7.29.2016

Photographing small products at high magnification with the Rokinon (Samyang) 100mm f2.8 Macro lens. Tight on White.

The Old State Capitol Building in Baton Rouge, La.

The photo above is just for decoration. It was taken with an iPhone. It really has nothing to do with this blog post. Just thought I'd provide a disclaimer for the painfully literal...

It's been a raucous week for me. We spent the first three days in what ultimately turned out to be a successful photographic assignment in Baton Rouge. We hightailed it back home on Weds., by rental car, and hit the Austin airport in the middle of the night to pick up my car. I needed to get back so I could do pre-production for the job we did in Georgetown, Texas today. That and needing to be home to instruct the tree service that was scheduled to come by and thin out the jungle surrounding our place...

Today was spent photographing tiny ampoules for a subsidiary of Merck. It's a follow on to a shoot we did nearly two years ago and much has changed since then. On the first go-round I was using an early Fiilex LED unit and a Sony a900 camera, along with a Sony 50mm macro lens to do the work of shooting these tiny glass bottles against white. This time I used a Sony A7ii and my newest acquisition, a Rokinon 100mm f2.8 Macro lens. The (much brighter and equally well color corrected lighting came from two of my CooLED lighting units used in Photoflex soft boxes. The EVF enabled camera made shooting tight on white less of a challenge and much more of a pleasure.

Let's first talk about selecting the right background. When you shoot in tight any type of seamless paper is to ungainly to set up and too prone to deformation from humidity, etc. I prefer to use a stout gauge of Bristol board because the surface is very smooth and the (less UV brightened) quality of the white surface is visually superior while being physically stable. I'm using the #700 pound version. You could buy a large tablet of good Bristol stock from Bienfang or Strathmore and it would be more than big enough for your shots. I prefer the 30 by 40 inch sheets because they are easier to hand from a cross stand at table height. Before every white background macro shoot I head to Michael's Art Supply store and stock up. I bring multiple sheets in case we need to substitute in a clean sheet. 

The lighting is largely from a 24 by 36 inch Photoflex softbox illuminated by one of my big LED lights. Used close in we were able to stay at ISO 100 and use f16.5 at something like 1/15th of a second. The hell with diffraction, we needed the depth of field...

But the real story today is about the new lens. It's from Rokinon which is one of the nameplates used by Samyang for lenses marketed in the U.S.A. I bought it about a week ago and today was my first opportunity to put it through its paces. I brought along a Nikon 55mm f2.8 Micro lens as a back-up but the Rokinon was so easy to use and so sharp that the Nikon never came out of the bag. 

We weren't shooting at 1:1. It was more in the range of 1:2 to 1:4. The lens feels great and is a polished piece of manufacturing. People complain about Rokinon lens hoods but I was able to attach and use mine with no difficulties and it held in place well. 

I had the lens attached to the Sony A7ii and I've come to the conclusion that the A7ii is as sharp a camera as anyone, even the owner of an A7r2, could ever want. The AA filter is weak and the sensor is pretty darn capable. I am still thinking that the 24 megapixel sensor size in a full frame camera is more or less the optimum choice for most people, myself included. The icing on the cake is that the dynamic range is very comparable to what I get from the A7R2, which is one of the highest rated DR cameras around. Considering that I picked up a used A7ii for under $1200 I am amazed at the level of performance the camera delivers. Even more impressed when using it in a macro, studio setting. 

With the Nikon D810 I could use the live view mode but the refresh rate made it sub-optimal in available light situations. With the A7ii I was able today to shoot down to a quarter second and see a great electronic viewfinder image. The A7 series cameras are the perfect tools for shooting in macro settings. 

I was shooting on white and wanted the white to still have a tiny bit of detail. In this way I could assure myself of preserving the highest of the highlights in the images. I set the zebra function to give me the wacky zebra lines right at 100% (or 255) this meant I could easily make perfect exposures by lowering the shutter speeds until the zebras appeared and then back off by one third of a stop; just enough for the zebras to disappear. Then I knew that my white background was 1/3 of stop under 255 (or "blow-out"). Can't imagine an easier way to keep tabs on exposure!

I was using a manual focus lens for today's job because it just makes sense when shooting non-moving macro images. I enabled the focus peaking (I prefer yellow) and here's how I would proceed: I'd compose the shot using the finder and then using the two axis level on the back finder. Once I had the comp roughed I would hit the trash button which, in shooting mode, I have configured as the zoom/magnification control. Once I zoomed in on the image at 11x I'd rock the focus ring to get the focus peaking indications exactly right. No more Canon/Nikon back focusing adventures!

The combination of the right lens with the right focal length, the practicality and efficiency of the EVF, the quick confirmation of exposure via zebras and the ability to be sure you got what you wanted in focus, made this particular shoot much more efficient than the same basic shoot done with an old school, mirrored camera. 

I was going to say that the star of the day was the Rokinon 100mm f2.8 (which focuses down to 1:1) but in truth it was the blend of the Rokinon with the workaday, mid-brow Sony that made mis smile as I lined up one and a half inch ampoules and photographed them both singly and in small groups. 

The Rokinon 100mm Macro is about $550 while the OSS, AF Sony 90mm G lens is right around $1,000, but I've owned enough macro lenses to know that I'll probably be using them on tripods and also manually focusing them. I've been burned too many times by the slow focus acquisition of manual lenses across brands...

In my book, for my money, the third party lens does exactly what it is supposed to do. How do I know? Well, I get paid to do this and I've done it for a long time. When I look at my 27 inch screen, at an image from this system, and I can feel my pulse quicken a bit, I know I'm looking at something that's more than just the ordinary image from an ordinary lens. This one is one of the best bargains around. I'd buy one again in a heartbeat.

Next up...looking with renewed interest at Rokinon's 50mm DS Cine lens. Each successful encounter with the brand just pushes me to want more...


7.28.2016

Every project has its own set of surprises. It's how you handle the unexpected stuff that determines the success of your photographic assignment.

the Samsung NX cameras are long gone but I always found their lenses oddly photogenic...

Ben and I left Austin on Monday, bound for Baton Rouge, Louisiana via DFW. We packed meticulously to save space, and minimally because we anticipated being back in Austin on Weds. at midday. The plan was to arrive in Baton Rouge with our client in tow, get a rental car and scout two or three locations. We'd be photographing a model and a medical appliance in three different locations and we anticipated starting bright and early Tues. morning. We felt confident that we'd be able to wrap the project by the end of the day, go out for some of the amazing Baton Rouge cuisine and then head back to Austin bright and early the next morning on American Airlines. But sometimes (many times?) the best plans of photographers and their clients go awry because of things beyond their control.

When we hit the airport in BR the client checked messages and was disappointed to find that the product got misdirected and wasn't waiting for us at the hotel. In fact, it was still back in Austin. A series of phone calls left us assured that the product would be delivered first thing the next morning so we sucked it up, had lunch at a decent burger joint and proceeded with out scouting. We found three great locations and locked down the details. That night I spent time writing e-mails to clients, doing estimates, etc. 

The next morning delivered a double whammy. The first bad news was that we'd have hard rain for pretty much the entire day. The second bad news was that our product didn't show up and UPS had no tracking information for it. None at all. Yikes. Early in the evening we felt pretty confident that UPS would find and deliver the package on Weds. morning. We decided to cancel our airline tickets and stay that day to shoot. We'd make other arrangements to get back to Austin. But a bit later in the evening we were back to our earlier situation: No tracking information and no guarantee. 

At this point we had to start making contingency plans. We decided to wait until 10am on Weds. morning in order to see if the box with our important cargo might arrive. If it did we'd stay and shoot. If it didn't we'd cancel, head back to Austin and re-configure the shoot for a future date. We decided it would be more efficient, since part of the budget had already been spent, to bring the client to Austin and do our shoot here. Sometime in the future. 

Now, when you go on locations there is always the possibility that something will happen to delay or deliver a "death blow" to the job. We billed a "travel day" to get there. We planned on billing a day of shooting + usage fees and a travel day back. Since this was out of our control and out of the client's control we started negotiating a "kill fee" to strike the project. The client would still pay for our travel days on each side of the original shoot day but we would charge them a smaller fee and, of course, no usage fee for the anticipated but now defunct shooting day. Everyone handles this differently but with good, long term clients I think it's a good idea to accommodate and share the pain. We always had the promise of completing the project in the future and gaining back our full fee then. On the other hand a day lost is a day of potential earnings lost... We value the long term relationships with most of our clients a lot more than we value a one time fee so the decision to compromise was a no brainer.

We checked on re-booking flights and it would be a fairly hefty amount. I suggested we just drive the rental car back and we quickly researched on a map app just how long that might take. At about 6.5 hours of steady driving it pretty much matched out time commitment to get to the airport, through TSA and fly back. Keeping in mind the DFW connection.  Our plan gelled. We'd wait till 10 am on Weds. and if there was no product to shoot we'd hit the road. With no tracking info forthcoming we were pretty certain, as we headed to bed, that we would not be shooting in the morning, we'd be driving back to Austin, through Houston, in the rain.

Imagine our surprise (and the latest challenge to our mental flexibility) when the UPS truck pulled up in front of our hotel, as we were eating an early breakfast, and disgorged our big cardboard box. We got in touch with the talent, put ourselves back on the schedule and got busy. By 9:30 we were at our first location with the product prepped and our scene well lit. We hammered through the day and nailed down our last shot at 4 pm.  By 4:30 pm we were heading toward the city limits; three guys in a rented Jeep Compass and a cargo area full of camera gear. 

Ben was a trouper on this job. He never uttered a single word of discouragement or frustration and stayed on problem solving mode every second on the job. We had a lot of downtime but he brought a novel along to read. He was instrumental in assembling the "hero" product correctly and he brought more detail awareness to ancillary props that I would have. He even tamed two loud dogs at our primary location. Even though he hates the idea and reality of road trips he jumped in and did his part in the car crew. 

We took turns driving and went straight through except for a 23 minute dinner stop at the Whataburger in Winnie, Texas. Our client dropped Ben and me off at the Austin Bergstrom Airport parking garage just a bit shy of 11:00 pm Weds. night. We were home before midnight. 

Even though we packed for every contingency we really couldn't shift the reality of a missing delivery. Though I packed ten batteries we did the whole project on a Sony A7r2 with one battery and still had charge left at the end (465 x 14 bit, uncompressed raw files with some chimping). We shot about 32 gigabytes on one SD card. I will admit I was nervous to have all my eggs in one basket so I got up early and ingested the card's files into Lightroom, writing them into two different hard drives. 

The files were right on the money. I'm happy and I'm pretty sure the client will be happy as well. I've color corrected them and am writing this while waiting for them to output. 

A few more business notes. It doesn't matter who lost the package or why there were delays. The assistant gets paid for every day they spend on the project. If they stay or travel an extra day then they get paid for that. Nor is there a discounted rate for assistants (and there shouldn't be since the projects are almost totally out of their control). 

You may be one of those "hard nosed" business guys who have prices spelled out for everything. I prefer to bend a bit and try to soften the blow for good clients. In one sense it should be human nature to share burdens but in a more mercenary sense it is a lot harder to find new clients than it is to make a few accommodations and keep long term, happy clients. The reward is a good and efficient relationship that lasts years or decades and not just one project. 

Even though the delays were frustrating nobody let their emotions get frayed. We just re-planned until the project worked and then mutually patted each other on the back for getting it done. And that's the way it should be. 

a much earlier Ben at Asti Trattoria. Ready for pasta and breadsticks. 

Amazingly, after driving for 6 hours, my back is tranquil and happy. 








A follow up on the travel assignment.


While the Samsung NX cameras are long gone from the studio. I did think the lenses were quite photogenic themselves...

When last I wrote things were perilous for the health of our advertising photography job. We were in a hotel in Baton Rouge loaded with good equipment, blessed with a keen and competent assistant, and a smart and noble client, but we lacked one essential; the product which was to have been the hero of the ad campaign. Our short term reason for existence.

I thought I would follow up on the story. We stayed over one more night after spending a listless day of soggy site seeing, and fending off boredom with good lunches and tattered novels. We lost hope that the package would arrive and allow us to complete our task and, in surrender, started making alternative plans. A general re-figuring of the whole project. Since we three are stubborn by nature, and dig our heels in by training, we decided to wait until morning and see whether the tracking details of the package would be revealed. Would we be informed that it was forthcoming? Otherwise we'd pull up stakes, pack the valises and trudge back to Austin --- in a rental car. (We had already cancelled our airline reservations).

The next morning we ate our eggs and drank our coffee in low spirits. Then our client looked up and out the window. The package had arrived with the dawning of the new day. We jumped up and retrieved our missing link and revved up the motors of imaging. With serious and deliberate purpose we moved through our three main locations and our model joined us to make everything work.

It was a hot, sweaty day punctuated by sudden rain showers that engorged the heated atmosphere like a ladle of water tossed on the burning hot rocks of a steam room. All of our locations were exteriors and the heat was oppressive. But we kept moving and shooting. Every scene diligently explored. Wide, medium, tight. A second and third angle. A range of emotions from our model. A tweaking and re-tweaking of the lights.

At 4:30pm we'd cleaned our plate, conquered our checklist, dotted our "i"s and crossed our "t"s. There was nothing more to shoot. The project was complete.

Soggy and dehydrated we loaded our vehicle and headed for gasoline and cold drinks. I did something I haven't done for years; I got a large Dr. Pepper with lots of ice. Every gulp was refreshing and I didn't even give a thought to the sugar crash that may be coming along in a while.

We aimed the car toward Austin and hit start on the map apps on our phones. And we drove across the bayous and swamps of Louisiana and into the soft, rainy night of Texas.

The files have been edited (that means we've tossed the ones we didn't like...) and now they have been post processed (that means color and contrast corrected, with filters added where indicated) but they have not been retouched (changing the structure of the pixels to hide a fault or emphasize a benefit). That's someone else's job.

I was thrilled that we were able to finish what we started. It's depressing to miss an opportunity to do fun work. Rather than snatch ashes from the jaws of impending success we hung in there until we could complete our tasks.

I am a bit exhausted today but I am satisfied both with the work we did and the change of fortune  as the week progressed.

7.26.2016

On the general nature of traveling for business.


Assignments that require travel sometimes go awry. We're on hold at our hotel right now, waiting for our "hero" product to show up. It was supposed to be delivered yesterday. And then today. But weather, etc. have pushed everything to tomorrow. This, of course, adds to the client's stress and plays havoc with our schedules. We're hopeful that we'll be shooting tomorrow morning and afternoon and still able to make a late flight back home to Austin. Worst case scenario? We fly back on Thurs. morning and eat another day. But Thursday is a "drop dead" date because we're booked with another client all day Friday. A long day of exacting, macro work. 

The waiting around is frustrating but the real dissatisfaction I have with jobs that involve travel, in general, is the stuff you have to leave at home. I'm traveling with my son, Ben, so I'm lucky. I have someone to room with that I like and someone to hang-out with while we wait. But there are some things I really miss from my usual routine in Austin, Texas. There is the unconditional love and exuberance of Studio Dog. I heard there was thunder and lightning in Austin last night and I feel a bit guilty that I wasn't there to reassure her. I'd love to bring her on every assignment but she's a true terrier and has no patience for travel and downtime. Even riding to San Antonio in the car makes her forlorn and moody. 


Then, of course, I miss the Western Hills Athletic Club pool and my daily masters swim workout. How could you not miss something so routinely perfect? Clear, clean water. A bunch of happy, optimistic swimmers who defy aging and gravity. A chance to stretch out and go hard first thing in the morning. It's a wonderful thing. And hard work in the pool provides the perfect rationalization for a good coffee and maybe even a warm croissant afterwards. I'm sure the people in lanes three or four were wondering where I was this morning... 

Trips away from home on business also remind of how much I depend on my lifelong partner/spouse Belinda. She's the driving force in the boy and I eating well and healthily. After a lackluster dinner last night I'm actually missing the perfectly prepared fish, roasted cauliflower and fresh kale and cranberry salad of Sunday evening. That, and the stinging spiritual course correction that she occasionally delivers so effectively. 


And, finally, this project has convinced me that I really have an extremely short attention span when it comes to equipment. On Sunday, while packing, I was convinced that the two cameras and two lenses (three, if you include an all purpose back up...) were exactly what I wanted to shoot with. Today I am pining for other toys. I shoulda, I shoulda. We have a down day to spend in the city and I'd love to have the RX10iii. I'm anxious to play with the new lenses. I wish I'd driven here because now I'm thinking I'd love to have some C-Stands....

The beauty of photographing close to home is that you can go for a swim, pack some gear, change your mind and swing by for more gear, wrap the job, play with the dog, eat a healthy dinner and end up in your own bed. Luxury. 



On a totally different note I am quickly becoming a fan of variable neutral density lenses; not just for video (where they are a necessity) but also for still photography. I used to think of them as an adjunct for syncing up fill flash but now I find myself using the to shoot in the sweet spots of my taking lenses. Love the look of Sony A7ii and A7Rii files shot at ISO 100 and some sweet f-stop like f2.8 or f4.0. Pretty pictures that way.

7.24.2016

New Lenses = Kid in a candy store. Packing for an out of town trip = Kid in Time Out.


I'm grateful to have good work, but part of that good work is the occasional shoot out of town. When I am in my studio I can turn around and grab another C-Stand. I can choose three different thicknesses of net material to bring down a pesky highlight and I can browse through the equipment case to find just the right lens. If I need more power it's at my fingertips --- more or less. But there is a comfort to working on your home turf that can rarely be beat. 

Now, if the out of town shoot is someplace like Johnson City, or Wimberley, Texas; or even San Antonio, it's not very far from my comfort zone. Having grown up in Texas and spent considerable time here I like going places in my car. The car means I can bring a very healthy subset of the studio's equipment bounty, including things like sandbags, ten extra stands, the biggest soft boxes and even a couple of computers. Lights? We can probably get most of them situated for a road trip if we put the back seats down in the Honda CRV. 

The situation in which everything falls apart for me is the airplane journey. Yikes. You really, really have to think through what you're going to shoot and distill down what you take, but there is really only so much you can cut till you get to the bone. 

Ben and I are heading out of town tomorrow. We'll be at that wonderful Austin airport at around 6 a.m. in the morning for an 8 a.m. flight to Baton Rouge. We'll be gone for three days and we'll be shooting outside in what may be the three hottest days of Summer 2016. Hello high pressure dome!

I'm not worried about Ben. He's been running the trail around Lady Bird Lake at 2 or 3 in the afternoon lately. If he can run in a straight 102 degrees for a few miles I think he'll be fine standing in the shade handing me lenses and such. But what I am worried about (perennially) is just what to pack. 

We'll be shooting two lifestyle set ups with a single person in each, and one hero shot with two people. I'm bringing along scrims with white diffusion to put over the tops of my subjects to tame the direct sun and we'll buy some one gallon water jugs to use as improvised "sandbags" to hold them in place. I'm bringing a big umbrella which can do double duty as a shoot through or as another light blocker/diffuser. I never go anywhere without a tripod either. 

We've got three battery powered flashes and a bunch of radio triggers and every lens has a companion 3 stop neutral density filter to tame the ambient light in order to make fill flash practical. We've got two checked bags and two carry ons. It's bare bones. But that's the nature of having to fly on smaller, regional jets....

I thought about driving to Baton Rouge but it's nine and a half hours of solid driving and I just couldn't get excited about trudging through southern highways in high heat season. Someone's tire fragments are always headed for my windshield, even on cool days. We'll make it through and if we forgot anything we'll improvise at the closest Home Depot. But gosh golly, it takes me all day to pack for one of these because it's a bitter process of eliminating layers of safety nets...

I hope everyone is up to date on the new TSA policies for lithium batteries. When they are as tiny as the batteries for the Sony A7 series cameras you can bring as many as you want but they have to travel in your carry-on luggage; not in checked!!!  Apparently, they want the batteries readily available in case the batteries spontaneously burst into flame and need to be extinguished before imperiling the aircraft. You are limited to two bigger batteries but it shouldn't be a show stopped for most camera users. Now, my video buddies with their huge Anton Bauer batteries may have to devise some new work-arounds. Just thought I'd give you a heads up. Google the specifics. Or Bing them if you are some sort of Google conspiracy theorist. 

Packing sucks because your constant two thoughts (at least mine) are: Will the airline destroy my gear? And, Will I have to gate check that bag full of cameras? Either way you'll be scrambling to make your assignment work....  But, on to the light side...


Some people like nice Bordeaux wines and some people love fine chocolate but I have a soft spot (a sweet tooth?) for new lenses. I won't walk away from chocolate or wine either but the lenses are generally the bright spot for me. 

I asked about Rokinon lenses in my last post and I got some good replies. In my brief hiatus between the last post and now I managed to order a new lens from Amazon.com and also pick up a lens on my list (used) from Precision Camera here in Austin. 

So, what's new in the ole camera bag? Well, first I should say that neither of the two new arrivals will be going with me to Baton Rouge. They are too heavy and too "single-use-y" to make the distillation/packing cut, and besides, I'd already figured out my packing strategy for cameras and lenses before the new lenses arrived. 

The first in the door was the Rokinon 135mm t2.2 Cine lens. A couple reader comments sparked my interest and when I started looking around a mint specimen turned up on 14 miles from the front door of the studio. I drove out yesterday and picked it up and then spent an hour aiming it at various things and snapping away. On first blush I have to say that it's pretty darn sharp wide open and, used fairly close, the depth of field thing that this lens does is outrageous. Almost like one side of a hair I focused on was in focus but the other side wasn't (hyperbole alert). Seriously though it's a  keeper and I was happy to find the cine version since it's a good choice for me to use as an interview lens. 

It's big and bulky and should have a tripod mount when used with the pixie Sony cameras but that's my only gripe. I'm sure you'll start to see endless portraits here on the VSL blog that have been shot with this lens. A good expenditure of $450. 

The second lens arrived today, right in the middle of the stress-filled packing drama. I put the box aside until about an hour ago (hopefully just before dinner...) When I finally had time to open the box and take a peek. It's the Sony E mount version of the Rokinon 100mm f2.8 Macro lens. I wanted one to shoot a job that's coming up on Friday; a full day of photographing teeny, tiny glass ampoules. With even teenier-tinier labels affixed to them. It's similar to a job I shot two years ago and, at the time, I was laboring along with a 50mm macro lens and desperately wishing I had a longer macro for a bit more stand off from the product. You know, in order to really get the lighting right....

The Rokinon clicked all the boxes. When I finally had time to play with it I was impressed at the build quality but much more impressed by the sample images I started shooting (locked down on a stout tripod....). The websites always like to moan and groan about wide open sharpness and wide open corner stuff but I have to say that I don't think I'll use this lens at anything but f11 or f16 on this job. That's what is needed to get enough depth of field to keep things in focus. We can't all be shooting glamorous, wide open shots all the time....

I'll do a bit more testing when I get back into the studio on Thurs. but so far it looks like another winner. 

The two new additions should keep me interested for a bit longer.... 

anyway, I'll be out for three days and I'm probably NOT going to take an iPad or a computer. I'll just focus on the job and a little HDMI monitor. I'll catch up on Weds. evening. Hope you stay cool and have a great start to your week!