Thursday, December 31, 2015

Closing out 2015 on a less angsty note...

I picked up an Olympus PEN E-P5. Got the bugger from Adorama right at the tail end of a great little flash sale they ran on the thing, body-only for $349. With the true update of the series allegedly coming this year, I'm actually pretty okay with dropping $349 to scratch the most incessant itch of wanting a truly transparent-on-my-person small camera body to slap a prime on and just go out, walk around, and focus on experiencing the world rather than worrying about shooting it. Getting back to the whole "kneejerk" thing... see, react, refine, move on. Without a 30 pound backpack and 7 pounds of camera weighing down the living.

Not that anybody likely cares with the body being about 2 years old at this point, but from a technical standpoint it's an E-M5 that actually fits in a pocket (so far as image quality is concerned). The Sony sensor differs a bit from the Panasonic sensor I'm used to in the E-M1, more noise, but it's a kind of noise that likens itself to analog film grain, so it's not noise I'm bothered by, not even at ISO 5000 (I might like the noise profile of the old 16MP Sony sensor even better than that of the 16MP Panasonic sensor in the E-M1...). Firmware updated to v1.6 brings with it the necessary electronic first curtain to subdue shutter-shock inherent to the 5-axis IBIS system, and despite being a bit difficult to steadily hand-hold at slower shutter speeds on account of its size I can still squeeze out reasonably clear 1/4" shots with my palsy hands. For the most part, it's just my old E-P3 with a new sensor and updated processor, so it's iterative and great. Even has the WiFi I've come to love about the OMD line. About the only this it's missing is a Live Composite shooting mode but that's just fine, I have a "big boy camera" for when I'm shooting with deliberate attempt to photograph. Oh, and the autofocus system is the old one from the E-P3, with fewer selectable points and no PD system, but oddly it seems to be more spot on than the newer system when shooting with all AF points available.

It's a holdover to a degree, but a competent one. I'll still likely gush over the coming reimagined PEN model, especially given the track record Olympus has had the past couple years releasing insanely well designed and engineered imagers. Ultimately I'm just happy to have a companion camera right now, because no matter how much I may appreciate the E-M1 it is simply not a camera I want to carry all the time. I suppose the weirder part is that I want to be carrying a camera around all the time. Cell phone doesn't count because reasons.

As an aside, 2015 was a landmark year for my business. Somehow I've managed to keep the income-doubling trend alive and well for 4 years. Pretty sure I've hit my peak potential at this point, though, as there just isn't much more in the way of time I can allocate to photo work. The only way to grow the business is to raise my rates, but I'm not too compelled to do that either. I'm comfortable right now, and if my business workflow is optimized to comfortable efficiency there's no sense in mucking with it.

I'm going to run out to Delaware tonight and do party photography. I recommend you all do the same. But, you know, don't forget to party as well as photograph. :)

Monday, December 28, 2015

I basically hate my camera because it's too goddamn big...

When I bought the E-M1 August of last year it was with the clear intent to use it as a workhorse body, paired with my trusty E-P3 as my "fun time" camera with the trio of primes I'd been using for the same work I bought the E-M1 for. After the battery charger for the E-P3 batteries died, I decided it was worthwhile to retire that camera and just stick with the E-M1 for everything, a single body for all. Over 2015 I've picked up the 40-150mm f/2.8, 7-14mm f/2.8, and 42.5mm f/1.2, basically all the nice higher end glass I could to go along with the E-M1 because price was no longer a factor and why not see just how hard I could push things? In conclusion, I've successfully discovered the best way possible to suffocate all the joy out of photography I possibly could have.

Somewhere along the line I forgot that my methodology, my ethos, has always been an embrace of minimalism, because the kit I'm stuck with right now is anything but minimal. People will give me shit for complaining so much about Micro Four Thirds glass and bodies because they're still diminutive in size compared to their Full Frame counterparts, but that simply highlights how strictly my preference for tools is on the small side. The E-M1 is a great imager, but it's a goddamn tank and I hate carrying it around. No matter what I stick on the front of the thing, it's a big black "LOOK AT ME I'M A PHOTOGRAPHER" attention grabbing brick. I can't attach it to my belt loupes and lazily stroll around the street, it's either in my hand or shoulder strapped and bouncing around like an annoyance.

These PRO zooms are great for working photography, but in personal use I've only ever managed to find problems, and they are problems I've found in my old kit of primes that I never noticed before, and now they are all ruined and dead to me because I've gotten to this point of pickiness that everything offends (except for that 42.5mm Nocticron, which is probably the only lens I haven't felt betrayed by this year). Suddenly ghosting and flare is the bane of my existence at all times, and the PRO zooms are so big I bought a backpack to carry everything in... A BACKPACK. I spent years decrying backpacks for being the bag choice of the idiot who thinks he needs to carry everything, and I have turned into that idiot. I used to be able to toss a couple primes into my Think Tank Retrospective 5 messenger bag and walk out the door without a worry because all I needed were those couple focal lengths I picked out and I was happy. Now I'm cruising with a backpack loaded with focal lengths spanning 7mm to 150mm with a flash and tripod collars and it's still not much and all fits into a tiny backpack BUT I STILL FUCKING HATE ALL OF IT.

Having coffee with my dad yesterday, he made the comment that I needed to get off the gear and just focus on the art, and he's right, but I'm having a really hard time getting past the disgust I have for my gear set. I feel like a painter whose paint brush's handle has been giving him splinters every time he uses it for months, and has finally hit the point of fed up where he's ready to toss the horsehair splinter-fest brush into the fire. Maybe less dramatic, since I still find it brutally useful when I am out shooting photos either for work or with deliberate intent. But that is not how I am shooting all of the time. It's Kneejerk Imagery, for fuck's sake, the idea is to see and react, respond without knowing why, then drill down on what it was that caught your attention until you can refine it through subtraction, that's what photography has always been about from fundamentals. And here I am not responding because I don't want to be burdened with a tank in my hands, or paralyzed by choice with a bunch of zooms in a bag that piss me off because they can't help but catch flare off stray light sources.

There is nothing inherently wrong with my equipment. It's a personal frustration with the over-complication of what was once very simple. I enjoyed snapping randomly with the E-P3 and the 45mm f/1.8 because it was simple and lacked the complexity of choice. Ultimately I want to find another solution like that. The simplicity solution, the thing that drives me.

I keep hearing about this upcoming PEN-F re-imagining of the Olympus PEN line but that doesn't exist yet and I'm tired of living and breathing gear purchasing decisions by the bleeding edge of rumor site speculation. Right now the most sensible solution is to pick up a Fujifilm X100T, which I've had my eye on since its 2-generations old predecessor X100 anyway. My first mistake was looking at reviews of the camera from the technical side but that was stupid because my problems have nothing to do with technical competency on the part of the engineers making the camera (any camera these days is more than sufficient, even the ones in our phones). What I'm looking for is an abstract, as it usually is with me. I'm looking for the simplicity in operation, the meaningful limitation that forces creative considerations neglected when technical solutions are available, and mostly the minimalism of it. One camera, fixed lens, built-in ND filter (and lord knows I've been all about that daylight long exposure stuff lately), maybe stick a CPL in the bag with a spare battery (or even a USB battery since that's a cool thing the X100T is capable of charging by), and a tripod. Basically the same profile as the E-P3 kit I always ran around with, minus the variety in focal lengths but even that's okay since the 17mm f/1.8 ended up being the only thing I ever used once I picked it up anyway.

I'm going to do one of two things in the next week. I'm either going to continue being pissed off and dissatisfied with everything for a few more months while I wait for the PEN-F announcement, or I'm going to actually treat myself to something for me instead of for my business for once this year and pick up an X100T kit with an arca-swiss base so I can use my tripod without worrying about swapping the stupid plate that came with the tripod. Let's see what I end up doing and how much regret any decision I make generates (because I will regret every decision at this point, I've driven myself mad for so long there is no wholly positive outcome left).

Friday, December 11, 2015

I keep failing to catch the sunrise...

Olympus OMD E-M1 with 12-40mm f/2.8, 25" at 15mm, f/4.0 and ISO 200.

Early last month I made statements regarding how to maintain a more positive mood during the Winter months, waking up early and catching sunrise on the regular, and I've done a piss poor job in the past week of adhering to that regimine. Predictably, my mood and emotional health are suffering for it. Weird issue I didn't foresee at the time, the sun is taking too long to rise right now - I'm getting up plenty early, but the sun never makes it over the horizon before I need to be at work. So... okay, sorry, my theoretical methodology is not as foolproof as I thought. Still, I have been up to things, just not in the past 4 days (which have been quite excruciating, and political cycle seepage at the office hasn't made coping easier).

The biggest thing I've been invested in so far as creative pursuits are concerned are long exposures in daylight and composite images to stack subsequent exposures for an even longer exposure sort of effect. It's been an addiction since picking up my B&W 10-stop ND filter a few months ago, and after experimenting with minutes-long bulb exposures using the big stopper I've transitioned to stacking shorter exposures in either Olympus' Live Composite shooting mode feature on the E-M1 or stacking exposures in Photoshop by stacking aligned layers as smart objects and calculating the mean exposure for each. All methods produce great results, and it only makes sense how much I'd enjoy daylight long exposures considering the affinity I've always had for similarly long exposures at night in years past.

Olympus OMD E-M1 with 12-40mm f/2.8, 20" at 24mm, f/5.6 and ISO 200.
Olympus OMD E-M1 with 12-40mm f/2.8, 25" at 15mm, f/5.6 and ISO 200.

It's a time consuming process, but one that reminds me very much of the time lapse work I buried my head into last year. Takes a lot of determined motivation to get off the ground at all, and each shot takes considerable time to build. Whether processing the image in Photoshop into a composite or running the composite live in-camera, that's probably the best verb that could be used to describe this long exposure process, "build". It's interesting to see how light shapes the scene as it changes, and by being selective about which frames of light are allowed to show in a given area of the image it's possible to surreally portray every element in only the phase of light that suits it best. As much an analysis of the effect of time as a visual art form.

Olympus OMD E-M1 with 12-40mm f/2.8, 4" at 31mm, f/5.6 and ISO 200.
Olympus OMD E-M1 with 12-40mm f/2.8, 4" at 27mm, f/4.0 and ISO 200.

I should have spent the mornings this week refining these techniques, but instead opted to pretend it was the more responsible thing to rush into the office so as to take as little PTO (vacation) as possible due to working shoots causing me to leave early and end up short on time. I'm not so sure getting into the office early was necessarily a responsible more, though... certainly a quantifiably better choice (save those vacation hours for an actual, you know, vacation), but on the abstract, my emotional health has suffered for it and I don't suspect I'm nearly as optimal a worker drone when flustered by lack of creative outlet. Oddly (and contradictory to my earlier post on abandoning the jack-of-all-trades mentality), my fixation has been on other media, squarely on account of my fixation with the very vibrant fan base of a game I recently played through, Undertale. I'm actually in the process of figuring out how to translate the very strong emotional themes of that title into my photographic work, though I don't imagine I will have much success. It really is its own masterpiece, and I fear soiling its imprint on me with impotent reproduction.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Rumor Mill Speculation

There is an inordinate amount of buzz encircling the mirror-less photosphere at the moment given a credible rumor that Samsung's quiet (but not-so-quiet) exit from the camera business is due to its acquisition by Nikon in effort to integrate their expertise in the mirrorless front in their own engineering portfolio. This... actually has me super jazzed.

Though not an early adopter, the form, fit, and feel of the Nikon V1, their first entry into the mirrorless ILC market, was too enticing not to buy into, and I doted with fond nostalgia on that camera in this blog in the past. It was a camera for experimentation, using its speed for unconventional attempts at the creation of something new. But as a conventional photographic tool, it was cumbersome. No need to elaborate on that fact, really... there are plenty of reviews out there detailing the misery of menu diving and poor button/dial placement.

That said, I sold the camera around this time last year and have regretted the decision every single day since.

Part of the appeal of Nikon is in the quality, the look of its RAW files (and no, not all RAW files are created equal). Like flat color and tonal profiles for video, they provide the ultimate canvas upon which values can be stretched and torqued and manipulated into a preconceived vision. That quality was present in the meager 10 megapixel files of the V1, and I absolutely anticipate it to be present in the whatever-sized files of a pending future Nikon mirrorless release using Samsung's sensor technology. Because that's the big technological acquisition here, the sensor tech.

Samsung's attempt to push into the extant camera market was noble and well executed, but jingoism in market (the American market, especially) proved too tall a hurdle for the company to overcome. And aside from Canon, they were the only company willing to put forth the investment required to develop all technology in-house, from sensors to optics to interfaces. That their investment did not pan out commercially is unfortunate, but the acquisition of their technology and expertise by a brand as lauded in the annals of photographic history as Nikon should speak to the respectable competency of their technology. Samsung sensors are great, and the only realistic alternative to Sony's monopoly on the commercial imaging sensor market. Their optical prowess is equally laudable, as well as their understanding of how to strike the best balance between milled optical perfection and software based correction. Nikon may not necessarily need much support in the realm of optics as it applies to lens manufacture, but in lacking an established line of lenses supporting larger format mirrorless digital cameras, inheriting NX patents is an immediate lift. Barring the time necessary for production schedules, it wouldn't be unreasonable to see Nikon's take on the old NX line springing into stores by next Christmas.

This is an important shift because Sony has been the elephant in the room for too long, owning the majority of the imaging sensors used by the likes of Nikon, as well as Olympus and Sony's own brand of Alpha digital cameras, even cell phones market-wide. As it applies to the camera business, Sony and Nikon have had a strong partnership but Nikon will always be in the submissive position, the bleeding edge technologies consistently reserved for Sony's flagship models. With growing popularity among the mirrorless crowd in the A7R II, moving to a different sensor standard for their own reimagined mirrorless line is the best move Nikon could have possibly made, and after 7 years of innovative stagnation I once again have hope in the potential of future Nikon releases.

I wouldn't presume to predict Nikon's next moves, but I certainly know what I'd like to see from them from both product and market standpoints:

  • A diminishment in tiers of DSLR models. There are so many redundant middle-ground models being released in ill-fated attempts to recapture the long lost market of compact camera buyer sales volumes that the flood of nearly identical models released year after year have super saturated the camera market and driven the value of all cameras to insane lows. While good for consumers on the short term in the form of alarmingly cheap used prices, when the company making the cameras is no longer earning revenue from new camera sales due to used camera sales volumes, innovative progress grinds to a halt, which is what we've seen play out for the past 10 years in excruciating slow-motion.
  • Presuming the release of a new mirrorless system, should sales of that system exceed sales of new entry-grade DSLRs (which I absolutely anticipate they will if the mirrorless model is not artificially hamstringed as Nikon and Canon have both done in past mirrorless releases), I expect Nikon to take the active, market affirmative approach of diminishing their lower tier DSLR offerings and supplant them readily with their mirrorless evolutions (because evolution of the imaging system is ultimately what the strong wave pushing toward mirrorless has always been about).
  • From a product design standpoint, the original, impulsive design tendency toward super tiny models has finally reached the point of faux pax. Yes, our hands are only ever so small on average, and yes, it's nice to have something sizable to hold onto in regards to cameras. So, perhaps, given old guard worries of things like flange distance, it is not unreasonable to design a mirrorless camera retaining the same flange distance as conventional mirror-equipped DSLRs? This design choice would allow for the legacy of the F-mount to continue uninterrupted, and the afforded "empty space" in body design would actually be quite ideal for the integration of sensor cooling technologies which are of extremely high demand to video enthusiasts (and video competency is a huge asset inherited from Samsung). More so, sensor cooling technologies would enable previously unexplored potential in exposure length in mirrorless systems, as well as afford benefits to high-ISO applications by dissipating the heat which contributes to poor SNR. (Plus, there's always the aesthetic aspect of keeping that genuine DSLR look and feel while simultaneously integrating newer technologies)
Personally, I'm excited. It would be dangerous to get my hopes of too high given the consistent history of godawful disappointments coming from CaNikon struggling to maintain hold on a market that left them behind a decade ago, but this acquisition was not a cheap move and I fully expect that if Nikon were willing to put their necks out far enough to put money down on Samsung's imaging division that maybe, just maybe, they won't foolishly hinder their own engineers and designers trying to bring forth the next generation of Nikon camera (as if there were anything left to cannibalize from the former).

Nikon V1 running time lapse capture over Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Consequences of Overcoming "Jack of All Trades" Syndrome

Back in the high school days and even for a couple years after, I would never have called myself a photographer, at least not in the traditional sense. I was all about the multi-media bandwagon, dabbling in equal parts with web design, illustration, animation, interfaces, you name it I was probably doing it. Not well, mind you... that period I recall frequently lamenting on my multi-media discipline and getting extremely down on myself for being moderately versed in so many creative media but not really grasping any of them to the high tier levels of those people whose work in that media I admired. So, eventually, I chose to specialize.

I'm not really sure why I picked photography to specialize in these days. Maybe because it was the newest media to me at the time, thus my enthusiasm in the exploration of new media paired with the determination to focus my skill in that media beyond just an amateur level built into super-massive momentum. I've been down on myself the past couple days, so my mounting fear is that on some subconscious level I chose photography because I perceived it as the easiest media to attain a high level grasp on (which both belittles photography as a medium and insinuates that I am inherently lazy, fulfilling the function of depression in devaluing what is important to me). Following that train of thought, I find myself pensive regarding the other forms of creative expression, of art, I ultimately let go of to achieve success in photography.

Last night my dreams dragged me all the way back to high school drama club (or Dionysus Club, as we young hipster high brows accepted for its namesake). Stage acting was enormously fun, and from all I can glean from the experience and coverage of the plays I participated in (biased of course... it was high school, we were all kids), I was pretty good at acting. But of course I never applied myself, dedicated myself to the art form - I was a multimedia kid, the idea was to do everything in dabbles, never to dedicate to the perfection of a single art. And that's exactly what came out of the dream. I was in a male supporting role whose monologue opened the show, but when opening night came I had to pull the director aside and confess, "Sir, I've been so busy with other projects that it is just now occurring to me that I have never even looked at this script once. I have no idea who my character is. I have no idea what my lines are."

(This dream, diving down into the Inception levels of subconscious thought, may very well tie beautifully into the thoughts rousing my brain just before I fell asleep last night, namely the sense that I'm not really confident I know what I'm doing in life outside the ritual grind of routine, and the maddening realization that on a long enough timeline absolutely everything becomes just that... routine.)

I suspect the prediction of ultimate failure played out in the dream relates to recent graphic design projects I've had fall into my lap. Another of the coveted arts sacrificed in my mad focus on photography was illustration, which in and of itself was split into multiple sub genres such as vector art, traditional pen-and-ink, and digital painting. Those lacking in creative skill sets still perceive me as a reliable talent in illustrative media, and so I get logo design projects tossed my way once in awhile. It's entirely my own fault because for a period when first concepting my photography business it seemed a grand idea to composite it with greater digital design offerings, namely graphics and multimedia. This was before I understood that I was no longer, realistically, a multimedia artist, and well before I realized, for the first time in any concrete sense, that I'm not so sure I really want to be considered a multimedia artist anymore (which is actually the thought I'm exploring via this blog post for the first time, oddly...).

At the office, I've had random assignments to produce graphics and animation, but for the most part the potential of that work has been limited by the software available to produce it (PowerPoint and Publisher), so of course it's impressive to people who wouldn't otherwise know how to draw custom vector paths and understand compositional concepts of balance and color theory. Privately, I've had a few clients requesting logos, which I cobble together in Inkscape and wonder how the work was ever considered passable. More important than the lack of value I perceive in the work itself, however, is how much I simply don't enjoy doing it. And that is a weird thing to me. Once upon a time, any work in any artistic media seemed like the Holy Grail of assignments. Now, my lack of enthusiasm for the media is akin to my lack of enthusiasm about remembering lines from a script. It's not my art anymore.

I miss dabbling in other media the way I used to, but in practice I don't find enjoyment in those abandoned disciplines. My partner theorizes this may be a facet of having attained success with one discipline, that having reached a point of competitive competence in photography has made the prospect of engaging a task in which I'm effectively starting at or near the bottom unattractive. That actually makes a lot of sense as it applies to my personality, as I've always had an unfortunate tendency to compare my work to the work of others in a never ending quest to devalue my efforts at expression. Having refined a form of expression past the comparative value threshold, why would I engage forms of expression still stalled out at personally devalued levels of skill? How important to me is it to try and grapple with these other forms of expression and refine them past the comparative value threshold reached in photography? Would it be more valuable to invest that time refining photography further into stratospheric levels of skill?

My position feels awkward. While I appreciate the broader perspective afforded by the Jack of All Trades approach to the arts, it's frustrating to then pare that skills portfolio down in the eyes of business clients and to the self (especially when one has a propensity for saying "yes" to every job, no matter how hot the "NO" may be boiling deep down). There is also nostalgic lament for the paths not taken, as I could just as easily have refined illustration as photography and the curiosity surrounding where that road would have gone is palpable. I'm reluctant to completely abandon the inroads made on other creative skill sets, but at the same time I do not actively refine them, thus I am effectively a hoarder of uselessly imperfect talents. Worse, I'm lazy for not refining other skills just because success in one has created a warm blanket of complacency. Worse than that...


... I think I'm coming to understand the magnitude of my problem with relaxing because, holy crap, reading through that entire paragraph exudes other deep seated issues from whose resolution I would greatly benefit. Is it the nature of the hopeless creative to never find any contentment or satisfaction, ever, from anything?

Pardon me while I go think on my mental state over coffee.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Friday in Fells Point

Went out with Kevin and Rob to Fell's Point last night. It's become something of a weekly ritual for us, to wander out into the sketchy night of Baltimore and photograph at random in response to the scenes we walk past. Consider it the photographer's equivalent of sketching, a practice in seeing in a casual atmosphere with no preconceived goal in mind.

Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8, 19mm at f/4, 1/2" exposure. 

Per usual, we started off the night with a stop out to eat. The venue of choice was Dinosaur BBQ, a popular chain in the northern end of New England, but new to a region as far south as Baltimore. I'd never really been to a genuine BBQ restaurant before, and the place certainly impressed. Definitely a fan of their habenero hot sauce (I'm a sucker for the ultra-spicy). And although I'm not a huge fan of deviled eggs, the presentation called for a quick snap.

Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8, 31mm at f/2.8, 1/4" exposure. 

I really do love food photography. Looking forward to one day where I can actually apply it in a working fashion and use some more deliberate lighting.

After sufficient imbibing, we took to Fells Point with a casual eye for compelling scenes. Despite being warm for a mid-November evening, the air was still frigid. Rob was kind enough to lend me (a remarkably dorky) hat and gloves, else I don't think I would've managed to stay out as long as I did (which is to also say I don't know how he dealt with it sans hat and gloves... maybe I'm just getting "soft" these days).

Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8, 12mm at f/2.8, 3/5" exposure. 
Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8, 12mm at f/11, 15" exposure. 

I was primarily trying two different techniques. The first was slow handheld exposures, adjusting ISO in aperture priority mode to to keep quality higher with as low a shutter speed I felt I could handle in the moment (shutter priority seems to underestimate my steadiness sometimes). Second was use of keystoning, a JPG function of Olympus cameras basically mimicking the function of tilt-shift lenses via digital adjustment. It's a technique I've employed in DXO for my real estate work, and though I've tooled with it in-camera a few times I never really took the time to exercise the capability. It's pretty fun to use, though tricky to level off perfectly so for deliverable product right out of JPG files some finer adjustment would ultimately be required.

Our city wandering took us to a construction site beside a fenced off cobalt yard. It was a weird locale, with random people almost drunkenly wandering around the borders of the fencing. Deep down, the mischievous rebel in me wanted to explore the site beyond (the wholly ineffective) fencing, but alas the company likely wasn't quite as up to flying in the face of static authority. Not a bad thing necessarily.

Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8, 25mm at f/4, 2.5" exposure. 
Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8, 12mm at f/4, 10" exposure. 

It felt like I was fighting ghosting and lens flare the whole night, unfortunately. Honestly, it often feels like I'm fighting ghosts in high contrast scenes all the time these days. I'm not sure if I'm just "doing it wrong" or if there is some greater fault to the coatings of my lenses (I'm not exactly gentle with my gear). After leaving the construction site we shot a few Hopkins University sites by the water, and it seemed like every shot fell victim to some blob of purple creeping in opposite a bright light in an otherwise dark scene.

Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8, 16mm at f/4, 1.3" exposure.
Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8, 20mm at f/11, 15" exposure.
Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8, 17mm at f/4, 1" exposure.
Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8, 12mm at f/4, 2" exposure.
Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8, 17mm at f/4, 3" exposure.

Moving over to the busier side of Fells Point, Kevin suddenly recalled a neat bar themed by the music of the late 90's and early 2000's, basically the music we grew up on. We all needed a bit of reprieve from the cold, so finding some temporary shelter wasn't a bad idea, but I've never had a good taste in my mouth for the more touristy parts of the city. Call it social anxiety, I'm just not a fan of the crowds and have difficulty not collapsing inward and becoming a cynical ass when surrounded by people. It's hard to keep my judgments in check, so typically I try to stay quiet.

Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8, 21mm at f/2.8, 1/5" exposure.
Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8, 30mm at f/2.8, 1/15" exposure.
Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8, 23mm at f/2.8, 1/10" exposure.
Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8, 30mm at f/2.8, 1/4" exposure.

(It felt a bit strange walking past this lady. I couldn't see her face or how she may have been feeling. Her attire didn't necessarily shout homeless, possibly just drunk, kicked out of the bar and passed out slumped on a bench. I've been there before, and it's not a good place to be. Didn't say anything, though, just kept on walking. Hold some regret for not saying something.)

Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8, 28mm at f/2.8, 1/5" exposure.

The dive Kevin led us into was actually pretty incredible. A mostly open floor space with really awesome projected imagery and animations cast onto broken white wall panels. Simple setup, but paired with the ambient music of the venue I felt like I could have sat there for hours quietly watching and listening. Usually I hate bars for their crowds and my ensuing inability to relax without going over the top on drinking, but this place I could genuinely see myself heading to just to sit and relax. There wasn't a show that night, but I wouldn't mind heading back some time to see who might be playing.

Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8, 7mm at f/2.8, 1/4" exposure.
Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8, 7mm at f/2.8, 1/5" exposure.
Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8, 12mm at f/2.8, 1/3" exposure.
Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8, 7mm at f/2.8, 1/5" exposure.

A pretty good night, all in all. After spending a couple weeks dipping into bars in the evenings and not actually accomplishing any photography, we got back into the groove of going out to shoot for sake of shooting. Felt incredibly good to get back on track with what our Friday night get-togethers started off as. Still, looking forward to longer days already. These frigid nights are murder.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Across the Street

Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 40-150mm f/2.8, 79mm at f/4, 1/4" exposure.

I give this Pizza Boli's the stare down almost every night. It's a simple pizza shop, but there's a weird quality of the light coming off of it, alone on a dark corner just across the street from my apartment. There's often cars parked in front of it and random individuals loitering next to its rarely-used outdoor seating area. Just a neat space to watch.

Despite living here nearly 4 years, yesterday was the first time I stopped to photograph it. There are actually a lot of neat spaces on the street in front of my building that deserve to be photographed, but for some reason I've had difficulty mustering up the motivation to shoot them. Perhaps last night's shot will be enough to open those flood gates of untapped creative potential lurking just outside my front door.

Oh, and the pizza at this place is pretty stellar. A bit on the greasy side, but heavy on the cheese, and I definitely like my pizza heavy on the cheese (even if I regret it later).

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Landscapes in Fog

Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8, 16mm with a composite of a 60" f/11 shot for sharp starbursts and glassy water and  an 8" f/4 shot to blend in greater context of clouds in the sky.

Stopped by Fort Armstead this evening what with the heavy fog following a weirdly warm day of persistent light rain. Spent pretty much all of my office day anticipating gorgeously scenic views.

My partner joined me on this little outing. He's been stressed over an upcoming visit from a friend, and I was a bit stressed myself having discovered someone stole my credit card electronically and made nearly $3,000 in purchases in a 30 minute span before the bank closed off the account (not the first time this kind of thing has happened, likely not the last). We both needed a bit of an escape to comfort, and he was in the mood for tacos, so I took him out to Taco Bell (his choice) and he humored me while I shot some landscape scenes.

Watching the fog roll in and out, the landscape altering between clear and hazy, was pretty neat to witness in person. Not sure what drove motion in the fog being as the wind was all but absent. I've never seen the Key Bridge in such conditions before, and it's a scene I hope to entertain my camera with again some time. I've really been on a fog-centric binge as of late.

Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8, 16mm and 50" at f/4

Heading back I stopped once more to capture the little-used railroad in the valley between the main highway and Fort Armstead Park. The glow from the nearby chemical plant and power plants was bringing a strong glow to the fog in the distance and it made for a nice symmetry shot as a square. Didn't indulge the scene for too long, though, as the hour was drawing later and we were both getting sleepy (not sleepy enough to fail in my commitment to blogging shots as they come, clearly). I shot the same scene (without the fog) back in my Nikon D40X days, struggling to actually compose the scene, let alone focus it, with the Nikkor 35mm f/1.8. I'm reminded frequently in subtle ways as to the benefits of operating in the mirrorless world with memories of these kinds of low light scenes being an insurmountable struggle.

Tomorrow I hope to do a bit of shooting around Baltimore City proper with my friend Rob. It will also mark attempt one of shooting real estate images as JPG, lightly processed and delivered in expedient fashion. Here's to hoping the change in workflow pans out.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Why am I shooting RAW?

Going through shots today in DXO, editing them for distribution to a client from a mess of RAW files requiring cumbersome editing, I came across a few JPG images captured in tandem and had a weird sort of epiphany. Why exactly am I shooting RAW?

Perhaps it's simply a facet of DXO Optics Pro's preview rendering, RAW files are clearly sub-sampled and look like garbage next to a JPG, but even exported none of the adjustments I make with a majority of my real estate work tend to benefit much from the latitude offered in RAW. Olympus is notorious for their stellar JPG processing engine, and most of the time I end up liking the JPG images I render in-camera from RAW files better than the RAW files themselves with editing. There's a quality to the in-camera tonality that I've never been able to reproduce with so much going on behind the scenes that even a Lightroom camera profile isn't able to completely reproduce. So why am I taxing myself, spending so much time massaging RAW files to create a deliverable image when patience in the process of the capture and smart manipulation of color profiles effectively accomplishes the same thing?

Were more of my work on the higher end of real estate and interior design, I would be investing the time to work images heavily, taking advantage of the dynamic range otherwise buried deep in the shadows and highlights of RAW file data. But that is not my business model. I've built value in my business by being quick in my turnaround of images, not for sake of post-processing prowess. I'm not particularly convinced there is any recognized value perceived in the processing I run my work through. So why am I even doing it when I'm adept enough with the manipulation of the JPG engine in-camera to produce an immediate high grade product? Barring superstitious wariness associated with the remarkably unlikely "what if" scenarios wherein a RAW would be beneficial, I don't really know.

Ultimately, I've come to this dumbfounding realization that I should perhaps back away from shooting RAW for absolutely everything. Or at least I should migrate to JPG + RAW capture, but I'm pretty convinced the only function of those RAW files will be to ensure I keep the likes of Seagate and Western Digital in business buying mountain of hard drives on which to store heaps of useless data. I'm firing off hundreds of thousands of frames annually and consuming terabytes of disk space with files inevitably saved as JPG images anyway, so why am I not being smarter about my process and simply getting rid of the middle man? I have neither the time nor the interest in massaging hundreds of RAW files weekly in futile attempt to massage low-end real estate photography into passable works of art. That's just stupid, these are images for business, not art.

This next weekend I'm dedicated to this idea of getting the image effectively perfect straight out of the camera. I'm tired of this shot-by-shot editing process sucking up hours of my time to accomplish effectively the same thing before default RAW profiles rub away all the work invested in getting the shot right when taken. These are houses and apartments I'm photographing, they hold still and I have nothing but time to ensure they present in a photo the way I mean for them to present, vastly different from laborious artistic processing or needed latitude in captured data for sake of massaging the imperfections out of a candid portrait. The FOMO (fear-of-missing-out) attitude does not realistically apply here, and the benefits to my mental sanity for reduced processing time, as well as benefit to my customers in the form of even higher turnaround times in product delivery, present no downsides. It's simply a matter of confidence. Confidence that I am, in fact, skilled enough to get the image right at the very moment of the taking (which I have), and the confidence that I will not fall victim to supposed "what if" scenario considerations (which I need to build).

I want to say it's a gamble to commit to this headfirst dive into process change so sharply, but it's hard to even quantify or present rationale for what I'd supposedly be gambling. I'm reclaiming personal time for personal work, enhancing the primary benefit of my business model for my current client base, and saving hundreds on expansive backup systems by not constructing mountains of under-utilized RAW image data. This may be the most important business decision I have ever made, like a legacy company moving away from paper copy for the enormous benefits of soft-copy-only workflows. Efficiency in its most basic form.

Sharp, clear, balanced toning. What else could I have been looking for in RAW?

Monday, November 16, 2015

Baltimore City Shots of September

Going to try going in a little bit of a different direction with this blog to try and update it with content more often (and allow myself some time to digest the things that I'm doing at any given time).

I've been taking a different direction with my editing process as compared to the usual hard line processes I've followed for years. It may very well come down to dissatisfaction with how little I publish lately because the images I'm taking don't necessarily compel me once I get them onto a computer and up on the monitor. They're a joy in the process of the taking, but I often let that joy of the moment fade and thus never produce anything to share. This isn't to say I'm not beating on photos constantly. Quite the contrary, I spend nearly every evening massaging various photos shot within the recent months quite a bit, they simply never go anywhere. Ultimately, though, what is the point of photography if not to share?

I took the following images in Baltimore City back in September while walking the streets with my friends Kevin and Rob around the Federal Hill area. The city can be quite beautiful at night, but I blame my jaded senses for not finding them more interesting. I was trying to capture interesting starbursts in the hard points of light, hence the use of f/11 (which on the micro four-thirds format introduces a bit of softening due to diffraction, a crux in the use of such a small format).

Olympus OMD E-M1, M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 at 20mm, f/11, 10".

Olympus OMD E-M1, M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 at 40mm, f/11, 13".

Despite the availability of over 12 stops of latitude in dynamic range, I rarely ever took advantage of it in my processing. Maybe it was the pixel-peeping realization of added noise or the severe aversion to the look of notorious "clown vomit" HDR. As a result, my images at night rarely ever seemed to capture the breadth of a scene for insistence on heightened contrast. Lately, though, finally getting over my OCD tendencies to only adjust Lightroom sliders in factors of 5 or 10 and actually using them in the fluid manner they're designed to be used, I've more comfortably tapped into the range of tones available in an image, freely experimenting with what was otherwise hidden in nearly-clipped shadows and highlights.

Frankly, there's a lot there that I just wasn't touching before. The style may be far less "artsy" with heavily lifted blacks and crushed whites in the tone curve, but for sake of a realistic image I find them appealing in much the same way I like the OOC JPG files Olympus' engine produces for my mobile uploads (which still remain my most enjoyed post-processing method to date for the immediacy and ease). And once past the +/- 50 mark on the shadows and highlights sliders, those starbursts I was hunting for took a pretty fantastic shape compared to the gross blobs of light they'd otherwise present.

For this purpose, I've been enjoying the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 more and more. Odd, because I once thought the lens would be relegated to a desk cabinet for its overlap with my 17mm f/1.8 and 12mm f/2.0, but with age those primes have lost some spark and re-learning the flexibility of zoom lenses in my real estate work has made me less elitist in my attitudes toward the normal zoom range in general. I may still run to my primes for people photos or candid shooting, but anything laboriously considered (such as a landscape or architectural study) enjoys the freedom to fine-tune composition and framing in a more dynamic fashion than would otherwise be limited by where my feet can take me (alas, I have not yet learned to levitate, nor added a Little Giant ladder to my backpack).

I do find myself annoyed more and more by flare/ghosting, however. It's an unavoidable facet of photography, of course, but my patience for it has dwindled. I once took it to be a facet of the M. Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8, but having similar experiences with other lenses I'm learning it's a direct result of how I like to include hard sources of light in my photos. Arguably this indicates that I'm simply doing it wrong, photographing a scene that is. In real estate work I've developed methods for negating the issue, but it will always persist in the form of purple blobs in night photos, sometimes treatable with deliberate post work but other times relegating shots to un-rescue-able. First world problems, I suppose... it's likely a very common struggle I've just had the luck to not encounter until recently (or perhaps I simply never noticed it before?).

Olympus OMD E-M1, M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 at 34mm, f/11, 10".

Anywho, I'm going to try and keep steadfast in posting images I've worked on in the evenings here on out and pontificate on whats going through my head at that moment. Probably a far more productive use of my time and any readers attention than superficially high-brow commentary on otherwise un-relate-able subject matter forced through my fingertips.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Looking to Move Toward the High-End

Really nicely designed condo space shot for Airbnb a couple weekends ago (
Shot on the Olympus OMD E-M1 with the M. Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8, 0.4" at f/8.0 and ISO 200.

I've been working in the low end of real estate photography for a good while now. Calling my local market foothold a monopoly would be hyperbole, of course, but given my neglect of deliberate marketing (and even lack of a dedicated website for my brand) people know me by word of mouth, and I am generally agreed upon as a reliable provider of above-average real estate photos with low-overhead and high-turnaround time. Basically the dream for realtors dealing in sub-$300K and strictly rental properties (my shoot for Silo Point continues to be my one and only outlier in that equation... would love to have a client like that again).

Lately my idle hours have been spent navigating varied tutorials written on real estate photography, some featuring things I know already, others showcasing the different available styles currently big in the mainstream market. Naturally these tutorials showcase higher end listings, the kinds of spaces with lots of custom furniture and lighting to create a genuinely one-of-a-kind space. More than the information in the tutorials, I find myself focused on these cleverly designed spaces as subjects I really want to photograph. Sometimes I've been lucky enough to shoot such spaces on my current contracts, but because the nature of the work necessitates low-overhead and high-turnaround I don't get to invest the time and effort I'd really like to, so they always end up looking just above-average at best.

But I really want to get out of this low-end trap I'm in. I don't want to lose momentum in the advancement of my business all because of the high-volume nature of building a successful business purely on low-end work (to a degree, it's the difference between wage slavery and salaried work). Thus I am committing to a new plan of income stream sacrifice for necessary portfolio building (which also includes actually developing a dedicated portfolio showcasing website again).

Clients straddling the line between low and high-end, or who have investments in both spheres of real estate, are plenty obvious in the scheduling process based on the content of our dialogue. They usually pay attention to little details such as when the light comes through the windows, and remark on how well their spaces are lit naturally. Because the nature of my contract demands high-turnaround, I usually book these clients amid a mess of others less attentive for sake of making big earnings for that day. Currently I'm operating on a breakneck pace that fits driving to a listing, the shoot, and driving to the next listing all within tight 1-hour blocks, ultimately leaving only 20-30 minutes for the actual photography for each space (it's insane, but I'm good at operating under such pressure). Without the time to really ingest a space and deliberately consider how it is lit, I will never create the kinds of images I want to be creating.

The change I am committing to right now is to isolate these clients with higher end considerations, take the gamble on the preparation of their spaces and allot maybe 2 or 3 hours to their listing to allow for relaxed, considered, creative investment in the photographs taken for those properties. Instead of the shotgun volume of shots (4 corners of each room and 1-2 straight on, my current autopilot standard angles), I will consider only the angles which best showcase the room (maybe 1 or 2 of the strongest angles, more if the room is just that good), and develop images with very calculated techniques using flash and compositing (the kind of editing processes that delineate high-end real estate photography from photographers I admire). In post, rather than quickly punching each image with a preset and delivering as product, I will construct pieces of art that sell a space unquestionably (and not be begrudged the time investment because they will be images I am personally invested in at the inception of their capture). Rather than a mammoth block of 40 mediocre images, I will deliver 12-15 with the highest considerations.

Or so that is the ideal of how I'm envisioning this personal time and income stream investment playing out. Suppose we'll see how well it goes in practice.

The sacrifice of 2 blocks of time for standard shoots to enable this kind of invested image capture translates to a few hundred dollars in sacrificed income. Once upon a time that would have sounded awful to me, but at current it plays rather well into maintenance of mental health and retaining passion for photography as an art form beyond the burnout of photography as business. And as a happy aside, it's a liberating thing to realize your personal considerations of health and passion can comfortably trump the capitalist freight train of business.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Seasonal GAS

Really hard to beat the infallibility of a 100K+ segment RGB light meter for night shooting.
Shot on the Nikon V1 with the 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 at 10mm, f/8.0 and 20" at ISO 100.
For the first time in a long while I've been manic over the idea of buying into a completely new camera system for reasons as yet inexplicable. I theorize that a lack of self-motivated outings to photograph for my sake instead of the sake of a client tied in with the already heavy seasonal SADs (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is driving my brain to consumerist notions that picking up a new camera in a new system and a new format will be a sort of savior to my rapidly rotting muse. Thinking historically, there seems to be a trend with the Winter months and the onset of seasonal GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome).

Specifically, and most recently, I'm thinking back to the Nikon V1, which I purchased on deep discount at Ritz Camera while the company was shuttering all of its storefronts. I remember developing a really difficult-to-navigate love/hate relationship with that camera, always regarding it as a direct competitor, and an inferior one at that, to the Olympus E-P3 that stood as my workhorse at the time. Both cameras were similar in size, my preferred kit for each was an assortment of prime lenses, and ultimately they were twin systems in which the V1 overlapped the E-P3 but with enough shortcomings to negate it in 90% of stuff-I'm-taking-with-me-to-shoot-with-tonight choices. But right now, I find myself fondly thinking back to that camera and rather wishing I still had it to wander the streets at night. For all it got wrong with nearly no buttons/dials/switches, it had solid autofocus at night and Nikon's RGB meters have always handled night exposures better than the rest. That is what my current creative panging cries for right now - a superior night photography experience.

Thus the current subject of my GAS is the Nikon D750, in great departure from my typical minimalist mindset when it comes to equipment. Next to my current workhorse Olympus E-M1, the D750 is a tank, heavy and clunky and lacking all sorts of design finesse despite being but a lowly plastic sensor housing. It goes without saying the imaging capabilities, ability to accurately acquire focus at night, and superior metering would set the tank apart from my E-M1. I've long been yearning for a prime lens kit system, and the Film Maker's package from Nikon comes with 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm f/1.8 lenses, plus spare batteries. But most importantly, and the real differentiator for me between any Olympus and Nikon camera matchup, is the difference in how files are toned. Olympus has always held some notoriety for very punchy and deeply saturated colors in their JPG output, and that ultimately translates to how their RAW files come out as well (not all RAWs are created equal). Nikon, on the other hand, takes more of a flat tone approach, which I honestly think is more of what I'm hunting for right now.

There is a quality to night images photographed on the Nikon V1 in which shadows and highlights would only really clip at my behest with sliders in Lightroom, whereas my Olympus cameras have always tended to clip blacks in night scenes, requiring precarious exposure compensation adjustments which inevitably clip highlights for not too terribly much recovery in the blacks of the frame. Everyone pre-bakes their RAW files just a little bit, and the Sony/Aptina sensors paired with Nikon's rendering engine provides such a beautiful base canvas to work on when in pursuit of a truly high-fidelity image. Olympus' approach, on the other hand, I always tended to prefer because it coaxes the direction of image processing with variations in the arguably punchier direction of its rendering of color and contrast. All of this is to say that an Olympus camera will always be superior for everyday shooting because it can help guide an aloof muse, whereas a Nikon camera's place, to me, seems much more in tune with those with a preconceived vision of what is to be photographed, providing a base palette that is malleable to go in the direction of the photographer's choosing. Right now, I want that flat base palette.

The rational side of me of course says "You don't need to buy a damn thing, just get off your ass and go photograph what you see". And I really can't argue with that logic, because as cliche as the saying is it really is the camera with you that is the best camera. In the meantime, however, I'm going to quietly crave my old Nikon roots.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Homage to E-P3

I'm ultimately late in mentioning this, but the Olympus E-P3 has been officially retired. Of all the things that could have done it in, the battery charger shorted (yes, I'm aware I could just get a replacement, but superficially forcing this camera into retirement is actually a weird sort of necessity for reasons of quirky mental allocations of value and function... basically I'm just weird).

Purchased in August of 2011, the Olympus E-P3 was as close as I could seem to get to a true spiritual successor to the Panasonic GF1 that died tragically in The Car Accident (caps for emphasis). I was new to Olympus menus, new to the famed Olympus JPG engine, and the sensor was arguably old hat by the time the E-P3 was released, but it appealed to me in both design and image quality from first snap.

One of the my first shots with the E-P3 on August 1, 2011.
Shot with the M. Zuiko 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 RII at 35mm, 1/160" @ f/7.1 and ISO 200.
I built up an entire prime lens system around this camera body, always in love with the form factor of rangefinder styling. Not even a full year later in 2012, I started picking up my first paid photography work and kicked off my business with the E-P3, M. Zuiko 12mm f/2.0, and 45mm f/1.8 (eventually adding the 17mm f/1.8 which would become my favorite prime lens of all time). A simple, diminutive kit, which earned jeers from clients until they saw the photos and were left baffled.

The E-P3 had banged into more walls and railings than I can remember, dropped more times than fingers and toes can account for, and took a tumble off a moving train once. Never a problem for it to deal with a little abuse, it kept on shooting like nothing happened. Even after picking up the Olympus E-M1 and PRO M. Zuiko zoom lenses to build a (superficial) professional-looking front, the E-P3 still came with me in the car and was frequently my go-to for casual street shooting. Paired with the 45mm f/1.8 (itself showing a lot of wear and tear these days) I had a perfectly subtle combo which produced stellar images even 4 years later.

Olympus got a lot right with the E-P3. It was a perfect maturation of all design philosophies governing Micro Four Thirds at the time, marrying speedy menu operation with smart wheel-based controls and a touch screen that was actually useful (and totally not the gimmicky thing I thought it was until I actually used it). The sensor was older Panasonic tech, but Olympus squeezed every frothing drop of quality from it, and I still miss the use of OLEDs in the rear screen display (I'd often whine about images looking better on the back of my camera than on my computer monitor... that was an actual issue to me once upon a time... wow). With the VF-3 in the hot shoe, I discovered my love of waist-level viewfinder composition, and with the PENPAL bluetooth accessory expanded my horizons by editing and distributing images with my tablet in a completely new workflow paradigm. Mostly, though... I miss the size.

One of the last frames captured with the E-P3.
Shot with the M. Zuiko 45mm f/1.8, 1/400" @ f/3.5 and ISO 200.
Word around the rumor mill is that Olympus plans on releasing a re-envisioning of the PEN line next year. And frankly I can't wait. For all its technological advances over the PENs, the E-M1 simply isn't the camera I want to be using all the time. Even sans vertical grip, there is a lost charm that I could probably get back with an E-P5, but I wouldn't want to hamstring my budget given how much I'm already anticipating this re-imagining, this... New PEN. Coupled with the rumors of those hyper-primes Olympus has patented... Oh yes, I am absolutely prepared to rebuild the prime lens kit.

So thank you, E-P3. Thank for your years of service, thank you for accepting my beatings with grace, and thank you for putting into perspective the kind of photographer I want to be seen as. Now please don't be jealous as I froth over your yet-unborn successor.

Mood Maintenance Methodology

My friend, Karen, shared a video with me maybe 2 years ago. A short by a photographer in which he dribbles on in a depressed monologue about the seasonal woes that are inevitably tied to Winter and the daylight ruin of turning clocks back an hour every November. It's actually a very good piece, and while perhaps not particularly inspiring in any overt, life changing way, it's reassuring in that the struggle of keeping creative drive up, keeping one's emotional health well managed, during the season is a shared hardship.

Personally, I remember Winter seasons when I'd simply retire the camera to a bag for months at a time and binge in excess on video games as my alternative escape. This was, of course, back before photography became a powerhouse hobby that largely governs major decisions and life choices for me, and today (and probably for the past 3-4 years) video games hold my attention about as well as a rattle captivates a baby. Lightroom and Photoshop are my video games now, and I'll sooner kill off evenings beating up old RAW files (and not publishing the results) than invest enough time to get past the starting area of Skyrim. But one can only batter the same RAW files for so long before they become redundant and boring, and once again evenings with nothing to do return to tax an already stir crazy brain.

So what is a creatively impassioned person to do when the daylight hours grow short and are otherwise robbed by the demands of a traditional work schedule?

I'll say right now, the working solution that has gotten me through the last 2 years with minimal cabin fever insanity seems so obvious I can't help but question my critical thinking skills. Thing is, it does require persistent dedication to an overall routine change, and it isn't something that is gently transitioned into but must happen immediately when the clocks turn back. Or, more accurately, it requires no routine change at all, but rather a willingness to ignore the arbitrary factor that humanity has agreed upon as global delusion, time. So maybe it would be more helpful to never turn your clocks back at all, because the most effective cure for seasonal downs I've yet found is simply getting up early.

I mean really early. Before the sun comes up early. Hell, before the sun comes up and with enough time to shower, eat breakfast, watch a dumb morning cartoon, drive somewhere 30 minutes away, and then hike another 15 minutes to the spot kind of early. Any successful photographer harps on those wee morning hours as this magical "other world", and their images are amazing and there is a good reason for it. I'm still not disciplined enough to pull off those 3AM mornings the Big Names manage, but holy crap, even waking up with enough time to spend an hour photographing the morning before driving into work is a thing of soul enriching magic.

Think about it. You're going to spend some block of probably more than 8 hours in a batcave of an office, and even if you rush to get in early, nobody else is on that schedule (forever governed by the arbitrary time on their clocks) so you'll still wind up staying later just to complete tasks as they gradually roll in. Coming into work early only ensures you're going to put in a few extra hours and, maybe, work a shorter Friday or something inconsequential (or if you're salaried, nothing at all). Because your peers are operating on a social clock and value a culture which eats at 7 or 8PM and drinks until 11PM and then maybe crashes out by midnight, the immediate perception is that we must conform to this late evening routine lest we relegate ourselves to the bin of social outcasts (see also: old people). And because of the overbearing influence of our peers, be they friends or coworkers, this change may not seem as easy as it actually is.

In the end we're all pretty depressed to walk out the office gates at 5PM and see that the sun dipped under the horizon 30 minutes ago with a mocking "See ya, bitches!". For the majority of people, that's the point of the social pressure to get together in the evenings, because human beings are generally social creatures and it only makes sense to surround oneself with friends during the long-cold-dark season. But for creative types, the ones who lose their minds when they slip into any dry spell in which new work is not produced nor projects pursued, that kind of socialization is about as effective in coping with the season as a nicotine patch for a pack-a-day smoker (pro tip: they're not super effective). The social atmosphere is a temporary distraction from the underlying stress of wanting to create new (and thoughtful) work. And the amazing thing is that's totally possible to do even during the Winter months, but it requires a shunning of the social circle band-aid, willingness to adopt some old man sleeping habits and the self-motivation to actually get out of bed at 4 or 5 in the morning. It's a lifestyle change, and like commitment to a healthy diet (not to be confused with fad dieting) making the choice and following through with it the first time is the hard part. After that, it's routine.

None of this is to say you aren't going to "slip", and considering that "slipping" generally just means "hanging out with your friends late one night" that's not so bad. Personally, I still allow myself such egregious betrayal of my lauded Winter Routine Change on weekends. In my struggle, the bulk of my depression came during the week, rolling into the office before the sun came up and leaving well after it had gone down. As it applies to me, my steadfast commitment is to be awake well before sunrise on weekday mornings, run through my usual morning routine, but still have a solid chunk of time during which I can go somewhere compelling and photograph the sunrise or the morning fog. That is the nuance of the coping mechanism as it applies to me. It will apply to everyone differently.

The larger point of this jabbering thought-bomb is that there is an option available, specifically as it relates to photographers, to find a new muse and keep the good work flowing instead of enduring 6 months of persistent distractions spoiled by the nagging realization that you aren't producing anything you really care about. I have some good friends in the photography world who frequently lament the coming 6 month Long Dark. They decried it months ago with forlorn words, like an inescapable apocalypse. But now it's upon us, upon them, and I don't want to see anyone struggle to keep motivated all because of a shift in social patterns brought on by antiquated time measurement rules.

So do me a favor; if you're struggling to keep positive while the nights are extra long, try going to bed just a little bit earlier, set an alarm to jostle you awake at 5AM, get dressed and eat something delicious, then drive somewhere with an amazing view of the horizon. You'll probably hate it at first, but I promise the gold creep over the lip of the Earth from where you're standing will make it the easiest day you've ever gone through.

Bonus points if you catch the deer in the morning fog.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

What am I even doing anymore?

Couldn't have arrived in time to photograph this bit of clever street art at a better time of day.
Shot on the LG G4, 28mm, 1/600" @ f/1.8, ISO 50

I notice many of my favorite photographers and photographic projects have some sort of overarching story to tell. Their work isn't singular and disconnected as solitary pieces of exceptional work. Rather, it's a collection of above average to pretty-damn-good facilitating the narrative. Personally I'm trapped in this awkward inbetween stage of development in the craft wherein I can either specialize and go the way of the Fine Art Photographer (FAP, hehe) or chase the narrative and call it Lifestyle Photography. My muse vacillates wildly between the two depending on my mood at the time, more often than not leaning toward lifestyle work but holy crap is it hard to set aside the time to sort through photos and assemble a narrative. I don't want to upload sets to Flickr to share openly because they mean nothing without that underlying story and are thus merely above average photographs (maybe I'm too self critical, or perhaps taking my Flickr gallery too seriously).

Suppose the overarching point is I'd like to write more about the things I am doing, and I spend a lot of time lamenting my failure to share those stories. Normally I'm against permitting myself excuses, but in this case I'm going to squarely fault working constantly. All the time. 9 or 12 hour workdays in a claustrophobic office among people with whom I have nothing in common in an industry not in the slightest aligned with my personal ambitions. It's a pretty goddamn draining existence to deal with, and at all uncommon for me to be absolutely braindead by the time I get home with little interest in anything above eating dinner, playing a casual game or something equally less demanding of brainpower, and going to sleep. Motivation to do literally anything productive is just completely sapped because I've spent an entire day managing my own misery. I do this 5 days a week, and then when the weekend arrives I've saddled myself to the brim with photography work, which is infinitely more thrilling and motivating, and the struggle to make it a viable replacement for Misery Management is totally worth it, but it's also very time consuming and again I'm left with little bandwidth to express any narrative with the necessary agency to do it justice. Which is why pretty much every blog post you see from me is written while I'm at Misery Management with some down time between tasks.

And I've been up to some cool stuff lately. Took a trip to Philly, took some photos for the BGE Baltimore Before & After photo gallery and took a kid's portrait that wound up flaring up some weird emotions when casually posted to Reddit. I shot my friends on Halloween at a country bar with line dancing while they were dressed up like a donkey, a sock monkey, and Michael Vick's dog. Looking back on the last 3 weeks in such short and sweet terms reminds me that my life is awesome and totally worth sharing because there are lessons and discoveries to be made about life and people and relationships by recounting them. And damn does it seem greedy to be keeping that stuff to myself. Pretending there's some charm and appeal to being the mysterious photographer who wanders, aloof, in and out of life without any lasting imprint is bunk. I'm not mysteriously fading in and out, I'm simply working so much I don't have much time to actually exist as my own person instead of a means to someone else's end.

It's kind of early to be committing to New Year's resolutions (they're kind of dumb and arbitrary anyway...), but I suppose it's never too early to set a goal for myself to make the time to be me for more than scattered weekends at a time. I thought setting aside one weekend a month for myself was a great step forward, but in reality it's put into very clear context how much abuse I've been allowing myself to inflict upon... myself. I mean, for fuck's sake, who actually has to mark time off in a calendar to just be themselves.

Friday, October 16, 2015

High End Smartphone Photography with the LG G4

Apologies for the sudden and abrupt dry spell. It seems I am only ever able to maintain a steady pace of publishing for a few weeks at a time at best, inevitably followed by a months-long dry spell in which the focus to sit down and produce written content is elusive.

The last couple months have seen a series of fun outings strictly designed as Photography for Me endeavors. Finally agreeing with the assessment of my peers regarding a breakneck, burnout-conducive pace of Photography for Work, I've made it a point to reserve at least one weekend of every month for myself, and on those Me Weekends plans are usually set in motion to venture out with friends to some location a couple hours out and photograph something not at all local, typically out in the mountains of Virginia or Pennsylvania (because who am I kidding, my aesthetic is rooted in the Appalachians). This weekend, in fact, we're planning on spending a couple days up in Philadelphia, which is of course not Mountain Country but, for me, a place chock full of happy memories.

It should prove to be a great venue to apply focus on my current photographic tool fascinations with higher end smartphone cameras. The mobile phone based focus of modern photography culture isn't a vaguery to my musings on this blog in the past, but most recently I was forced to upgrade my cell phone due to a hardware failure and opted to go for the handset with the most compelling camera. Based on the numbers and ratings by various sites heavily focused on the directly quantifiable, you'd probably take that to mean the Samsung Galaxy S6 or iPhone 6S, but after handling several units at the store, from the ergonomics and intuitive control scheme perspective the LG G4 easily delivers what I find to be the most complete and well considered option, and with a camera well on par with the more quantifiable "winners" of the contest I find little to criticize.

I remember the days of flip phones with hardly even passable VGA cameras, so digging into the feature set of the G4's native camera software may finally be the thing that has me considering the smartphone as a reasonable and completely viable photographic tool. Manual settings (except for aperture, which is fixed at f/1.8 as a compromise of tiny lens design), up to 30 second exposures, really remarkable optical stabilization which works in tandem with the gyro sensor to assist in leveling images (which also begs for mention of a built-in level gauge), it seems very clear to me that this unit was designed by a photography enthusiast. The JPG engine renders clean 16 megapixel images which could easily stand the test of mid-size printing, but if that's not enough the native camera software even allows for the capture of .DNG RAW files, one of which is processed and shown as the banner image for this very blog.

JPG night shot of the Key Bridge in Baltimore, MD. Shot at ISO 50, 30" shutter speed as its affixed f/1.8 aperture. Barring pixel-level blue caused by tripod motion instigated by heavy winds that night, the quality of the image is great, with lots of latitude in the available .DNG to correct for the hard highlight blowout of the street lamps on the bridge and beyond.

And the RAW quality is great for what it is. Noisy even at native ISO 50, but plenty sharp, and with a surprising amount of latitude in shadows and highlights for manipulation. In practice, the biggest issue I've had with using the phone as a dedicated camera has been for long exposures on a tripod in which stability is hard to attain given the light weight of the phone. I've tried countering the issue with various weights hooked onto the center post of the tripod, but even the slightest breeze seems enough to trigger shot-blurring shake. But seriously, read that again - Shooting long exposures with a cell phone on a tripod in RAW, and my biggest complaint is that it doesn't weigh enough? If you're looking for an indicator of the esteem to which I hold the G4's camera and interface, there you go.

Realizing the potential of the phone's camera, I quickly went on the hunt for the most optimal tripod mount for my uses. Many people recommended the ShoulderPod line which does look like the best bang-for-the-buck option, but knowing my uses and having a MeFoto brand tripod at my disposal already, I went with MeFoto's SideKick360+ mount which both allows for use on other tripods but, more importantly, fits natively into the arca swiss plate vice employed by their tripod heads. A pricier option, yes, but well built and, personally, speed and convenience are abstracts for which I am willing to pay extra when it suits my workflow.

It seems extremely silly and maybe even overkill to mount one's smartphone to a tripod for the purpose of photography, but in practice it opens up a weird new world of possibilities by virtue of the fact that, the camera in question being the phone you have in your pocket, it is small, lightweight, easy to carry, and unassuming. Additionally, the ease and straightforward nature of any smartphone photography workflow makes it, frankly, enjoyable, with gorgeous and instant results that can compete very well with more cumbersome traditional workflows on dedicated cameras. At the very worst, it is the fun of Polaroid/Instax photography, but with more flexibility.

My latest fixation with the joy of a smartphone workflow has been in the production of time lapse shorts. I found myself experimenting with time lapse photography late in 2013 and through the duration of 2014 before I decided it wasn't going anywhere and sold off the kit I was using to produce it. I'd seen many time lapse shorts on Instagram and it had me curious to see what software was available for more power-user oriented time lapse capture, which quickly led me to LapseIt Pro. A cheap app at just $2, it features incredibly in-depth interval controls, options for locking white balance and exposure, a (currently beta) module which allows for manual camera settings as opposed to automatic adjustments, and most importantly a solid rendering engine able to export clips set to various frame rates in classic file formats like .MP4 but also new, smart compression formats like .H264. Producing time lapse was a fun and calming act of meditation to me while I practiced it before, and since rediscovering it in such a simplified form, it's returned to my daily routine as an artistic sort of mental collection.

On the whole, delving into the maturation of smartphone photography has been the kind of back-to-basics pursuit I've been desperately needing to nurture creativity otherwise suffocated by the constraints of business practice (which is not to denigrate Photography as Business, more to demarcate the difference between the two). Cruising around running time lapse with my phone while simultaneously shooting stills with the PEN E-P3 has been ideal, however the E-P3 is soon to be retired given recent troubles which can be attributed to age and abuse of the camera. Still have some charge left on the battery, but once it's out, it's out. The next gear acquisition will inevitably be a replacement "fun time" camera, which has been something on my mind for some time now but most recently I believe my muse would be best soothed by some akin to the GM1 or GM5 paired with the lovely new Lumix 42.5mm f/1.7 (I have the 45mm f/1.8 from Olympus already, but the significantly improved close focus distance of the Lumix makes it extremely attractive given how I often try to use the 45mm).

A few more LG G4 time lapse captures are below for your enjoyment. Perhaps in time I will come to learn smartphone video editing software and manage to produce something with all these assorted clips. In the meantime I am happy to simply produce them!

EDIT 10/19/2015: Apologies, but it did not dawn on me until some time after making this post live that the embedded time lapse videos were not consistently loading. I still can't seem to determine the reason for this, but in place of the video embeds I've made links directly to the .MP4 files available via direct links which should work just fine.