1.17.2019

The changing face of corporate portraits. Why no one cares about your cameras and lenses.


This is the portrait of a CEO for a tech company headquartered in Austin. Over the course of three years we photographed nearly all of their far flung, senior staff. Our approach was always consistent; natural light through the 23rd story, floor to ceiling windows; natural light leavened with judicious amounts of fill flash to clean up the color and add just the right amount of "openness" to the shadow side of the face.

While the look and feel of the photographs was consistent from beginning to end I was surprised, when I reviewed the catalog of portraits, to find that they were done with three different camera sensor formats, ranging from micro four thirds to full frame. The image above was done with a Samsung NX30; an APS-C camera (far from the mainstream brands....). I chose that camera because the while the company was initially hamfisted at making cameras they did a great job on longer lenses; like their 60mm macro and their 85mm f1.4 lens.

Our initial portraits were done with Olympus EM-5.2 cameras and, usually, the Panasonic 42.5mm f1.7 while our final set of portraits was done with a Nikon D810 and an 85mm f1.8 lens. But even when viewed side by side on the client's website I'm hard pressed to tell you which images came from which systems, unless I cheat and look at the Exif info.

It was easy enough to use the lenses paired with the small sensor camera at wide apertures and get a very similar effect to that of the full frame sensors. The secret is that there's a limit to how shallow a depth of field you can get and still have the client accept the images. They like to see their senior staff in focus as much as they enjoy seeing the background go out of focus.

But here's the interesting thing; if you get the CEO to look like a warm, happy, compassionate and effective leader most clients wouldn't care if you did the assignment using the camera in your phone.

I'm settling in with the Fuji cameras right now for this style of imaging but I DO NOT FEAR using my Lumix cameras interchangeably. As long as I can establish the right rapport with the subject the camera is as secondary as which brand of printer you use to print out your invoice.....

In the three years that I've served this client I've never been asked about my camera selections. Not by the marcom people at the company and not by the (award winning) advertising agency that guides their brand. I think the only people who care about what kind of camera or lens you are shooting with are your competitors, and various other photographers. Just get the essentials right and you can shoot with any camera you like. Honest.

No one else cares....

1.16.2019

A fun, silly, crazy, wonderful afternoon spent at Esther's Follies; Austin's premier comedy and political commentary venue. Right in the middle of Sixth St.


"Would you like to come over on Wednesday afternoon and make many zany promotional photographs with us at Esther's Follies?" Yes. As much as I would like my bank to give me free samples of one hundred dollar bills. Esther's Follies is a comedy nightclub that's existed in the center of downtown Austin for over thirty years. Democrat or Republican, your party is sure to get equal time as the butt of a never ending series of skits, musical numbers, jokes and other forms of political commentary. But Esther's doesn't just do politics they also excoriate weird Texas stuff. They riff on Whole Foods Market and Amazon. They filet the latest Austin trend: Austin has become the #1 national destination for bachelorette parties. Imagine limos full of just post teenage brides-to-be and their entourages drinking until they throw up on their own shoes and then going back for more.....

In short, Esther's is bawdy, biting and right on target. The continuously funniest live show I've ever seen.  Just my cup of tea. I've been going to their shows for years and one Summer even did a Comedy Driver Training course there to get a speeding ticket expunged from my permanent record....

So, I've been photographing for their marketing materials almost forever; since the beginning of the new century, and I've always had a blast. These folks can bang out irreverent comedy at the drop of a hat. And they do it on a tight schedule with weekly additions and modifications to their routines. Some parts of their shows change almost daily!  I show up, set up three or four electronic flashes with umbrellas and sufficient kick to flood the stage with enough light to get me f5.6 or 7.1 @ ISO 400 and then we just sail through routine change after costume change and half the time I have trouble focusing because I'm laughing so hard...

Today I headed down to Sixth St. for a fresh dose of humor and photographs. I parked in one of the close by garages and dragged my equipment over on my multi-cart. I set up three of my Neewer battery powered monolights ( which kick out up to 300 watt seconds for 700+ flashes via their lithium batteries..) put a big umbrella in the light on the left side the stage, a medium sized umbrella on the right of center light, and another medium umbrella on the far right side of the stage. The main light comes from the big umbrella on the left and its monolight was set at half power. The other two monolights were set at one quarter power. Altogether they provided a nice wash of light across the stage with a bit of directionality. More importantly they froze the action and helped me absolutely nail the color balance.

I used one of the new Fuji XH1 cameras and the 18-55mm XF lens for the entire shoot. Everyone in all the different format camps can theorize about quality all they want but I know that when I zoom in to one hundred percent I'm seeing super sharp eyelashes and striations in the actors' irises, and I don't know how the troupe can use better than that. At ISO 400 the files (when shot correctly=exposure and color balance) are razor sharp and noiseless. 

The system nailed focus on about 98% of all 1200+ shots from our session. The 2% that weren't tack sharp were plagued by operator error as I laughed and waved the camera around instead of being tightly disciplined. It was a great way to get a large number of almost perfect shots in a short span of time. 

I was still laughing as I dragged the cart into the elevator of the parking garage.... too good.


If you spend much time in downtown Austin on weekends you'll not be able to avoid the onslaught of drunken bachelorettes. They're as invasive as electric scooters. I think Esther's has this particular subject matter down pat....


At the end of a marketing photo session we always do a group shot. Here's the one we'll use to start out the new year and the new season. A different way to shoot theater than the way we do it at Zach Theatre. Viva la Difference!

Let me tell you about shooting opera sometime......



1.15.2019

A few thoughts about the Fuji 60mm macro lens. And a couple blog notes.

One the warmer days my boss let's me show up for work in
my authentic Austin uniform = shorts and sandals.
It got cold here. Then warm. Then cold again. I shot some stuff with an XE2. 

If my blog has seen fewer posts in the last two weeks it's because I am in something of a holding pattern. I'd like to get the year started and to dive in with both feet but my dad is not doing as well lately and I've been steeling myself for the inevitable. I'm visiting him more often, staying longer and also trying to get a myriad of little important details squared away. It's hard for me to start anything if I know I may have more important family business to take care of without much warning. My lesson here? Life seems short; live it well...

On a lighter note, I had a fun time a week and a half ago shooting behind the scenes images for Zach Theatre's upcoming production, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. During that shoot I leaned heavily on the 60mm macro lens, a lens that Fuji introduced back in its first generation of X series cameras. The focusing is a bit slower (helped a lot by the continuous image stabilization setting on the XH1 body) and a bit mechanically clunky but the images I got from the lens --- even wide open --- were very, very satisfying. Sharp without being exaggeratedly sharp. And the detail nicely rendered. For me, on the APS-C sensor Fuji bodies, it's just the right focal  length and also has the advantage of being relatively small and light. 

The XH1 and the 60mm are a great combination for the way I like to shoot portraits; even more so when I use the 1:1 crop in the camera, effectively turning the rig into a mini-Hasselblad 500 CM with a feel that reminds me of those old, square format film cameras but without the hassle of having to change film backs after every twelve exposures...
Daniel getting make-up for his role as Hedwig.

I got a call from a San Antonio advertising agency today. We started talking about a multi-day project for a services client in the south Texas regions nearly eight months ago. The project stopped and started several times last year but it looks like it's finally got legs. I'll be in San Antonio scouting on the 28th of this month.  The assignment requires me and my (occasional) video partner to shoot in a number of locations with talents at each location. We'll set up people shots with employees and customers engaged in various tasks and processes and get both still photographs and B-roll video in each set up. I'm bringing in a videographer because the pace of the job mitigates against doing the one man band routine. Besides, James is fun to hang out with and a much better video shooter than yours truly.

I'll shoot the stills with the Fuji cameras; probably just the two XH1's, and James will handle the video with an assortment of Panasonic GH5's, exciting new gimbals and our generous bag full of Panasonic and Olympus lenses. I'll bring a bag of flashes and also an assortment of LED panels. We're traveling only by car so we can bring as much photo gear and lighting stuff as we want!!!! 

Knowing that the client will also want wide shots of the facility interiors I decided to add a wide angle lens to the Fuji inventory (we already have the spectacular Panasonic/Leica 8-18mm for the video cameras) so I can get stuff at wider angles of view than those provided by my current widest angle lens, the 18-55mm. After a lot of research, and some discussions with smart people here, I opted for the Fuji 14mm f2.8. I know that it vignettes more than some reviewers might like but I also know that it's extremely sharp (especially in the center region) and has very low actual distortion. I'm sure the cameras will take care of most of the vignetting.  I agonized a lot about the various choices but my friend, Paul, the architectural photographer and friend of many years, convinced me that I'll never be comfortable with a wider angle of view and the I'll probably mostly be using the lens at f5.6 or f8.0.

The 14mm lens should be here this week and then I think I'll take a break from buying more photo stuff for a while. I'm trying to save up to buy another car. I want to keep up with Belinda! I have my mind just about made up to buy a 2019 Suburu Forester with all the fancy accident avoidance features. Maybe even leather seats. I've appreciated using the safety stuff and the adaptive cruise control (Texas is a big state) in Belinda's Impreza. I'm also smitten with the all wheel drive. But cars are a lot more expensive than cameras or lenses, and I hate the idea of car payments, so I'm economizing wherever I can...even checking for lost change between the couch cushions.

The assortment of lenses I've put together for the Fuji cameras is just about right. Down the road I may upgrade the longer zoom to the f2.8 model but I'm in no hurry.

I hope you are having a Happy New Year and blazing through your memory cards making art. 
Later.




1.14.2019

Sometimes you have to go back and reconsider files from a job. With a little time it's easier to see how to make an image work.


I photographed this scene last Fall when I was totally immersed in a corporate project. The art director and I had gotten up early, driven like crazy people, met with a group of engineers and contractors and then followed them up dirt roads, cut into the sides of mountains, until we reached a spot where the consensus was that I might like the scenery. Yes. I loved the scenery. And I appreciated that we got to the site just as the weather was perfect. And I was even happier when the weather held together long enough to use the site to do nearly a dozen different portraits.

I'd more or less forgotten I'd made a photograph without people in it at this remote location until I was preparing files from that long and involved job so I could create an e-mail promotion about ---- making portraits on remote locations. As I looked through the folders this image stuck out to me specifically because it didn't have people in it. When I took it my intent was more or less just "visual note taking" and now I realize that it was a portrait of the location; the most important part of our canvas.

Another aspect of re-reviewing work done months before is that you approach appraisals of the file quality; the camera performance, with a more honesty. I've been toying lately with downsizing my collection of m4:3rds cameras and lenses but my review of not just this file but so many of the portraits convinces me that the work I've been doing with the Lumix G9 cameras, and the best of the format's lenses, can go toe-to-toe with just about everything on the market I've shot with. While some cameras obviously have higher overall resolution these cameras have wonderful color palettes and, when using a lens like the Leica/Panasonic 12-60mm f2.8-4.0 the system provides its dual I.S. which is head and shoulders better than any one else's image stabilization but Olympus. We actually ended up ditching the tripod after the first trip on this assignment.

As I sit here in my comfortable office I could rationalize using cameras and camera systems of just about any size and bulk. We forget about logistics of transporting all our gear when we're fantasizing about how that next bigger format may help us take better photographs. But when I look at my work from last Fall and remember how great it felt to be able to fit my entire camera and lens kit into a small backpack that could even fit under the torturous and diminished seats of a ragged little commuter jet I realized that getting to the locations I needed to and not having to worry about whether or not I'd have to gate check a camera bag, or pack full of the tools with which I make a living, added to the quality of my day to day life. It eliminated one recurring stress point.

But mostly I just like looking at this photograph and remembering how isolated, quiet and peaceful the location was for us on that Fall day.


1.11.2019

Can a new camera or lens make you a happier photographer? I'll vote "yes."

A work photograph. One of those times when everything should be in focus.

Sometimes it works for me to separate out act of photography from experience of owning and using a camera. The more rational among us will choose cameras that are cost effective, fulfill some needed photographic mission, and are straightforward and logical to work with. Apparently, as people age, they also gravitate toward cameras that are lightweight and easier to carry....

None of this really enters into my eccentric process for seeing, choosing or buying and then using cameras. Sure, they have to meet certain minimum criteria; they have to produce salable files, they have to make photographs on demand and on my schedule, but as long as they check the right boxes for image quality and reliability everything else is more negotiable. But the one thing that's not really negotiable is that the camera be fun. Fun to shoot, fun to own and aligned with my particular nostalgia of what a camera should look like and how the physical controls should present themselves.

I'll be frank, I get a lot of pleasure out of owning certain cameras and also trying out new stuff that's well made. I'm sure my predilection for the craft of camera making is a hold over from having come of age in photography at a time when there were a number of different cameras made to the highest physical quality. From mid-century Leica M series cameras to titanium Nikon models to the stellar construction of the Hasselblad SWC series cameras, the bodies were made to be handled for decades and to be totally stable platforms for the films moving through them, driven by gears and cams. At that time in camera history a dense and well made tool conveyed one of great accuracy (tolerances were important for film flatness in the gate and accurate focusing) and reliability. The idea of reliable cameras was especially important to professionals as camera bodies, pre-digital, were expected to earn their keep not just until the next cycle of Moore's Law but for spans of a decade or more of near daily use.

I like well made cameras. I don't particularly care about size or weight. A camera has to be big enough so that the controls aren't crowded and finicky. A good user camera for a person who is mostly mobile has to be limited, at a certain point, where weight and portability are concerned too. I remember testing the Leaf Af7i medium format digital camera. The camera, prism finder, digital back and the 180mm f2.8 Schneider lens together weighed in at nearly ten pounds. That's a bit much to drape over one's shoulder and use as a walk around, street shooter....

On the other hand I've handled a number of smaller cameras that are nearly unusable because their external controls are so minute, and clustered so closely together, that any real use of the camera is largely luck and hit or miss. Those smaller cameras are usually plagued with equally diminutive batteries as well... There are "right sizes" for cameras and they have evolved in the same way hammers and garden tools have evolved; after years, decades or even centuries of trial and error designers have largely figured out what configurations work (for most people).

I recently ditched Sony full frame cameras because I didn't like the way their cameras felt when I was holding them. Sometimes just holding them in my hands and other times when holding them up in the shooting position. It's all very nice that a camera can produce a pretty, 42 megapixel file but it's much nicer if the camera's design makes it look and feel good while you are using it. Same for the Nikon D810. It felt a hell of a lot better to hold than the Sony but was ungainly for carrying while urban hiking, just the same.

Truth be told, the Fuji XH1, when combined with battery grip, is just a bit too big for comfortable, long walks as well. But when stripped down to it's essentials the body is more or less just right. I like it a bit better than the XT3 and I love the design of the basic body. I haven't shot enough with the XH1 but I'm carrying it with me everywhere because it feels like a real camera and that makes me happy. Other cameras that had that feel (but missed on other parameters) were the Nikon 600 and 610, the Sony a99, and even the Canon 7D. Not too big, not too small. And with good proportions and control layouts.

I'd guess that many photographers are less immersed in their cameras. Mine travel with me everywhere, from the car to the pool to lunch and back home. I carry one into my doctor's office and it works great as a kind of security blanket. Once, in the midst of a medical emergency, I stopped by my office to grab my Leica M4, and took it with me to the emergency room and into ICU. It was a comforting companion and never complained about the hours or the service.

There are times when I've left the cameras behind. Usually when the gravity of a situation (which by its very nature is non-photographic) mitigates against it. I don't take a camera into the pool with me (although strapping a Go Pro to my kick board has crossed my mind... And I don't take cameras to funerals or business meetings (although there is always one in the car).

Sometimes the ownership of a fine camera is less about taking photographs than having the intention to make photographs. And sometimes carrying a camera is less about making a good photograph and more about having the potential to make a good photograph should the situation arise.

Intention and potential. That, and an appreciation of the (too few) times when camera makers get everything just right.


1.10.2019

The unsettling realization that your images were better when you just started out. Is it just because your social circle was younger and beautiful?



I remember taking this photograph as though it was yesterday. I was playing around with graduate school, working in a high-fi store near the UT campus, and doing photography as a hobby. A few months before I shot this I'd stretched and bought my first studio electronic flash. It was a Novatron. It came as a metal box (horrible build quality) with two plugs on top and put out a total of 120 watt seconds per pop. Of course the system also had a (plastic) flash head at the end of a ten foot cord which plugged into the box. I stretched my budget a bit more and bought a 42" shoot thru umbrella and the least expensive light stand I could find. I experimented with it for a while and added a background stand set and a roll of dove gray seamless backdrop paper. I remember that one roll of seamless lasting me over a year...

My camera of choice back then (I had two) was a used Yashica Mat 124G. The "G" stood for gold because the camera had some gold contacts somewhere in the mix, I guess. The other camera, the one I wore on my shoulder during almost every waking hour, was the Canon Canonet QL17 iii. I liked to play with different film types back then and at the time the image above was taken I think I was in the middle of a deep dive into Kodak's Panatomic X; a 32 ISO, black and white film. That is not a typo, the film was rated at 32 ASA/ISO. 

I generally left the gray seamless background paper and the flash gear set up in one corner of my living room. It was a time in Austin when one could rent the top half of a sprawling and beautiful house on Longview, just a few blocks west of the UT campus for under $100 a month. And that included utilities. As my then girlfriend, now spouse  would remind me, I left the background and lights up because I never got around to straightening up anything back then. Even laundry was an iffy thing, left in situ until it became an emergency situation. Then the scramble for quarters for the laundromat would commence....

I figured out the exposure of the flash and umbrella by trial and error; which, in those days meant shooting a test roll of film at various apertures and then heading into the darkroom to mix chemicals, roll the film onto reels, and then processing it by inverting the developing tank at set intervals for a set amount of time and then stopping the process by pouring out the developer and pouring in an acid bath, followed by a sloshing in liquid fixer. Oh, and one could not forget the archival wash and the application of Photo Flo. A couple hours later, or maybe the next morning the film would be dry and ready for me to make contact sheets and then suss out which frame might be the correct one. 

I might then pull out the trays, mix chemicals to develop paper, and make a few prints, just to test my findings more rigorously. At that point I might have found that having the umbrella and light six feet from my subject would give me an exposure of f5.6. I would grab a short piece of rope or ribbon and cut a piece to exactly six feet and tie it to the light stand. All future shots (until something got moved or I used a different film with a different film speed) would start with me positioning the subject and then moving the tip of the ribbon or rope to the subject's nose in order to ensure that the light was at the same distance it was when tested. As you can imagine, the subsequent shots were the nadir of consistency... You might ask why I didn't use a flash meter back then but in the mid to late 1970's the price of good meters was huge and my budget was small. I did long for the day when I would be able to afford a camera with a Polaroid back and the additional budget to get some Polaroid test materials...

At any rate I would pull everyone who came by my house into the living room "studio" and make their portrait with this very barebones set up. In the 1970's very, very few of my friends and acquaintances were overweight or would qualify as "couch potatoes." Most were former or current athletes and the lack of fat padding their faces seemed to let the camera see a more natural facial shape, complete with cheekbones and a neck below; things nearly hidden in the majority of people I photograph today. 

Of course, it didn't hurt that we were all in our early 20's and it was really an age of great innocence and openness. People were willing to be photographed without having to negotiate the process or be overly self-conscious. 

I was always falling in love back then and one of the manifestations of that was my desire to capture the beauty I found in the people to whom I was attracted. After a photo session I couldn't wait to be in the darkroom to develop the film and get started making prints. My favorite paper was double weight Ilfobrom #3. It was a superb paper and, when I started out, was very inexpensive. Now, when I pull them out of archival boxes I realize that we were working at a specific time in photo history when printing papers were like visual gold and the purchase price of a box was peanuts.

So there was the magic set of bullets. Beautiful, fit people. Young and fresh. Innocent and, for the most part, joyously happy. Films that still rival the best image quality we can get from digital but with ancillary, subjective benefits. Papers that were like magic and were, by their very nature, imbued with artifactual gravitas. And time. We had so much time. Time to linger over a session. Time to linger in the darkroom, sometimes going through an entire 50 sheet box of paper to get EXACTLY the look we wanted. Time to wait for processes. Time to share prints face to face, heart to heart. 

So now, decades later, I sit in an office surrounded with layers of the best gear money can buy, sitting in front of computers laden with thousands of dollars of processing software, a dozen feet away from a drawer filled with your choice of flash meters, and nothing I shoot these days comes close to delivering what I shot then. Perhaps the constant compromises of doing photography as a business have all but extinguished the thrill. Perhaps it's just the relentlessness of it all...

Sobering. 


If you have a happy, optimistic counterpoint I'd love to read it...




1.08.2019

I photographed a play yesterday evening. It was called: "THIS GIRL LAUGHS, THIS GIRL CRIES, THIS GIRL DOES NOTHING." It was my first rehearsal shoot using both the XT3 and the XH1.

I was walking around the Zach Theatre campus and looking at the photos that are on the walls of every building. I realized that over the last several decades of photographing for them that I've shot dress rehearsals and marketing shots with every camera format from 4x5 inch sheet film to one inch sensor digital and, literally, everything in between. So it should come as no surprise that I was back over to do a quick project with a relatively new camera. At least new to me...

The play, This Girl Laughs, The Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing, is not a big blockbuster play; it's aimed at family audiences and is being presented on the theater's smallest stage. The Whisenhunt Theater seats about 100 people and almost all the plays presented there are done in the round. All the lighting is mounted on grids and floats under the ceiling about 25 feet up in the air. Because of this it's hard to get soft, frontal light, or even fairly low angle spots on the actors so the lighting is always a bit more problematic in this venue. It's also the last theater of the three production spaces on the campus that still uses all tungsten stage lighting. 

All the walls and all the overhead space is painted matte black so the room is a big light sponge and you can't depend on reflected or bounce light from the walls or ceilings to help bring down the contrast range. Shadows go to black pretty quickly...

Yesterday was a dress rehearsal and I was able to move around the theater to shoot. That's a luxury I don't always have when we're photographing in our biggest theater, the Topfer Stage, because the cost of producing in the bigger space is higher, schedules are tighter and we almost always have an audience during the dress rehearsals of the major plays and musical presented in that space. That can make shutter noise an issue.

"This Girl Laughs...." is a joint production between Zach Theatre and the University of Texas at Austin drama department. We had four actors on the stage and one musician over on one side (stationary). As you can see, the stage dress/props is minimal so the play depends heavily just on performance.

I took two Fuji cameras; the XH1 and the XT3 along with a smattering of lenses. But the play is short and moves fast and there was scant time to waste with lens changes. I put the 18-55mm kit lens on the XT3 so that combo would take advantage of the lens's image stabilization and put the faster, 50mm f2.0 WR lens on the XH1 to give that combo equal access to image stabilization. Both cameras were set to ISO 3200 although, when the lighting got dramatic enough (meaning: very low levels) I did go all the way to ISO 6400. I used each set up with the lenses nearly wide open so I could get a shutter speed of around 1/250th of a second which gives me a fighting chance at keeping hands and moving feet from blurring too much. It was weird, for me, to use the ISO dial as my basic exposure controller but I felt compelled to stay in the shutter speed range and if I ran out of light there was no where else to go except UP in ISO. 

How did each camera do? Well, when it comes to telling them apart the only way I can tell without looking at the file info is to look at the angle of view in the frame. If it's wider it had to come from the XT3 if it was tighter and had shallower depth of field then it probably came from the XH1 and the 50mm. The colors matched well between the cameras and as far as noise performance goes I'd call it a tie at ISO 3200. 

But for all the ballyhoo about the XT3 having better autofocus I'd say that was immediately cancelled out by the one stop difference (or more) in aperture. If one camera has more exposure on the sensor it stands to reason that the AF performance is going to be better and that was the case here. I used S-AF for both cameras and they both did a good job. I can't imagine anyone complaining about either camera if you were outside shooting under an 18 EV lighting situation. But even here in the near dark each camera locked in well and quickly and neither hunted for focus at all. 

I have to say that my experiences so far make me partial to the XH1 with battery grip over the handling of the smaller and daintier XT3 without grip. I am also much more impressed with the almost silent mechanical shutter in the XH1. Yes, you can always switch either camera to its electronic shutter mode and go completely silent but there are some situations in which that's a non-starter for me. When I shoot performances at the bigger theater all of the lighting is done with LEDs. Mostly high output LED spots made for theater, not for filming! They trade a certain amount of flicker free performance/resistance for throw and power. Shooting with fully electronic shutters is an invitation to non-stop banding if you are shooting at shutter speeds that are high enough to freeze motion (anything from 1/125th up...). I've been down this road with Sony, Panasonic and Nikon as well and none of them are immune from the nasty combination of theater LEDs and electronic shutters. It's all venetian blind patterning all the time. Being able to use a nearly silent but fully mechanical shutter may be specific to my work but it makes a huge difference to me. I can't wait to sit through the dress rehearsal of the next big production, with a full audience, with two gripped, XH1s in my camera bag, both set to fully mechanical shutters... If there's music no one will ever hear the shutters....

Both the XT3 and the XH1 have basically the same menus and the same control layouts. Since I was shooting in manual exposure with both cameras I didn't have to test whether or not the removal of the exposure compensation dial and the addition of a top of camera info LCD was a good or bad thing. I will note that being able to see a bunch of important camera info in the top mounted LCD was a plus.

Basically, the cameras are so much alike that I can go back and forth without having to overthink anything. It's pretty straight forward. I do find that I like having the battery grip on the XH1; partly because I can use the camera in the boost mode and would never have to worry about running out of electrical juice during a long performance,; and mostly because it makes shooting in a vertical orientation easier and more comfortable.  

If there's a difference in resolution between the two cameras it more or less gets lost at the higher ISOs. While both cameras had well controlled noise profiles at 3200 I've seen better from cameras like the Nikon D750 and the Sony A7Rii. 

One thing I've learned about evaluating the image quality of files is not to rely on the "standard" previews that are the default in Adobe's Lightroom. They are invariably higher compression than the final processed files will be and have more noise and less detail overall. I was depressed one day when I looked at some files shot at high ISO in Lightroom. I thought I'd be spending a lot of time cleaning up noise. But after sending a few test files all the way through the process and looking at them in PhotoShop, or even online at Smugmug.com (at the highest magnification), I could see that they were much better than the previews might have us believe. Now I either use 1:1 previews or I sample files in PhotoShop to make sure that anything negative I'm seeing is a result of the preview creation and not inherent in the files themselves. 

If you must have an opinion about which of these two cameras I like best I'll say straight out that I prefer using the XH1 to the XT3. I like the bigger body and the advantages of the grip. So much so that, after last week's shoot for "Hedwig" (another Zach play/musical) I ordered a second XH1 and grip. It arrived today and, for the time being, the twin XH1s seem to have earned the prime spot as my live theater photography cameras. 

Now it's high time to flesh out the lens inventory a bit. Next on my list is the 14mm f2.8 XF and then the 90mm f2.0. New year/New gear.

I do have some thoughts about lenses and shooting in a smaller studio space. The 50mm f2.0 was about as tight as I needed for yesterday's shoot. I could have, or perhaps should have, put the 23mm f2.0 on the XT3 and just done a classic two lens shoot. Then again, I'm sure I would have thrown myself a curve ball in the process somewhere...

That's all I've got today. I'm happy to have an XT3. I'm looking forward to using it for video. I'm happier to have two of the XH1s, I'll use them for all the still photography stuff. Fun cameras!

One more odd observation. I recently updated the firmware in my first XH1 body to rev. 2.0. It added a lot to the camera. The camera I got today was brand new, in the box and came straight from B&H. And it came with the original 1.0 firmware. As soon as the batteries charged up I updated the firmware. I guess I just assumed that new, shipping cameras would have the current brain food in them. I was wrong. Maybe Fuji just wants us to learn how; you know, just in case we need to update in the wild.....





1.06.2019

My mini-review of my Fuji X-H1 and 60mm f2.4 macro lens. From yesterday's long assignment. 1,500 exposures taken, post processing and color corrected. Closing in on my first 10,000 exposures...


I was working at Zach Theatre yesterday and it was a great time to really dive deeply into the Fuji X-H1 camera and the (much criticized) 60mm macro lens. I was part of a creative team making content for an upcoming show called, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." Here's the quick version of the play: 

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a rock musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Trask and a book by John Cameron Mitchell. The musical follows Hedwig Robinson, a transgender East German singer of a fictional rock and roll band.... (From Wikipedia)...."

Our goal was to get video, for both social media and broadcast, as well as photography we could use in social media, postcards, web and print advertising and large posters. Because of various rules and scheduling we could only book time with our primary actor from 11:00 am to 3:30 pm. Our first priority was the video capture, with me sneaking in between takes and during location moves, and set-ups, to capture what we needed. 

Since the video crew was handling the overall lighting I was able to "borrow" their active photons and also use some of the location's existing light to take stills. I was depending on the X-H1 to grab good focus in a range of interior lighting situations, and with the historically maligned 60mm macro lens. The TL:DR is this: Nice, fast rig with the ability to nail focus in light low enough to call for 1/60th of second, f2.4, at ISO 3200. The files (raw) looked great and were very malleable in Lightroom.

I worked entirely handheld since we were moving quickly between video set ups. Also, many of the shots were very close-in and working without a tripod allowed me to move into position quickly and get the magnifications I needed. (even though my usual preference is to bring a tripod...).

So, let's start with the body. I'm using the X-H1 with the battery grip for a couple of reasons. First, I like the feel of it. When working with a camera all day long it's got to feel right in my hands and a good part of that is whether or not the camera is big enough to hold without weird hand contortions. The grip makes the body feel just right for production work. You might not feel the same way if you just want a camera to dangle over your shoulder all day long but if you have it in your hands for hours at a time the weight and size is a whole different equation. In this kind of set up it's no longer necessary or even helpful to have a small, discreet camera but a hefty production tool with really good control surfaces makes life easier. There's ample gripping space around which to wrap your hands. A more comfortable hold. Better access to buttons and controls.

Second, I use the grip because this camera is famous for just chewing through batteries; especially if you use the "boost" setting. The boost setting speeds up all the camera processes and makes the camera feel responsive and quick. I want my camera to be responsive and quick so I use boost. But I also want my camera to be able to shoot all day long without having to stop time and again in order to change batteries and the boost setting delivers more battery juice to the camera. The grip gives me two more batteries in addition to the one in the body. All three of the batteries in the X-H1 and grip are the new 126S batteries that are said to have more gusto and endurance, and better thermal handling than their predecessors. One thing I love about the battery grip is that you can attach a charger directly to the grip and recharge the batteries while everything is still attached to the camera. 

film crew with Sony FS7 and an attaché case filled with Veydra primes. Interesting choices...

I started my day downstairs in the theater's make up area, adjacent to the "green room." The video guys were upstairs hauling in (many, many) cases and getting all their stuff set up in the actor's dressing room (our primary shooting location). Everything I brought along fit into the Think Tank Airport Essentials backpack making me extremely efficient. While the video crew was getting their feet wet in the space I found the actor and our theater's head of make up and started photographing the transformation process of actor-into-character. I'd wanted to try out the 60mm macro lens from Fuji since I purchased it a few weeks ago but have had few opportunities to play with it over the holidays.

I had heard from various people that the 60mm, being one of the oldest lenses in the system, was slow to focus and could sometimes mis-focus entirely. Things change from initial introductions. Newer bodies get better focusing hardware and, just as importantly, Fuji seems to keep making improvements via firmware which keeps making the products better and better performers. I made sure the camera body and the lens were both upgraded to their latest firmware before considering them for this (paid) shoot. 

My initial testing showed me that the macro lens was a bit slower to focus than one of my newer WR series Fuji lenses but that it was generally fast enough--- and always accurate. As I rarely shoot with continuous AF enabled, and mostly shoot under fairly controlled circumstances, I didn't really stress test the AF of the camera or the body. It's not that I am hesitant to do so but rather that I rarely shoot in that mode and wanted to use both pieces of gear in my usual way. 

I shot the 60mm lens mostly at f2.8 and was pleased to see that it was nicely sharp at that aperture; especially at the closer distances at which I was working. When I reviewed the files in post the next day I was happy to see that they were very detailed and very easy to make changes to. The cameras does perhaps the best job I have seen so far at having the images I saw in the EVF match the images I was seeing in Lightroom on my iMac screen upon import. That sure makes life easier.

The battery grip on the camera body makes it a bigger and heavier package than I think most people would imagine if they have the prejudice that mirrorless should always mean, smaller and faster. The main advantage of the X-H1 body and grip is that they are very solidly made instruments. According to Fuji the camera uses a magnesium alloy shell that's 25% thicker than previous cameras like the XT-2. Going back and forth from my (smaller and lighter) X-T3 to the X-H1 you can feel that the later camera is denser, heavier and gives the impression of being more in the historic mode of the battle ready professional camera ilk than an enthusiast's tool. The same holds true for the battery grip. The camera and grip exude reliability and resilience.

Another advantage of the bigger, denser camera package is my ability to better hold the camera steady. In combination with the X-H1's in body image stabilization I can generally hand hold a lens like the 60mm, with good results, down to about 1/4th to 1/8th of a second. Not quite the territory offered by the superior I.S. (and dual I.S.) of the Panasonic G9 but also nothing to sneeze at. Finally, the grip serves its actual purpose admirably by getting the through an entire day of still photography with ample charges left on two out of the three batteries in the little, closed eco-system.

So, to start out, I was shooting using the theater's everyday work lights in the make up area; which are regular, long tube fluorescent fixtures. I hate to leave white balance to chance, even when I am shooting in raw format, so I did a custom WB when I first pulled out the camera. Fuji makes custom WB's easy as pie. Having a good, custom WB locked in keeps from having different color casts as you move your camera around the room, and change compositions, and even angles of view. While the auto white balance was very pleasing, usually, I knew that a singular WB for each location would make batching corrections in post processing that much easier. Good thing the X-H1 is easy to set for that! Also, there are three or four custom WB "slots" (presets) so you could make a custom WB in every scene ( up to four)  in which you'll be shooting and then choose between them for correct color balance in the quick menu when you change locations. 

I mostly use single point AF and my shoot at Zach Theatre was no different. We were shooting lots of very tight shots; just an eye or just lips, so I'd set my composition and then use the joystick on the back of the camera to move the AF point until it was exactly where I wanted it. I found that staying in the center area, the area filled with PD-AF points got me almost immediate AF lock-in. Nice. 
A grab shot of the jewelry props. Focusing on the blue necklace.

Working with a video team is always a process that requires patience. When shooting stills I was the camera operator/director/creative director and producer. A film crew from an ad agency has a different person for each and every position as well as a representative from account service, and also a few ad agency interns. There's an approval chain to be respected as well. The result is that many times the camera operator will set up what he thinks is a good match for the image, based on the storyboard, and then the director will make his changes while looking at his monitor. Then the creative director will step in and pee on his corner of the approval process before the account service person then realizes that it would be smart (politically and bottom line-esque) to also include the client in the loop, which the requires the in-house marketing director to look and approve, who then solicits her team to come look and to give her feedback and suggestions. 

While the actual video shooting of a scene might take only one minute of time with the camera rolling it's entirely possible the the set up and approval process that proceeds the actual pushing of the button could take as much as half an hour. More, if substantial changes are requested....


While all the deliberations ensued I was able to gently move non-essential people out of the frame, collaborate with the actor/talent and get as many shots as we needed before the video caucus adjourned and was ready to "roll." Working around "group think" is something I did all day long...

Talking about the 60mm macro f2.8 lens for a minute. I liked its small size and the way the lens rides on the front of the big camera. The lens hood is very long, well over-engineered, but as it reflects the most conservative aid against flare and non-image forming light I could only presume it does its job well and left it on all the time. Since none of my shots were ruined by flare or lowered contrast I was happy to always have the lens hood along for the ride. The added weight was negligible.

I mentioned that I used the 60 macro lens mostly wide open (at f2.8 mostly) and it was sharp and had a nice, almost film days/nostalgic feel to it. I found that I needed to crank and crank the focusing ring to get the changes I might need when using manual focusing but the auto focus was more than acceptable. Most lenses would be easier to focus if the attached cameras were stabilizing them, and since the X-H1 is the first stabilized Fuji body it could be that the very good performance I was getting, when focusing with the 60mm, was due to the positive effects of the image stabilization. 

At any rate, with the equivalent angle of view of a 90mm lens on a full frame camera the 60mm on the Fuji was right in the middle of the sweet spot I'd been looking for in the APS-C format. Long enough to compress and also drop stuff out of focus in the background but not so tight as to remove all vestiges of background information from the resulting images. I like the lens I got and I intend to keep it. 


Back to the camera. I have to spend a sentence or two praising the camera's fantastic shutter. Even in fully mechanical mode it makes a Leica M series rangefinder camera shutter from the golden days sound like the banging of a metal trashcan lid. Remove the X-H1 a foot or two from your head and, in a normal room with conversations taking place, I can't imagine you'd ever hear the shutter. That's classy! And it meant I could shoot all day long without disturbing the flow of the video process. It meant calling less attention to me.

One more plus for the X-H1 is the finder. The EVF finder. It's just great. Big and sharp and detailed. It makes reality, as seen through an optical viewfinder, look vague, uninteresting and amorphous. Once you look through the finder (EVF) on an X-H1, or a Panasonic GH5S or G9, I doubt you'll ever want to go back to the dark ages of (non-informative) optical viewfinders. 

None of this is meaningful without knowing about image quality. It's one thing to hold a camera comfortably and well, and to be able to view the image well, but the reason these beasts exist is to create images. In this regard I can say that the Jpeg and Raw images I've been getting out of the X-H1 and the X-T3 are, in their own way, every bit the equal of the files I've gotten from the best full frame DSLR and mirrorless cameras I've owned. 

There is only one operating function that threw me for the first five or ten times in the field since I've owned and started using the X-H1, and that is having to do with the shutter speed dial. If I'm shooting in manual mode and have both the aperture and shutter speed dials set to non-automatic settings I'll go to change the shutter speed in 1/3rd stop increments with my front or rear dial (depending on how I have my camera configured) and if I'm within the two thirds stop range on either side of the number set on the shutter speed ring the camera works just as ever other camera I've owned does. But beyond that range the shutter won't respond to the camera body dial (not the dedicated, mechanic SS dial) and appears frozen. I finally realized that I just needed to move the dedicated shutter speed dial to a greater or lesser value to get back into the zone. Full shutter speeds are set on the shutter speed dial while third stop increments are set with a (reconfigurable) dial that falls to the thumb or forefinger. Remember that eccentric part of the old dial aesthetic and operations and you'll happily pound through the universe of manual settings, forget it and you'll hit the magic wall of frustration. After that happens everything seems harder and more challenging.

(Written Sunday evening) So, several people have asked me in the last week how I like working with the Fuji X-H1. They want to know if I prefer either the new X-T3 or the less (internal processor) advanced but I.S. capable X-H1. I would answer like this: In response to the question of "how much do I like the X-H1?" I would just say that when I found out I could get one (the X-H1) with the battery grip for only $1299 at B&H Photo and Video this evening I ran to my computer to order a second set. When asked for my preference between the X-T3 and the X-H1 I would say that my preference is to use the X-T3 for video and the X-H1 for absolutely anything else. On paper the X-T3 has a newer, higher res BSI sensor and also a bevy of hot, new processors but the X-H1 has it all over its stable mate when it comes to the overall feel and operational fluidity. I grab for the X-H1 nearly every time....

My favorite new discovery about the X-H1 (and by extension, the X-T3): The final thing I wanted to mention in regards to the X-H1 is something that came to me in post processing. I'd shot everything using the standard camera profile and in a raw format. When I pulled the files into Adobe Lightroom I wanted to experiment with all the different, available camera color profiles. I like Classic Chrome a lot of wide scenics but the profile I found myself using on hundreds of files, where skin tone quality and dynamic range were concerned, was the Eterna profile. I know it was included as a decent, low contrast, low saturation profile for videographers who wanted to deliver work straight out of camera (meaning pleasing) files but I found that profile to be a great starting point for anything I shot that had a person in it. 

Eterna is not for everything but it's a beautiful profile and one which makes everyone look better; whether you are photographing them for still images or capturing video. 

I'm pretty happy with the Fuji system. I have one or two more lenses to buy and I'll happily use it for a good portion of my photography work. I'm going to have to let go of a couple lesser bodies once my second X-H1 camera is delivered but I think I can live without the smaller bodies and shed few tears. 

But why did I buy a second X-H1? Simple. When I use cameras in the theater I put a long lens on one body and a shorter lens on a second body and then use them interchangeably. I've thought for years that it's easier to grab the right camera body (from a choice of two with two different lenses mounted) and blaze away rather than to stop, scour through my camera bag, change lenses and the shoot. You lose too much time that way; you become like a person texting and driving; you take your eyes off the road in front of you....

With two identical cameras you can use a short zoom on one and a long zoom on a second camera and you'll likely have everything covered. Set the cameras to identical white balances and exposures and you'll find post production to be quicker and easier than ever before. 

Since I bought my first unit at a very advantageous used price and am buying the second one at a radically low new price I'll have only $2200 invested in two current (and mostly state of the art) cameras with battery grips and a total of six new batteries. For a person who would never want to be caught without an identical back up camera I think I found my perfect camera deal.. 

I will most probably divest some earlier (Fuji) purchases from my nascent days with Fuji in order to soften the blow. I can already see the X-E2 and X-E1 up for sale, along with some other bits and pieces, but for the moment all the Panasonic stuff is safe and protected. 

More to come as I know more about these miraculous, modern cameras. 

Camera beauty shot, just below: