A New Tool (almost)

This weekend Harlean (who is a fiction) and I had a really fun photo shoot. We were using our Lensbaby gizmos for the first time, and allowed ourselves the emotional room to experiment and accept when things didn’t work right, and celebrate when changing something actually had the predicted result. A wonderful day in the studio.

There is a part of me that believes that getting good results with your current gear is an indication that you don’t need better gear. But over the years I have identified a few cases where new gear would be better. And heck, I used to watch a series on YouTube that included “Good Photographer, Shitty Camera” episodes where respected pros would be handed a Barbie doll with a camera embedded in her chest or a LEGO camera or what-have-you, and invariably these pros would manage to find a remarkable image.

But none of them said, “I’m ditching my Nikon for Barbie!” Sure, some of those folks are probably still using Canon 5D Mark III’s, but I suspect not many of those do a lot of self-portraits. Here in this house the limitations of the 5D started to become apparent when self-portraiture became a regular occurrence. On the 5D, you have to make choices ā€” not all autofocus modes work when you are using strobes or speedlights. Specifically, the autofocus modes that don’t require you to look through the viewfinder are absent. Additionally, the presence of the viewfinder itself can interfere with autofocus, as light coming in through the viewfinder can confuse things.

### For a bit here, I go on about Camera Stuff that is interesting (to me) and relevant(ish), but does not really build on the narrative of this episode. You could probably skip to the picture below if you’re not interested in the evolution of modern cameras or how that solves specific problems in our studio.

Anyway, at the heart of those problems is the very nature of the SLR itself. SLR stands for “Single-Lens Reflex” and is a system where there is a mirror in the camera that while at rest diverts the light coming through the lens up to the viewfinder. When you push the shutter button, the mirror snaps up out of the way and the light hits the sensor (or film) instead. It is the mirror snapping up and back that gives an SLR its distinctive shutter sound.

The reason some focus modes aren’t always available in our 5DIII is that those focus settings require computer processing to identify eyes, faces, and whatnot, and when the light is going to the viewfinder rather than hitting the sensor, that processing cannot take place. There is a mode that lifts the mirror to allow that processing, but then the camera can’t trigger the flash for “electronic shutter” reasons I don’t quite understand.

SLR was a big deal because it gave the photographer a much better idea what the picture was going to be like. Before that, the viewfinder had its own lenses, which tried really hard to match what the main lens would show, but as the “main lens” became ever more complicated, that became impractical.

But your phone doesn’t have a mirror in it, now does it? The light doesn’t need to be diverted to a viewfinder, the sensor chip itself sends that info to a screen. Then when you push the “shutter”, it sends a signal to the camera to take a much higher quality image off the same sensor and send off for storage.

All the big camera companies have lines of “digicams” that try to be better than a phone and easy to carry around and shoot with. They have the screen on the back, and depending on where you live, they might be legally required to play a recording of that SLR mirror-clack when they take a picture.

But until fairly recently, all the high-end gear continued to be SLR. Honestly, I know there were compelling reasons, but I’m not entirely sure what they were. But then Fuji and Sony made exciting high-end “mirrorless” cameras. As mentioned above, “mirrorless” itself wasn’t huge news, but now that word is used to describe the top-end gear out there that doesn’t have a mirror.

Canon responded with a thud, creating the EOS-M format, that utterly failed to establish them in this market. Maybe not a Zune-level flop, but in the neighborhood. Nikon did a little better, and Sony pulled ahead while Fuji found a very comfortable niche to totally dominate, while still pushing Sony.

Now, Canon and Nikon have stepped up their games, and Canon at least burned their boats on the shore. There will be no new major updates with a mirror from Canon, and no new lenses to fit their SLR line. It’s all about the R.

With that long-winded explanation, you might not have noticed that a mirrorless camera solves two of our current issues: “Aha! No optical viewfinder means no light leaking in from the eyepiece to mess up autofocus!” and (less obvious) “Aha! There’s no mirror! Sensor-based focus modes are available all the time!”

So, after one very frustrating shoot that might have been somewhat less frustrating with different technology, and two very smooth shoots to prove we deserved it, we helped pay off Canon’s gamble:

This lovely photo of our new hot-shit camera was taken with my phone.

It is physically smaller than the 5D it is replacing, because there’s no need to make room for a mirror to flip up and back. The geometry of the mount means that lens makers can go crazy. Hopefully, somewhere at Canon is that troublemaker saying, “hey, remember when we did that 50mm f/1.0? We can beat that.”

So there it sits, radiating potential. In the camera world, as in computers, the chips are obsolete before they even land on your doorstep. I’m honestly surprised that the 5DIII is still not obsolete after eight years. But in photography the real investment is in the lenses. Camera bodies come and go, but glass is forever. Mostly. There are better versions of almost every lens I own made specifically for the new camera, but not enough better to justify replacement.

All one needs is an adapter to connect the old EF-mount lenses to the new RF body. (In fact, because of the new geometry, I can now attach other, non-Canon lenses I’ve long longed over. There’s a Minolta…)

Anyway, all I need is an adapter, and my library of lenses will be ready to go. That’s all I need.

The adapter is on backorder. Sitting in a box is a pretty dang incredible camera, and I can’t attach any of my lenses to it. The L-plate arrived today, so I have a lot of flexibility attaching the new camera to a tripod. Just… no lenses. I can hold it, I can admire it, but I can’t take any pictures with it. “Coming soon!” the reputable camera company says.

Not soon enough.

2

Use It or Sell It

I don’t spend nearly as much time in video conferences as many of the people around me do, but even after we figure out what normal is anymore, it’s likely to include a lot of telepresence. I have been mildly dissatisfied with some of my gear for these gatherings, but it has recently occurred to me that I already have excellent alternatives.

The first annoyance is my dissatisfaction with my older-generation little earbuds. They have an elegant design, but they are persnickety. I think keeping the case in my pocket has introduced grime in the connector and inside the case as well, but where else am I going to put the case if not my pocket? I’m not buying a fanny pack to carry around my too-hip earbuds. And beyond that the buds have this slick, “I know when I’m in your ear” feature that doesn’t always know when one or the other is in my ear.

I have another set of headphones, the over-ear type, that I really like. I can save swearing at the sleek little ear buds for when I’m on the workout machine, and wear the superior cans the rest of the time. The only catch: no microphone. My laptop has a microphone, but it turns out I have an even better solution.

I have an actual microphone. A pretty good one, in fact, purchased roughly 25 years ago. Maybe 30. I’ve been paying to store it and I’ve been dragging it along with me ever since, but I’ve hardly used it. (it was bought as an expression of commitment for a project that failed to launch.) It is a condenser mic, but it has a battery if you are in situations where you can’t provide phantom power. It turns out somewhere along the way I also picked up a little tube preamp to supply phantom power and provide knobs to twist. Used even less.

All I need to get that rig up and running is a cable that has XLR on one end and USB on the other. That’s not as simple as it sounds, because on the microphone/amp end of the wire the signal is analog, while on the computer end the signal is digital. So it’s not just a cable but an a/d converter. But those converters are out there. You can pay as much as you want, or twelve bucks.

Also, I will need a desktop microphone stand, or a Tinkertoy set.

But the bottom line is that I have utter overkill for the microphone requirement. And if I don’t use that microphone now, what the hell am I holding on to it for?

But it doesn’t end there. There was much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments when my employer introduced their new line of laptops this year. Sure there is much excitement around the new chip (I have no information about it that you don’t, but it sounds pretty dang awesome), but the laptops still have the same barely-adequate cameras their predecessors did. Back when the new lineup was finalized, that probably didn’t seem like such a big deal.

Software has improved the quality of the video from these laptops, but for a company that makes a big deal of the awesomeness of the cameras (plural! working seamlessly together) on their phones, they sure seem to be slacking on the laptops. (My uninformed opinion is that this will change when FaceID come to the laptop line.)

My “office” corner is fairly dim, and I like it that way, but it doesn’t work so well in virtual meetings. If only I had a better Web camera! Like, that Canon right over there. Huh. And then with the 50mm at a fairly wide aperture the background back-lit liquor cabinet would just be an interesting blur, rather than a testament to what I have become. Turns out Canon rushed out software to make many of their cameras work with many of the conference platforms. All I need is… the cable to connect the camera to the computer.

I am two cables away from having a pretty high-end conference station. Because I TOTALLY NEED one. And hell, If I can’t justify owning that microphone now, it’s time to let go.

2

Old Glass

Some nights, when sleep seems like a bad idea, I drift through ebay looking at old camera lenses, mostly for educational purposes. There was a time in the 1970’s, for instance, where computerized lens design and super-high-tech coatings for the glass became common. Many very good lenses were created, only to be quickly outmoded by the autofocus revolution.

When Canon embraced autofocus, they took the opportunity to redesign their mount, making the hole bigger and farther from the film/sensor. This provided tangible benefits for super-high-performance lenses, but it meant that none of the pre-autofocus lenses were compatible with the new cameras at all.

With a few exceptions that don’t apply to everyday photographers, you can’t shoot old Canon glass on a new Canon body.

Nikon, meanwhile, kept the geometry of its older cameras so that old lenses would still work. Funny thing, though. According to the sources I read late last night, they way Nikon does light metering when one of those old lenses is attached really isn’t very good.

The sweet spot: Old Nikon lenses on a modern Canon body. The adapter costs only a few bucks and you can get a great lens for a song (though it’s a costlier song now that people are catching on). Apparently Tim Burton shot a whole movie (one even I had heard of) that way, with a variety of older Nikon lenses on Canon 1Ds. That has to make the brand snobs squirm a bit.

That Nikkor 50mm f1.2 AiS.C is looking pretty nice right now. Someday…