EP127 - Things Change (The Z9 Has Changed Them)

Well, I admit it; I never thought I’d hear myself say it, but I am now shooting as much in Auto (well, Aperture-Priority anyway) as much as I am in Manual.  I have spent my entire life both shooting and teaching manual control of your camera, and here I am in a world of auto exposure.  Why?  Well, the Nikon Z9 has changed absolutely everything for me!

Have a listen to hear why!

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Episode Transcript

So this week, Sarah and I found ourselves in an exhibition of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood At the Ashmolean museum in Oxford.

Now I’m not really that clued up on classical art, but there are three groups of artists where if I happened to find an exhibition, I will go in and see them.

The first of course are the Dutch Masters, the 17th century, Rembrandt, Vermeer. And well, if they’re on, I will go and see them. I say, when they were on, of course, they’re long dead, but you know what I mean? If I see an exhibition with any of those guys, their understanding of light and mood and tone and characterization, it’s every portrait, photographer’s dream. One year when Sarah and I were working in Sydney, working on a cruise ship And there it was the posters for Rembrandt. And so we trawled our way across the city in spite of being on the other side of the world to go and see something that is well, from this side of the world and it was absolutely glorious.

A couple of other groups of artists that I will always go and see other Glasgow boys and the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. Now, both of these groups of artists are fairly recent – sort of mid 19th century to very, very early 20th century. And both had the same sort of idea: to tear up the classical rulebook. But I just love their artistry. I love the romance of it. I love the way they paint and the way they sketch. So you can imagine my pleasure when we were sitting in a queue in Oxford and I noticed on the side of a bus a large banner saying the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, sketches and watercolors on now at the Oxford Ashmolian museum.

So we went, we enjoyed and it was worth every single penny. It was beautiful. Every sketch. Every idea, the way they brought characters together, the romance of it, and more than anything else for me as a photographer, the way they drew the light in someone’s eyes. Just stunning.

And at a camera club the other night, we sold some of the books, some of my mastering portrait photography books, and someone paid me cash: 20 quid. Now, I don’t, I don’t remember the last time I had cash in my pocket, 20 quid and as I left the exhibition, I noticed that they had a book that accompanied it: It was 20 quid. So I dragged the 20 quid from whoever had given me that for my book and I bought a copy of another book, seems like a fair trade to me.

Cannot wait to sit over the coming wintery months and peruse every detail, every nuance, every technique, and every idea.

I’m Paul, this is the mastering portrait photography 📍 podcast.

So, how are you? Well, I hope you’re all well. Uh, talking to things that have moved on from oil paintings to photography, our daughter, our daughter Harriet has decided that she would like a film camera. So I’ve been going through all of our old cameras, And figuring out which ones are still working. I loaded up a couple with some XP2 film, and the reason for using XP2 rather than anything else is that it’s as a color film, it’s easy to develop, but as a black and white film. It’s about half the price of all the color films. Call me a cheapskate. Anyway. It was really funny to be loading up some black and white film into my old Zenith and my dad’s old Kodak, something or other um, and trying to get these things to work.

Well this week, we took them into Snappy Snaps and had them developed.

Now I think the cameras probably need a little bit of servicing. One in particular appears to be scraping the surface of the negative, which isn’t ideal. Uh, but I’ll get that sorted I assume a bit of grit has got into the pressure plate, but that’s easy enough to clean.

Um, and like two small children, Sarah, and I ate a little bit of lunch and opened up the packets of prints, the packets of prints. Do you remember doing I had to laugh. I was, I was surprised there weren’t more oval stickers telling me how bad a job I’d done. , of taking different pictures. They were slightly, out of focus, more or less the exposure was okay , but, , certainly one of the cameras is working better than the other. My Zenith E M with it’s 50mm f2 Helios, lens on the front, is still working just fine. Yes. Okay. It all needs a little bit of a service, and it’s a bit it took me, about five minutes to load the film in it’s so long since I’ve done, it must be 25 years since I’ve loaded that camera with film, I’m trying to think back before I had my Nikon D100, it would have been a Pentax MZS, it was an MZS. Which of course was fully automatic. So you stuck the film in, pressed it against the pressure plate, closed the back of the camera and it loaded itself pretty much. And it did everything for you.

But going back to the Zenith where it’s very much a hand-crank was actually quite funny. Um, but I’m hopeful because the photos have come out all right. Admittedly , the focusing doesn’t seem to be that accurate, but I think that might just be my eyes because of course, on my Nikon Z9 or all of the Nikons really, is I can adjust the diopter of the viewfinder, to suit my eyes and the Zenith well, that really doesn’t have any kind of adjustments. You just look through the lens and you sort of twist it until it looks vaguely sharp in the middle, but it is at least working and I’m going to hand it over to our daughter this week with two packs of photos where, when we went out for her birthday meal and there’s her and her boyfriend, myself, Jake and Sarah. And the pictures are not great, but at least they have come out and that in itself, I think is a miracle.

But it is funny going back to working with a manual camera. Well I say manual camera. I mean, it is a manual camera, but it does have a little kind of slidey needley thing on the top of it. So you point it at your subject, you then match up various dials, until one overlaps another.

In the end, I found an easy way of doing it, is to use a little app on the iPhone that you point at the scene and it will give you the exposure. Broadly speaking it’s a very clever light meter. And then you set the camera up and I say the exposures, weren’t the problem in the end. But what it got me thinking about is how much the Nikon Z9, which I now carry for every shoot is changing the way I think.

Let me, let me expand.

For nearly all of my career, I have both used and taught manual exposure. Total control. Don’t leave it to chance. Total control. Take a picture, check your histogram. Or if you have to use a light meter in the older film days, Check your lighting, set your camera. Take a picture.

Obviously with digital things have evolved. So you take a picture, you check the histogram. And for me, I stopped using light meters when I got my D 100, because I figured, and I believe this is exactly true, is that the histogram on the back of a camera is by far the most accurate light meter that you can have. Why do I say that? Well, a light meter when you’re using a light meter, it tells you how much light is striking a subject. And with that, you interpret it into what the picture, how, how you want to light the picture, how much exposure you want in your picture. You interpret those numbers and turn it into something in your head. And then you create a, you craft a picture around that.

Well, the histogram tells you whether you succeeded or not. Unlike a light meter that tells you at the beginning of the process, the histogram tells you at the end of the process. So once you’ve learned to decode a histogram. There really isn’t any need for a light meter anymore. Take a picture, look at the histogram, adjust it. Do it again.

So I still use manual or up until this point have still used manual. And then the Z9 came along. Now there’s a couple of things about the Z9 that I didn’t appreciate that I was going to love as much as I do now. I’ve already got a, Nikon Z7ii, the Nikon Z7ii, and it’s a pretty good camera. Uh, it was the camera when Sarah and I went away to Italy last week or two weeks ago, whenever it was, um, it’s the camera I took without its battery pack on the bottom. So it’s pretty small, but it’s still packing a 50 megapixel punch. It’s still got Nikon’s optics. It’s still got my lenses on the front. So this is really a very small, but incredibly capable camera.

But I still drive that camera as I always did my D5, my D6. The EVF, the electronic view finder. It’s okay. But it’s not all that. Now I didn’t struggle with it, but I know I’m looking through an electronic viewfinder. When I bought the Z9, I had no idea just how much. Of a difference. It was going to make to the way I shoot. And I’m guessing the way I will teach photography.

Firstly, it’s nearly silent. It makes no noise at all. If I don’t want it to.

And that is precisely how I shoot at the moment; it’s almost like holding a video camera. I press the button. It takes a photograph. Nobody knows. And on that note, dear Nikon please. Could we have just a little bit of haptics in that camera I don’t want it to go “bip-bip” every time I focus it, I want it to go “zz-zz” and just let my hands know.

When I take a photograph, I don’t want the screen to go momentarily blank because I don’t always notice it. I don’t want the four bars around the edge of the screen because I don’t always notice it. But equally, I really don’t want the crappy noise that you’ve put in it because it’s horrible. There’s no excuse for it. Really. It’s clever in that, the sound elongates when the shutter speed is slow, so I can hear that it’s wrong, but that really isn’t good enough. I really want to feel it.

Now I understand there are reasons why you might not want to vibrate a camera while it’s taking a photograph. I get that. But there must be something that can happen that just lets my hands know. The physicality of using my Zenith with some film in it is really lovely. I can’t say that I’m ever going to go back to film. I’m not, I love the idea of it, and I admire those people that still use film and enjoy film. And there has been a little bit of nostalgia for me loading up my old camera, the camera. I saved the money up from my market stall days and my paper rounds to buy, but no, no, I’m not going back to film. But what I did love is the “clack” of the shutter release.

Now there’s quite a lot going on in any SLR with a physical mirror and a physical shutter, and Zenith did very little to hide it. It goes off with a little bit of a bang. But. I loved that sense of being in touch with the photograph being taken. And sound in a sense, doesn’t really do that – certainly not the sounds that Nikon have put in the camera.

I’d love something that just gives me a little kick. A little bit of noise, a bit like a game controller, really, I mean, PlayStation and Microsoft, the X-Box have all got haptics inside it. Even the iPhone has haptics when I press a button. It would be really nice if something on the camera body just let me, let me know. Not my client, not my subject, not the people around me. Let me know that something has happened.

That said the totally silent operation where the people around me don’t know that I’ve taken a picture is really useful. So yesterday , that photographing a wedding, I went as I always do at the beginning as I arrived at the church, I went and found the priest or the vicar who was presiding and asked her what does she not like? And she said, I don’t want you to take any photographs, during the ceremony.

And I kind of looked at her very quietly. Didn’t say very much, I smiled – I was holding my Nikon – and she looked at me and she said, but with that thing, she said, that’s completely silent. And so if you stood at the back. And I can’t hear you. And I don’t notice you then. Who’s going to know you’re taking any photographs?

I smiled said thanks, went to the back of the church and photographed the entire thing. Because as long as I’m not disrupting anything, as long as I’m not making any sound at all, as long as I’m not distracting people from what is actually the purpose of a wedding ceremony, then what does it matter? And with the low- light capability of the Nikon well, frankly, I don’t need flash, I don’t need light and this was, well, it was a beautiful church on a stunning September day.

As an aside, oh, boy, do I love this time of year? The light, the air, the cool. Ah, this church was absolutely glorious, but the point being I could do all of this because the camera is completely silent.

Now, one of the things I used to do with the D5, if it was one of those really irritating sunny then dark, then sunny then dark days, which we get sometimes in this country where the clouds are skidding across a blue sky and the sun seems to just go off and on and off and on like an annoying overheating, lightbulb, is I would put the camera into aperture priority – essentially. Auto.

I’d set the shot so that I knew what the aperture was and let’s set everything else, but I’d let it sort itself out just to take the pressure off, so I didn’t have to be constantly adjusting. Because when you’re looking through an optical viewfinder, of course, you’re having to keep an eye on your settings, remember that every shot you take, particularly when you’re running through a crowd or walking through a crowd, trying to catch those little moments, those little bits of magic of interaction that are going on. Well, with the Z9. I don’t need to worry: in aperture priority mode, there’s a function that allows it to expose for faces. I set the focusing system to recognize a face and then the exposure system decides how bright to make it.

Simple as that.

Now that in itself wouldn’t be all that useful, except for the fact that looking through the electronic viewfinder now, I know exactly what I’m going to get. I’ve got so much information, not least of which is the picture that I’m actually about to take, not an optical version and then allowing for the exposure, the actual picture that I’m going to take.

Now there is a bit of me that thinks it might be useful if I could have, let’s say the picture that I think I’m going to take in the viewfinder, but when the actual picture is taken it’s maybe, I don’t know, half a stop. Third of a stop underexposed. So I could have a difference between the two. There you go, dear Nikon it might be a nice function. Only because sometimes when I’m reacting really quickly and I’m looking at an image in really bright light. So I’m working in sunshine, looking through the viewfinder, sometimes it’s hard to gauge just how bright an image is because of course you’re getting sun flare everywhere and ,as someone who wears glasses, that can be quite intrusive. But nonetheless, looking through the viewfinder, I know what I’m going to get. And actually I discovered yesterday, I had forgotten that it’s electronic. I don’t notice at all, it’s such a clear, crisp view through that viewfinder on the Nikon Z9, I forgot completely that I’m not looking at something that isn’t purely optical. I’m looking at basically a little TV screen.

And there’s so much information in there. I’ve got histograms, I’ve got horizontal lines. I can program it. I’ll admit I haven’t yet programmed it, because I’m still, even after nearly a year of having the camera, I’m still figuring out how I want it to behave but I can change multiple different settings, I can have 3, 4, 5, 6 different versions of the viewfinder. Maybe have one with a histogram on with the horizontal lines. I can place the histogram in different places.

I can do whatever I like. And I love that. I absolutely love it. So now when I’m working in auto, well, I’m not really because I’m guiding the camera throughout, I’m pushing up and down using the control wheels on the front and the back of the camera. I’m controlling everything. But the camera actually is setting the majority of it.

I’m just making sure it’s doing what I want it to do. And at the end of the day, that is what we all do as photographers. We’re trying to get the camera to do what we wanted to do. And even though when I taught manual, the starting point for any manual exposure at all, was where was the needle in the plus minus scale on the bottom. If there’s a bright scene, you wanted that needle to be on the plus side, if it’s a dark scene, you wanted that needle to be on the darker side. Now the camera’s showing me exactly what I’m going to get and I’m having to completely rewrite how I expose my images.

On top of that. I never ever thought I’d like using a flip screen. Never: don’t like it can’t use them. Just feels uncomfortable unless, I’m looking through the viewfinder, I can’t really see the image and there’s some peering through a tiny hole, everything felt completely weird.

Now, well, now I’ve got a horizontal flip screen that flicks into a vertical flip screen and it’s so bright that it’s almost, it’s almost unheard of that I can’t use it to compose and take the images. When I’m photographing with the Hearing Dogs and I’ve got a dog running towards me, I used to always, always have my eye planted to the back of that viewfinder. Now I have the flip screen out and I’m watching almost like a filmmaker rather than a photographer, the dog running towards me and I’ve learnt really very quickly, how to compose and track. And the tracking on the camera is well, it’s a dark, dark magic. I don’t know how it does it, but it’s brilliant. Whether I’ve got it in people mode when I’m working with faces and working with weddings, or I’m working with portraits. Whether I’ve got it in animal mode when I’m working with the hearing dogs or the auto detect mode when let’s say I’ve got a Hearing Dog with its family of humans, then it’s just electric. I used to always focus, recompose focus, recomposed. That was my absolute mantra. Focus recompose. You’d hear my camera going “bip-bip” click, “bip-bip” click, “bip-bip” click. Every single time. Now I don’t even bother putting it into single shot focus. I put it into continuous focus. And I use the AF button on the back of the camera, the back focusing button that I spent probably a year of my life learning how to use; basically, I’ve just got my finger planted on it for most of the time.

Not all. I do still go back to a little bit more control when I need it. When it’s not quite locking onto the right thing, but with just a flick of a switch, flick of a dial, I can change which focus which face is in focus. And it just tracks, it locks onto the face and it just tracks. It’s almost addictive in its dark magical capability. Also the response time. This camera is quick. Well, quick doesn’t really, doesn’t really describe it. Hit the button. You’ve got a picture, put it into high speed shooting. Hit the button. You’ve got 20 pictures.

Now I do have a problem in that if I’ve put it into completely silent mode and I forget, let’s say I was doing a confetti shot while I run it at 20 frames a second, and I forget that I’ve still got it at 20 frames a second, is I’ll press the button for the next couple of minutes and I’ve got a whole memory card full of pictures that I didn’t need, all almost identical.

It’s an irritant, but well, I’ll live. It hasn’t caused me any harm so far. It does give us a little bit of a problem downstream when Sarah has to pick out the pictures that we want to use, because now she’s got, instead of one picture, probably 20. However small price to pay and I will eventually figure out how to not forget to turn it back off from high-speed shooting. This thing really is changing the way I shoot, everything about it.

Now there are a few problems. One thing I do keep doing, and this is a product of having so much information inside the viewfinder is I keep laying it out as if it was a piece of graphical design. So what do I mean by that? And I’m laying out. I mean, I’m laying out the image that I see. So for a while, I kept noticing that my portraits were ever so slightly left of center and slightly higher up in the frame then I would normally shoot. The picture just seemed to be out of kilter. And it was only when I paid attention to what I was doing when I was shooting with Z9 that I noticed that the histogram is in the bottom right of the viewfinder. So when I shoot, I was laying it out as a poster with my subject in the top-left and my histogram in the bottom-right. Literally laying it out as a graphic designer. So I’ve had to get used to that, I’ve had to pay attention to where the center marks are. I’ve had to pay attention to whether I just turn the histogram off when I don’t need it. I will figure that out and play around with it. Uh, it’s not really, it’s nothing to do with Nikon, it’s not their fault that is happening. That’s just me, being a little bit stupid, but it is quite funny. Uh, I wish there were haptics. I’ve mentioned that I wish the thing just gave me some kind of physical confirmation that something’s in focus and that I’ve taken a photograph and, well, when it comes to working in low light, the little green led is frankly silly.

This is a professional camera: it’s one of the best cameras, if not the best mirrorless camera on

But the little green led that glows for the AF is simply not good enough. Now I know that they’ve had to disable the little red lasers that we’re also used to on our Speedlights because mirrorless cameras focus on the green channel, not the red. So there’s no point chucking red light around a scene, the mirrorless unit, isn’t going to focus on it. So, helpfully Nikon put a little green light onto their camera. The problem is it’s so close to the axis of the lens, that unless you’ve got a 50 mil lens on the front of it, it never gets to the middle of the frame. So, what you have to do is have your focus spot somewhere to the right, when you’re in landscape mode anyway. Somewhere to the right and it might just reach it. But if you’ve got your subject to the left, It isn’t going to reach it and you end up doing focus and recomposed using the led to light your way. It doesn’t seem particularly clever that to me, Now, I don’t know what the solution might be. Maybe, maybe release some Speedlights out there at the same time you release the camera

But, Hey, you know, that’s a small gripe and it’s low light capability capability is actually very, very good. But it would have been nice had they been able to do that. The other thing is even now I looked up to get batteries for the Z9: still not an easy thing to get hold of. I’m fortunate in that I already own a D5 and I have a load of batteries that will fit the Z9.

But if you just bought one cold, you’re going to struggle with just one battery. And it’s really hard to get more. And they’re expensive too it’s 300 quid I think for a Z9 battery, which seems like quite a lot of money. However. Probably worth it. So anyway, back to having changed my technique.

I suppose there’s a bit of me that’s thinking am I now just admitting to becoming lazy?

Hmmm more importantly, is it a bad thing? Well, as for the lazy thing, judging by the pain in my knees after I’d shot a wedding, I never slowed down. I didn’t stop working. I didn’t stop creating images. I didn’t stop looking for interesting angles so no, I don’t think I’ve become lazy.

Is it a bad thing?

Not if the pictures are really beautifully exposed and they’re sharp. No, it’s not a bad thing. It’s just technology, right? Now, I suppose you could argue that moving away from manual and camera’s becoming increasingly adept at sorting much of what you used to have to do all of.

Sorting it out in camera with a camera technology, actually looking after that for you. You could argue it’s cheapening things in the same way I suppose, we argued that digital cheapened film. But having gone back to film just for a brief moment, so I could check a camera for our daughter, it reminded me how exciting digital is.

And yes, okay, making some of these techniques readily available to absolutely anybody who can pick up a camera, you might argue that it’s cheapening the art, I suppose maybe you could, as a professional photographer, maybe you could argue that.

I don’t subscribed to that though.

I would argue that what it does is it firmly plants the spotlight on the point of difference of a great photographer and someone who just knows how to hold a camera. It doesn’t matter what technology is in there. It doesn’t matter that the exposures will always be good. It doesn’t matter that the technology will make sure every face you point the thing at is in focus.

It really doesn’t matter. Because at the end of the day, photographers, it’s what they see. That makes all the difference. It’s the interactions with the people. It’s the understanding of light of form of composition, of all of the factors that we use as professional photographers to make not just a picture, but to make a great picture.

To make something that is magical.

That split second between you and your sitter, that makes all the difference. No amount of technology is ever going to change that. What the technology does do is, it means you can focus on that. You can make that your point of difference, make the artistry, rather than the technique, the actual difference between you and someone who’s trying to be you.

I’m really happy about that. It makes me smile.

Anyway. Anyway. Anyway. Anyway, thank you for listening. Uh, if you’re listening to this before the 20th of September, 2022. Well, if you listen to this after the 20th of September, 2022 you can switch off now. Please subscribe. Leave us a review. If you’re listening to it before the 20th at 1:00 PM, Sarah and I will be at the photography show. We’re going to be on the Graphistudio stand, whole lotta product there with our pictures on it.

We’re going to be talking about some of the things that have helped make this a very successful business, some of the well, five of the numerous factors, that are worth bearing in mind, if you too would like to have a successful photography business. And we would love to see you there. The more the merrier come and have a chat.

Uh, we’re going to be tub-thumping, standing on a soap box. And, uh, telling people what we think, rightly or wrongly we’ll also be during the day, at the BIPP also as an aside, if you, uh, saw the images that I was asking which version you would like or thought would make a great frame to go in our studio, that frame or those frames are on the Graphistudio stand right now at the photography show. Uh, they picked, based on the results we got from the vote, we whittled it down to a couple and with our, colleagues at Graphistudio, we picked out the one that we thought that would make the highest impact, both on the Graphistudio stand at the photography show and here, ultimately in our studio, uh, I’ll release a little quick video of that onto social media when I get a chance to see it. But if you’re at the photography show, go and have a nose. So anyway, if you’ve enjoyed this podcast. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for listening as always. It’s greatly appreciated.

If you’ve enjoyed it, please do leave us a review and a five-star rating. And if you would like to hear the podcast every time a new episode arrives, simply subscribe wherever it is that you consume your podcasts or more likely wherever it is, you’re listening to it right now.

And until next time. Be kind to yourself. 📍

Take care.

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