1.28.2015

Photographing the Dress Rehearsal of Peter and the Starcatcher with a Nikon D610 and a D810. An evening at Zach Theatre.


One of my favorite parts of my job as a commercial photographer is to go to the dress rehearsals of live theater and make images that are used to market the plays. We do studio shoots far earlier in the season, the images from which are used in subscriber brochures and to announce the season's productions, but the photographs from the dress rehearsal shoots go out to a wide range of social media outlets, are sent to publications and are used extensively on the websites. 

I've shot dress rehearsals for about 23 years now and have used every sort of camera imaginable except for view cameras. I've shot them with everything from Hasselblads to a Sony R1. Over the last year I used a variety of micro four thirds cameras and lenses but for our first production of the new year I thought it might be fun to take a different tack and try using the two new cameras I bought from Nikon.  I loaded up the Nikon D810 and D610 along with an 80-200mm f2.8 and the newish 24-85mm f3.5-4.5. I brought along two extra batteries out of habit. 

Lately, on the bigger productions for Zach Theatre, I've been dropping by for the tech rehearsals that happen a few days earlier. There's no audience at these performances; not even family and friends. I try to attend so I can get a sense for the blocking and the flow of the show. I want to know if there's a cool finalĂ© that plays to one side or another. I want to know if the ensemble hits a pose for a few seconds before the lights drop out for scene change or at the end of an act. In short, I want to see what it's all about so I can be prepared and shoot wisely. 

I watched the tech rehearsal on Sunday evening and came back for the dress rehearsal (with audience) just yesterday. I won't review the play for you but it's astoundingly funny and moves along quickly. 

I set up both cameras the same way: Raw > Compressed > 12 bit > auto WB > Manual Exposure > ISO 3200. On the D810 I used group mode AF concentrated on the center while on the less complex D610 I used S-AF on the center sensor. Each camera wrote to a 64gb SDXC U3 card that writes at 60 mbs. I estimated exposures and looked for feedback from the camera.  The sweet spot was f4, 1/400th. I used the "quiet mode" on both cameras. Quick note: The quiet mode on the D810 is much more pleasant than the quiet mode on the D610. 

I started out thinking I'd go back and forth between the cameras as needed, as dictated by the angle of view needed. I quickly realized that most of the play; at least 95% of it, could be well shot just using the 80-200mm. So I shot with the D610 during the first act and then switched and shot with the D810 for the second half. 

I guess you can make some assumptions by looking at the rear screen of the cameras and reviewing the images but that seems kind of futile to me. I prefer to load everything into Lightroom and look at the images on the 27 inch monitor. That's the high speed litmus test. The real test would be a large print....

One interesting point I observed is that the finder of the D810 is brighter than the finder of the D610. For some reason I thought they would be identical. 

When I got back home I loaded both cards into Lightroom and left the computer rendering standard previews. I woke up early this morning and settled in with a cup of coffee and started looking and editing in earnest. I narrowed down the take from 1200 images to about 900 images. I did a couple passes of sync'd settings. I could tell that I wanted to tell Lightroom to use the neutral color profile instead of standard (which is too contrasty for this work) and I knew I wanted to add 30 positive clicks to shadow recovery and another 20 clicks to the clarity slider. I overlaid those settings over everything. If I found frames where this was overkill I could always hit "reset" for those frames. 

Then I went through and made as many batched corrections as I could. Since I was shooting in manual if I shot 12 frames of a scene I was pretty much assured that all 12 would correct in exactly the same way. That makes life easier.  I'm always nervous, when shooting, about blowing out highlights so I end up always needing to add about half a stop to the exposure when I get around to post processing. 

Some frames were underexposed by a bit more. Some needed as much as a stop and a half boost to be  just right and I was amazed at how well the tones recovered when pulling up so much exposure. But there was a real difference between the two cameras as far as noise is concerned. 

With the D610 I got the nice, small, regular black grain pattern (at 100%) that I am used to seeing on cameras like the Panasonic GH4. If I underexposed too much on the D810 and did the same amount of recovery I ended up getting a sea of tiny white speckles in the dark areas of the frame at 100%. If I reduce the file down to a usable size it's no problem but if I had to shoot in such an extreme way and then print large I would definitely reach for the D610 first.  Since I rarely miss by that much in terms of exposure I'm not going to consider it a flaw of the camera but it's instructive to know that its superpowers live at the other end of the ISO scale. ISO 64 is flawless and wonderful. ISO 3200 (underexposed), not so much. But even with the speckles the detail across the D810 frames stayed nice and sharp. 

I probably won't use the Nikon D810 for available light theater work again. Even though the vast majority of files were beautiful the size of the files is beyond crazy. When I finished making all the corrections to the files and went to convert them to Jpegs for normal, P.R. and marketing consumption it took well over an hour to process them all.  And that's with an i7 processor and 32 gigabytes of RAM with the files writing on and off a 7200 rpm hard drive. That's a lot of processing time.

There were a number of stars in the mix last night. Most were on stage but the ones I had with me were definitely the ultra well behaved D610 and the antiquated but very sharp and easy to handle 80-200mm f2.8. With the camera at ISO 3200 in Raw and the lens at f4.0 it was hard to miss. 

I pulled the D610 out of the bag right before lunch so I could bring it along for happenstance. I reflexively checked the battery and would have replaced it if needed. But after shooting nearly five hundred raw images with the camera the battery info told me we were still at 94%. 

My last shoot done with micro four thirds cameras is still fresh in my mind and while the absolute image quality of the Nikon full frame cameras is pretty unassailable they would not necessarily be my first choice for the next show. I missed the EVFs because I rely on them to cut down on my need to chimp. If I can pre-chimp I can correct in real time without filling up the memory cards with garbage frames. The two Nikons and the two lenses weighed considerably more that four of my EM-5s and a lens for each one of them. And none of my lenses for the smaller format is anywhere near as imposing and scary as the big, Nikon zoom. 

On the flip side the larger sensors, in conjunction with fast apertures, are really good at dropping out focus in the backgrounds which creates a better feeling of depth in those images. That being said I'm sure if I bought the faster glass for the smaller format system I could come close to matching that aspect of the overall look. 

Let's face it. There is one right camera. That's the camera you most enjoy shooting with. Everything else can have better specs and better laboratory behavior but if you don't like holding it and shooting it then who cares? 

This seems funny to me but I've attached a lot of samples from the show. It's funny because the files are 24 and 36 megapixel in their native size and here I'm showing them as 2000 pixel wide Jpegs that are compressed at 8 out of 10 possible. Now they're 8 bits instead of 12 and now were looking at them on computer screens. Does it really matter in the long run which camera you use? It all seems a bit silly to use a camera that generates 36 megapixel images that are invariably downsized for use on the web.... At any rate here's a selection of images to evaluate. My favorite tool of the evening? That rum and Coke with a slice of fresh lime I got at intermission...
















Tax refund? Buy the book.

1.26.2015

Gone photographing. Back in a few days.

Paris Metro.









Kirk Tuck and the Visual Science Lab finally enter 21st Century with a fast internet connection.

We had all these cables running into the VSL headquarters just for 1.5 meg DSL. (kinda kidding). 
(from a studio assignment for 3M featuring heat shrink cable protection).

I'm not an early adopter in so many areas. I got my first car with Bluetooth in 2013. I'm still using an iPhone 4S. I don't order restaurant take out online. I'm not really sure why Twitter has value or if I am using it correctly. We have one television set. It's never been hooked up to cable. I only know about Pandora as she relates to Greek mythology. I think wi-if on a camera is the devil's work. And, most disturbingly, I've been using old AT&T business class DSL for the last 15 years. It got marginally faster a few years ago but only via the expense of a couple weeks of downtime and frustrating phone calls to help desks that repeated the same mantra over and over and over again: "Restart your modem."

But when we moved from Austin proper into the hills just west of Austin getting high speed connections was either impossible or required a King Midas/Goldman Sachs budget. Once I had a workable solution in the office I was loathe to change it. I made due with 3 mbs per second down and 1.5 mps up and I paid about $55 a month for the privilege. But recently Google came to Austin and even though they are only really interested in the low hanging fruit it has pushed their cable and other broadband competitors to change. A nice person from AT&T came by and showed me how switching our sloooow, home DSL and our sloow office DSL to their newer services would increase the speeds of our connections by a factor of ten while cutting our monthly bills in half. That's a nice value proposition, even for a lazy non-switcher like myself. 

Of course, now I'm kicking myself for not switching earlier but I still remember the hassles I had to deal with the last time I changed just the speed of my connection which resulted in more down time than most submarines. I'd gladly give up speed and a bit of cash not to disrupt my routine. But this time I didn't resist. They made it too easy for me. 

The technician came out this morning. He marveled at the bullet proof, weather proof, comet proof junction box at the back of the house like a Russian with steel fillings looking at a free gold crowns. About three hours later we'd switched from two old DSL accounts to one fiber account on a shared modem that delivers good signal strength everywhere. Just to test it Belinda and I watched two different movies in two locations, simultaneously. Nosferatu and some Meryl Streep movie on Netflix and nothing slowed down, coughed or hiccuped. (Now I sound like someone emerging from a time machine and talking about being able to read the newspaper on line!). 

It's like the time I traded in my bigass BMW on a four cylinder Honda and rediscovered good gas mileage (and reliability, and low maintenance costs, and cheaper operating costs, and a better air conditioner, and........). It's always a little startling to change things. 

But I miss things about the slower connection. Yesterday uploading two one megabyte images took about 20 second and it gave me time to think of a catchy headline for the blog I was writing. Today? One second and no downtime for the ole brain. No catchy headline. 

The most exiting part of all this? Now I can watch Kai at DigitalRevTV and Chris Niccolls from The CameraStore TV in full on HD and I don't even have to wait for my machine to buffer the signal. No stuttering, no stopping and no more jaggies. 

I'm pretty happy about the change, after the fact. My iPad streams news quicker and my laptop downloads new software like a geek box. But the biggest change is how quickly I can now upload enormous videos to Vimeo.com. Push a button and look away. By the time I hammer back a slug of cold coffee from the recesses of my desk the web has mysteriously sucked up a 600 MB video file and cracked the whip on the hamsters that process it at Vimeo ( a very nice service = thank you!).

I still think wi-fi in cameras is for children and other geeks and don't get me started on the stupid trend of putting GPS in a camera. I don't care what your rationale is, you and I both know you are wrong. But I'll come around in a few years. Once they've got it all perfected I'll give it a test drive. I just can't think of what in world I'd do with the coordinates. Maybe I'll give them to my phone and the robots will track me for the digital overlords. Could be fun. 

This is a cool ad for a Japanese tech firm that I worked on with my art director friend, Greg Barton over at Dandy Idea. Wafers, meditation and sunrises. Nice.

Absolutely the best camera evaluation video I have ever, ever seen on the world wide web. Thanks to Philip Bloom for tweeting it.

Lighting, pose, gesture and content. The camera is the last thing on the list.


I like this photo because it shows off new technology for my client and the people in the shot look real and engaged. I was happy to have been able to light the entire scene with one overhead fluorescent fixture and four Fotodiox 312AS LED panels. I wanted the image to be "readable" and printable (no shadows blocking up, no highlights burned out) but I didn't want it to seem obviously lit.

In the shooting process my first consideration was to find the right angle to show off the machine and also be flattering for the models. The room we were shooting in is very small so the slim profile of the LED panels was a real plus. One panel that was behind me and to the left was used bounced against a wall and the space was so tight we couldn't get a stand in. I attached the light to a small table top tripod and balanced it on top of a small medical tray. Two lights, covered with diffusion material were used outside the door while the fourth was aimed at the equipment in the background so it didn't drop in tonal value. Everything was balanced in intensity to match the white curtained window at the back of the frame.

The use of a shorter than typical (for me) focal length helped to create a feeling of depth to the shot. My biggest challenge was to get enough light on the face of the technician on the left without blowing out too much highlight detail on the "patient's" white robe.

All of the above parameters were put into place first and then we stuck in the camera. I did a quick custom white balance from the robe and set a manual exposure on the camera. I was using the Sony a77 and the (nice) 16-50mm f2.8 kit lens. It's a bit noisier than my current cameras but light years better than earlier generations of cameras.

I am happy with the shot and in retrospect there are very few (if any) things that I would change.

There is the belief that the camera and lens are the vital parts of the process but by my reckoning they are a distant fourth place behind being able to visualize what you want to achieve, figuring out how to light it for depth and detail, getting the right poses, expressions and gestures from the talent and getting the shot styled the way you want. Once you've done those things just about any camera with the right focal length lens on the front will do the job.

The nicest thing for me about this job was having a client who understands the difference between a narrative style photo illustration and just another documentation of a machine. That's the best case scenario for working photographers.