Don’t let your gear limit your creativity!

I recently lost my A7 (theives), and had been without a camera for a little over a month.  Fortunately a friend and fellow photographer offered me his Canon 70D for a really good deal.  Haven’t had much work without a camera in 6 weeks, so I was only able to purchase the body along with 3 lenses he had for it already:

  • 50mm f1.8
  • 18-55mm IS STM f3.5-5.6 (ie. kit lens)
  • 40mm f2.8 STM

Nothing else other than a 32gb SD card I got on sale at Fry’s Electronics.  Now I’ve never had a lot of gear, usually just 2-3 lenses to cover the majority of what I do.  I wish I could be one of those hobbyists with a 6-figure day job, or kids whose parents give them 20-grand to support their hobby…but I’m not.  I’m simply a freelancer doing the most with what is available to me.  I’ve been fairly lucky to have decent glass though, and at the very least a variety of accessories and whatnot.  So while I was happy to have a camera again I was admittedly concerned about not having “pro” lenses or L glass to get the most out of my photos.

The last time I used Canon it was a 7D and 5DII, with a 24-70mm f2.8L I, 40mm f2.8 STM, 70-200mm f4L.  Not high-end stuff, but very nice none-the-less.  With Sony I had recently purchased the 35mm Zeiss for a steal on craigslist (best place ever to buy, selling not so much haha) as well as their kit zoom which was oddly enough sharper than the Zeiss version.  So you can see why I was a little worried about how well I’d be able to work with “consumer grade” lenses.

Then, instead of being pessimistic and drooling over a kit of lenses that will take me a couple months to save up for, I decided to just go out and shoot…and I quickly realized that while high end glass (in this case L lenses) can help you take “better” photos, it’s still possible to get usable results from the so called “cheap stuff”.  Yeah, there’s differences; for example the 18-55mm flares pretty bad, and doesn’t have as much contrast as something more expensive, but distortion isn’t bad, and the lens is pretty sharp.  The 50mm I won’t bother discussing as there’s tons of info on it being a good value despite being made from the same plastic as the average toys for sale at the 99 Cents Store.  Same goes for the 40mm (which on full frame was my favorite lens).

I went to the beach and got perfectly usable results, and then followed up with a quick impromptu beauty shoot.  The beauty shoot was a bit nerve-wracking leading up to it as I’ve never shot beauty on a Canon without the aide of my 70-200mm or a friend’s 135L….but after spending a day with the 18-55mm kit lens (albeit at 55mm, and pretty far back from the subject to avoid as much distortion as possible) I’m pretty pleased with the results:

Sara Beauty - Canon 70D & 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 STM @55mm  f10, 1/200, ISO100

Sara Beauty – Canon 70D & 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 STM @55mm f10, 1/200, ISO100 (please excuse the horrid compression here on WordPress, image looks much better before uploading here :/ )

Yeah, if I pixel peep I can see it’s not quite as sharp as the 70-200mm lens, and no on a commercial shoot I wouldn’t go out and bring this 18-55mm lens to a paid gig…but for just messing around and shooting stuff for my book it’s fine.

So my point is this:  unless you’re fairly wealthy there’s always going to be some gear that you want…kinda goes with the territory of being a photographer.  But until you can acquire said gear, go out and shoot with what you have…if you’ve got a good handle on what it is you want to accomplish you just might be surprised how capable what you already have is 😀

How It Was Done – 1/30/15 – Beauty Setup: Clean Beauty #1

So this is apparently one of my more popular beauty series, and I get asked how I did it.  I figure it’d be a good idea to use this as an opportunity to start my “How it was done” series of posts here.

A little background info:  I’ve never been big into beauty, I shot it from time to time mostly to just appease makeup artists and give them more of an incentive to test with me on shoots.  Then mid-2013 on a whim I decided to revisit the idea and add some stuff to my portfolio.  Every couple months I’d do another shoot or two, leading up to present day when I’ve decided to focus more on beauty as opposed to any fashion work for the foreseeable future.

Onto the image:  The goal of this particular shoot was to get some really clean, commercial beauty.  I was inspired by some of the photos you usually see when you’re walking through Target and you pass the cosmetics aisles, there’s usually some super clean display photo from Clairol or Revlon, etc.  Up until this point, I had been doing “clean beauty” but mostly with more of a moody vibe, usually shot in black and white.  This time I wanted to do the same, but get a nice, crisp shot in color.  Long term I’d like to do a dozen or so more of these with varying concepts but all within the same theme…but I think this was a good start.


Camera/equipment: Canon 5DIII with Canon 135mm f2 @ f11 ISO100 1/160

The setup: Typically I use one of two modifiers for my main: a beauty dish in one of three configurations (with sock, bare/without sock, or with grid), or a medium rectangular softbox.  The bare beauty dish is easily the most used by far and this is the case for this image: bare Alien Bee dish (older style).  I typically place the dish rather close to the model, usually no more than 2′ away at most.  In this case you can see from the catchlights and the soft loop shadow on the nose that it was just above eye-level and barely off to the right (camera right that is).

To the model’s right (camera left) there is a 2’x3′ softbox at a low power providing fill.  I should apologize at this point, I’m horrible when it comes to memorizing light outputs for particular setups, so rarely will I give any specifics.  I can guesstimate that the B800 that the dish was on was 1/2 power and the B800/softbox used for fill was 1/4 or just under.  YMMV

In addition, I’m a huuuuge fan of V-flats and fill cards.  The studio I was at didn’t have any v-flats, so I ran out to the 99 Cents store and got a couple white and black foam core sheets.  In this example there is one to the models left (camera right) very close providing a little fill light.  There is also a round white reflector just under the frame and more or less against her chest (held in place by reflector stand), aimed up to provide fill under her chin.
2 more Bee’s and 7″ reflectors aimed at the background behind her to brighten it up (originally the goal was a very light grey, which we achieved in camera on set….but afterwards in post I decided to go white).

Here’s a diagram:


And that’s pretty much it.  There’s a good bit of post-work, but that’s par for any beauty shoot in my experience.  Mostly dealing with evening out skin tones and a few minor blemishes.  I chose to do a more aggressive crop to focus on the face and skin quality as the hair wasn’t really important to the final image.



The key to any successful beauty shoot in my opinion is still:

30% model selection

30% makeup/hairstylist skill

30% lighting

10% post work.
If you can’t get the first 90% right, no amount of Photoshop will save you, so my advice to anyone interested in beauty is to really focus on getting a great team, and working on your lighting.  Hopefully this was helpful, and I hope to add a couple more from time to time. 🙂

Status Update: Lighting setups coming soon!

I know I’ve been slacking off big time on updating this thing, but I’ve just been busy with work lately doing a lot of retouching.  Haven’t even had many opportunities to shoot these last few months, though I do plan on hopefully remedying that this spring.  In the meantime I’ve been getting a lot of questions about various images along the vein of “How’d you do that?”.  So I figure what better to start posting on this blog than how-to’s, behind the scenes images, before/after’s, and lighting setups.

I’ve downloaded a trial of a program called “Set a light 3D” which will hopefully help with lighting diagram pdf’s that I’ll post for download should anyoe want them.  (review of the program to come once the trial is up, I’m iffy on it at the moment but perhaps that will change once I’ve used it for more than a day haha)

If all works out the way I hope I’ll be able to give a look at a lighting setup, and ideally work through a basic retouch on here to show how I “get that look” for some of my photos.

That being said, I’ve already created 3 diagrams for popular photos I keep getting asked about, but if there’s anything specific you’d like to see feel free to ask and I’ll see what I can do.  First one coming up later today!

Review: Sony A7

Ok, so I’ve been getting a lot of questions from fellow photographers, and students at my workshops about what I think of my newest piece of gear: the Sony A7.  I figure this is as good a place as any to put my thoughts down, and hopefully give other aspiring fashion and working photographers some info/opinion on the camera now that I’ve been using it for a month.

The Road to Mirrorless

I’ve used primarily slr/dslr’s since I started photography approx. 8 years ago.  Mostly Nikon, with a short foray into Canon.  A little over a year ago I tested the mirrorless market with a Sony NEX-6.  What appealed to me was the idea of the same image quality of an APS-C dslr, in a small package that can be taken anywhere and keep me looking inconspicuous when shooting on location without a permit.  I ended up not using it as much as I thought I would, and sold it about 6 months later.  I regretted it almost immediately.  Fast forward to two months ago:  I’m using a Canon 7D, more or less happily (disappointed with the low-light performance, but loved everything else) and one day my camera takes a tumble down a couple flights of concrete stairs.

One “not economically viable for repair” body later, and I’m suddenly in the market for a new camera.  I’m the type that only has one or two lenses for a body to cover the focal lengths I shoot at most, so jumping ship and starting over is always an option as I’m never really tied into a brand.  My requirements for this new camera:  Must have good AF, must have good ISO performance up to 1600, and must be full frame.  That left me with a couple options from Canon, Nikon, and a dark horse contender in Sony.  I won’t go into the particulars and pros/cons of each system, as they all have good bodies capable of producing good images, but at the end of the day after some narrowing down of choices based on how they’d meet my needs I was left choosing between a Nikon D800 and Sony A7.



Ultimately I ended up going with a Sony A7.  Why mirrorless?  Well, to be honest I miss the format.  I had a NEX-6 a while back that I puchased for the purpose of being a light, small option with good IQ that I could take with me both on scouting trips, shoots for funsies where I didn’t need to bring a dslr with grip, and 2-3 large zooms, and also for being inconspicuous when shooting tests with models throughout Southern California without permits.  While I loved the camera, I never really did that much location shooting that year, in fact I’d say it was more like 95% studio, 5% location so all the reasons I purchased it never really panned out.  I ended up selling it maybe 6 months after I bought it and instantly regretted it.  So I guess I was always going to go back to mirrorless eventually, and the A7 gave me that opportunity, while fitting all the requirements I needed for a new body: good IQ, full frame, and good ISO performance at 800+.

Why the A7 and not the A7R?  Well, to be honest I’ve heard far too many negatives about the A7R, from the contrast detect only focusing being slower and more sluggish, to the now widely-reported mirror-slap issues, to believing that if I ever do need 36mp of resolution for a job (I certainly don’t need it for a test), I’d be better off renting, or purchasing a D800 in the future.  I also won’t lie, price did play a factor albeit a small one, in the decision.  I thought I got a steal: A7 and kit-lens for $1300, brand new in box.  Little did I know, that week Sony offered members the same kit for ~$1100 if I remember correctly, and now the kit has pretty much hit that price everywhere.  I’m still happy with my purchase though, as I’m not a Sony member so the special sale wasn’t a big deal for me, and at $1300 it’s still far cheaper than any other current full frame options, much less with a decent lens.



Sony A7 with Pentax 50mm f1.4 SMC and cheap, no-name eBay adapter


“So how’s that working out for you?”

Pretty good actually.  I’m sure if you’re reading this you’ve already read other reviews where people have pointed out mirror-slap/vibration, light leaks, and slow auto-focus.  I’ve had the camera for a month, and have done 9 shoots with it, in a variety of situations, ranging from direct sun and great light, strongly backlit and low-contrast, low light in a dim apartment, and studio.  Thanksfully being the A7 I don’t have any issues with mirror-slap thanks to the electronic first curtain.  I haven’t seen any indication of light leaks either in real world situations so that’s a non-issue as well.  The auto-focus is admittedly slower than the 7D I migrated from, but then again…that’s a sports body, very few cameras short of 1D/D4 series will outperform it.  The A7 actually holds it’s own in most situations in my experience.  Even in low light I’ve had only one situation where the camera hunted for 1-2 seconds before locking focus.  And that was during a shoot where the entire day was spent in poor lighting.  The majority of stuff I shoot on location is actually backlit and even then the camera performs pretty darn good.  As a body, the camera is almost everything I could ask for.  For the price, it’s a steal.  It can do the majority of what I did with an SLR, with the exception of perhaps fast tracking AF like the 7D, but then again I don’t shoot sports so I don’t really care.
I also love the amount of customization that’s available, in fact practically every button is customizable to serve a variety of functions.  The EVF is very high resolution and very sharp, and you just can’t beat live view shooting and seeing the exposure and effects before pressing the shutter.  The camera is fairly small, but still big enough to fit my hands well without worrying about dropping it.


The kit lens that came with it, the FE 28-70mm f3.5-5.6 OSS is actually surprisingly good for how cheap it is.  I believe you can find these for around $250-300 and for that price I’d definitely recommend it, just in case you need the convenience of a zoom.  I do hate variable aperture zooms, but when the only other option is the Zeiss (blah) 24-70mm f4 zoom at $1200 the kit lens sounds pretty good.  It sounds even better when you consider that it’s slightly faster at the wide end (f3.5 vs. f4) and only one stop slower at the long end (f5.6 vs. f4).  Even better so when you see the reviews for the Zeiss aren’t that much better than the kit lens, and some reviews go so far as to suggest that the kit lens is a better buy due to performance that is that far away from the Zeiss, and factoring in the huge price difference.  It’s a fairly sharp lens (not nearly prime quality though) and renders colors fairly well.  It does suffer from some flare issues, but I personally love flare so it works out great for me.  Your mileage may vary though.  That being said, it’s not all wonderful and great; this lens might have the most distortion of any I’ve ever used and unfortunately the only way to fix it is with a heavy batch of LR or PS processing.  I don’t typically shoot with straight lines in my composition and can usually get away with being lax on lens correction, but this kit lens is reaaaaally bad with distortion.  Unfortunately the correction causes you to lose a good bit of the outer edge of the frame, so you have to be cognizant of that fact and plan accordingly with composition.  The biggest issue for me of course is that it’s a variable aperture lens, so zooming changes your aperture (and exposure) which can be annoying at best.

Sony A7, FE 28-70mm, f4.5 1/800, ISO 125

Sony A7, FE 28-70mm, f4.5 1/800, ISO 125

It’s a Great Idea, But Not Without It’s Problems…



So far it probably sounds like I’m turning into a Sony fanboy.  To some extent that’s probably true.  Sony has created a product that filled a need I had, and made it fairly affordable compared to the other options out there.  That’s not to say there aren’t issues though.  And some of them are pretty big…

To start, my biggest complaint with the A7 series is the same as my complaint with the NEX series 2 years ago:  Lens selection.  Currently Sony has available for the FE mount:

  • Zeiss 35mm f2.8
  • Zeiss 55mm f1.8
  • Zeiss 24-70mm f4
  • Sony 70-200mm f4 OSS
  • Sony 28-70mm f3.5-5.6 OSS

Now, other than the 55mm 1.8 which by all reviews is apparently Otus-like in quality (in other words, a $4000 lens), none of the others really fit what I’d like for a lens.  The 35mm is the perfect focal length, but f2.8 is slow in general, and definitely slow when you consider an $800 price tag.  The 24-70mm again has had rather disappointing reviews for a $1200 lens, and the 70-200mm doesn’t really fit a need of mine, but if it did it’s as big as the Canon 70-200mm f4 (in other words: huge for the tiny A7 body).  The kit lens is a decent value, but if I ever get out of this “I’m ok with images not being razor sharp and perfect as long as the lens has character” phase it’ll be the first to go.  Back to the 55mm…it really looks nothing short of amazing, but there’s something inherently wrong with a nifty-50 selling for $1000.  At 600-700 I would have been sold, but not at $1000.  Something tells me eventually I’ll end up getting one, but that’d be more due to a lack of options than actually wanting that focal length.

Sony really needs more focal lengths, especially wider and short-tele, and faster.  f2.8 is fine for a zoom, but in 2014 it’s not cutting it for a prime.  In a perfect world I’d like to see a fast(er) 35mm, f2 at minimum, ideally f1.8.  In addition a short tele would be ideal, something around 85-100mm f2.  If they filled that out with a wide angle, maybe 20-24mm, a pancake (I could live with a f2.8-3.5 for the size trade off) and a short macro (60mm?) they’d have a winner.  Of course, not costing $1000+ for a fancy Zeiss sticker on the side would be nice but that’s probably asking a bit much.  According to rumors we can expect a wide angle Zeiss, and a Zeiss short tele (read: overpriced), as well as some MF primes (sarcastic “Hooray!”) but nothing that has me too excited.  Currently I’m using the kit lens, the MF Pentax 50mm f1.4, and a modified Sigma 60mm f2.8 e-mount lens (which surprisingly works fairly decent).  To be happy all I really need is that fast-ish wide prime…so hopefully they come out with something by the end of the year, or I’ll end up having to make due with the Zeiss 35mm…


A lot of people rave on the ergonomics and button placement, but I’m going to say they could definitely be better.  The shutter button is the main culprit, resting square on top of the body (instead of more forward) at such an odd position that I needed to drastically change the way I’ve held all my previous bodies in order to be able to use it.  The exposure comp. dial is also closer to where I’d like the rear dial, and for the first week or so I found myself accidentally using that instead of the shutter speed dial.  The movie record button is much harder to activate than the NEX-6, and while I understand the reasoning (apparently it was too easy to activate on the NEX-7) I think they might have made it a little too hard to use this time around.  Then there’s that pesky EVF sensitivity.  Good luck trying to shade the LCD to review images outside….the auto-switch sensor is so sensitive it’ll kill the screen and switch to the EVF, preventing you from viewing the LCD unless you feel like dealing with glare from the sun.  Technically you could disable the EVF and rely on the LCD, but that’s a bit of a pain to switch back and forth during as shoot.  It’s also got my pet peeve of attached metal, dangly neck strap lugs.  Annoying most of the time, very much so while attempting to shoot video due to the noise.


The EVF doesn’t really have much lag during most usage including panning…but it doesn’t have a very noticeable lag when zooming.  Enough to miss a shot if you’re zooming in on something and need to capture that moment quickly.  There is also a slight shutter lag, and if you’ve come from a pro body or something made for sports (like the 7D) it’ll feel like you’re using a point and shoot circa 2009 again.  It takes a little getting used to, and requires you to anticipate moments before they happen.

All in all, I’m a fan.  The camera has it’s quirks and issues (most notably a pitiful lens selection) but it has enough positives to outweigh the negatives.  The image quality, with even the kit lens (I imagine the 55mm Zeiss would blow me away) is surprisingly good.  My main needs were: small/light, high ISO performance, and affordable full frame, and the A7 meets all those.  Hopefully the FE lens lineup will blossom as quick if not quicker than the E-mounts for the NEX line did.  I think they’re one or two primes (fast wide angle and short tele) away from being a complete kit for me, and if they ever do get there I wouldn’t think twice about picking up another A7, possible the A7R for times when higher resolution and sharpness are needed.


A7, FE 28-70mm, f4.5 1/80 ISO 800


A7, Sigma 60mm f2.8 EX DN, f3.5 1/2500 ISO 250

A7, FE 28-70mm, f5 1/640 ISO640

A7, FE 28-70mm, f5 1/640 ISO640

Finally creating a blog

Well, 5 years into photography, and I’m finally taking the plunge with my first blog!  I’m fairly new to the idea of blogging and written social media, so bear with me…but I do have plenty of opinions and knowledge to share so I think it’ll work out fine.  I intend to use this to highlight my views on art and photography, as well as my experiences as a freelancer (photography and retouching) in Los Angeles, and maybe a couple tips/tricks and reviews here and there.  This will also be a way of making myself available to followers/fans so if you’ve got questions feel free to ask 🙂