Beyond the Specs

Sometimes I think that the true artists in photography are the designers and engineers who create our cameras.

I've been working with two new additions lately: the Olympus PEN-F and Pentax KP. As part of my self-education about them, I've been reading reviews and user reports to help me better understand each device.

In general, I think many reviews miss the point.

Comparisons often focus on a few key specifications such as sensor size, high ISO rating, megapixels, frame rate, focusing speed, and a few words about usability. If these cameras were cars, we'd hear about horsepower, tire size, transmission gears, and something about the seats.

But cars aren't promoted that way. And neither should cameras.

The journey that I've been on with the Pentax KP has been filled with delights and surprises. There are so many thoughtful nuances in its bones. I would love to have dinner with the engineers just to hear about their thinking process during the design phase. I would buy the beer.

There are so many little things that I appreciate, like a green reset button that takes your settings back to square one, the ability to choose the image characteristics for program mode, and the creative library of digital filters that I can apply long after the shot has been captured. 

I've spent hours with this camera learning about the gems that I never read in a review.

Then I picked up the Olympus PEN-F, and I was transported to a completely different place. It had nothing to do with megapixels or ISO. But it had everything to do with how this camera can be used to create an image that looks completely different than the one captured by the guy standing next to me. It's a magical paint brush for photographers.

And beyond that, how this camera makes me feel as an artist when it's hanging around my neck. I  believe that I can create something beautiful at any moment. The PEN-F borders on the metaphysical.

As I read forum comments and stock reviews, I feel like there's a lack of appreciation for the designers and engineers who create these devices. I wish that I could be so talented to make a Pentax KP or Olympus PEN-F.

But I can't. So I will happily settle with using them to paint the moments of my life, as artistically and beautifully as possible.. and enjoy every fraction of a second along the way.



The Creative Light

Regardless if you have a great life or one full of challenges, it's part of a greater whole.

Changes in our family, friends, community, state, and country affect both our heads and our hearts. Some mornings a cup a coffee is an unparalleled joy, while others it's required just to take the first steps into the day.

Most of this I cannot control. I was not ready for my father to pass, I do not like Americans fighting each other, and I certainly don't want foreign powers interfering in our affairs. 

Common sense says that if you cannot change the situation, adjust your reaction to it. This has been my guiding light, and photography is part of it. If I attempt to create something beautiful in the face of ugliness, then I have made the world a better place.

Think about it. If we responded in part to self-interest, hate, and the random acts of nature with a beautiful photograph, a caring note, or inspiring song, who wins: darkness or light?

The numbers are on the side of light. If you look at the news, there's a relatively small band of miscreants creating havoc for society at large. I think a conservative estimate would be that light outweighs dark 4 to 1. How many troublemakers do you personally know?

Things go south when we give in to our emotions and let ourselves temporarily cross the line to the other side. But what if that wasn't our response? What if, instead, we made a photograph that emoted beauty, then shared it? Yes, I know that we're not going to fix the world by making pretty pictures and writing songs. But we certainly will make it more liveable.

Art heals both the artist and the patron.

Reach for your camera, manuscript, piano. The things you create will balance your life, and someone else's as well.




The Relentless Pursuit of Insanity

Our obsession with lens sharpness is a photography tradition that dates back to my earliest days. 

Whether you pick up an old issue of Popular Photography from the 1970s or peruse today's online forums, you'll read photographers debating the clarity of one optic versus another.

As we evolve as artists, we know that there are other aspects of an image that are just as important, if not more. Color, gradation, composition, exposure, and yes, emotional impact are elements that should not be overlooked. And we're fine acknowledging those, that is, once the sharpness question has been answered, and we're secure with the quality of our lens.

I'm thinking about this as I prepare a review for the new Pentax KP DSLR with its host of premium AL lenses. You know, the ones with the pretty metallic red trim. I spent a big part of the day yesterday trying to determine if they were indeed worth their price tag. And what criterion was I using to judge them? Yes, sharpness.

High magnification, pixel peeping sharpness.

This put me on the rails to insanity. As I tweaked menu settings, aperture, stabilization, and focus accuracy - not only for the Pentax, but for the comparison cameras as well - I found myself lost in the tiniest corners of the frame, wired on coffee, with nose pressed up against the computer screen trying to focus my watery eyes at 11:30 pm with my only company being a pair of fighting cats somewhere behind by backyard fence.

"Stop it!," I yelled at them, then closed the door behind me and returned to the work table.

My laptop only had 6 percent of its battery remaining.

"Time to go to bed," I thought.

The next morning, I decided to look at the test images as I would a normal photograph. Not at 400 percent magnification, but as a full screen image on my laptop. 

They were beautiful. All of them. I adjust the tones a bit as I normally would, and they responded like a thirsty plant soaking in a cup of water.

I don't know what gets in to us sometimes. Why are photographers so plagued by technical obsession? The image could be boring as hell, but if that street sign in the distant background has legible type, we're somehow OK.

I went back to my notes. Lens sharpness: Good. Case closed.

I then posted a few of the shots online. They are interesting. I'm getting some nice comments.

And not one word about sharpness.


Canon: It's Been a Good Run

I pre-ordered my Canon EOS 5D Mark II in late 2008. I didn't know it then, but a few weeks later, I would lose my full-time job with O'Reilly Media.

Once I found out about the department-wide layoff, I wondered out loud on social media, "Should I go through with the purchase of the 5D Mark II?" After all, that $2,500 would come in real handy for other things, like paying the mortgage.

My friends were unanimous in their response: "Keep the camera. You're going to need it." And they were right.

For the next 8+ years, I depended on the Canon and my arsenal of lenses to deliver the goods to  commercial clients. In the beginning, I thought 21 megapixels was overkill. Near the end, it wasn't quite enough.

That's right. The end.

I sold the Canon 5D Mark II on Amazon yesterday. I've also let go of the 24-105mm L zoom, and my 70-200mm f/2.8 IS L is listed online right now. It's the end of an era for me that began in 1995 when I started shooting weddings. So what happened?

Over the last few years, the 5D Mark II has started to feel like old technology, especially compared to my Olympus Micro Four Thirds gear that I use for travel and event photography. I really liked my Canon, and kept using it regardless. But I just can't anymore. It's too weird going from the OM-D E-M5 Mark II to the 5D.

I waited to see what Canon had to offer in terms of new models. After the recent wave of announcements, I decided that I just wasn't excited by their stuff. I knew I had to replace the 5D Mark II, but with what?

The answer came when Pentax announced the 24MP KP. It was love at first sight. It featured an upgrade in resolution, great low light performance, sensor-based image stabilization (which I came to appreciate through Olympus), and a set of super compact HD limited edition lenses that are a fraction of the size of my Canon glass.

In fact, I have been wanting the Pentax DA 20-40mm f/2.8-4 ED Limited since the day it was announced. Now, I finally have it. (Man, that was a long wait...)

What I like about this transition is that my DSLR gear is better aligned with my Micro Four Thirds kit. I enjoy shooting with an optical viewfinder at times, and will probably always have a DSLR to complement my mirrorless. But these days, I want efficient, compact gear. And that's what I get with Pentax and the limited edition lenses.

I will always be fond of Canon. I shot the Beijing Olympics with Canon. My first trip to Iceland was with this gear. I have billboards thanks to the 5D Mark II. But we just ran out of road.

It's been a good run, Canon. Thanks for the great images. 

Maybe our paths will cross again someday.


The Last Frame

I find it impossible to stop experimenting. Not only does my business depend on it, but my creative sanity as well. Boredom is not my friend.

At the same, my passion for photography is paradoxical. On one hand, I'm constantly striving to put together the perfect kit, discover the ideal adventure, capture the ultimate image. I've said to myself many times, "Now that I have this camera, I'm set. I don't need anything else."

And for the moment that's true.

Then, I read about this, someone tells me about that, and the whole plan is tossed in the air,  fluttering to the floor like scattered papers.

To be honest, I own many cameras. And I like them all. It feels a bit like a harem. One day I'm in love with the OM-D E-M5 II, then the next the Fuji X-20. Oh, that beautiful Pentax Super Program is calling to me now.

When I pack my Nimble Shoulder Bag for a daily bike ride, I'm never quite sure what's going inside. My only constant is the iPhone in my pocket. After that, it could be anyone's guess.

Many times of late, I've reached for a 35mm film camera. Those SLRs are comrades in my creative quest. My current favorites are the Pentax Program Plus, Pentax ZX-5n, Minolta X700, Contax G1, and Yashica FX-3 Super 2000. Film has added an element of excitement to this adventure. It's like kissing in an elevator and not knowing exactly when the doors will open.

In addition to all the things you already know about analog, such as not having an LCD to review the image right after you've captured it, there's one more aspect that I find intoxicating: the last frame.

Each roll of film has 36 exposures. I don't carry spare rolls for my adventures. If I see something interesting, I use a few frames to record it. If it's very interesting, a few more. 

Sometimes I'm less than half way through my ride, yet have just a few frames left. How do I meter them? How many do I save just in case something spectacular happens?

Yesterday, I saved just one frame. "I'm fine. Nothing's going on. I'm nearly finished with the ride," I said to myself.

Then, on cue, a woman approached up the path with four dogs. Two were tall, and two were short. They moved in unison like a gliding pyramid. She was in the center with a tall dog on each side, and the two shorties were flanking them.

They was coming right toward me.

One frame left.

I steadied the camera and waited for the perfect moment. She was staring at me too. When they were about 20 yards away, I squeezed the shutter button and recorded the last frame.

The film was still rewinding in the camera when she reached me.

"That's a shot I could not pass up," I said to her.

She smiled. "Oh really?"

"Are those your dogs, or are you a walker?"

"They're mine. We walk everyday. We keep each other healthy."

I smiled, thinking the same thing about my bike rides.

"Thanks for the great photograph," I said, holding up the camera.

"How did it turn out?" she asked.

"I have no idea. Won't know for a week or so. I only had one frame left."

She smiled curiously. "Film? Are you an artist?"

I pursed my lips. "I don't know."

"I just keep trying new things, hoping something good will happen."

She nodded in an understanding way, then continued down the path. I pulled out my iPhone to document the time and place, still thinking about frame #36.

The last frame.