Leica S

I finally got tired of waiting for one of the new, mirrorless, medium format cameras--either the Hasselblad X1D or the Fujifilm GFX-50c--to come to market in order to get a backup medium format camera into my kit for location shoots.  My choices, given my impatience, were to buy another Phase One, an H5 or H6 series Hasselblad, a Pentax 645Z, or a Leica S.  My backup camera needs to fit into a carry-on sized hard case that includes: a Phase One XF IQ3-100, a Schneider 120mm f/4 macro, a Schneider 55mm f/2.8, laptop, batteries, chargers, tethering cable, remote trigger cable, memory cards, external storage, color calibrator, lens cleaning gear, etc.  

Space rules out carrying Hasselblads because I would need back, body, and a 120mm Hasselblad lens which is too much.  I could buy another Phase Back and XF body (which I might eventually do) which could be a bit more compact given that I wouldn't necessarily need a second Schneider 120.  But that's an expensive option, even if I went with a 50 megapixel back.  It's also a weird option because I'd be laying out a ton of money and it would be solely a backup camera; given that I already have one, it does not open up any new shooting scenarios.

This left me with the Pentax and the Leica.  The Pentax is cheaper than the Leica, and a bit higher resolution (50mp vs 37mp).  But the Pentax is a bit bigger than the Leica, and the Leica glass (modulo a track record of auto-focus motor failures that has the forums lit up at the moment) is better than Pentax glass, and arguably better than the Schneider glass that I use on my Phase One.

With that information in hand, I made a bet, based on my recent surprising success with the Leica Monochrom M, and bought the Leica S with their shockingly good APO Summarit 120mm f/2.5 macro lens.  I've shot perhaps 50 frames with the camera so far, but the early results are quite pleasing.  ISO is good through 1600 and acceptable at 3200.  That coupled with the f/2.5 aperture makes this camera very nice for natural and low-ish light, handheld shooting.  The autofocus system is fast and accurate, even in dim light.  The 120 lens is stunningly good.  The camera feels great in the hand.  It's battery charger is quite compact.  And the image quality for natural light shots is great.  (I have not yet taken it into the studio.).

(The one thing that is noticeable with this camera's sensor after having gotten very used to the IQ3-100, is that it has nowhere near the dynamic range of the big Phase One.  You can pull the shadows around a little bit and the highlights almost not at all with the Leica, whereas the IQ3-100 files, or parts of them, can oftentimes be wildly under- or over-exposed and you can still pull something useful out of them.  That plus the fact that you have to go around your elbow to get files into Capture One because Phase One doesn't support competing medium format cameras in their software, are really the only two shortcomings of this camera that I see so far.)

Here are a few shots from this morning.

Leica S + APO-Macro-Summarit-S 120mm f/2.5

Leica S + APO-Macro-Summarit-S 120mm f/2.5

More to come in the future.  I think that other than becoming a reasonably solid backup if my P1 ever craps out in a photo shoot, that the Leica S's combination of fast auto-focus, decent ISO performance, and form factor are going to have me shooting around with it outside of the studio far more than I ever have with my Phase One gear.  

It takes me a while to get every new camera "dialed-in", that is to say, me understanding how the optics and sensor are going to perform under different circumstances so that I can shoot with complete confidence, and me figuring out how to get the right look out of the files that come out of the camera.  Within a few weeks I should start having images that are above the bar.

Kevin Scott
Hasselblad and Photography Forums

Despite the fact that 1.3 trillion photos will likely be taken in 2017, it is ironically difficult to find good sources of information about high-end photography on the Internet.  Granted, the vast majority of those 1.3 trillion images will be captured on smartphone cameras by folks who don't even consider themselves hobbyist photographers.  And most of the photography news sites have business models that require them to focus their energy on the middle of the professional and hobbyist photography market.  Nonetheless, if you're a gear nerd and obsessed with the top end of camera equipment, the same way that a car enthusiast might be about Ferrari's, Lamborghini's, Porsche's, etc., you have a limited selection of online resources to help satisfy your information needs.

This is a real shame at this particular point in time given that we are going through a renaissance of sorts at the high end of photographic gear.  There are some very exciting developments in the medium format digital market right now.  Phase One and Hasselblad introduced 100 megapixel systems in 2016.  And in 2017 we will have two new 50 megapixel, mirrorless, medium format cameras on the market from Hasselblad and Fujifilm at significantly lower price points than the typical entry-level medium format camera.  These two mirrorless medium format cameras are also more compact than the current crop of SLR medium format cameras which tend to be bulky enough that their use for certain types of photography can be challenging.

If you want to stay informed about a medium digital format photography marketplace that all of a sudden is moving kinda fast, your best bets are actually forums, and in particular, the forums at Luminous Landscape or GetDPI.  Many folks who own medium format gear, who sell it, and who are otherwise quite knowledgeable about medium format photography congregate in these two forums.  In general, following these two forums is an awesome way to stay informed and to discuss all manner of topics relevant to this sort of gear and the types of photography for which it is well-suited.  I've learned a ton, particularly from the LuLa forums, since I got into medium format digital four years back.

But forums, even ones filled with smart, decent folks discussing something as arcane as medium format digital cameras and photography, as we have seen with other flavors of social media in 2016 in discussions of US politics, are sometimes one post away from devolution into an irrational, angry mob.  Which is exactly what's happened over the past few days on LuLa and GetDPI, starting with Kevin Raber, publisher of Luminous Landscape, reporting that Hasselblad had been purchased by drone maker DJI and speculating about Hasselblad's future.

I think that to understand the furor in the forums over Kevin Raber's article we have to go back a bit further to Hasselblad's recent history, which is not what one would say has been characterized by flawless execution.  For instance, just prior to their current generation of gear, they put out two cameras--the Stellar and the Lunar--that were rebranded Sonys with minor cosmetic tweaks and significantly increased prices.  Neither were successful and both were widely ridiculed by the photography press and community.  

Hasselblad got a new CEO in 2015(?) and subsequently started announcing and shipping interesting products again.  The Hasselblad CFV-50c is a very cool 50 megapixel digital back that can be attached to the classic Hasselblad V system cameras, giving them new life in a digital world.  They announced the H6D series of professional medium format DSLR cameras in 50 and 100 megapixel variants with beautiful-looking new software.  And they announced a stunning-looking small-form-factor mirrorless medium format cameras, the X1D, with a 50 megapixel sensor, a new lineup of lenses, and an attractive price point.

All of this would be great, if Hasselblad could actually ship cameras.  You can lay hands on the CFV-50c and the H6D-50c, but, even though they're technically "shipping", virtually no one has received their H6D-100c or X1D orders yet, and it's unclear how long folks are going to have to wait before they will receive their orders.  You can't just walk into a dealer right now and walk out with the systems in hand, or even a good estimate for when you might be able to get an order filled.  Hasselblad, for reasons that are unclear, isn't able to give customers or dealers real clarity on when product will be coming to market in sufficient quantity to fill demand.  There are a bunch of theories why this might be the case, some optimistic, some less so.  With the X1D launch Hasselblad has promised ship dates that they haven't hit, continued to work on firmware that enables marketed launch features almost four months after the date the camera was supposed to launch, back-pedaled on certain features they claimed would be in the camera (built-in GPS), and claimed shipping success with just a tiny trickle of product hitting the market.  Less attention has been paid to the H6D-100c, I suspect because far, far fewer people have ordered the $32k flagship camera, but after being announced in April of 2016, they still are not generally available.

The Occam's Razor explanation for all of this, although this is still just speculation on my part, is that Hasselblad has capital issues and needed to announce the H6D-100c and X1D before they were ready in order to assess demand and to use pre-orders to manage capital to pay for parts and to hire staff.  They probably over-estimated their ability to finish all of the work to bring a brand new product to market within the timelines they communicated to the public, something definitely not unique to Hasselblad.  And to top it off, the sensors that these cameras use are made by Sony in a facility in Kumamoto which experienced an earthquake in April of 2016 that has impacted its ability to fill orders placed by other camera manufacturers.  Phase One, which also sources 100 megapixel sensors from Kumamoto for the cameras they announced in 2016, has been shipping 100 megapixel cameras throughout the year, which I'm guessing is the difference between paying for your sensors in advance and being first in line versus waiting to order in volume because of capital constraints.  Bad luck and bad timing for Hasselblad.

IMO, none of this would matter if the idea of the X1D had not so powerfully resonated with potential customers.  The H6D-100c is even later than the X1D, but folks are far less wound up about it.  It's a resolution upgrade to systems you can already buy, which is nice, but not revolutionary.  And if you're in a super, super, super hurry to get 100 megapixel files and willing to spend more money, you can buy a Phase One.  The X1D on the other hand is not an upgrade to anything.  It's revolutionary.  And until the Fujifilm GFX ships in the next couple of months, there's nothing else like it on the market.  A whole bunch of folks want to get their hands on one ASAP.  Some sold their gear to finance such a purchase.  Some put purchase plans of other gear on hold to order an X1D.  Even folks who are typically cautious, whose common sense tells them to wait until units are shipping, the reviews are in, etc., before making a purchase decision on such an expensive product, have jumped on the X1D early adopter bandwagon.  Many of the folks who desperately want to lay their hands on this camera are not enjoying the uncertainty that Hasselblad has created around its launch, and the fact that no one can really tell them when they might be able to get an X1D.  Kevin Raber's article, which in my opinion was not written with ill-intent, adds to this uncertainty.

The forums where much of this Hasselblad product launch drama is on display, unfortunately aren't good places for speculation to converge into some "wisdom of the crowds" consensus on what's going on and the extent to which those goings on are likely to impact the availability of the products that some of us are interested in purchasing.  There's religion there, both pro-Hasselblad and anti-Hasselblad, and the resulting furor in the forums over Kevin's article and over other folks trying to fill Hasselblad's information vacuum with theories that are not compatible with these mutually incompatible worldviews is considerable.  Even though nothing that I've said in this blog post is anti-Hasselblad, and the reality is that I love most of Hasselblad's history and think that the X1D is likely to be a remarkable camera, had I posted any of these thoughts about the situation in either forum, I would have had a whole bunch of flamethrowers pointed in my direction right away.  Folks there would attempt to substitute my opinions with theirs in the guise of logical argument, call my credibility into account, accuse me of being a Phase One shill, etc.  That might make a Hasselblad fundamentalist feel better, but, it doesn't really do much to help inject more certainty into a situation that needs some believable consensus.

The really sad thing about all of this is that whatever is going on with Hasselblad, folks are so enthused about their new products, and so supportive of the brand, that if they would just explain what the hell is going on, folks would calm down and give them a wide berth to do what they need to do to get these products to market.  They have assuredly "lost the narrative" in two of the most important places where their potential customers reside, which is no bueno for them.  Flame-y forums filled with highly opinionated, passionate photography enthusiasts throwing around theories based on 20% fact and 80% fervent conviction isn't really a good substitute for competent marketing and customer relations.  But alas, this appears to be the world in which we live.

Kevin Scott
SoCal after Christmas

Over the past several years we've developed a new habit.  A couple more years of consistency, and perhaps we'll call it a tradition.  After Christmas, on December 26th, we head down to Southern California for a week of frenetic activity punctuated by blissful moments of peace and quiet and 70℉ and sunshine over a calm blue Pacific.  This year we're visiting Rancho Palos Verdes.

It's yet another flavor of cliffsome California shore and sunshine with tons of interesting things to do outdoors, including a fairly cool hike down the side of one of the aforementioned cliffs to a rocky beach and tide pools, and a great spot at cliff top to watch the ocean and the big freight ships passing slowly in the distance on their way to and from the ports at Long Beach and Los Angeles.

The Leica has been getting quite the workout, and I'm trying to mostly follow Ralph Gibson's advice and leaving the 50mm on most of the time so that focal length becomes more natural to me.  The Leica kit now has a 28, a 50, and a 90, and honestly I don't know whether I would need anything else.  It's remarkable to me how compact that kit is.  I drug it around Universal Studios Hollywood for 7 hours yesterday and didn't really notice it.  As for the Phase One, even though its kit is decidedly neither compact nor light, I cannot resist lugging it around with me, and it has gotten some limited usage this trip.

Despite rain, we took a short trip to Catalina at the end of the week.  This was the first time that we had ever visited Catalina, and it was interesting.  Very few cars on the island makes for a very serene setting.

I also took a bunch of interesting photographs at the LAIKA Films exhibit at Universal Studios which featured a bunch of the original stop-animation models from Coraline, ParaNorman, Box Trolls, and Kubo and the Two Strings.  I'll post some of those too.  They were fantastically cool! 

All in all a very nice week away.  I continue to be impressed by how stunningly good Leica glass and the Monochrom M are.  Even with wiggly children and shooting with wide open apertures, I'm missing very few shots, and getting shots that I wouldn't have before because I can see beyond my frame and am using focus more creatively with a rangefinder.  I've been tempted to buy an SL to complement the Monochrom M, but have held off because I'm not sure the SL's EVF (even though it is by FAR the best EVF I've ever experienced) will encourage the same sort of shooting as a rangefinder.  I've got my fingers crossed for an interesting M announcement early in the year.  Could be an M10 and a Fujifilm GFX-50C in my future...


Kevin Scott
Using stock photos and Photoshop for storyboarding

As I'm beginning to tip-toe into the world of editorial portraiture, where the story that I'm trying to tell with images involves more complicated lighting setups, posed models, etc., I'm finding it useful to have storyboards for shoots.  These storyboards help me to convey to my collaborators the vision that's in my head far better than words.  And getting everyone on the same page helps to make shoots more efficient, which is a must for me given that I have a very finite amount of time for photography, and often my time comes in very short bursts.  Being able to plan something carefully so that a project will fit into an available window of time is extremely important if I want to get anything accomplished at all.

Unfortunately, my illustration and drawing skills have atrophied mightily since I was a teenager dreaming of becoming a comic book artist with dozens of hours a week spent sketching.  My silly animal cartoons for my 6 and 8 year olds are pretty on point, but, not really all that helpful to try to convey a vision to others about work I'd like for us to create together.  After pondering this problem for a while and considering the tools in my arsenal I could bring to bear, it hit me that there is a whole world of stock photography out there that I could mash up into passable mockups for the images in my head using Photoshop.

I'm scheduling a shoot for February right now where I have 3-5 images that I want to make that convey the dissociative effects that modern technology, particularly ever-present mobile devices, have on inter-personal relationships.  I need to book models, who are easier to book if you can explain to them or their agent what you're trying to do.  I need to design the lighting setups and test them out before the shoot, and am probably going to bounce (no pun intended) a bunch of ideas off of some of my fellow photographers to try to more quickly get to a working setup.  Etc. 

So I made the following mock up from 4 stock images from iStockPhoto.  (I like to pay for my stock images given that stock photographers need to make a living, and they give the rest of us a fantastic resource to work with.)

The image that I had in my head was of a young women holding a mobile phone in her hand, staring at it, with a somewhat disconsolate young man standing behind her being ignored, with a ray of light from high stage left shining down on the iPhone illuminating some dust floating around in the air.  I made this mock up by grabbing an image of a young woman standing, looking down, an image of a young man standing looking down with a hand on his forehead, an image of a hand holding an iPhone, and an image of some dust floating in the air.  That took about 10 minutes.  It took another fifteen minutes to put these images into a document, scale them, mask out the bits that weren't needed, and then get a gradient background and a "beam of light" in place.

Even though this isn't a bad image (the beam of light is a bit unnatural looking), it still isn't the final image that I'm looking for.  The models aren't quite right.  The posing isn't quite right.  The beam of light doesn't look 100% the way that I want it to look.  The lighting on the models is wrong.  Etc.  But it conveys approximately the right mood, will allow me to explain to my collaborators what I'm going for in the finished image, and will help me to get my lighting setups figured out before the shoot.  All that for 25 minutes of work, and a few bucks worth of stock photos.

Kevin Scott
Portraits of Philanthropists: Amy Rao

Both my wife and I grew up in humble circumstances, and feel extraordinarily lucky to be in a position as middle-aged adults to give back to our community and to try to leave the world a little bit better than we found it.  A few years ago we established The Scott Foundation, a 501(c)3 private family foundation whose mission is to empower local Bay Area children to achieve their personal best.  This year we established Behind the Tech, a non-profit organization whose mission is to encourage people from all backgrounds and walks of life to participate in the technology creation process that is shaping the future of society.  As we've become more involved in the world of philanthropy, we've met some amazing folks, whose commitment to making the world a better place is both inspiring and humbling.

One of those folks is Amy Rao.  Amy is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who we first met through her work with Human Rights Watch where she is Vice Chair of their International Board of Directors, member of the executive committee for the Silicon Valley Human Rights Watch Committee, and is chair of both the San Francisco and Silicon Valley annual fund-raising dinners.  In addition to her day job as Founder and CEO of Integrated Archive Solutions, Amy spends countless hours and mind-boggling amounts of her energy championing a variety of different human rights and social justice causes.  We are honored to now count her amongst our friends, and I personally feel privileged to have had the opportunity to photograph her.



Kevin Scott
Leica M Monochrom

I debated for a really long time about whether or not I should buy an M Monochrom.  The idea of this camera is fantastic.  It only makes black and white images.  It uses the ridiculously awesome line of Leica M glass.  It's small enough to carry around everywhere.  Its controls are straightforward.  It looks beautiful.  

But there's always a but, right?

In the case of the M Monochrom the "buts" are non-trivial.  It's expensive.  It's only 24 megapixels in an age of ever-increasing sensor resolution.  It doesn't have autofocus.  Some of the retro styling stuff is a pain in the ass (e.g., the bottom plate that has to be removed to get to the SD card and battery.) . And did I mention that it's expensive.

Still, my interest in the M Monochrom was not going away.  I rented one along with the APO 50mm f/2, perhaps the best 50mm lens in the world.  I tested it against an A7rii, which on paper should thrash the Leica, and at a fraction of its price.  I even bought an adapter to allow the Sony to take Leica M lenses so that I could attempt to factor out benefits of the optics.  In my testing, the M Monochrom wasn't better than the Sony from a technical perspective, but, in terms of image sharpness, it also wasn't that far behind.  The Sony certainly wasn't technically superior to the same degree that my Phase One XF + IQ3 100 is superior to the Sony.  Still, the M Monochrom + APO Summicron 50mm f/2 lens is almost $15,000.00, and for that much money, the spec geek part of my brain was telling me that it was no bueno that a $4,000.00 Sony A7rii + Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 combo could beat the Leica.  It's like a Nissan GT-R being able to outperform a Porsche 911 Turbo.  Craziness.

So, I returned the M Monochrom rental and thought I was done with Leica yearnings.  But, a few things happened.  One is that for the second time now, a Sony camera has failed to gel with me.  I bought an A7r when it first came out and got rid of it almost immediately because I just couldn't convince myself to shoot with it.  I couldn't resist the hype around the A7rii, nor the fact that a huge number of friends were migrating to it.  I bought one early this year, and it fared a bit better than its predecessor.  I shot a bunch with it and took it on several trips.  I got good images out of it.  But I just don't love this camera the same way that I love my Phase One, my Fujifilm cameras, or even my Canon DSLRs.  The A7rii is a great camera.  Just not great for me.

And then.

I went to a workshop at the Leica Gallery in San Francisco.  Before I knew it, I was laying down my credit card for the M Monochrom and the APO Summicron 50 and 90.  And begging forgiveness from my wife.

The thing that did it for me was when shooting my favorite subject matter, people, the very first image that I shot with the M Monochrom wowed me the same way that my very first shot from my first Phase One camera did.  The rendering.  The tonal gradations in soft shadows.  The detail in the files.  The extent to which I could push things around to achieve the contrast-y monochrome look that I love.  It was like magic.  All very subjective, but, I was in love with this camera right away.  (My mistake when I rented the M Monochrom was shooting a bunch of subject matter that's not my speciality: sensor and optical torture tests and a bunch of abstracts.)

Beyond my immediate infatuation with the files coming out of this camera, a couple of funny things happened almost immediately.  First, I found that I was hitting focus, even with manual focus and my old eyes, at almost the same rate that I hit with my autofocus systems, even when shooting with lenses wide open.  I was super surprised by this.  I had assumed that one of the big problems I would have with a Leica M in practice would be missing focus frequently on good shots which drives me nuts.  But that wasn't happening.  (I still have difficulty focusing it in low light.  In general with the rangefinder, I look for something with high contrast on the plane where I'm trying to achieve focus, use that to dial in focus, and then quickly reframe.  The lower the light, the fewer opportunities you have for high contrast thingies in your focal plane of interest.  None of this is too dissimilar from how autofocus works, or doesn't work, in low light.)

Second, I found that the rangefinder's big field of view through the viewfinder and being forced to focus manually was making me much more attentive to framing, as well as allowing me to use focus in much more expressive ways than I typically do.  That's a serious win.

So, the A7rii is benched.  I've asked Santa for a wide M lens for Christmas.  The M Monochrom and three M primes are going to be my near constant companions, alongside my Phase One, which I'm finding surprisingly useful as a carry-around camera with the waist-level viewfinder and the still-outstanding image quality at ISO 800.

Here's to loving your tools!

Picture of the Leica Monochrom M typ 246, ironically, taken with a Sony A7Rii

Kevin Scott
Hiking at the Presidio and Physiognomy

Last week I went on a hike with a few friends at The Presidio in San Francisco to take some pictures and to chat about photography, life, etc.  Looking around this site, it's easy to see that I'm not a landscape photographer, and making pictures of places vs people has always been a challenge for me.  It's not like I'm uninterested in landscape photography.  I very much enjoy nature, and appreciate its beauty.  In some cases, I will visit a place and be in complete awe of its spirit.  I'll be so in awe that I want to preserve that feeling, so I put a wide lens on a camera, point it at the vastness of what I'm experiencing, and snap.

And that's where my troubles begin.

Rarely do my landscape images capture what I was experiencing or feeling as I allow myself to be in a place or absorb a landscape.  Sometimes I'll get it right.  I have a large print of a huge, downed banyon tree on an isolated beach in Maui hanging on a wall in my office at work that absolutely takes me back to La Perouse Bay every time I look at it.  

But those successes are few and far between.  More often than not, I completely fail.  My images look like postcards or cliches.  In the case of popular places, the pictures I take, more often than not, are not even as good as the thousands of nearly identical images that more skilled landscape photographers have taken of the same place.

Which is why I'm not a landscape photographer.  :-)

That said, I've had a couple of recent experiences that gave me hope that I perhaps could do better.  The first was the Ralph Gibson workshop that I attended in which he encouraged all of us to have a point of departure before embarking on a photo shoot.  The second was a conversation that I recently had with my friend Michael Shanks.  Michael is one of the world's preeminent archaeologists and classicists, but also an avid and supremely talented photographer.  Michael is big on the notion of physiognomy of place which asks the question: how does a place express itself through its various features?

With these two things in mind I went about trying to capture the spirit of The Presidio on our hike from Immigrant Point Overlook about halfway down the hill to Marshall Beach.  It was an overcast December day in San Francisco, not bitterly cold, but foggy and threatening to rain, with the world that interesting mix of green and brown and gray that Northern California gets when the winter rains bring some, but not all, of the vegetation back to life.  I was trying to capture the essence of the park in this season through photographs of its small and large features, and deliberately trying to avoid images of big sweeping views.  In the set, I tried to get just enough of the large-scale features of the park to help identify the place (although I'm not sure that even that is really necessary.)

Here's what I managed.  Still not great, but more satisfying personally than my usual attempts at photographing a place.

And just for good measure, here's a portrait of Om.  :-)

Kevin Scott
What I Learned from Ralph Gibson

I had the privilege this week of being amongst a handful of photographers attending a 3-day workshop taught by legendary photographer Ralph Gibson.  Ralph is one of the great fine art photographers alive, and has had a huge impact on the art community since his breakthrough work, The Somnambulist, in 1970.

Before going to this workshop, I'm not sure that I really understood what fine art photography was, much less whether or not I wanted to be one.  I'm not quite a modernist when it comes to photography, trying to document the world as it is.  But I'm also not sure whether or not I want or need my photography to be quite as deliberately abstract as Ralph's.  And I'm definitely not interested in getting myself sucked into the intellectual vortex of contemporary art theory and criticism.  I escaped the academy once, and that's plenty.  :-)

What I do know for sure is that my photography is part of how I process the world.  More specifically, it's how I better understand people, and an important part of how I connect myself to humanity.  It's why I've always been most interested in photographing people, and why I'm less interested in photographing landscapes, abstracts, etc.  My photographs of people reflect my own weirdly introverted psychology, where I'm deeply interested in the individual, and profoundly repelled by the group.

This was perhaps the most important discovery of the workshop.  And I made it because I was totally not grooving on Ralph's approach to photographing the nude which treated the female figure, it's proportions, and geometric aesthetic as something distinct and more interesting than the actual human being whose photograph was being taken.  That runs completely counter to what my photography does for me, hence the dissonance.  But trying to make sense of it was immensely valuable.  And I wouldn't have tried if it were just some other photography instructor, and not one of the greats.

So other than getting a bead on this very important aspect of my photography, I learned a bunch of other stuff:

  1. I need to spend more time looking at my own work and critically evaluating it.  The portfolio that I presented to Ralph for review was thematically consistent (mostly portraits), but of mixed quality.  It would have been better to have presented five very, very good images rather than 5 very, very good images, and 10 of their mediocre cousins.  I would certainly never do this in my other work, so it was good to be reminded: always present your best work.
  2. I need to spend more time looking at photography in general.  I need a better critical vocabulary for describing what's in an image so that I can do a better job understanding what about an image or a style of photography is resonating with me, and so that I can know how those images or photographers should or should not inform my own work.
  3. Ralph was big on this notion of "point of departure."  What story are you trying to tell with your images?  What unifies them other than their technical qualities?  When you go out with your camera do you know what you're looking for, or are you just a tourist taking pictures of whatever catches your eye?
  4. Ralph was very insistent that you should be deliberate about the image that you wanted to make before you bring the viewfinder to your eye (and equally insistent that live view is for amateurs) and press the shutter release.  This is related to the previous point.  If you know your prime focal lengths cold, then as you are looking at the world, you can see what is in 50mm, 90mm,..., frame.  If you are looking at the world with a critical eye, you will know what makes an interesting photograph, what you might need to edit in the scene in order to get a clean image, and where to put the camera, even if you don't have a camera on you.  Bringing the viewfinder to your eye and trying to find an interesting photograph through that perspective entices you to be lazy and non-deliberate about the image that you're trying to get.
  5. I need a body of work.  The good thing about this is that I had already figured this out in July, and my Behind the Tech project is a very specific point of departure and intended to produce a body of work (in addition to the other good that the project will accomplish.)  This workshop just reinforced the importance of this, and reminded me that I can have more than one point of departure, and more than one project ongoing at any point in time.  I'm going to try to develop one that will incorporate my kids, and perhaps another around this notion of technological dissociation that I feel more and more all the time.
  6. Ralph asked us if he had a genie who could give us one photographic wish, what would it be.  I instantaneously knew what my wish was.  Time.  A few minutes later, I actually left the workshop early because I decided that my time would be better spent making progress on Behind the Tech than competing with 20 other photographers to pose and photograph models.
  7. The 85-90mm focal length (relative to a 35mm sensor) is where I'm most comfortable.  That might mean a 56mm on my Fujifilm X-T2, an 85mm on the my Canon, a 90mm on my Leica or Sony A7r2, or a 120mm on my medium format camera.  Whether it's a head shot or head-to-foot full figure shots, this focal length gives me compression that I like in my images, and allows introverted me to keep a comfortable, but not impersonal distance from my subject.  That said, I'm going to work very hard to try to master 50mm over the next 12 months.  At 78 years old, Ralph was trying to master the Leica 135mm, so there's little excuse for me not getting out of my comfort zone.
  8. This is perhaps the least artistic of my workshop discoveries, but, this workshop taught me that I need to trust my medium format camera more.  This workshop involved shooting models in natural light in a studio environment.  I started off with my medium format camera, shooting ISO 800 with a 120mm macro at f/4.  Just looking at the back, I wasn't thrilled with the images.  I didn't have time to check critical focus on the back, but was assuming that because I was wide open on the lens, and the camera and lens are heavy as hell, and I'm shooting hand held, that none of my images were going to turn out.  I switched over to my Leica M Monochrom for the rest of the shoot, and at the end of the day, I was so convinced that my MF images were going to bad, that I didn't even pull the card out of the camera to see what I had.  Two days later, I finally processed the card, and jesus christ, the images that I got with my medium format camera were even better than the ones I got with the Leica.

All in all, the workshop was a great use of time.  I would totally do it again.


Kevin Scott
Road Kit v1

I'm getting ready to start taking the first portraits in my "Faces Behind Tech" series.  I'm going to be doing these portraits in two environments with two slightly different setups.  The first is in my home studio where I have a reasonable amount of space, high ceilings, and my not-so-portable studio gear like the Broncolor Para 222 (a 2.2 meter diameter parabolic reflector), big v-flats, my Foba camera stand, etc.  The second environment is on-the-road.  In other words, I'll be setting up in strange locations, using whatever space is available, and using as portable a kit as I can put together to get high quality images.

Today I've been fiddling around with my road kit.  It's important to start with the type of photographs that I'm going to be taking.  These images are going to be black and white portraits taken against a black background.  For each subject I'll do a sequence of head or head & shoulder shots, and a sequence of head shots with posed hands in the frame.  Here's what I've come up with as a first cut.

My subject, Curly, helping me to test out my road lighting kit.

For the background I'm using a Lastolite collapsible background mounted to a standard C-stand with Lastolite's nifty magnetic grip.  The key light is a 39" Elinchrom Octa with both diffusers installed.  (I'm going to try the deep version of the same octabox in the next couple of days.)  I have the key light directly in front of the subject, close, angled down a bit, and as low as I could get without the bottom of the modifier being in frame.  

An octabox this large this close to the subject at this shallow an angle pretty nicely wraps the face with nice soft light and gives a nice round catch light in the upper half of the subject's eye.  That said, given that the light is coming from above and angled downward, it still is going to throw shadows below the subject's nose and chin.  In order to soften these shadows up, given that I want the whole face nicely illuminated so that it pops off the black background, I added a reflector right below the subject's chin.

Curly, as lit by the road kit described in this post.

Curly, as lit by the road kit described in this post.

I'm using Broncolor lights as usual.  If you look carefully enough at this picture, you'll see that I'm using a Move 1200L pack and strobes.  What I will probably actually take with me on the road is one of the new Broncolor Siros monobloc strobes.  Given that I'm only using one light, this will be more compact.  And since I'll mostly be operating without an assistant, the Siros's ability to be controlled from an iOS app will be especially helpful.

What's not shown in the picture of my road kit is the chair I'll be using for the subject (a standard black folding chair with a cushion), and the posing table (funny enough I use a folding 42"x24" adjustable height pet grooming table; this thing is way sturdier than most posing stands, more portable by a mile, and all kinds of adjustable.)

I'll post some pictures over the weekend to show what sort of images I can make with this setup.

Kevin Scott
The Canon 5DSr

The Canon 5DSr, Canon's DSLR with a 50 megapixel 35mm sensor, seems to be somewhat controversial amongst photographers.  A recent review on Canon Rumors describes the nature of the controversy, and conveys pros and cons.  The executive summary is that the camera is not cheap, has a relatively low frame rate, makes big files that are slower to process than those produced by lower resolution cameras, and amplifies mistakes in technique that you wouldn't notice with lower resolution cameras.

IMO, the review is absolutely right.  But.  Whether or not the qualities of the camera that the reviewer surfaces bother you is going to depend on your perspective.  I bought this camera as an upgrade to a 5DMk3, although my primary camera for years now has been a Phase One medium format camera with 80 or 100 megapixel backs.  Compared to these cameras which are super expensive, even more technically demanding of the photographer, with truly gigantic files, and extremely slow frame rates, shooting the 5DSr feels like a piece of cake.  I find the combination of a 50mp sensor and Canon's glass a really great alternative to carrying around my medium format camera, and I have been using it extensively for natural light candids recently.

Image from 5DSr with a 200mm shot at f/2, with a full-size crop of the subject's left eye.  

Image from 5DSr with a 200mm shot at f/2, with a full-size crop of the subject's left eye.  

I shot the image above with the 5DSr and Canon's incredible 200mm f/2 prime with the aid of a monopod and image stabilization in the lens.  I shot several dozen images along with this one at the same event, and was able to consistently nail critical focus and get the candid shots that I wanted.  I wouldn't even have attempted to use my MF camera in this context, and none of my other cameras (Leica Q, Sony A7r2, Canon 1DXMk2) have equivalent resolution and/or optics.  And you can see from the superimposed, full-resolution crop of the subject's left eye, that the amount of detail in the 5DSr's files is pretty awesome.  Even if you're not making super-large prints, the extra resolution lends sharpness, and qualitatively speaking, I just like the look of these files.

My advice to folks pondering the 5DSr is think about what you're shooting first, and then map your needs to a camera.  The 5DSr is great for me as a backup, although not replacement for, my medium format camera which is still a good bit sharper with dramatically better dynamic range and color rendition.  IMO, it's a great camera for shooting candids and portraits, candids particularly where the extra pixels can save your ass if you got the image framed wrong or slightly missed focus and need to do sharpening and/or detail enhancement in post.  I'm guessing that it's a great landscape camera.  Whatever demands it places on the photographer in terms of technique is good stuff to fix, IMO, if you ever have aspirations of moving on to medium format.

Kevin Scott
Best Lighting Tip of the Month

Earlier this week my friend Jim Taskett, who owns the absolutely fantastic Bear Images, was walking me through a bunch of Broncolor's more esoteric lighting equipment in his studio in San Francisco.  I'm a huge fan of Broncolor gear and use it almost exclusively in my studio, and I wound up buying a bunch of very cool light modifiers (a grid for my Para88, a projection attachment, snoot, and barndoors for my Picolites, etc.).  But perhaps the coolest thing that I picked up from our afternoon together was the value of having a mannequin head in your studio for evaluating lighting setups.

Curly helping me to test out a two light, high-key lighting setup that I'm going to use on a bunch of upcoming portraits.

Curly helping me to test out a two light, high-key lighting setup that I'm going to use on a bunch of upcoming portraits.

I'm not a huge fan of super-complicated lighting setups, unless they are absolutely necessary, and tend not to use more than one or two lights and a reflector for my portrait work.  That said, even in simple light setups, small things can make a huge difference and you might need to do a lot of fiddling to get exactly the right lighting for the images that you're trying to create.  It's hard to ask a model to be patient enough to sit perfectly still while you're trying out a gazillion different things, which for me more often than not results in compromise.  I quit fiddling around with lights before they're 100% perfect because I don't want to risk having my subject be tired and/or irritated and missing the opportunity to capture an authentic portrait.

That's where a mannequin head can help.  After my visit with Jim, I promptly ordered one from Amazon for $20.  Today I was tinkering around with a lighting setup that I'm going to take on the road with me: a simple white background with the key light above the subject and to the left angled down at about 45 degrees.  I'm using a Para88 as the key light and a P70 reflector to light the background.  I've done this setup a gazillion times.  But today with my new model, "Curly", I was able to really dial the setup in better than I have ever been able to before, learning a couple of things along the way.

In the animated GIF above, each frame is a shot of Curly with one parameter changing.  A bunch are me fiddling around with the background: setting exposure, getting the center of illumination right behind the model's head, figuring out whether or not to use a grid to control the fall off of the light and how much "halo" effect I was going to get.  Nothing surprising there.  

But there were two things that I discovered that were interesting.  First, I found that with the Para88 angled down at 45 degrees with the center pointing directly at the subject, I was not getting much separation on the top left of the subject's head.  That part of the head was getting blown out because it was the closest point to the Para.  To fix that and to get some more illumination into the subject's eyes, I feathered the Para by reducing the angle of the reflector so that the center was pointing at what would be the subject's chest which was out of the frame.  This softened the light on the top of the head while still providing nice, soft, wrapping light onto the subject with a bit more illumination in the eyes from the lower rim of the reflector.  Very cool!

The second thing that I noticed with this setup is that the shadows on the right side of the subject's face were a bit too deep for the mood that I am trying to create.  I solved that by putting a white reflector just outside of the frame to the right of the subject.  I played around with a bunch of different distances and angles, but, what I liked best was the reflector parallel to the subject's right cheek and as close as I could get without being in frame.  This softened the shadows up nicely.

I'm now ready to take this setup on the road and should be able to rig everything quickly and with confidence so that I can get my subjects in and out quickly.

I can highly recommend that everyone shooting with strobes of any sort get themselves a Curly.  :-)

Kevin Scott
Prints Galore

I just took delivery of a new Canon imagePROGRAF Pro-2000 printer this afternoon and have spent most of the evening getting everything installed and calibrated and then figuring out print drivers and settings by way of making a ton of prints.  I don't yet have my papers of choice and have been doing the evening's experiments on old Epson Ultra Premium Luster and new Canon Pro Platinum papers.  Even though these are not ideal, my first color and B&W prints were outstanding.

I will be able to produce prints up to 24" wide and 60+" long from this printer.  I'm actually most excited about this addition to my arsenal because it will help me out tremendously in editing my images.  Having a big, high resolution proof in front of you is, IMHO, the best way to see all of the flaws in an image.  And by marking up the proof and making it your plan of action for editing, you can avoid a whole class of mistakes, save yourself a bunch of time, and get consistently higher quality finished photographs.

Kevin Scott
One Creative Act, Every Day

Ever since I was a really little kid, I've needed an outlet for creative energy.  I use "need" deliberately, because if I don't have a way to expunge this energy that accumulates within me, I can get a little sideways--or a lot.  I haven't the slightest idea why I am this way, but it has been a constant my entire life.

Ironically, the reason that I became a computer scientist and engineer was because of the creative aspect of the work.  Before I was hooked on programming computers, solving algorithmic problems, and making software for myself and others, I wanted to be a comic book artist, and drew day and night for 6 or 7 years, dreaming of going to the Rhode Island School of Design and getting a gig drawing for Marvel in NYC.

Drawing makes me happy.

In college, while I was studying computer science, I had a wandering eye, and fell in love with words and prose and novels.  I almost double-majored in English literature, and when I was at the end of my Bachelor's degree studies and faced with what's next, I very nearly chose to pursue a PhD in literature versus studying for my PhD in computer science.  I wrote papers, and short stories, and outlined novels that I wanted to write.  To this day, I take great time and care when handling words, and appreciate the power that they have, both on others, and on me.

Writing makes me happy.

In college, partially by necessity for someone with a curious palate living in a town with limited culinary options, I started to learn the true extent of my love of food, preparing meals, and sharing them with friends.  My best friend was from India and she introduced me to a cuisine I had never known before, and then taught me how to cook it when I became addicted to spices and searing heat and exotic aromas.  Over the ensuing decades I have become truly obsessed with the craft of cooking and sharing eating experiences with comrades and loved ones.  Today, when I cook, I improvise.  I try to find the best in fruits and vegetables from our garden, and to build dishes that both nourish and help recall precious memories from other places.

Cooking makes me happy.

When I was six or seven years old, way back in the 1970's, my Mom bought me a Bugs Bunny Instant Load Camera for a special occasion I can't quite remember.  I do remember the first few rolls of film being mostly exposures of the back of my little brother's head as he ran screaming and giggling trying to avoid having his portrait made.  That little camera changed my life.  It allowed me to grab something out of the flow of time, things that otherwise were so brief in duration that they might never have been noticed, or so insignificant that they might never be remembered, and turn them into things with a reality and permanence that wouldn't have existed without me.  I was totally hooked, and have been taking pictures ever since.  But never has the concept of a photograph had more significance for me than over the past 8 years as I've watched my children be born and evolve a little bit every day into what they are meant to be.  The moments in their timeline I've fixed into permanence are amongst the most precious things that my wife and I have.

Photography makes me happy.

As I've gotten older, I try to be more deliberate about creativity and making time for it.  When I can spend just a few minutes in a day making something new, whether or not anyone else ever experiences it, whether it's code or words or a sketch or a plate of food or a photographic image, my soul is calmer, and my life is richer.  I wish for everyone to have creativity in their lives.  We all have a maker in us, and that maker is so much more powerful than the parts of us that criticize and destroy.  Spend a few minutes every day, and create.

Kevin Scott

For the first time in many, many years I've taken a small chunk of time off of "work" in order to concentrate on my photography.  In addition to getting a real online portfolio together and making it possible to order prints of my work, I'm also shooting some new work, and embarking on a couple of multi-quarter projects.

On the print front, I'm incredibly excited to be working with Hidden Light LLC in Flagstaff, Arizona to produce extremely high quality prints of my monochrome work (which is the vast majority of what I do) using their Silver Gelatin process.  The process is neither cheap, nor quick, but, the quality of these prints are phenomenal, particularly when the source image is a high resolution medium format file.  I'm also getting incredible results, better than anything that I've seen from a commercial lab, from the new Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-2000 printer in conjunction with both Hahnemühle FineArt Baryta rag and Canon Pro Premium Matte paper.  With the Canon, I can fairly quickly turn around prints, up to 24" wide, in just a few minutes.

I'm also using time in July to shoot a bunch of new portrait work which I'll be adding to my portfolio over the course of the next few weeks, and to bring over old work that I want on permanent display.  I'm also planning two new projects, both fairly similar, that I suspect are going to linger well into next year.  The first is to undertake a series of portraits of the engineers working at the startups and large technology companies which build the products and services that a good chunk of the world's population now depends upon in their daily lives.  I've always found it fascinating, and a bit disappointing, that the folks most responsible for building the amazing technology that permeates our lives, are among the least recognizable amongst all of the folks involved in the high tech industry.  

I'd like for this portrait series to do two things.  First is showing the world the faces of the folks who build the things that we love and/or need.  And second is humanizing tech a little bit by showing that it's built by folks who look like everyone else.

Very closely related to this work, I'm starting a series of portraits of women in tech.  It is very well known now that we have a serious gender diversity issue in tech due to a very wide range of factors in education, the industry, and the perception of the role of an engineer in the modern workplace.  I'm lucky to work with some extraordinary women (and men) who are trying to solve this problem at all levels, while also pulling off some amazing and inspirational feats of engineering.  I hope to help better tell the story of these women and the amazing things that they do through this photo series.

Kevin Scott