9.22.2017

Shooting flash without cables and cords. Makes for a relaxed photo assignment.

An almost behind the scenes look at my lighting for the actors who 
will star in "A Tuna Christmas" at Zach Theatre. In between shots.

I've pretty much cut the cord when it comes to electronic flash. After a long career of dragging heavy strobe boxes, heads and mono-lights onto location after location I've had enough. And it's never just the box and head or the mono-lights that make the process of lighting things on location such a pain in the ass, it's also the cabling, connectors and extension cords that add sheer drudgery to every job outside the studio.

In the days of nickel-cadmium double A batteries and wimpy hot shoe flashes the bigger flashes were a necessary component when lighting large groups, big products or big rooms with power hungry medium format cameras and films. Now, not so much...

The worst part of location jobs seemed to be the lack of nearby or functioning electrical outlets in whatever area in which we needed to shoot. We'd get an assignment to photograph a group of executives at a company and when we got there we would find that the location the marketing team had reserved was in a major foot traffic area in a company headquarters and that the nearest A/C outlet was 75 feet away. And on the other side of a hallway. We'd set up out lights and start stringing out extension cords. Once the extension cords were laid down we'd need to spend time taping down any part that crossed a walk way. If we needed more than one outlet our budget for gaffer's tape could get out of hand...

When I switched to mono-lights it fixed on problem (all light heads being tethered on fairly short cables to one pack) and added another. Now all four or five lights used on a temporary set would need their own power cable and those power cables needed their own extension cords. Major pain, as each cable had to be taped down so inattentive executives and their legions of helpers didn't trip over the cables and injure themselves.

I tried to go with a total battery powered system back in 2007-2008 but I was stymied by the need for all day power (so of our shoots run 1200-1500 exposures) and the need for more power than most of the cost effective speed lights delivered. I like shooting at ISO 100 or 200 and I like to use big umbrellas and soft boxes and the venerable Vivitar 283 or the Nikon SB-800 just didn't deliver.

NiMh batteries were helpful but we found ourselves changing out the four batteries in four or five flashes four or five times a day. And much of the cost of big brand name portable strobes was based on their ability to be controlled from the camera position which was a feature set we didn't need for my style of photography. Now almost every generic brand offers the same kinds of controls. But we still don't really use the remote setting features.

No, the real split between my flashes and alternating current came this year when I became aware of bigger, lithium ion batteries coupled with fairly powerful generic flash products from companies like Neewer, Godox, and Fotodiox.

I dipped my toes into the bigger battery, better performance for less money market with a couple of Godox V850 flashes and I've never looked back. Two of them made for perfect tools when lighting up a standard white background. Even with ISO 200 I'm getting f8.0 on the background above while using the flashes on manual at 1/8th power.

My next step was to play with the Godox AD200 flash which provided a bigger battery and more power, along with an interchangeable flash head. It's a really nice flash and it bangs away at 1/2 power just about forever; especially if you are using the bare bulb head. But what I really wanted was just a bit more power and a day's worth of flashes. That's when I found the Neewer Vision 4, 300 watt second, battery powered monolight. It features a big lithium ion battery that's said to be capable of delivering 700 full power flashes. I use it at 1/2 power for quick recycling and I used it that way for about 500 flashes at a shoot yesterday and still had about 3/4ths power remaining when we wrapped up.

My set up for two people, full body, on a white seamless was to use the two smaller Godox flashes at 1/8th power directly on the backgrounds. I made little BlackWrap(tm) flags to cut the light spread to keep it off my subjects. At 1/8th power the flashes recycle almost instantly and will keep popping pretty much forever.

My fill light was the AD200 firing into a 72 inch, white umbrella at 1/2 power. I used it about 20 feet back from my subjects. It was the perfect fill light.

My main light was the Neewer Vision 4 firing into a 60 inch, white umbrella that was positioned about 15 feet from the subjects (looking for the inverse square law to help me even out the light across the two actors). The light was triggered by its included remote trigger which trigger the other three lights which were set to "S1" which makes use of their optical slave modules.

With no cords to manage and no extension cords to act as potential liability lawsuit triggers I was able to position my lights wherever I needed them and to work more quickly than ever before.

I might add a second Neewer Vision 400 but....then again I may just keep on working with the exact stuff I've outlined here. Seems to be working for me well right now.

Happy to say "goodbye" to extension cords, power cables and haphazardly functional wall outlets. I'm now back in the studio watching four battery chargers flashing away for the lights and another two flashing away with camera batteries. Relaxing.


9.21.2017

Lighten my load with smaller cameras and lenses? Which dream world do you live in...?

Happy Photographer writes blog about camera size and weight 
versus the need to bring the lights...

Some of us photographers who cross over and do video like to talk about the benefits of "hybrid" shoots where we "light once and then shoot twice." By keeping the lighting instruments the same and using the same cameras for both disciplines the big idea is that we lighten our load of equipment and get multiple kinds of imaging stuff done quicker. And, as far as I can tell, it works pretty well most of the time. But never in this particular proposal of processes have I ever indicated that getting smaller and lighter cameras is an important part of the hybrid equation. I'm not thrilled with the weight savings of smaller, mirrorless cameras any more than I am thrilled by the overweight nature of professional DSLRs. The reason I don't particularly care about the weight or size of cameras is that so much of my work is done using various kinds of lighting equipment. 

I was all excited about shooting a marketing piece for a theater today. We planned on shooting various actors on a white background. I'd mastered lighting a traditional white out background with my Apurture LightStorm LED lights and I was getting ready to pack when my art director e-mailed over so final notes. The actors would be dancing and moving and might be jumping as well. Well, that kills it for the LEDs. I can't freeze someone mid jump and keep them sharp with continuous lights. I got busy packing up the flashes. 

The number of lights is basically the same so I wouldn't mind BUT..... after we shoot the marketing piece for one production, and wrap up the gear at that location, we're breaking for a late lunch and then setting up in a different building to shoot two video interview. Which, of course, do not call for electronic flash. So I'm right back to the requirement of packing two sets of lights. Oh joy!

You can make the cameras as light as you want. You could even put your lights on a diet, but for most of the stuff I shoot we're hauling around a set of background stands and a nine foot roll of background paper, six to eight heavy duty light stands, flags, three or four sand bags, a sturdy cart. apple boxes, a hundred feet of heavy extension cords,  soft boxes, umbrellas and the various hard and semi-hard cases required to keep all the breakable stuff unbroken. Saving two to five pounds on camera gear is a drop in the bucket in the overall equation of a couple hundred pounds of (necessary) lighting gear. 

Today we'll also need to bring along a large duffle filled with sound blankets because the space we're assigned to shoot in is as hot as the hood of a black car in a Texas parking lot. We need to take the edge and echo off the voice recording. By the time we pack white masonite for the floor and another c-stand and fish pool for the microphone we'll just about have the Honda CR-V filled to capacity. 

I know that some of you will chime in and tell me that you do photography strictly for the love of it and I'm happy for you. I'm not sure I chose the right career ---- sometimes it just feels light a combination of logistics and weight-lifting with a few moments of imaging tossed in...

I dream of the day when I can take just a small bag with a camera and a lens or two. But it's the lighting and accessories that make it feel like "work." 

Really should have gotten a couple of assistants for this job. They could be setting up while I get in a noon swim. Now that would be delicious.

With a flurry of back to back jobs the studio is starting to look like a warehouse.
We drop off one set of gear and grab another. The image above is as neat and clean as it's been in months....

The magic ingredient for commercial photography success, besides having a trust fund or a wealthy spouse, is a non-stop stream of coffee. Comes in handy when the client "needs" those shots the next morning and you're still on location wrapping up the shoot at 7:15pm.

Photographers tend to fixate on those "magic" cameras but I think the real 
magic is in bringing the lights and knowing how to use them. 
That, and getting along with people. 

9.17.2017

Texturists versus Contextualists. Camera choice follows individual sensibilities.

New discoveries or the relentless display of craft?

An individual's aesthetic wiring directly relates to their choice of camera types when it comes to photographing what we might call their vision. I would argue that there is a spectrum between pure documentation of the subject matter, divorced from technical considerations of presentation, and the other extreme; the exercise of technical virtuosity which would consist of the highest level of craftsmanship.

At each extreme point of the spectrum either the lack of desire to embrace technology, or the wholesale embrace of technology, becomes an impediment to the most effective presentation of a subject --- or a visual idea.

In less extreme examples we can see how this bifurcation of intention in photography; the pure documentation versus the value of craft over context, drives the choice of tools individual artists embrace in order to bring their vision to fruition.

In thinking about those whose focus is to document an event, a person, a scene, etc. with respect for the content and the energy of the image I would put up as examples photographers such as Willian Klein and Robert Frank. In the opposite camp; those to whom craftsmanship and mastery seem to be more important than subject I would point to landscape photographer, John Sexton and supposed documentarian, Stephen Shore.

In their time both Klein and Frank selected cameras not for their ultimate image quality but for their fluid nature and their transparency in terms of getting an image on film interpreted only by their selection of the moment of capture and the selection of an almost reactive composition. In an age where the standard camera format of commerce was the 4x5 inch camera, and a medium format twin lens camera was considered to be a snapshot camera, these two artists (and others such as Henri-Cartier Bresson) chose to work with the (then) tiny 35mm cameras made by Leica, and then added insult to injury (in the eyes of their generation of photographers) by using fast, grainy, less sharp black and white films.

Their images all have an immediacy that allows us to more directly connect with the objects of their observation. Once the images were captured the images were printed in more or less direct methods. While the printers may have cropped slightly or burned and dodged a bit there was nothing like the wholesale manipulation of images that we routinely see in contemporary post processing where many times the captured image is a vague chimera that will be added to and massaged endlessly by today's oppressively addictive software.

In my past role as a specialist lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin I used to take my advanced photography classes to the Humanities Research Center to see actual prints from the HRC's vast collection. We would don on the white cotton gloves and sit around an expansive wooden table and personally handle and view the quintessential photographic work of the 20th century in its purest guise, as black and white prints (mostly in sizes from 8x10 to, at the largest, 11x14 inches).

I was always left cold by the pristine work of photographers such as Minor White or even Edward Weston while any number of works by Leica toting social documentarians could perk my interest (and appreciation for their clarity and speed of seeing).

In one session we were looking at a portfolio of prints of Henri-Cartier Bresson's work. One print was a larger version of a photograph of the Pope, in Vatican City, in a throng a people. A student pointed out that HCB had missed focus. The Pope was not in razor sharp focus. We all sat back and looked at the print for a while and decided that the moment captured (and the way it was caught) certainly outweighed the technical shortcoming of the camera's operation. To be in the right spot at the right time with a functioning camera was much more important than not having the photo at all. In retrospect I have been considering how that image would have worked in a smaller print. Something like a 6x9 inch image on an 8x10 inch sheet of paper. Would we have even noticed the slight softness of focus on the Pope or would the smaller size render the technical deficiency moot?

This always starts me thinking along the lines of "What if HCB had used a bigger camera with a higher potential image quality?" Having shot with a small Leica, a Rollei twin lens, and 4x5 inch cameras I feel confident in saying that he made the right choice of camera and film for his vision and his immediate circumstances.

When I look at the work of Robert Frank I understand that, with the ability to use the camera almost without conscious thought, and with the discreet profile of the small, handheld camera, Frank was able to capture moments of social documentation that were so unguarded that we feel the emotion of the people in the moment instead of just the study in sociology that most journalism-style photography presents.

While held in high regard by many I can't stomach the lifeless virtuosity of most large format nature photographers. They really tell us nothing about nature or our place within it; they only use their naturalistic subjects as foils for their own clinical vision. Their intention seems to be to find in nature scenes that they can use as a base canvas upon which to showcase their skills and technical mastery of otherworldly tonal control, contrast and arch preservation of detail. When their audiences see the work they respond to the way the artist's control glorifies the experience of viewing replicas of nature by providing an alternative representation of what is generally visually mundane in situ.

One imagines these large format artists marching through the chaos of the woods with a folding view camera, stout tripod and a backpack full of film holders, looking for a vignette that can be forcibly composed into a structure considered "harmonious" by the masses and then stolen from its colorful and chaotic place in nature into a black and white showcase of gloriously rendered detail and order, with all the contrast of a Japanese pen and ink image. There is no impression of timeliness or emotional reaction to their moment of discovery, no AHA!!! instead one feels the plodding nature of a researcher who leisurely sets up a camera and then, in a series of investigations works around the subject more or less begging it to yield some meager measure of intrinsic magic to give even the meanest spark of life to the artist's experiment in technical perfection. As sensual as kissing a porcelain mask.

Since these artists have the time, and additionally live and die by the highest expression of technical mastery, their tools of choice are the 4x5 and 8x10 inch cameras and a selection of films with the finest grain and the highest resolution. The classic representation of detail being more important than the subject itself. But the "seeing" doesn't stop with the rigorous capture of the scenic-ly mundane it continues in the dark room with another bout of arduous perfectionism until the photograph is as much a manipulated reference as a purely photographic print. The value, according to curators, is in the artist's interpretation in the final print of the original scene, not in the power of the original scene itself.

Another way to look at all of this (at least in the eyes of the great audience of every man) is that few people outside the small (and shrinking) world of educated artists and art historians see the value of abstract painting, action painting, and non-representational painting in general. The further paintings diverge from hard core realism the less appreciated they are by most audiences. The masses demand as much verisimilitude to reality in their paintings as can be wedged into them. In this way the virtuoso photo-realistic painters, as well as those painters who just happen to be very compulsive, are publicly adored (and quickly forgotten).

In the current field of photography we seem to have same kind of situation that existed in the 1950's and 1960's. The middle of the curve of photographers seems obsessed with the need for "perfect" digital cameras. They define "perfect" as the cameras that can most accurately reproduce the scene in front of the camera in terms of sharpness, resolution, contrast and overall color correctness. They are willing to spend many multiples more money over less well appointed cameras in order to get these camera attributes so that these photographers can dogmatically pursue the creation of a "perfect image".

While any camera today can make a beautiful, reasonably sized print, there is a mania to have the camera that will make the biggest print with the least noise and the widest dynamic range. The maniacal pursuit of technical perfection blinds many to the charms and virtues of alternate tools. While a Zeiss Otus 85mm lens might be the sharpest lens in the photo cosmos it's just one focal length. If an artist has an elastic (and more interesting)  and expansive personal vision of reality that requires being able to switch angles of view with speed and agility then the Otus becomes an encumbrance to his/her vision. It may be that a camera with an almost endless range of angles of view helps bring his/her vision into existence.

A frail or aging photographer with a lively and unique vision may not be able to physically carry all the bits and pieces of the "perfect system" out in the field. The weight of "perfected progress" might hinder him or her from even leaving their home to engage in their art. But what if their vision could give birth to great work with a smaller, easier to handle camera and a small selection of good lenses? Would their work be less valid? See the work of Jan Saudek https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Saudek

When I look across so many arenas of photo sharing; from Instagram to Google+ and to some of the old standbys like Flickr I am generally much more drawn to images that display immediacy and authenticity than I am to cleverly contrived and technically flawless images that lack any sort of contextual soul. It's rare that an image from a Sony A7Rii or a Nikon D810 is revered in social media for its imaging qualities --- they are almost always "liked" and "favorited" for the angle of composition and insightful  moment at which the subject is captured, or the subject's gesture or expression, not in the way the camera's noiseless purity is displayed. More often, these days, the most interesting work is coming from the least complex of cameras --- iPhones.

There is a giant cult within contemporary photography that ignores the human magic of storytelling and instead concentrates on trying to show the essence of a boring thing because a certain type of subject is a more pliable canvas on which to demonstrate the camera operator's mastery and control of their special tool. Wouldn't it be so much more interesting if they had a story, beyond all their proficiency, to tell?

I would suggest to anyone who really wants to see better to practice actually seeing by putting the A7rii/D810/5Dsr in a drawer and rummaging around to find that old point and shoot from ten years ago. Something like a Canon G9 or some Coolpix or an early Sony RX100xxxxx. Put the camera in "P" mode and go looking for subject matter than interests you for more than just its ability to serve as a canvas for your craftiness. Look for the beautiful smile of sensual person. Look for interesting clouds. React to a sweet expression. Consider a quickly fading gesture. Watch the light play across someone's elegant face. Find a moment that speaks to your sympathy for our shared existence. Reject easy opportunities just to show off your chops.

Turn off the review mechanism of the camera and just point the camera at things as they interest you, bring the camera to your eye and click. You might just be amazed to find that if you stop contemplating perfection and start embracing serendipity, and the honest reactions of your emotional self, you may like the images that arise far more than the sterile work of proving your camera is a better artist than you.

Finally, I write about discovering scenes, gestures, etc. And of technologists also on a search for perfect foils for their art, but there is another way. I consistently look back at the work of "constructionists" like Duane Michals whose work is neither "discovered by happy accident" or the result of hours of arduous manipulation and obsessive control in the the darkroom --- after being captured by the "Best Camera in the World". Instead, he imagines and then directs photographic stories that resonate with so many audiences. His stories bubble up from his life. He constructs a visual narrative but without the artifice of perfectionism. It's a third way of seeing that we don't talk about enough. It's powerful and, reading the story of his career, you can see that the camera, or type of camera he uses, is unimportant. A minuscule part of his act of creation. Seems imagination is one of the most powerful tools of all.
http://www.dcmooregallery.com/artists/duane-michals




9.15.2017

Playing scales. Swimming drills. Filmmaking practice.



When I see someone play the guitar or piano very well they make the process seem so fluid and easy. It's the same when I see an Olympic swimmer repeat graceful one hundred yard repeats under a minute each. As a culture we have a tendency to ascribe mastery to genetics, luck and natural talent and we ignore or discount the reality of the artist's or athlete's years and years of training and practice. But all one needs to do is to read about swimmer, Michael Phelps's training regimen in the decades leading up to his multiple gold medals to know that even those with in-born talent still have to put in the time and energy to excel.

I thought moving from still imaging to video production would be a cakewalk. After all, I've been working with a camera in front of my face for nearly 4 decades and I've studied the science and craft of how the sensors work with light, optics etc. Hell, I've written books about it, but if all that was required to be good at motion pictures was the rote memorization of hundreds of facts and mechanical steps then most professional photographers would be able to step seamlessly into video production, right?

But I'm finding that making moving pictures is a whole different game. In photography you can compose well and then lock your camera down on a tripod and press the shutter button at the decisive moment. If you've trained yourself to see well you'll most likely get a good still image (especially so if the subject looks great...) but the crazy thing about video, especially video with a handheld camera, is that so much really depends on an integration of physical practice combined with seeing well.

In the beginning of my video journey the cameras we used didn't have stabilizers and handheld gimbals were unheard of. I thought my workaround would be to put the camera on a fluid head tripod and that everything would proceed just like still photography. I thought that until I was called on to do my very first very steady pan. Who knew that just panning a tripod head could be so difficult? My moves were jagged-y and inconsistent and the stopping and starting of my pans was just downright embarrassing.

It seems that panning (and tilting) is an acquired skill. Smoothness comes from physical practice. The practice of panning over and over and over again until you figure out how to pace and how to become more continuous in your moves. I continue to practice and agonize over the quality of my pans and am coming to grips with the need to put in more hours just practicing the moves (which also depend on distance to the subject, focal lengths of lenses used, speed of subject travel and so much more). You can buy the best tripod and head in the universe but if you don't routinely practice your pans will never be as smooth as the "talented" camera operators.

The same goes for every facet of video camera operation that requires movement. Camera movement is so much more than hand skills. The best operators use their whole bodies in the process of smoothly moving their cameras. You can't see their best work because their best work has as its goal making the camera and its move invisible. But you can routinely see okay and mediocre and bad camera pans in many TV shows and movies because not every operator has hit the point where their work can become transparent to the viewers.

I imagined that having the new GH5 camera and a stabilized lens would give me a much more solid and smooth platform with which to shoot handheld, and it's true that the camera/lens combo gives me great stabilization but even with stabilization the camera has to move and once you go from stationary to pan or tilt, or even walking with the camera, the lack of practice becomes glaringly obvious.

If I'm to be successful at handholding a moving a video camera it's pretty darn obvious that I'm going to need a lot of practice. A lot of practice. I may even have to give up drinking coffee. Imagine living the life of a monk just to make smooth, handheld video camera moves. Breathtaking in its cruelty...

My sometimes partner in video crime and I just finished estimating and proposing eight video projects for an ad agency. The bulk of each video will consist of handheld b-roll lifestyle scenes. This means getting sharp focus on the fly, moving through groups of people, quickly moving to catch great expressions, etc. While my partner has years of continuing practice (he's a full time video shooter) I've spent way to much time depending on flash to freeze motion and tripods to anchor my non-moving, still photography cameras. As we get closer to the start of the projects I've taken to daily practice moving with my camera.

I headed out yesterday to walk through Zilker Park, past Barton Springs Pool and around the lake with my camera, lens and neutral density filter in hand. Every time I saw something interesting to shoot I practiced regulating exposure by rotating the variable neutral density filter and evaluating zebras in the finder of the camera. I had the camera switched to manual so I could also practice using focus peaking to hit sharp focus. But after getting the settings correct I spent most of my time working to pan with joggers and bikers, following aquatic birds as they skimmed the water and then took flight, and I spent time panning from one object to the next. The most difficult thing to practice it to walk smoothly with the camera and I did that as well.

I was feeling pretty good about my time in practice until I came back home, stuck the SD card into my computer and started looking, full screen, at the practice shots I'd made. They showed how the camera moved with my breathing and how any operation of camera buttons created motion havoc in the frames.
I cringed when I saw how lumpy my pans were; speeding up and slowing down to try and regulate my moves. I got a few takes that were decent and I tried to think back to what I'd done to achieve them.

At the end of the exercise, when I'd looked and looked at the shaky footage on my unrelentingly critical monitor, I dumped the footage in the trash and grabbed the camera up again --- stuck a new battery in it and got ready to practice again. Today, after paper work, dog walking and some swimming I'll be back at it practicing camera moves. It's a race against time. Will I master all the arcane methods of handholding and moving a camera or run out the clock instead? The real answer is that mastery is a classic case of ever diminishing returns but that doesn't mean I should not try for the next twenty to thirty years to become at least good at it.

What I learned this week: When starting a camera move place yourself in the position of least comfort to start and move progressively to the position of comfort by the end.

The real masters of motion picture camera operation have spent as much time with a camera in their hands as most virtuoso musicians have spent with their own instruments in hand. That's what makes both camps great.

Camera, except for its feel in your hand, inconsequential.

9.13.2017

Sony's new RX10 camera just got announced. It's called the Sony RX10IV and it looks like everything I wanted.

This is a photo of the RX10iii, one of the best small sensor cameras I have ever used. 
Actually, one of the best cameras I have ever used....along with its
sibling, the RX10ii. 

I just read the announcement of the launch of the RX10IV on Digital Photography Review. It's the one time I hope DPR just goes insane with their product coverage as this is a product that makes sense and one for which I'll gladly line up to hemorrhage cash. 

There weren't many things I didn't like about the previous generation. The only one I can think of right off the bat would be focusing speed and sure-footed AF lock on to the longer end of the lens. Especially so in video. I haven't checked the specs (extensively) on the new camera but would also love to be able to "punch in" more than the current 5x times magnification in video in order to really nail focus when in manual mode.

The lens is the same 24-600mm equivalent Zeiss lens and the camera continues the full frame read, non-binning 4K video performance. The video is actually down res'd from a 5K capture! I found the handling and post processing performance of both 4K and 1080p video to be class-leading and the combination of all the features and performance metrics of the RX10iii to be superb. If this camera focuses better and locks focus quicker; especially in video, then I'm really to throw down money for my copy. (But I want to try it out at a bricks and mortar store before tossing around that kind of money...).

I saw other features reviewed such as silly fast frame rates for stills but I didn't pay attention to them. The older models shot just as fast as I needed them to... if you really need 24 fps then you need to be shooting video instead...

Why do I like the most recent RX10xx camera models so much? Hmmm. That's easy. The RX10-3 is an amazing still photography camera. The 20 megapixel sensor makes beautiful files when shot at 80, 100, or 200 ISO. Workmanlike files at 1600 and still decent/usable files at 3200. The image stabilization in that camera is rock solid for photography and 1080p video. Not quite in Olympus territory but as good or better than systems costing thousands more... The all encompassing lens is an "as good" or better than decent replacement for a bagful of most interchangeable DSLR lenses and has more useful reach than just about any lens available under $5000 for Nikon or Canon. Or Sony A7 series cameras. And it's foolish to discount the usefulness of a great, built-in lens; not having to change lenses means no dust bunnies, no sensor damage, no fumbling in the dark to effect the change, and much less to carry around.  You know, the difference between two weeks of shoulder battering drudgery or a real vacation.

If that was all there was to the RX10-3 it might seem expensive for a one inch sensor bridge still camera but the camera is capable of so much more. It's one of the best fully capable video cameras/systems you can get under $2,000. It's capable of beautifully detailed 4K files and, unlike other cameras in the Sony line up, I've run the camera for multiple segments of 29 minutes duration, with only seconds of delay between the segments, without any indication of overheating. You might think of bridge cameras as "amateur" but then what other "amateur" video camera comes with a full S-Log codec and a the ability to configure its video files in many more ways (knee, black level, gamma, etc.) than just about any other multi-use camera on the market? So, nearly full frame 4K at 30 fps, complete with S-Log, and the ability to write the 4K files to Pro Res files via a clean output HDMI connection to an external recorder like the Atomos Ninja Flame. Wow. And of course there are still microphone and headphone connectors, and very clean microphone preamplifiers.

I've used the RX10-2 and 3 to make video in downpours, in 100+ plus heat and in the dark of a theater and the camera has never faltered. In 2016 I used the RX10-2 and RX10-3 on enough projects that the jobs I used them on (sometimes exclusively) contributed about 25% of my fee income. So, why would I want to upgrade to the latest model; the RX10-4?

I'd do it for the phase detection AF capability that was added in the new model. Apparently it uses the same processor for AF as the new a9 camera. It focuses twice as fast as the current model and locks in (according to Sony) focus quicker and at lower EV levels. The PD AF has been well proven in the a6300 and a6500 models as well. No more dicey focus at the long end of the lens.

While I often give in to reckless hyperbole when I'm slamming around on the keyboard I believe that this new camera could provide a single tool that would be able to do most of the professional video and photography assignments most photographers will encounter in day-to-day business. Yes, $1800 is expensive if you consider comparing it directly with a larger sensor camera body. But you should really be comparing it with a whole system of lenses, a stand alone, 4K video camera and a super fast camera body. It's a camera that can replace thousands and thousands of additional dollars invested in arcane photo stuff.

I'm not saying anyone else needs to rush out and buy one immediately or their career will come to a grinding halt. This may be only really cogent to my uses. But I'm certain it will be a most useful tool.

The two biggest complaints I'm reading about the new camera model revolve around price and size/weight. It's almost as if there is a wholly uneducated but vociferous group of photographers who feel as though Sony can bend physics to their will. I've seen suggestions that the lens speed be increased to f2.0 while, in the next breath suggesting that the size of the camera be reduced by half. Many insist that, since this is not a "real" DSLR that the price should be around $599 or lower. I'm sure the same people would love a first class airline ticket to Paris for $25 --- and I'm equally sure they'd complain that their glass of Champagne had too many bubbles. That their seat should be the size of the couch at home. And that the plane did not go 2,000 mph. I'm sure these are the same people who believe their Pontiac Aztecs should be able to fly....

The camera is not as big or as heavy as any DSLR anywhere once equipped with an equivalent lens (if there was one....). The price is not just for a camera body with a small sensor but for an entire system that is capable of doing a combination of applications open to no other camera/lens system on the market. If you just broke the price in half and charged $900 for the body and $900 for the lens then perhaps it would be easier for the cognition-challenged to understand the overall value. And, since it only comes in a kit you save a dollar!!!

The RX10IV might not be perfect. It's too big to fit in the front pocket of your ever-tightening Jourdache jeans. The video specs aren't as good as those on the GH5. The dynamic range of the sensor isn't going to go toe-to-toe with the Nikon D850. But if you need to toss some plastic wrap over the top and video tape a raging flood in the middle of a driving rain storm and then walk away with near perfect 4K video, and then turn back around and make a technically great photograph of an electric transformer  blowing up on top of a utility pole one hundred yards away ---- then I think you may have found your camera.

You might not need one. You might not be able to afford one. But that doesn't mean the camera isn't pretty darn amazing. And very useful to people who need what it offers.

Go see reviews from people who bought the IV's predecessor:



9.12.2017

Kid heads off to NY for his senior year of college.


Last lap. Ben's back at school, hitting the books and having fun. This is a photo of him from his grade school years hacking away at an old Mac laptop. He's having an after school snack of grapefruit and blue cheese. 

Time goes so fast. If you still have young ones at home don't ever put the camera away. Shoot even the most mundane stuff. You'll love it later. Believe me.

Sometimes photographers get way ahead of their clients. More like spinning your tires than making progress... Sometimes clients have the roadmap we need.

I forgot to use the "ultimate" camera on my job....

I got up early, drank coffee and drove north yesterday morning. I left the house way too early for an appointment at 9 a.m. but you'll have to give me a little slack since the never-ending road construction on Loop One/Mopac can be a mercurial bitch. One day you breeze on to your destination and the next you sit motionless in the fast lane, staring at the tail lights and listening to someone droning away, cheerfully, on NPR. Yesterday was a miraculous day for me on Hwy. Loop One. From 7:45 a.m. on the traffic never slowed down between Westlake Hills and Round Rock. I made the trip in 25 minutes. Which left me about an hour to cool my heels at a local Starbucks before walking into the lobby of a long time client. Thank goodness I brought a book!

My assignment was to photograph the CEO of this local/national/global tech company, together with a giant prop. We needed him pictured alone, and surrounded by a group of about 25 happy, enthusiastic employees. The shoot took place in the lobby and while I shot stills the in-house video team (supplemented by a freelance sound person and a second camera operator)  captured video and then, after the CEO exited, went in for some interviews with a few of the employees. I needed to provide a bit of direction for the group photos but after getting the individual CEO shot and the group shots I  chilled out and just grabbed some candid shots of the event.

I brought the Panasonic cameras for the event. I was a little concerned (but not much) that the client would not be happy to see me shooting with a smaller sensor, lower resolution camera since everything I read on the web about professional photography would have one believe that clients routinely demand particular cameras or camera types; that those cameras reflect the current state of the art, and that clients understand the difference --- and I read way too much on the web.

I have worked with the head of this particular company's video department for well over 20 years. We run into each other at major events and shows and sometimes, just at the office. He asked me what I was shooting with and I told him. "Those are really cool!" he said. "But don't send us big files. This is all going to end up on social media."  So much for any trepidation I may have been fomenting...

We were on location early. The video guys were setting up two different cameras; one getting a wide shot and one with a shoulder-hefted rig with which he would roam around. The sound guy had his "belly bag" full of Sound Devices goodies and a nice shotgun microphone on a pole. After we figured out our angles and our working choreography I decided to add a light to the mix. I put that new Neewer 300 w/s flash on a stand and bounced it off a wall directly behind the camera position to create a nice, broad fill. The light I used is the one with lithium ion battery pack so no extension cords/power cables were needed. I didn't have to spend time taping down the cords. Progress! The flash also has its own dedicated trigger so that's nice too.

Once we got set we had time to kill and, as normally happens, we stood around and talked shop. Since the video department head has nice equipment budgets and works all over the world I assumed that they were producing everything at the very highest technical levels imaginable. I presumed 4K capture for all video and buckets of SSD drives with which to record everything in 12 bit 4:4:4:4. I asked about their equipment expecting to feel like a rank amateur with a toy camera.

In fact, neither of their video cameras were necessarily anything to write home about. One was an inexpensive Black Magic Cine camera and the other an older Sony ENG camera. No Arri Alexa, no Sony F55, no Red camera, etc. A wide cinema prime (Sigma) on one camera and an EOS zoom lens on the other. No external monitors, no gingerbread. And, not a light anywhere.

I asked if they were shooting in 4K and they looked at me funny. Turns out the only time they venture into 4K is when they are working with green screen and need high definition for masking. They shoot mostly in 1080p. Why? Because nearly everything they shoot is destined to go straight to the web via their own website or one of the social media sites. Everything seems to end up over at YouTube which mostly just crunches the hell out of everything via compression.

After the event I went home to post process the photo files and get them sent off quickly. Usually I shoot raw and then work on the files a bit. The client emphasized the need for speedy delivery so I shot raw+big Jpegs. I pulled the Jpegs into Lightroom and they looked really good. I selected about three dozen shots and uploaded them to Smugmug, making enhancements only to the files containing the CEO (I knew they'd get the most use....). I had the files uploaded within 20 minutes of hitting the front door of the studio. The clients gave me thumbs up on everything.

But this all seems antithetical to what we learn on the web. What I read always leads me to believe that everyone else out there is getting demands from their clients to use and deliver files from the biggest and most expensive state of the art cameras around. As though the clients are tapping their feet and thinking, "OMG! Are we still using those ancient Nikon D810s? When is my photographer going to get his hands on the D850?!!!. We might believe that clients are demanding that everything be sent to them as 16 bit Tiff files and that each file be retouched in Byzantine detail before they see them. But this rarely seems to be the case --- in the real world.

In the video markets we photographers/aspiring videographers seem to believe that the way forward is to offer the highest performance codecs we can afford to create. Take the biggest files we can hammer through a GH5 and send them to an external recorder so we can upgrade them to huge Pro Res files before delivering terabytes of programming to clients who may have only wanted a nice little piece to put up on Instagram. The community of new arrivals to video presume that every shot is done with V-Log (S-Log, C-Log) and that every frame will be color graded to the nth degree. (That's the way I've been thinking about it...).

There may be some parts to the overall equation of corporate production to which we are not always privy. The client's need for speed being one of them. Everything we shot yesterday will be edited and presented as a very small part of an "all hands" meeting presentation that will be broadcast to 100,000+ employees via the web. The video will be a minuscule part of the overall presentation. But it will need to be slim and right sized to work on monitors and connections all over the place. Not big and bloated and hypothetically perfect. Some employees will no doubt need to watch the presentation on phones...

At the end of the session yesterday the video operators pulled out their memory cards and quickly transferred the files to a thumb drive which they handed off to the client's video director. No big fuss.

Were all eyes on me? Hardly. Were the clients or the videographers carefully inspecting and passing judgement on my choice of gear? Not for a second. Did we all deliver right sized media for our client's needs? You bet.

The world of our work is changing quickly and the days of producing work for giant print graphics are fading away. If we keep focusing on the wrong targets we'll probably miss the right ones by a long distance. Much as we'd mostly like to concentrate on getting our work printed on double-truck spreads in magazines or seeing our video work on huge movie screens the reality is that the work we do for clients is very much headed in different directions. They're aiming at UHD monitors or projectors as being the high end use of video currently but, honestly, the vast majority of uses are still 1080p and smaller. The work we're mostly doing is much more transient than ever before so storage is less anxiety provoking. The "sell by" dates are quicker and few of the projects will be re-visited a year from now. And, across the board, the production time frames we're being handed are continually shrinking. (edit:) I had a phone conference with an ad agency creative director this afternoon about a series of videos for one of their clients. Their research showed that in their client's audience  80% of video views were on mobile phones. 80% !!!!!

If we look in the rear view mirror we can be made to feel that we MUST have the biggest and the best gear available for all engagements. In fact, the biggest and the best might be an impediment to delivery speed, flexibility and fluid action. If we look at where media and content are headed we can see that everything is changing and most of it is moving in a direction that's vastly different than the print orientation currently shared by many established photographers. Clients may be way ahead of us here.

The final thing I was thinking about as I sat in front of the monitor watching the progress of my images uploading was about how we business people allocate our assets and how it affects our bottom line. I have friends who firmly believe that they must have the world's best gear in order to compete. They routinely seek out the "best" cameras and the "ultimate" lenses to shoot with. This made sense when everyone's aim point was the lushly printed page and the state of "best" wasn't all that great (think about the first two or three generations of digital camera bodies...) but does it still make sense when the limitations of the targets (screens of various sizes) for most of our work will blind and obfuscate any differences in image quality between any of the modern cameras, across formats?

In a time when fees and budgets are under constant attack and are, in fact, lower when adjusted for inflation than any time in our careers, can we continue to justify the brutal expenses of "the best" when good, solid gear will get the job done just as well or better?

My client's video producer could probably requisition just about any cool video gear he feels he needs. He might be able to outfit his crews with $50,000 Arri Alexas. He might be able to pony up for sets of Leica cinema lenses (@$125,000 per set). But he doesn't. Why not? Perhaps he knows that good enough works great and that saving the corporation cash means more value added to his 401K. Maybe we freelancers would be smart to follow those instincts. After all, isn't it really our talent we're selling?

9.10.2017

The Age of the Image. By Stephen Apkon

I was rummaging through the shelves of books about cinematography at our local, independent bookstore, BOOKPEOPLE, when I came across this book. It was published in 2013 so it's not exactly cutting edge topical but it's an important book to read for all the people who say, "I have no interest whatsoever in video..." 

The book is a well researched romp through the changing history of language, communication, symbology and understanding. It traces the paths from the embrace of the written word as a primary method of communication and shows how quickly, thoroughly and globally we are moving from the written word to the language of motion pictures. The author makes a convincing point that, in the near future, to be truly literate will mean understanding the grammar and language of video; both how to decode it and how to create it. 

Toward the end of the book are examples of current educational theory about communication and the embrace of moving images on all manner of screen. In the chapters leading up to that are some general explanations about how to make better video programming. Also, how and why a good video can trump the printing word for global dissemitnation of ideas, memes and, of course, brand messaging. 

After reading the book I grabbed my inexpensive G85 with the kit zoom, put an ND filter on the front of the lens and headed out to practice shooting interesting scenes. The book inspires one to look beyond conventional wisdom, to stop looking in the rear view mirror of technology, and to think more inclusively about communication and not just one's favorite or most comfortable media. 

I recommend that everyone give it a read. Ask your library to get a copy, drop by your local independent bookstore for a copy, or buy one from the link below....

(This book was purchased with my own funds and was not sent to me by the borrower or the author. No one asked me to write this short review).

9.09.2017

A Perennial Conference Photographed with a Different Model and Brand of Camera Every Year for Nine Years.



Every year (except one) in the last nine years I have been hired to photographically document a very unique corporate conference that takes place here in Austin. It's unique because attendance is by invitation only, it's closed to the press and the public, and it's pure sophisticated social+economic content. The invited attendees come from banking, investment, demographic research and governmental agencies. The speakers include billionaires, thought leaders and best selling authors. The subject matter involves finance,  new investment paradigms, demographic trends, global financial trends and new industry creation. The actual content is protected by NDA.

But none of that is really important here. What I want to talk about is how I photographed the show this year, or, more to the point, what cameras I used this year. 

I opted to use two Panasonic GH5s and two Olympus lenses; the 12-100mm f4.0 Pro and the 40-150mm f2.8 Pro. This year I was able to forego bringing along a wider assortment of lenses because the two Olympus lenses covered every thing I needed, from wide stage shots to tight shots of speakers on stage. The robust image stabilization supplied by the 12-100mm (in lens) and the GH5 for the 40-150mm (in camera) meant that this was the first year I could drop any tripod or monopod from the gear inventory and not miss it in some situation or another. 

The system checked all the right boxes for the way I photograph these kinds of conferences. The conference doesn't want me to use flash in during panels or speeches. The system needs to be good enough to operate at ISO 800 or higher without issues so that flash is always unnecessary during "main tent" sessions. Since the show is fairly intimate, with only 250 attendees, and since I work fairly close to the stage, the camera needs to be very quiet or altogether silent. Since I move around a bit during presentations the cameras have to be light and mobile. Distilling down to 2 mirrorless bodies and two lenses is a major plus. 

So far I've done previous shows for this client with: 4/3 Olympus cameras, Nikon APS-C cameras, Nikon FF cameras, Canon FF cameras, Olympus m4/3 cameras, Panasonic GH4 cameras, Sony FE cameras, Sony RX10 cameras and now the Panasonic GH5s. With each system (except the RX10s) I tried to source the smallest number of lenses to cover wide shots of the main ballroom in which the conference was held all the way down to tight head shots of the speakers on stage. In terms of convenience the RX10iii was without peer. But it took tight control to stay right in the small zone of best compromise where subject motion didn't become an issue but neither did noise in the image files. Sometimes I was successful and sometimes not. Underexposed high ISO one inch sensor files can get a bit ugly in post. 

Overall the Sony A7Rii had the best image quality to date but was not my favorite for handling and daylong comfortable operation. The lowest image quality came from the earliest cameras; the 12 megapixel e-3 and e-5 Olympus 4/3 cameras. The worst fit for conferences came from cameras like the Canon 5Dii the Nikon D750 and D700. These were far too loud for any situation which called for a discreet, quiet approach, even when wrapped with neoprene. The shutters and mirrors, even in quiet modes, were just too loud to allow me to sit in the audience and work. This routinely limited the number and kind of shots I could take.

Last year I split the show between the A7rii and the RX10iii. My primary lens on the A7Rii was the 70-200mm f4.0 G series lens. I also used a battery grip on the bottom of the A7Rii to provide longer battery life. The combination became uncomfortable to hold and use during a full eight hours of on again, off again handheld photography. In addition, the A7Rii and A7ii electronic viewfinders didn't track as closely, in terms of color and exposure, as I hoped they would with my studio computer. Finally, it was burdensome to use them in their raw modes because of the enormous size of the resulting files; even with the 24 megapixel A7ii. The 42 megapixel file sizes of the A7Rii pushed me to use that camera as a Jpeg-centric tool since we ended up with nearly 3,400 files by the end of last year's show. 

The RX10iii was very convenient and easy to work with over the course of a long day but the files sat right on the edge of the pass/fail edge of image quality in dim situations at ISO 800+. 

 I decided to test the GH5 in the conference arena by using two of them at this show. I'd done a series of tests leading up to the show so I was pretty confident that they would be adequate to the task. I also knew from testing that the two lenses I chose would be very sharp. They would not be the weak link in the imaging chain. (That would be me....). 

The GH5 checked all the right boxes for me. The EVF finder is the best I've owned so far. The camera's shutter is quiet enough to use in its mechanical setting with EFC but has a full-on silent setting if needed. The battery life, with review turned off, was excellent. I shot all day yesterday with one battery in each camera and no need to change. Yes, all day on location with the original two batteries. 

The image in the EVF tracked the reality of my calibrated computer screen much better than any previous camera I've used and the 12 bit raw files are small enough to allow me to shoot (for the first time) the entire show in a raw file format which allowed for much tighter color correction in post. I was able to use zebras to consistently get bright exposures without blowing out caucasian skin which also helped keep noise to a minimum. This year the stage set consisted of white leather couches and a center white desk so I had ample targets, in changing light, from which to set custom white balances. I maintained three custom white balances in three saved banks and was able to move through those presets quickly as the light on the stage cycled.

Having the right color balance and the right exposure means minimal noise in these cameras at ISO 800. Getting it right in camera meant I had less need to boost shadows in post, which is what usually makes noise rears its ugly head. 

A quick note about iPhone software for the GH5 camera. One of the speakers pulled me aside before he went on stage and requested that I get some great shots of him on stage and also asked if I could send them to his company's marketing team by end of day for use on social media. I assured him we could do that and then downloaded the Lumix phone app. It took me about ten minutes to set up a wi-fi network between the camera and phone (while continuing to photograph) and after that I started grabbing selected frames of the guy speaking and transferring them to the phone. When I knew I had a dozen good shots (all Jpegs) I sent them via e-mail to the exec's e-mail address and the e-mail address he'd given me for his social media team. The social media people had the images ready for upload before the speaker left the stage. They were just waiting for final approval as the behind-the-curtain production crew retrieved his lav microphone and body pack. 

Okay, so there are some phone apps that might be useful....

But let's get down to the stars of this particular documentation exercise: The Olympus Pro lenses. I'll go out on a limb here and say that I think the 40-150mm f2.8 Pro lens is the sharpest lens I've ever shot with from any maker, including Leica. I shot with it only at its wide open aperture setting and was amazed at the sharpness, contrast and detail in the final files. It may be that full frame cameras have advantages with their sensors but these lenses go a long way toward equalizing the playing field. The 40-150 is easy to handhold, the manual focus system (with hard stops at close focus and infinity) is elegant, and the performance in the final files is stunning. I'm in love. 

The second lens is one I've already gushed over. It's the 12-100mm f4.0 Pro. While I'll always wish every lens was one stop faster the lens is so nice to use that I know I'll get over that mental block. I was able to shoot about 80 % of the material over the last three days with this lens since it covers such a wide range and does so very well. 

This system is the best compromise across all the systems I've used for this kind of event and stage work. I can hardly wait to use it at the next theater dress rehearsal shoot. The lenses are just right in terms of range and (especially with the 40-150mm) speed. The camera is very surefooted when it comes to the S-AF focusing that I normally use and the handling of the body and body+lens is perfect. 

We get our first big video trial for a client on Tues. but the tests I've already done in studio have been so exemplary where video is involved that I have not doubts about the technical tour de force kit we'll have on hand for our CEO interview. The only thing I worry about now are my own skills at interviewing and operating all the moving parts correctly. 

Photo below: During the last panel discussion on the first full day of the program the show producers send out a selection of beers to all the attendees and all the panelists. We drink a toast before the last panel begins. Sometimes they change up the tradition and waiters come out with Champagne. It's a very civilized show indeed. 

This show, done at an Omni Hotel resort property here in Austin, Texas also gets high marks for routinely providing the very best food. I gained at least a pound this week. Thankfully we've had some killer workouts at the pool. I think I lost most of the extra weight at this mornings 1.5 hour sprint fest...



9.06.2017

Last week I talked about photographing two actors on white for the upcoming production of "Singing in the Rain." Here's the first use. A printed post card...

I love to show finished projects. I worked with Rona Ebert who is the in-house design director at Zach Theatre on this assignment. We met before the shoot to brainstorm and plan and it paid off with dozens of photographs of this talented couple that the theater will be using leading up to, and throughout the run of the show.

I really like the way this ended up. In any professional photography job the client pretty much takes things like able camera operation and lighting competence as unspoken, required basics. You wouldn't be in their facility working with paid talent if they didn't assume you had those things managed. The things that keep you on their team are your ability to collaborate with the talent (and the creative team)  to get good expressions, gesture and presence.

Just as a technical reminder, I shot this job with a Panasonic GH5 and the Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 Pro lens. I used a couple of cheap speed lights on the white muslin background, a monolight to the right of the frame in a huge white umbrella as my main light, and a second mini-monolight, at half the relative power, over to the left of the frame, in an even bigger umbrella. I used one tiny speed light to light the talent from the back. That light was used directly and was dialed down to about 1/16th power. It's just the barest twinkle of backlight....

9.05.2017

I just had to go out and do a quick test of a lens I'll probably use less than most of my other lenses. It's the Panasonic/Leica 8-18mm.



As most loyal readers probably know I think of wide angle and ultra wide angle lenses as an afterthought. But when shooting commercial work there are often requests to, "get the whole lab, from side to side, in the shot." Or, "Can you get this entire group in the shot from about 10 feet away?" Or, "Let's shoot this scene from inside the car/truck/plane/boat." And in those situations client retention does call for some focal length flexibility. In my full frame Canon days my widest lens was the 20mm f2.8 and I used it whenever I needed to do architecture. With the full frame Sonys I try to make everything fit into the 24mm wide end of the 24-70mm zoom but use the Rokinon 14mm when I know I'll have time to spend correcting its massive distortion...(a lens profile in Lightroom is a big help). 

So now that I've dived into the Panasonic cameras and am putting together what I think will be a video centric imaging system I've decided not to dance around the need for some wide angle coverage and to buy a lens that simplifies that kind of photography. There were really two choices: the Olympus 7-14mm Pro series lens and the Panasonic/Leica 8-18mm. I chose the Panasonic/Leica for three reasons (of which only two are cogent and only one is a deal maker....). First off I liked the industrial design of the lens. It looks cool. Don't discount cool looks entirely. Design is, by nature, somewhat sneaky in that it makes a certain statement. The Panasonic/Leica says, "Well integrated with the camera." 

My second reason for buying it is my theory that while Olympus and Panasonic cameras will read each other's lens firmware maybe Panasonic camera has some special sauce sprinkled in that allows it to optimize the wide performance of the lens just a little bit more. And finally, most importantly, I can stick a 67mm variable neutral density filter right on the front of the lens while the Olympus requires a whole new, fumbly apparatus with which to use filters at all. 

I didn't want to wait until the 30 day return privilege at Precision Camera passed me by to check out the lens performance so after a meeting about a video project with my favorite producer/director I headed downtown to shoot random wide shots of random stuff. I also stopped by Whole Foods to pick up a couple of Lemon Hazelnut Scones (LHS) for afternoon tea with my favorite art director/designer and to have some sushi for lunch. 

I came home and put four dozen files into Lightroom and looked as them dispassionately. The lens is sharp, the software correction works well. There's no discernible loss of sharpness in the corners at f5.6 (which is a good f-stop at which to shoot wide images) and the lens resolves nice detail even at the widest setting. In short, the lens is perfect for the limited use it will probably see on my cameras. But it's good to have it in the bag for those "just in case" moments. Not what I would consider a sexy lens but one which will round out the image capabilities of the Panasonic package. 





Conjoining a GH5 camera body with a Contax/Yashica Zeiss 50mm f1.7 lens and then throwing caution to the wind and shooting mostly at f2.0 and f2.8.


It's fun to mix and match. I've been playing around with the Panasonic GH5 cameras for a week or so and have found the Olympus Pro series lenses I bought to be amazingly sharp. Same with the Panasonic 8-18mm lens, but I felt the need to fill in with some speed in the portrait/short tele area of my lens kit for these cameras. Having already dropped kilo dollars on the basics for the system I was reticent to drop more cash on something stop gap (saving up for the Nocticron...) so I rummaged around in one of the equipment drawers and found my Zeiss 50. I just happened to have an adapter to mount it onto m4:3rds cameras and in moments we were all hooked up and on our way. 

Early on I decided that I'd like to try shooting the lens close to its maximum aperture because that's where I thought I'd get the most use out of it on real shoots --- as the lens to grab when I need an extra stop of light, or a little less depth of field, when shooting available light. I pretty much stuck to f2.0 and f2.8 and enabled the GH5's automatic shutter selection. This would allow the camera to switch to the high speed, electronic shutter when the light levels maxed out the mechanical shutter's 1/8,000th. 

Most of the sunlit shots sent the camera into electronic shutter territory. The one just below, shot at f2.0 required 1/32,000th of a second exposure. I hardly worried about subject movement with this shot.... But what I was interested to see was the lens performance on a sensor much smaller than the original 35mm frame for which this lens was originally designed. 

I was pleased....













The camera and lens handled each other beautifully. 



9.04.2017

Lighting Mr. Hooper.


It's always all about the big, spot main light. For this portrait of a very accomplished theatrical talent I used a large softbox over to the right side of the frame. I realized though that getting the light in as close as I wanted it (approximately the same distance to subject as the diagonal measure of the light itself...) I would risk burning out his left shoulder. I used a Westcott FastFrame with a two stop net between the bottom, rear quarter of the softbox and his shoulder, feathering it so it would not cause an obvious drop in overall exposure. This allowed me to get the soft transition across his face and not worry about over lighting my subject on the main light side. I used a 50 inch, round, pop-up diffuser on the shadow side as passive fill and one light, dialed way down, on the background to bring it up just a hair.

The frame is cropped down from a 3:2 aspect ratio. I used a Sony A7Rii and an FE 85mm f1.8 to make the image. The camera was set to uncompressed Raw.

The main light is the Neewer Vision 4 battery powered monolight and the background light is the Godox AD200 using the standard reflector with its front diffuser.

If you don't like the expression on this image (I do...) then I have 519 others to choose from. Across four wardrobe changes.

9.03.2017

The GH5. What does it really look like at ISO 3200. One quick example shot in murky conditions.


Leslie as the evil queen in a Zach Theatre production of 
"The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" for kids.

My friend, James, and I have views about camera noise performance that seem to sit on opposite sides of some spectrum of visual aesthetics. You have to beat me over the head with noise in a photograph before I protest. If I can't see noise in a file at the resolution at which I'll be using the file it just doesn't exist for me. In early days of digital the noise always consisted of color splotches and random color crap but now everyone's camera seems to deliver a nicer (to me) monochrome, film grain-like noise that effectively mimics film grain from black and white films overlaying a color file. James, on the other hand, seems to have a severe allergy nearly as strong as a deadly peanut allergy to the presence of moving noise in the shadow areas of video files; and by extension, still image files. He's usually on the search for a video camera (or still camera) that's more or less devoid of noise. 

I'm pretty happy with the general control of noise I get out of one inch sensor cameras and most micro four thirds cameras; as long as the detail and color are there. 

We've lately been having coffee and sharing resources about the GH5 camera since we are both interested in it. My interest bleeds over from video and into the photo realm. He would use the camera strictly for video production. I think the high ISO noise presented by my Sony RX10iii or Panasonic FZ2500 is quite acceptable for most productions. James considers cameras like the Sony FS-7 or A7Rii to be the more appropriate tools with which to create un-noisy video files. 

I wanted to see if I was in the self-delusion mode (happens from time to time) about the amount of noise in GH5 files at various settings so I did what I usually write about here at VSL. I took the camera out on an assignment and tested it in the kind of situation I find myself in from time to time.

I was at the Zach Theatre campus to shoot a children's play in their small, theater-in-the-round stage. It's a theater that seats about 140 people. The walls are painted black as is the high, high ceiling. Since all the productions in this auditorium are presented in the round there is no effective front fill for the lighting. It all comes from catwalks high above the stage. This means that every face has bright highlights and unfilled shadows. There is very little fill from any direction. This small auditorium will also be the last one updated to use new LED lights. The lights currently hanging from the rafters are ancient tungsten spots and floods. This means that when they are filtered heavily you can only get so much power down onto my subjects. 

While the lighting looks dramatic and fun for audiences it's not often optimal for camera work. In the film years we routinely dragged in huge amounts of flash and set up the scenes we wanted to capture and lit for them. We tried to match the "feel" of the theatrical lighting but with all the proper ratios, and an ample amount, to make slow film emulsions happy. We don't do that now. There's no time or budget to get too fancy now. 

With all this in mind I dragged a Panasonic GH5 and an Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 to shoot a dress rehearsal of the play ( without an audience; thankfully). When we got rolling I realized that my base exposure/working exposure was going to settle in at 1/125th of a second (needed to have even a chance of freezing motion) at f4.0 (my widest available f-stop) at ISO 3200. Several of the parameters are fixed. I couldn't drop below 1/125th without having too many images blurred by subject movement. I couldn't shooter at a faster aperture than f4.0 because the lens I brought doesn't have a wider aperture setting. I couldn't change the lighting. That left ISO. I started out at 1600, which I consider to be safe for the GH5 sensor. I migrated to 3200 to keep the shutter speed up.

I shot for an hour and tried a number of strategies but in the end it all boils down to the fact that sensors of various sizes and generations have various noise limits. The noise generated is also dependent on the subject matter and lighting. Even, well filled light situations seem to yield less noise while low key, unfilled lighting situations tend to pump up noise. Nailing exposure is a big help. If you have to push up the exposure in post you invariably push up the parts of the image that are most subject to noise generation. Over use of the shadow slider in Lightroom or PhotoShop will affect the noise in shadow pretty profoundly.

Here are my personal takeaways from my shoot/test yesterday: I am okay with most of the noise I saw in the files; given how the files will be used. I would not want to go above 3200 ISO in low key situations with the m4:3 sensors, even the latest 20 megapixel versions, if I could prevent it. The noise reduction controls in both programs can be very effective but take experience and trial and error to get right. The camera's implementation of noise reduction is better for generating large numbers of nicely less noisy files than trying to batch a "one size fits all" setting in post. There is a caveat to letting the Jpeg engine do your de-noising; the default NR setting in the standard profile at ISO 3200 is too aggressive and blurs too much fine detail. I back off one or two notches in the parameter settings now. 

Even in situations with ample light you can run into noise issues if you are basically underexposed. Camera meters tend to compulsively protect highlights and they do so by pulling overall exposures down by anywhere from 2/3rds stop to a full stop. Sometimes even more. Recovery costs noise. 

Finally, if you read the information about the GH5's "improvements" over previous models you'll find that the new types of noise reduction use formulas to decide whether an area in a frame is detailed or flat and the camera applies different kinds and amounts in each area. There isn't such a thing, in camera, as uniform noise reduction. Which means that sometimes the camera gets it just right and sometimes it leaves you with the question: "Dear God Camera! What were you thinking???"

My noise abatement solution for the next dark show in the all black theater? Bring fast primes! I probably could have done a good job covering the show with two lenses: the Panasonic 15mm f1.7 and the Panasonic 42.5 mm f1.2. Maybe I'd toss a 25mm f1.7 in as well. I think all of them could be used wide open which would get me either two stops more of shutter speed or the ability to shoot at ISO 800. 

It's all part of my continuing experiment with photography...