the zoom lens, not budget, kit glass housed in flimsy plastic barrels, but rather precise machines of tight gearing, expert milling and solid metal frames. Less zooms and more an absorption of prime lenses housed in one body (with useless in-between focal length peppered in). What a world that such a feat of optical engineering exists.

In honor of the glass that has carried my art and my career through the past 3 years, I pay homage with my experiences, lessons learned and most affectionate uses of the strength in their optics.

I choose to start with both the first and most useful prime lens I ever acquired for my Olympus system, the M. Zuiko 12mm f/2.0. A wickedly fast optic for the width of its focal length. Even before any sort of motivation for its acquisition for sake of real estate work (which wouldn't begin until months after its addition to my bag), it stood out as an immediate need in the practice of strong urban exploration interior photography. Images produced with this lens have been the birth of my business, the direct cause of my success in the career path of photography as well as the tool with which that business has regularly been conducted. Ultra-wide zooms be damned.

A metallic beast, it has survived some of the ugliest drops, bangs and scrapes without a scratch to its front element (despite several lens caps shattered to fragments). Its 24mm equivalent focal length has been a boon to my real estate work in being wide enough to exaggerate the depth of a room, yet not too wide so as to be unbelievably distorting. Distortion at the edges of the frame are so marginal as to be nonexistent, lines always straight to a fault. With f/2.0 native aperture, it has allowed me to see in conditions challenging enough to the human eye, thus becoming the agent of my muse in astral photography. It stands as the first lens to implement Olympus' unique manual focus ring, capable of instantly commanding the camera body into manual mode with etched markings to indicate the range at which the elements are focused and thus an enormous help in the practice of night sky photography or even simply shooting in the dark. It has been nothing but relentlessly reliable after years of use and barbaric abuse.

Today the lens bares no markings of wear despite its tumbles. It has only become marginally softer in corners of the frame, a sign of age and wear easily corrected with a "tune-up" at any lens service department. In fact, it's still so excruciatingly good I find myself compelled to resume its use in the practice of real estate photography for sake of its marginal advantages over the 12-40mm f/2.8 zoom (not as if I'm using the longer focal lengths in real estate work anyway). Simply put, it may be the most in-expendable lens I have ever owned. Were it to spontaneously crumble into pieces through an act of God in my hands one day... I'd go right ahead and buy another. Only it would be the newer, sleeker black version (because as you know all real photographers use/wear black everything).

Portraiture beyond the random candid shot on 50mm equivalent f/1.8 lenses never struck me as a particularly attractive artistic venture. Prior to acquisition of Olympus' M. Zuiko 45mm f/1.8, any experience I had in the telephoto range was relegated to kit zooms in the mid-range with slow apertures and unattractive bokeh. The 45mm corrected my suppositions about portrait work, genuinely shallow depth of field and the joys of controlled studio work.

I can't recall what motivated its addition to my bag, possibly nothing more than the attractiveness of the price and a desire for a prime geared toward shooting people more or less in the fashion my old Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 inspired. At 90mm equivalent, it certainly proved unsuitable for the kind of candid work I had done before, but it didn't take much time to realize the power of expression it captured with its tight framing of the face. While portrait work never took off as a business venture, it has remained a persistent personal project.

Of all the primes in the old kit, this poor, plastic-laden optic certainly shows its wear worse than the metallic pieces it plays companion to. Its optical performance, however, has yet to waver with age, wear and use, still plenty capable of rendering flawlessly sharp the most diminutive of fine details. Two areas this lens proves most useful are in landscapes/nightscapes and in controlled studio work. I've often preferred the tight framing of this short telephoto to accentuate distance between objects, and the nature of "sunstars" produced when stopped down to f/8.0 is a thing of magic when capturing the city from the rooftops. In the studio I developed an infallible system with this lens in regards to exposure - always 1/160 shutter speed, f/2.8, ISO 200. Should shadows cast on the subject's face, drop it down to f/2.2 and the problem is solved. It was such an enjoyably reliable thing I'd often insist on photographing friends standing in front of my living room curtains while I hunkered back in the kitchen for sake of proper framing. And you better believe those (oft drunken) snapshots came out studio quality so long as they were framed properly.

My experience with short telephoto lenses is admittedly limited. But based on my experiences using this diminutive piece of plastic and glass, I find the 75mm f/1.8 (its metallic older brother) that much more appealing. It is a prime I feel would accompany my pro zoom just fine.

The M. Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 entered my kit late in the game, but it has been my first choice in go-anywhere do-anything lens since acquisition. It has the stout bulldog frame of its brother 12mm f/2.0 and borrows the capacity for dreamy, candid portraits from nifty fifty lenses above it on the focal length scale. Were I ever imposed with the limitation of only ever being able to shoot a single lens henceforth for the rest of my life, it would not require thinking to immediately state "M. Zuiko 17mm f/1.8".

Something unique about the 35mm equivalent focal length that I did not understand until shooting with this lens was the very nature of how pointedly distance from the subject affects how it is seen in the final image. At such an awkward in-between focal length, it is remarkably capable of providing the impression of a wide lens when distanced from the subject, yet equally capable of capturing a person's face up close and implying a genuine sense of intimacy with the subject (a la nifty fifty). It is that versatility of the optic which has kept it mounted on my camera more than any other when shooting for myself.

While hiking with good friends, this lens allows me to capture a stark sunset vista atop the rocks of some ragged old mountain, then immediately turn to my hiking partner and capture the golden glow on their face with intimate detail and subject isolation. A truly bizarre degree flexibility, but plenty welcome. It may be telling that Olympus' 12-40mm f/2.8 zoom is dialed into 17mm as its default, its baseline focal length (when the extension of the zoom is retracted completely into the body). It is also only second to the 45mm in regard to sharpness wide open, and this is a lens that lends itself well to shooting wide open in the case of people photography. Much like the 12mm f/2.0, this lens may also find a cozy spot yet open in my camera bag, for those times the heft of a pro zoom is both uncomfortable and uncalled for.

A fisheye lens is never really a replaceable optic. It's a gimmick, a special effects lens for rare scenarios in which is obscenely warped perspective wanted and warranted. As such, this lens falls outside the standard paradigms of my "real" prime kit, but that is not to downplay how markedly sharp an optic Samyang/Rokinon's 7.5mm f/3.5 is, wide open, stopped down, what have you. It may very well be too sharp to be believable in some situations.

For some time in 2012 I found myself enamored with rooftops in the city and desired something dramatic and intentionally unreasonable in its depiction of depth and perspective, an ideal case for the fisheye. A full metal, all manual lens, it serves its purpose well when called for, and produces likely the best sunstars of any Micro Four Thirds lens even wide open at f/3.5. Its painted outer coating has worn from various bangs into the concrete over time, but optically it remains unreasonably sharp. As a manual lens, it is mildly finicky with the light meter in the E-P3 - often night exposures become a testy challenge, with the meter reading exposures as being 3 stops hot, but the actual exposure being mid-range at best. That may very well be a challenge of all fisheye lenses, hitting internal light meters with light from incident angles outside their sensor range.

Beyond use in exaggerating rooftop shenanigans, it served as an ideal videography lens for minor video work done for conventions hiring me for work outside my comfort zone. Stable video will forever be the bane of the amateur videographer, however the distortion and accentuated width of the fisheye's field of view effectively negated any and all issues had with shaky footage. I'm set to conduct video work for the same convention crew next year - alas, this lens may collect some measure of dust until then (when I get to run it on the 5-axis stabilization of the E-M1 and really learn what stable video can look like).

I may or may not have been known to refer to Olympus' 15mm f/8.0 body cap lens as the "Instagram Special".

Let's face it, this "lens" was never designed with optical superiority in mind. Even so, given that one crops the aspect ratio into a (beloved) square, the center regions of this tiny optic do produce images usable for such business as sharing online via social media. Hence the concept of the "Instagram Special" (I refuse to not use quotes with that statement).

In practice this lens has only ever seen actual use in one scenario - while driving. Arguments against photographing-while-driving aside, when on business travel or venturing through Coal Country and the mountainsides to see a dear friend, I've been glad to have a small, quick, fixed-focus optic available, wide enough to capture the scene out the window of my car and with such limitless depth of field so as to produce plenty strong a landscape image. Much as its price point would indicate, it is a toy lens, and I treat it with toy considerations, and it has been useful in that regard as a superior optic to my cell phone for sake of capturing good square images to share on Instagram.

Despite the inclination of most to sell obsolete gear, I actually foresee myself more or less perma-mounting this bodycap onto my E-P3 and using it exclusively as an always-in-the-car shooter. I see things often enough on the road that I would like to photograph but am typically making use of my cell phone as a GPS - this prospective alternative use makes only too much sense. Fire images to the cell phone when I'm stopped with the PENPAL, edit them quickly with canned filters, sounds like a fun use of replaced equipment to me.

All this said of the lenses themselves, I must take the time to commend Olympus' masterfully constructed E-P3 as well for its tenure in my hands, enduring rugged operation and being relentlessly pushed to the limits of its capability.

I purchased the E-P3 as a direct replacement to the Panasonic GF1 lost in my car accident. It represented the pinnacle of what was possible with a Micro Four Thirds sensor at the time, equipped with the exact same imaging unit as the GF1 before, but dialed in via clever engineering and software to produce the best images possible in such a tiny format. It never stood up to the likes of even APS-C in regards to image fidelity at high ISO, but I'll be damned if it didn't produce the best gamut of color I had ever seen out of a camera up to that point.

With James Bond style sex appeal, it fit right in with my minimalist paradigm. Whereas most I shoot with have always been markedly careful and covetous of their cameras, regarding them like expensive jewelry, the E-P3 became my tool, a reliable shooter that awoke me to the concept of the camera as a disposable agent of the practice of art, no different than a paintbrush. And despite that mentality of fatalist disrespect, it continued shooting strong no matter how hard the impact into the wall, no matter how wet the body in the rain, no matter how swollen with fungus in the seals.

It still just keeps shooting.

At well over 100,000 clicks on the shutter I suspect it will lose steam eventually. Inevitably. But it has given me the best 3 years of my life in photographs I will look on fondly for decades. I'm not sure I will ever be able to stomach abandoning it to a pile of electronic scrap, rather I would encase it in a glass case to present to all as my partner in crime, the agent of my creative success. In an age of so many cameras, all equally as disposable as the next, it simply feels wonderful to have developed a relationship with a tool that didn't take my abuses to heart, rather kept pushing on with minimal interruption no matter how wet or cold or hot or far to drop.

Bravo Olympus. Dare I say it I'm not sure I will ever develop quite the same level of relationship with a camera again. Now pardon me while the men in white coats take me away for perceiving a relationship with a piece of exceptional engineering.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Scary Steps

I belligerently dropped quite a bit of coin last night. Despite planning on this upgrade path for months now, it's always terrifying to buy into something new, especially with years of familiarity under one's belt. The Olympus OMD E-M1, paired with the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 lens, the HLD-7 vertical grip with an extra BLN-1 battery to occupy it, and the FL-600R flash unit. Almost as if, in one fell swoop, I replaced everything I've been using in my practice of photography up to this point. And it's scaring the hell out of me.

A fellow shutterbug and I mused on the source of this seemingly unnatural fear of the new. Most photographers are thrilled to acquire a new piece of kit, so it simply didn't seem right that I would be so apprehensive about it. After some introspective rumination, however, I'm pretty well decided on my rationale being a fear of expectation. I've spent years, over a decade now, making the best of consumer cameras paired with competent prime glass, making the absolute most of their potential until I was flattened against the glass ceiling those units inherently carry. The acquisition of the E-M1, a "pro" grade camera body, and the 12-40mm f/2.8, a "pro" grade lens, and even the FL-600R (which may not be flagged as "pro" but any flash with TTL metering stands well and above the full manual assortment I've otherwise used), represents an abandonment of that glass ceiling.

While operating within the limits of the Micro Four Thirds sensor may represent a ceiling of its own that I'm sure I will hit, operating with a "pro" grade camera instills me with a dread that I have fewer excuses for my screw ups in the future. And more abstract, the very form of this camera impresses upon others the expectation that "Yes, this man is a competent photographer". While using PEN cameras and my old GF1, I've always had a sort of novelty about me, wherein I was not immediately recognized as a photographer, perhaps a tourist, or a cheeky kid who likes taking pictures for money sometimes. I'll have no such "out" in utilizing the E-M1. Large and domineering (for an MFT camera) with the vertical grip attached, there will be no mistake what I am there to do, what I exist to do. So strange, for years wanting to be recognized as A Photographer, and now the deliberate label terrifies me. I am afraid to be recognized.

While I await the delivery of this new bit of kit, I will be working on reviews of the assortment of primes that have defined my career and my aesthetic up to this point. I'm sure I will still use them, but while I am in an emotionally jarred, melodramatic state of mind I will be writing them with a bittersweet fondness as if they are dying stars collapsing into universal entropy. Transition is hard.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Missing Studio Days

Some days it's really easy to remember what you've forgotten. This past week, I've really missed days having fun with studio setups, taking ridiculous portraits (clearly, seen left) and generally having gobs of fun with lights.

This particular studio scene was from a party held by a good friend of mine to celebrate a mutual friend's 50th birthday. She wanted a gathering off all her buddies for aimless revelry and imbibing. I offered to bring along my studio kit for some added fun since the whole crowd had a history of costuming. Props were provided for added fun.

I'd set up my backdrop, a terribly unwieldy matte black linen, in his garage. Per my usual process, some wrinkle releaser (the whole bottle, in fact) served to smooth out the ghastly spiderweb pattern on the sheet on account of its time trapped in an over sized plastic bag. I had a YN-560 II manual flash mounted on a CowBoyStudio radio trigger firing into a silver umbrella for the main light, and toyed with the other radio triggered YN-560 II mounted on a cheap collapsing Targus tripod from Target. Locked my E-P3 with the 45mm mounted to the Golden Settings - f/2.8, ISO 200, 1/160 shutter speed. If I wanted a brighter image, I'd drop the aperture down a little, but never below f/2.2. Otherwise the setup was infallible.

That night my linen stands unfortunately broke under the pressure of too many drunk people standing on the lip of the backdrop. I trashed the irreparably cheap plastic goods and donated the backdrop to a seamstress at the party. I'd gotten my money's worth out of the kit from working jobs anyway, and if ever needed again I would purchase higher quality, less plastic goods. So far that scenario hasn't come up, alas. The kit was originally purchased in support of a commercial shooting job for the LiveWellDC! campaign (a bust of a job, unfortunately). I don't necessarily foresee another job with those specific needs coming in the future.

Perhaps with a room, a garage, something that can be dedicated studio space, I'll pick up another background kit for myself. For now, I'll simply miss the pleasures of the supremely controlled setup, where the magic was less a matter of chance and opportune moments and more a vivid collaboration of minds on either side of the camera.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Fun in the (Faux) Studio

In preparation for that battery of reviews I mentioned in the post prior, I spent last night experimenting with some product photo setups to showcase the lenses and provide reference images for the posts themselves. Sometimes I forget how enjoyable experimental, no-budget setups can be.

A couple weeks back the 43" plasma television formerly occupying my living room blew a capacitor on the screen control board, which unfortunately fried the internals of the screen itself and rendering the thing little more than a heavy, dim mirror with tinny speakers. While waiting to find an appropriate collection center for the electronic it has been sitting in the office being large and useless. Now, originally I was on the hunt for another flat, perhaps matte black item on which to sit the camera to be photographed for the simple, standard showcase image, but my pondering found me staring at the dead TV with a bright halogen bulb illuminating the back of my head.

Simple setup. I stacked a multitude of pillows high on the bed and draped a red microfiber blanket over them, letting the length of the sheet laying horizontal transition into a seamless background. At that point it was only a matter of unscrewing the factory stand on the plasma TV and laying it on the blanket, propped up slightly by a tightly coiled belt so as to make it slightly less level and show off the reflection in the TV screen. And oh my did the reflection produced look absolutely incredible, with a carbon fiber alike cross hatch pattern inlaid below the glass with all sorts of unexpected subtle blue tint (which played well with the stark red of the microfiber backdrop). Lighting was provided by a single 85 watt CFL bulb mounted on a stand with a silver umbrella to throw the light down softly from above and to the left.

The setup alone left me tickled, but an added smoke/fog effect sealed it as stellar (to me, anyway). Not that I wish to argue anything in regards to vaping/smoking, but in realizing I was able to produce vast quantities of smokey vapor with my electronic cigarette, I began slowly bellowing a foggy mist over the setup for each shot, experimenting with different directions and speeds for their respective looks. A fun process for sure.

My only gripe came after the fact, realizing that the images produced on my petite Nikon V1 simply lack the same color and allure of the Olympus tones and colors I've grown so accustomed to, but that's okay. My future is pending an additional Olympus acquisition which will remedy my gripes concerning my current backup camera.

Plan is to attempt another round of "product" photos today at some point. I am reminded that I really need a dedicated studio space, somewhere I can assemble oddball setups such as this and not have to break them back down for sake of sleep.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Gear Posts (There are many of them, but I could do mine?)

Of course we've all reviewed the many gear reviews as practitioners of photography. Like any good consumer, we'd like to know what we're getting before we lay down a pretty penny (many, many pretty pennies) for a new body or lens. Same applies to technique, rehashed a thousand times and usually saying the same thing you've read from hundreds of other reviewers (if you've the stamina to devour the internet's boundless content for that long). It's an industry standard thing at this point.

I've never produced a review of the equipment I use myself. Typically I assume the plentiful bounties of information already prevalent on such notable review sites such as Camera Labs and DP Review suffice (or in the case of those looking for a personal touch to gear in action, the likes of Steve Huff or Robin Wong). But alas, I find myself bored, and am considering the elaborate exposition of my regularly employed photographic techniques and field experiences with specific cameras and lenses. The idea makes me feel like a sell out, but I've honestly run out of things to talk about outside of incessant whining about a work-burn-out-induced creative rut. Plus it's always good to have a project to work on, especially when you are your most fragile (great advice from many a great friend).

As a late, much respected actor and childhood role model once said, "You're only given one little spark of madness, you mustn't lose it".

Monday, August 11, 2014

Ruminating on Lost Jollity (that word I used to describe my mentality back in 2011)

Time is a weird and wary thing.

I've spent the last 2, maybe 3 months in what can best be called a "rotting" state. The ebb and flow of my day to day life has hit such an excruciating point of vast monotony that it has been a difficult process climbing out of the pitfall of negative brain space. It is that mental state that has at least encouraged my revival of this forum on which to speak my mind, much against the wallflower trend I've taken on most social platforms in the past year. I've become afraid of my own opinion, afraid of self expression.

In doting on the empty space of this blog, I took the time to read entries past to decipher where I was mentally, emotionally, at its inception, and to seek a potential causality to my ensuing motivational pitfall. Can't much find that source, that root cause, but it at least made me happy to realize I was once much happier and thus have the potential to be that happy again.

One post involved looking back on work from the year prior as a sort of gauge to my progress and development in photography. Taking that same concept and applying a small twist, I find myself ruminating over the photos I took at that time I was most innately chipper.

I look through these images and I mainly notice one thing. I was photographing everything. And more than that, I was sharing it. Sharing my day to day story. Above all else, I recognize that as something I have completely forgotten how to do. Anymore I am far too encumbered by standards, by expectations. I won't share an image if I don't find it compelling to an exceptional degree. And the impossibility of producing exceptional images every single time, as an unreasonable sort of new standard, has degraded me into a relative mute. No voice and only a disjointed story.

This is potentially an unfair comparison of mental states. I had just gotten over my car wreck and was operating on the high of jumping right back on my feet post-almost-mortem. Photography was the driver, the motivation to keep kicking and screaming and fighting on with my life, and it was imperative that I turn the passion into a business and reap rich rewards of success in the field. And I've done that, and continue to do it. Only I never anticipated that success becoming just another status quot, to the point where the passion has all but drained barring a short stint with time lapse photography like some last hurrah.

Fighting to reclaim my life pushed me to heights I never anticipated. But I've grown sloth and stagnant and stopped fighting. Fighting for my head space is unreasonable given that it's the homestead of the issue. I imagine many photographers have reached this point in their lives in which they lost the gusto of their ego-centrism and were left with a sharp choice - give up the trade or find a subject of passion to fight for. I'm still hunting for that passion, and I have a good idea of where it is. Just have to motivate the bones.

I Stand Corrected (TLR-alike digital is apparently a thing)

Upon conclusion of my earlier post I was prompted to scour the annals of the Great Mighty Internet for TLR-alike digital cameras and patents that have already been established, and lo and behold discovered a dated PetaPixel article detailing a now out of production toy camera that Rolleiflex, the original household name of medium format TLR, released in 2011.

As a first production model of the concept of camera I had in mind, it's relatively close, but certainly priced beyond the reasonable and pared down to aforementioned toy camera status. Down to the need for the faux film winding lever needing a spin to "crank" the camera for each shot, it's less a photographic tool and more a novelty item.

But the concept is there. And with the lower prices of similar technology today (hell, it was lower in price then than what was charged), is more than viable. While my perceived ideal naturally entails a larger sensor able to take advantage of Micro Four Thirds glass, a fixed lens system with, say, a 1/1.7" sensor (or even a 1/2.3" sensor just to get it out the door for first run) is more than adequate to cater to the initial target audience to establish a commercial foothold and thus permit production of a higher grade of camera based around a similar layout.

Call me foolish for my insistence that this model of camera has any life left in it, but I am wholly convinced it would make waves if marketed intelligently to the right crowd (e.g. Instagrammers). I refuse to believe the technology itself is too expensive to gamble on a new design when Panasonic is selling off its smaller Micro Four Thirds bodies with a kit lens for less than $200. With WiFi/Bluetooth connectivity and an intelligent interface able to push images up to social media quickly it seems remarkably fun. Or maybe I missed the boat when everyone started using their cellphones above dedicated cameras for any and all things. But still see enough people indulging in dedicated point and shoot cameras to indicate that this may very well have its appeal, again, especially with the Instagram crowd. As always, it's all in the marketing, and faux vintage is all too easy to capitalize upon at the current stage of our (well, at least American) cultural trends. 

Enamored by Different Formats (that nobody will indulge)

Sometimes I can't help but wonder how or why some things become the industry standards they do. At the same time I also wonder what gene is hiding in my makeup that causes me to rebel so innately against the chosen standard, the conformity. Not because I see it as inherently "bad", but simply because I recognize it's what everyone else will be using. Rebellion by inexplicable nature.

I'm speaking of course of the 3:2 aspect ratio that has been the standard for some time now in the photographic world. Relatively few players in the camera market have ever dared to stray far from that globally accepted standard, and even in straying they did not do so to any extreme (namely Micro Four Thirds players Olympus and Panasonic with 4:3). This baffles me given the breadth of formats formerly accepted by the early film world, from 5:4 large formats to the glorious 6:6 medium format square. A video upload from the amazing folks at DigitalRevTV touched on this concept for me a little bit by accident when elaborating upon the availability of Full Frame for "cheap".

Kai, bucking norms for the fun and the challenge, picks up a panoramic 35mm camera almost instantly. Prior to watching the video I was never aware of the enormously wider 6:2 aspect ratio potential of 35mm film, but seeing some of the sample images produced I fell immediately in love with the format. Much as I have long had an adoration of 6:6 squares for the purpose of photography meant to showcase a single strong, blatant subject (especially for portraits), the 6:2 ratio stood out spectacularly to me as a mean to express the "feel" of a space, the commotion and mood of an area. It's a format best employed for subjects such as my urbex photographic work, in which the images are meant to capture a mood expressed by a space. It would likely play well into real estate as well if not for the stigma against such a format as being atypical, too against the expected norms of such work (although I'll be fighting people to allow its indulgence in the future).

Unfortunately it is a difficult thing to implement in the current market of cameras available. 6:6 squares may be easily produced with simple cropping, and the live-view option of mirror-less camera systems permit composition of images with the square outright, but there is no easy way to generate a 6:2 image. Cropping an image into 6:2 omits so much vertical detail as to be too aggressive a crop, and panoramic stitching disturbs the intended focal length in which the image is meant to be captured. No real winning scenario. Which brings me back to my original gripe about the 3:2 standard aspect ratio exhibited by cameras today.

In the film days it was common for formats to vary, especially with larger format cameras. Different backs would hold different sizes and shapes of film, and as with the panoramic camera Kai adopts in the above video, entire camera systems were developed to capitalize on alternative formats. Yet in today's post-film world, the camera market is markedly absent of alternative formats. A single camera comes to mind which at least attempted to buck this trend to some degree, Panasonic's GH2, whose sensor was designed in a sort of squared-off diamond shape such that the 6:6 aspect ratio used extra photo sites on the top and bottom of the sensor, 3:2 and 16:9 used extra sites on the sides, and 4:3, its "native" aspect ratio, was a sort of happy middle between the two. The sensor actually possessed added pixels to accommodate the different formats, yet in subsequent generations (GH3 and GH4) this variable aspect ratio sensor was abandoned for a traditional design which simply cropped regions out. Arguably both methods function the same in the capacity to which Panasonic utilized it, however I saw such a step as moving toward a wider aspect ratio market in photography that, much to my dismay, was then abandoned.

From the bias of my very personal viewpoint on formats, aspect ratios have either been dictated by tradition or the most common aspect ratios of the screens on which we view photography and video. 3:2 has been long clung to from the days of massively commercialized 35mm film. 4:3 was the old standard aspect ratio of our TV screens and computer monitors, now replaced by 16:9 with cheap consumer HD TVs and flat panel monitors. All formats dictated by established trends in other consumer markets. Large and medium format photography, the progenitors of 5:4 and 6:6, having always been tools of artists and pioneers of the craft, have never been fairly represented in the digital photography world, always relegated to a software crop either in or out of camera, and the truly experimental, pioneering formats such as 6:2 seem like they will never be realistically implemented in the digital photography marketplace.

Arguably, my analysis of the situation is completely off-kilter with the ease and accuracy of panoramic stitching algorithms. Admittedly, paired with adaptive wide angle distortion corrections in Adobe CC, we're closer now than ever before to having the magic of that 6:2 aspect ratio readily available. Some may argue "Why stop there, panoramic stitching opens up a 360 degree world", for which I have no argument as I can't deny that some may find appeal in such enormously all-encompassing images. This all hearkens back to personal taste, and given my photographic methods are largely an endeavor of intelligent omission to create maximum impact, the inclusion of every detail in the frame is not conducive to methods I am comfortable with to create a strong image (although I have to admit the 360 degree panorama produced "planets" I see around are compelling as all hell).

In the end, I find myself eternally wishing for a digital camera that defies commercial norms and adopts a native aspect ratio outside the 3:2 standard. I've long wished to see a sort of mirror-less, TLR-alike offering, a digital camera with a 6:6 square sensor and waist-level viewfinder, something as simple as a square screen built into the top of a box with a flip-open shield to block the sun. The potential of a square format sensor, especially, makes me salivate - the imaging circles of all conventionally produces lenses is exactly that, a circle, and a square format sensor could capitalize on every last inch, touching the edges in such a way as to produce the most attractive, natural vignetting imaginable. I've always dreamed of Olympus producing such a camera, with their strong assortment of sharp, fast prime, perfect in size and weight for a camera system of this variety. At the same time, I recognize the underwhelming market demand for such a product, and the financial suicide such an endeavor could likely be.

Should such a system ever be pursued, I see it finding its foothold in the Instagram community. The digital TLR system of my dreams already hearkens back to antiquated photographic technology, and the novelty of antique feel and operation. Similarly, the Instagram community exhibits appreciation of much of the same, having popularized faux vintage film filters to the degree that a million knockoff photo editing applications have arisen to command market share of the faux film crowd. The other appeal of Instagram is the immediacy of content sharing, so any such camera would likely require connection via WiFi or Bluetooth to a cellphone, or if exceptionally ambitious boast a SIM card slot for a data connection of its own to allow an in-camera interface to share photos instantly with the Instagram community. While not a particularly avid nor eager member of the Instagram community, I have to admit that the existence of such a camera would find me contributing to the community far more. Regularly, on the daily. Much as I do with my current Olympus gear set, quickly editing photos in-camera, sending them to my cellphone and then uploading them to Facebook, I would do the same, only with greater ease and fervor, with such an intuitive little box. On my regular hikes alone, people would insist I stop sharing images for sake of sparing their news feeds the spam.

In the mean time my best hope is in learning new techniques with stitched photographs to produce an low distortion image retaining the qualities of the original lens' field of view. Lately that has meant many vertically panning stitches to produce 5:4 and 6:6 images with no crop. The change in field of view, in practice, has produced an almost medium format look to images taken with that method, which absolutely encourages further pursuit of it. Unfortunately this is only realistically doable with nature and landscape, as the distortion produced, even with Adobe Photoshop CC's adaptive wide angle algorithms, is a bit more than I find acceptable for my photography.

On any camera gear related forum, threads are always chock full of people with ridiculous demands of cameras and the price points at which they are offered. Everyone gushes over Full Frame made smaller, fast primes made faster and cleaner images at higher ISO values on smaller sensors. I'm fond of Fuji and their X-series of cameras for putting into practice the kind of mentality that leads me to want a 6:6 square (or really anything other than 3:2) sensor. Fuji took technology that had already been around and implemented the same way for a decade and changed one simple thing - the color filter. Instead of sticking with the status quot Bayer patterned color array, they devised something new and of their own, the X-Trans color filter. By simply adjusting the pixel-by-pixel layout of the color filter their created a line of APS-C cameras nearly able to compete with Full Frame in regard to quality of grain at higher ISO values. While it took some time for Adobe to accommodate the qualities of that array into their software for the development of RAW files, the technology is now accepted widely and is a vast improvement over traditional Bayer designs. Not new technology, simply alternative implementation of what already existed. In that respect, I find my desires for something akin to a square sensor Micro Four Thirds-size camera a little more reasonable than the typical demands on camera forums. Especially with the Micro Four Thirds mirror less world, the lenses are the right size and weight already, the sensor is all that requires the tweaking (well, that and flange distance, I suppose).

Perhaps someone will pick up on this idea one day. Perhaps I'll have to learn how to construct such a camera myself. Any investors in the audience?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Talking About Nothing (Is Hard)

As much as I've had on my mind as of late (in the realm of photography related thing), I've spoken remarkably little about them. This is to say I've been silent both online (obviously, my web presence is non-existent sometimes) and in person, even among my closest of confidants. In a step away from the usual I would like to expel some of these assorted ruminations from my brain via this forum, not necessarily in the search for input of supportive opinion as much as general release.

Thoughts can be burdensome at times.

I haven't been photographing for myself, for the art, nearly enough in the past 2, maybe close to 3 months. Consciously I'm aware of this and aware of the why - it was touched upon in my previous entry. Too much work, photographic and otherwise, culminating in a gross lack of time in which to do much else other than unwind at home and retreat from a machine gun pace of activity. It's been showing in my Flickr presence, for sure. The web expects constant regurgitation of content, and when that content is spaced out by weeks and months it relegates one to obscurity no matter how pervasive or prevalent that presence may have been in the past. I see fellow photographers managing to keep the pace still, maintaining their pervasive web presence in the social media sphere and am admittedly jealous of the impact, however I am also aware of the time investment and how deplorable a thing that investment is to me. Forever stubborn. Web 2.0 be damned. Good on them, of course.

The chasm of a divide between the immediate personal, financial impact, is something I became keenly aware of today in a strange way. Some nebulous mechanism of motivation possessed me to plot the metrics of my photography business, perhaps to discern some seasonal trend or at the very least a general upward trend since the inception of the business little over 2 years ago. I even put my mathematician/statistician cap on and took outlying data points into consideration and adjusted trend lines on a scatter plot accordingly. Perhaps 2 years isn't enough data, as there is no clear trend from a seasonal standpoint whatsoever. There is, however, a general upward trend, possibly better referred to as an upward rocket. For the first 2 years of data, monthly income earned through my photographic work largely stayed the same, on a gentle wave with a small hump followed by a small dip. All until the last 8 months, the year of 2014 thus far. For no reason, the trend line, the points of data, they double, then triple. Perhaps I hit some sort of breaking point in which word of mouth becomes so unstoppable and powerful it's impossible to further remain obscure in the market? The outlying points of data, the high paying side jobs, increased in frequency, but even when omitted from the plotted trend line it remained on a wicked upswing. At the very least, I feel I've dispelled the effectiveness of social media as a tool to acquire new business (at this stage in the game, anyway), but now I feel I'm on this uncomfortable cusp of transition wherein I can no longer sustain the pursuit of two diametrically opposed career paths and must choose one or the other. That struggle in and of itself is the heart of the beast of my current dilemmas. But enough about business for now, clearly it's going well, the reason I forced myself into this incoherent broadcast of mental rambling was a lack of shooting for myself.

I've been spending the occasional weekend in Shenandoah, on Skyline Drive. And on weekdays I will hike through Patapsco River Valley and randomly snap a few. But these ventures are always mired by the presence of stresses that have remained static for so long it would take days of retreat to effectively rid my mind of immediate awareness of them. This ever present static of thought even manages to invade the post-process - nights spent toying with new and older photos have become utterly joyless. And as a result I share very little. My Lightroom catalog has become a thing defined by my real estate work of the month, no longer swollen with memories of hikes and parties, explorations and camping. I am deprived of tired, maybe lonely, nights sitting at my screen and smiling over various acts of youthful shenanigans, processing images anew and sharing their charm with an avid (albeit ravenous) crowd of internet denizens. I'm simply not ready to be this grown up, this resigned to a miserable future of all work, no play. Unfortunately I'm also not ready to stop working for myself or, of course, give up the bolstered income, the only realistic options to reacquire that past lifestyle.

Whoops, got sidetracked again.

I want to spend days camping in the mountains of the Appalachians off Skyline Drive. That region simply calls to me, which is particularly odd given its distance from the aesthetic of decay and abandonment which otherwise defined my work not even a year ago. Much of the transition in appealing subjects can be sourced to my time lapse work, in which time spent focused on the slow and subtle transitions of nature bred a strong appreciation for nature in general. The mountains especially, and the almost magical contrast in weather patterns they can bring about.

The end of this month will see me spending time in Deep Creek with old high school friends in an admittedly party-type atmosphere. I made the same trip last year, followed up by a week-long road trip with a friend out to Colorado. I would like to say I'll be able to repeat both events this year, although the Colorado prospects are already questionable (seeing as I've yet to acquire a ticket with not even a month of time leading September). It will be the first string of days spent on vacation in quite some time (actual vacation, not "I'm taking the day off because I'm sick" vacation). And I want to photograph everything. Borrow a friend and drive up to the edge of the mountains around the bowl of Deep Creek and photograph the stars. Photograph... not time lapse.

Which is arguably another topic entirely. I enjoy producing time lapse work, but I absolutely despise the production of compiled video. I detest it to the point of having written it off as a desired skill set entirely, and can only hope one day I will encounter someone who is more capable of producing aforementioned video and interested in doing so utilizing my work. For some time I am pretty confident my pursuit of time lapse overtook my focus on strong photography work, and the power struggle of the two at the forefront of my efforts was a thing of internal contention. Today I can comfortably say I am quite simply a photographer, but retain my interest in time lapse work as a side hobby to that... side... hobby (... well, one I earn half-a-living on). Unfortunately with the relentless pace of work I haven't had the time to patiently wait for a segment to complete. Some days it has been miraculous to have 15 minutes to sit and eat a meal. The limitations of my editing platform has also played a strong part in discouraging my formerly dedicated pursuit of time lapse, especially given the rate at which its production destroys hard drives. More than a better time lapse capturing camera, a hardier computer on which to edit time lapse work is necessary, but that is low on the priority totem pole.

Highest on that totem pole, however, is acquisition of a new camera body. With well over 100,000 images captured on my PEN E-P3, I fear imminent shutter death. Curiously, reviewing my photography business records, I've spent remarkably little of my business income on new photography equipment. A flash, a backdrop, a couple umbrellas with CFL lights, and one lens. Not even $800 in equipment expenses in 2 years. So this year I aim to purchase an OMD E-M1, with a well paired battery grip and 12-40mm f/2.8 pro zoom to boot. And it's probably the hardest equipment purchase I'll ever make because I honestly don't feel passionate about it at all. Personally, I'd rather sit happy with an E-P5, a format and style of camera I'm already comfortable and familiar with. It appeals to me, whereas the OMD line's SLR styling offends me in the way pre-torn jeans inspire me to spit nails. I'm making my chosen equipment purchase because it is undoubtedly the smarter choice for work, for the business of photography. It's unfortunate coincidence that I'm also in a position of internally raging about the demands of that very business, my victimization at the hands of my own success. I want to choose the camera that inspires me, not the workhorse. Luckily, however, both use the same battery, and if my trend of exhausting success continues I may very well be in a position to acquire both before the year ends, which is honestly the more optimal route anyway (how many working photographers ever settled for just one camera body, after all).

An eternal issue needing resolution will be the management of my web presence, but the introduction of Square Space to my periphery lends me hope that there actually is an easy and catered option available for the display of a portfolio. And like a snowballing machine, with a published online portfolio I would produce revised business cards and ideally carry on with more business I don't have the time to accommodate. Or perhaps a gallery show should the viewer find appeal in the art, the work that I care about beyond the paycheck leading the (faux) muse? On the cusp of great changes, I simply need to tip the ball over the edge of the hill. I may not be able to keep up, but I'm fairly good at being dragged along for the ride... I am so completely out of control of my own life, it's great.