3.05.2015

Some thoughts on simplicity and photography.

continuous light sources rock. Except when they don't... and other stuff. 

More than just about anything else in my business is my own ongoing desire to simplify. Once you enter the commercial arena and market yourself as a bit of a generalist there is a push or inertia to be ready for any contingency! This week is a great example. My work has been a royal mix of portraits, run and gun video, video interviews on locations, and some vague photojournalism. We used studio flash for one set of portraits at one downtown law firm and LED panels at a different law firm. In all, twenty five or so portraits. The video interviews were lit with one small LED light which gave just enough boost to make everything look natural. In the last three days I've worked with a video tripod with fluid head, a stout studio tripod and a smaller tripod that live in the car most of the time.

And between every assignment there's the rush back to the studio to reconfigure the cases and add or subtract gear. Add microphones and a boom pole. Take out the portable flashes, etc.

But the scatter doesn't seem to stop at the packing and shooting. When we get back to the office some of the work gets done in Final Cut Pro X and some goes into Lightroom while other images go straight into PhotoShop. It's enough to make one feel stretched.

I had the idea, after buying a Nikon D810, that all the work would slowly get aimed over to the big Nikon and I'd stop picking and choosing gear before each outing but in the short run it doesn't seem to be working out that way. The main benefit of the D810 is the resolution and beautiful dynamic range of the full frame sensor but when I'm shooting portraits I love to shoot and shoot until I get just the right expression and composition. If I shoot with the D810 as it is meant to be shot I go home with enormous amounts of data for images that will eventually find their highest and best use as content on websites or as quarter page magazine fodder. Don't get me wrong, we have those assignments where having the biggest file available is a decided advantage but....in the meantime I find myself generally grabbing a D610 for portrait work and even then I find myself wishing it had the half and quarter sized raw file choices that Kodak so brilliantly put into their DSLR/n cameras.
We could shoot most of our portraits as six megapixel files with no problems at all but I don't want to give up the flexible post fix-it-up potential of the raw files.

On one recent job I just got fed up with the file sizes on the D810 and started shooting medium sized Jpegs. And you know what? They worked pretty well.

Then I thought I'd be happy using the D810 for video work but even there one has to make a few compromises. I'm happy using the camera for most video projects. The files are nice and the controls are simple and straight forward. BUT.... just this morning one of my clients called me all excited to let me know that we got permission to film a complete interview with an celebrated politician. There's not time limit to the interview, it could go to an hour. But here's the nasty deal, the high res file setting on the Nikon D810 will only give me twenty minutes of shooting before I have to stop and then re-start. Back to the GH4 for long form motion stuff.

If I simplified my business what would it look like? I'd have one camera model, two copies. The camera would shoot amazingly high resolution raw files but it would also have the choice of medium and small raw files with no compromises. The cameras would have EVFs. Really, as nice as the D810 optical finder is the reality of work calls for an ever increasing amount of video and an EVF would also (hopefully) mean much faster contrast detect autofocus.  I'd want the camera to shoot full frame so I could get that wondrous depth of field control. The camera would have a pretty video codec and a way to set the microphone sensitivity during recording. And every camera that comes out from this date forward should allow the user to shoot right up until the internal memory card is full or the battery is exhausted.

Any perfect camera should have a big ass battery like one of the pro Nikons or Canons. One of those 4500 shot kind of batteries. Lots of oomph. And as long as we're spec'ing an ultimate camera we can't leave out really good, in body, image stabilization.

If I could get a cosmic product blender from the Marvel Universe I'd toss in a Panasonic GH4 and a Nikon D810 and give it a long whirl. Maybe I'd toss in the EVF from the new Sony A7ii...

But that still wouldn't solve all the issues of scattered business syndrome. I've actually come to realize, through deep reflection and meditation (humor implied) that most of my adventures with different lights have been done in order to find the perfect (non-existent) lighting for a photographer who would like to hopscotch back and forth from moving to not moving images. I thought fluorescents would work (and they are good for video) but even the best units cause some banding when we use shutter speeds over 1/60th of second. I liked HMIs but even with electronic ballasts they have some flicker or banding issues I ran into. Again, perfect for video but not quite there for all still work. My battery powered LED panels are rock solid on the non-flickering front but like all the other lights mentioned here the Achille's heel is working in conjunction with sunlight. You just can't overpower the sun without frying your client's eyes.

And it always leads us back to electronic flash. And then it's portable flash versus high power flash. Both of which I believe I need (from time to time). What a mess I've created for myself. Sometimes I wish I were in one of those occupations where there's one way to do what is required and that's how you do it over and over again. No choices. No additional inventory or knowledge required. Just plug and play.

On the lighting front it would be so cool to have a small lighting instrument, the size of a 12 ounce Coke can that could belt out about 600 W/S but could be dialed way down to 12 W/S. It would also be capable of TTL flash with all the major brands and, as a bonus, it would double as an incredibly powerful but flexible LED source. Like a Fiilex P360 on steroids. The added bonus to the bonus would be the ability to control both color temperature and hue for all the permutations of light the instrument was capable of putting out.

So, after using it as a daylight flash source in the desert you could dial in a tungsten balance, switch to LED and use the same source through a diffusion scrim to use for video.

The real issue is not that we want to do so many things but that clients have different needs and different ideas of what is right for them. I guess we can make the scope of our offerings very narrow and turn down all the square blocks that don't fit into the round holes or we can just suck it up and master as many tools as we find we need.

Now, where is the Marvel Universe Cosmic Camera blender I've been asking for?


3.04.2015

Today's adventure was all about using a Nikon D810 to complete a video assignment.

This photograph has nothing to do with today's topic. It was taken a number of years ago with a  Fuji S5 camera at a waste water treatment plant in Biloxi, Mississippi. It was late in the day and I had one of the first Nikon 12-24mm lenses on the front of the camera. Later on we did some night shots that I loved. Of wastewater holding tanks. Go figure. 

Today's project was a public relations assignment. Zach Theatre is doing a play about President Lyndon Baines Johnson. They've cast a great New York stage and movie actor to play the part of LBJ. My job was to accompany the actor, the theater's artistic director and the public relations manager to the LBJ Museum and Library and to videotape conversations between the actor and the museum's curator as they plumbed the depths and reality of the former president's personality and mannerisms.

The actor and artistic director would also be interviewed in the replica of the Oval Office and if there was time (there was) we'd brave the delicate mist that was falling and do a second set of semi-scripted monologs outside with the museum building in the background. Finally, I would need to follow them around the museum while they explored so I would have good B-roll footage to use, where needed, in the edit process.

I'll be doing the same sort of video shooting in Johnson City on Friday and on Saturday we'll do a series of videos with the actor along with several LBJ contemporaries and experts.

The museum was open to the public today so we needed to work around the visitors. This also limited me from using any electrical cords. But these were things I anticipated. I wanted to do all of my video work with the Nikon D810. I've tested it and even when writing to the internal memory card the files are very good and very compact. I knew we'd be moving all the time so I wanted to use a zoom. While I wish I had a 24-120mm f4, truthfully, the 24-85mm f3.5-4.5 worked just fine.

I packed a set of AKG headphones, one Rode NTG2 shotgun microphone, one Rode Stereo VideoMic, extra microphone batteries and extra attachment cables for both. I used a Benro fluid head on a Manfrotto Cine tripod. I brought along a Gitzo mic boom (which I didn't use) as well as a light stand and a boom holder.

I ended up doing a fair amount of handheld work. I used a big loupe on the back of the camera so I could see the rear screen clearly. I put the NTG-2 in the hotshoe for most of the long morning and worked in as close as I could with as wide an angle lens as I could. The sound through the phones was good and I was impressed by the automatic level setting in the audio. It was very nice and didn't have perceptible "pumping" or rising hiss floor.

I did bring along a Fotodiox 312 AS LED panel with me and we used it, in some fashion, for every single interview. We even helped a colleague from Time Warner get some light on our subject so her video would be more successful.

So, here's the basic process: Find a good spot to shoot in and figure out the composition. How wide could I go? How far in could I zoom? Would the location and my position be right for the audio?

Once I found my spot I would bring in my interviewees and finalize my composition. Then, with the camera in live view, I would zoom in and use the magnification to ensure accurate focus. I would zoom back out to start shooting. I kept the camera settings pretty much the same but with one "wild card" setting.

The camera was set to 1080p, 30 fps, highest quality, 1/60th of second shutter, aperture locked at f4.5. The only two things that were allowed to change were the ISO and the white balance.

Once everything was in place I'd bring up a histogram and fine tune the exposure by changing the ISO. I tried to stay around 400-800 but had no compunction at all about running all the way up to 3200. I let the auto ISO do its work in the interiors but when we went outside I realized that the camera's white balance was too accurate and the colors were blue and drab. Once outside I went into the WB menu and selected either cloudy or open shade and the images looked so much richer.

We worked and shot from 11:00 to 2:00 pm and then I headed back to the studio to spot check the work. The D810 gets you a beautiful video file almost automatically. Even f4.5 is wide enough of an aperture to drop backgrounds out of focus when you are zoomed out past 50mm.

We'll be moving quickly on the next two shooting days so I'm going through my packing to better decide what worked well and what just took up space.

The ever increasing amount of video work seems to be a trend. I'm also booked (by another photographer) to shoot the video component of an architectural job on Monday of next week. Seems his clients are moving somethings to video and the photographer ( a good friend) is anxious to create a team structure in which he can confidently offer both services on the same day. It helps that we see eye to eye on almost everything visual...

Note to the folks who are using Nikon cameras to move into video: They have very good color science but live view is a prodigious battery suck. It makes sense to allocated one battery per hour of shooting, on average.

The kit zoom is just fine for video and the VR (everyone else's I.S.) works pretty well to make a coffee addict's hands into almost surgical instruments!

I look forward to doing this work over and over again---especially since someone else will be editing.

I am back from my week of helping out with my family and I'm happy to report stability. When you crest 85 years old you aren't looking for massive improvements as much as you are hoping to maintain. Thanks for all the kind messages from my remarkably nice and well experienced friends here on VSL. It's feeling like home to me.

2.28.2015

Cold, Grey, Rainy, Freezy, Slurpy Saturday. Some personal notes and observations. No Canon versus Nikon wars here. No full frame versus micro four thirds either.

Joy-Boating on Lady Bird Lake.

The image above is not topical and I did not take it today or this week in Austin, Texas. I am sharing it with you and me to counteract this ongoing stretch of cold, wet weather (here) and incredibly cold weather wherever you happen to be. Winter just seems to be dragging on forever this year...

I've been unable to blog for most of the week for a mix of reasons. I was busy shooting images in the first part of the week and then I had to head down to San Antonio to check on my parents. I wound up taking my mother to the ICU on Thursday and have been totally engaged in that life experience since. 
Today I was able to wake up back in Austin and hit the pool this morning. 

When I got up it was thirty degrees and there was a freezing rain falling. Normally I would have pulled up the covers and gone right back to sleep but after missing a regular workout too many times this week I dragged myself out of bed and pulled on my old jeans and a sweatshirt, slid into an old pair of Crocs and headed out the front door. For the first time this year I had to scrap ice off the windshield of my car. Swimmers might be interested to note that StrokeMaker(r) hand paddles make very good windshield scrappers. I let the car warm up and flipped on the defrosters but I still made it to the pool in enough time to be on deck and ready to swim at the 8:30-10am practice. 

The (outdoor) pool is about 50 yards from the locker room and wearing nothing but my swim suit and a swim cap the jog over to the edge was cold and a bit nasty. There was a brisk wind mixed with a light rain. If you take your time getting to the shallow end of the pool to park your equipment your skin starts to get really cold but when you dive into the 80 degree water the difference feels divine. 

For such a nasty day the workout was fairly well attended. Either two or three people to a lane. The coach on deck was well bundled and that's a good thing since she'd been there since 7:15 that morning. Halfway through our workout one of the swimmers from the earlier workout dropped by to deliver a large, hot coffee to coach Kristen. A very nice thing to do.

We started with a descending distance set: 400 (get your time at the 300 split...) followed by a 300 (descend from your split time by 10 seconds) followed by a 200 (dropping your split from the 300) and then a fast (out of your comfort zone) 100 for time. The rest of the workout was fun as well but we had the most fun near the end. The coach mixed everyone up into three person relays in each lane. She tried to distribute people so that each lane had a combination of slow and fast people to make it competitive. 

One person in each lane headed to the deep end and the relay commenced. We kept the three person, 25 yard sprint, cycle going for the rest of the workout. It was so much fun to really get up on the water and sprint. 

The hardest part of the workout was getting out of the pool, soaking wet, and getting to the locker room in the 30 degree wind gusts. Then it was off to coffee with the usual hardy band of masters swimmers. 

Tomorrow I'll head back to San Antonio to work on our latest family emergency and relieve my little sister and older brother. 

Pangs of regret for a camera that was traded away last year....

Every once in a while I get swept away by a camera that I think is just superb and then a newer camera comes along and I forget my love affair with the first one and move on to the second one. Most of the time the first camera is obsolete and my trades seem timely and efficient but every once in a while I have moments of doubt and regret. I was thinking about that this morning when I came across this image below:


I photographed that landscape with a Sony RX10 camera back in the Summer of last year. I had just used the same camera to do an eight page magazine assignment in Fredericksburg, Texas. While the camera seems to excel in rendering nice images where lots of depth of field is welcome it's weak spot is its deep depth of field, even wide open, when making portraits. Since I always think of myself as a portrait photographer first I was too quick to trade in this camera on some of the Nikon gear I had decided to designate as more important for my core mission. 

What a mistake. Not a week has gone by when I haven't felt awkward about letting it go. The really nice Zeiss designed lens and a very nicely upgraded video capability makes this camera a formidable all around tool for a multi-media kind of business. I've bounced back and forth about getting a new one and I was halfway between in my decision making. Was emotion trumping logic (once again...)?
But a phone call on Thurs. morning is pushing me over the edge and making the justification for replacement easier. I've been contracted to do a five minute corporate video project that includes some handheld, moving shots and I know the Sony RX10 would be the perfect tool for that. I guess I'm jumping right back on that merry-go-round. The bonus in the whole trade in, buy back episode is that Sony upgraded the video codec to a much more robust one. I just hope it intercuts well with the Nikon D810 (uncompressed Pro-Res 422 LT) footage I plan to shoot for the bulk of the project....

Disjointed epilogue. 

While last week was filled with excitement, drama and work, the upcoming week seems like it will be even more stressful and kinetic. I'll be in San Antonio tomorrow taking care of family and I've got a presentation scheduled for a local college on Monday ( along with post processing from last week's projects) followed by a long and full shoot here in Austin on Tues. (21 portraits on location...) and then a shoot for the theatre in several different locations across town on Weds. More post processing for those shoots on Thurs. and then off to San Antonio again on early Friday morning. I'll drag my laptop around with me, or at least an iPad and a wireless keyboard, and I'll try to get some blogging done. 

Thanks for reading. - Kirk

2.23.2015

Walking downtown on the last day before the big freeze and I saw these birds at twilight. Then they vanished and the light soaked in for the evening.



I have a tiny suspicion that the lens I used, the Nikon 24-85mm f3.5 to 4.5, has just a pinch of vignetting when it's used near its widest aperture..... Just a suspicion.


The race for bigger cameras. Been there, done that, redoing it.

Image from Leaf A7i file.

Many of the more recent arrivals here at the Visual Science Lab like to give me advice like: Try a full frame camera! Or, You should learn how to shoot with a view camera! Or, The pros all use three fast, f2.8 zoom lenses for all their work! You might want to try out the 70-200mm!!! Or, You should get your hands on a medium format digital camera and try it out!!!

The last one is my current favorite. The implication being that we're all new at this and we're all shooting everything with Olympus, Sony, Nikon, Canon or Panasonic. It's a pretty fair assumption given the sheer numbers of bloggers and camera sites on the web. Outside of www.Luminous-Landscape.com you won't find many sites that have a depth of experience, and user/members, with experience in buying and using medium format digital cameras. The reasons are pretty simple, the MF cameras are ruinously expensive for most people and the compelling uses for them are more or less rarified in this day and age of everything going to the web.

But in my defense I think I should point out that three different companies started sending me medium format digital cameras (and attendant lenses) to test and review around 2009, and occasionally we still get the random, big-ass camera tossed over to us through the transom.

In 2009 I took possession of a Leaf Aptus a7i medium format digital camera and a 180mm f2.8 Schneider lens for the better part of two months. That camera was built like a rock but it had its own handling issues. Still, the 40 megapixel images were enormous at the time. The biggest thing from Canon back then was a whopping 16 megapixels.... I shot a bunch of portraits with the combo and I liked the way the lens rendered portrait subjects very much. But the camera was clunky to use and at around $40,000 for the camera and one lens it seemed a bit out of whack in the market of the day. A wonderful image surrounded by too many caveats. For me.

The next camera we got on long term loan was the Mamiya budget MF camera of the time with a 29 megapixel sensor. While they sent along a nice zoom I much preferred the images I got out of the camera coupled with a 150mm f3.5 manual focus lens I had for the Mamiya 645e. Was that camera any good? Well, we got a lot of images like this one....


...So I could never really complain about the image quality under good lighting. Though most of the medium format digital cameras previous to last year had issues with noise once one crested the 400 ISO mark.

But again, the camera crossed over the intersection of cost versus performance at a different quadrant of the curves than I thought was good and so, after a few months of evaluation and a nicely done review in a photography magazine distributed to other professionals, I sent the package back to the manufacturer and soldiered on with the 35mm form factor cameras I had as my regular tools. 

The next camera was a Phase One camera that boasted (yet again) 40 megapixels and a much improved interface. I wrote about it pretty extensively and used it for more portraits but it was as expensive the previous Leaf camera and, after I used it to make many images for my book on studio lighting it got packed up and sent back as well. The review for that camera got published in Studio Photographer Magazine. I didn't notice any great uptick in acquisition of the units after my review came out but I was happy to have had the opportunity to live with the camera for a couple of months. 

Kirk in Studio with Leaf A7i camera.


The Phase One. Sitting on top of my wooden tripod. 

What I discovered in almost every engagement with the three medium format cameras above and the Leica S variants I have worked with since is that the lenses are critical and that the sensors in most of the MF cameras need to be bigger. Not denser, just physically bigger from side to side and top to bottom. The thing that makes MF images look better (to my eye) is the way the lens draws on the bigger surface area of the sensor. 

I keep get lured back in. But my new search is to find ever faster lenses that are still good near wide open for the two full frame cameras I have in house. I'd love the longer lenses of MF for the same angle of view but I'm still not convinced that the small difference in overall look is worth the investment. I see these systems the way cinematographers see high end production movie cameras; they rent them when they need them and bring them back to the rental houses when they wrap. I've rented several of the cameras from several sources when I felt the need for something that looked entirely different to me and my clients, and every time I breathed a sigh of relief when I returned the gear. 

But I would like my newer readers to understand that when I make these kinds of choices for myself ( renting versus owning? Shooting everything with one system?)  I do it with the background of having actually shot with five or six different medium format camera samples over a cumulative time frame of about a year. My opinions are rarely the result of having read and then parroted back something that some else wrote on the web. I have lifted the weights of medium format and broken a sweat with the 16 bit machines. So please stop recommending that I "try" one. Believe me, I have. I just can't justify using it to shoot images for websites and I'd rather put that kind of money into a retirement account. Your mileage may vary. 

At this point I think the new flurry of high resolution Nikon, Canon and even Sony cameras are a very good and sensible compromise.