You've heard about walking meditation? What some of us do is walking/photographing meditation. (I can no longer use ellipses; my son says they have become passé).
This holiday will be one of the weirdest ones on record. It's our first Christmas shopping season where interest in video seems to be outstripping traditional photography.
I'm still a photographer at heart but I can't help noticing that 7 of my last 10 commercial jobs were about video production and not photography. And, if I look on social media sharing channels (TikTok, Instagram, etc.) I'm finding more and more video snippets interspersed among the photos of cute dogs and stereotypical beauty models. I think this will be the first holiday season in which my shopping list for myself (that's my favorite one) is larded with video-oriented toys instead of cutting edge still camera gear.
I recently produced three different video programs for my actor/singer/performer friend, Kenny. On each project I figured out something new that would make my productions either easier or better --- or both.
Here are my three generic recommendations to make video more productive and fun:
Monopods with video heads. I get so much use out of the big Benro monopod with the S4 "fluid" head I bought a couple of years ago. I use it a lot for fast moving productions because it's so much faster to set up than a big tripod. Mine has the little feet at the bottom which provide a relatively stable base; but it's a set up I have to keep my eye on if my intention is to walk away from the combination of camera and monopod for even a second...
I mostly use the monopod for those in between shots where I want the option of quickly repositioning but I'm staying relatively still and stable when shooting. Much different from the gimbal shots where movement is the entire reason to use a gimbal.
The biggest revelation, vis-a-vis monopods, that I've had this year came while watching videos about video production by Brandon Li, over on YouTube. I love the look of crane shots in movies and I've worked with big cranes and movie cameras before. The cranes were heavy and mostly required lots of set up and rehearsals. They are not what I would consider "portable." So, with that preconception in mind, I was sitting in the office watching a video by Li about gimbals when he put his gimbal on the end of a monopod (taking off the fluid head first) and effectively uses the combination of gimbal and monopod as a highly portable crane. He showed his techniques and results as he started with a very high shot and swooped the camera down into a food market into a level shot of a shop keeper. I played that part back five or six times.
You'll need to develop some arm strength to do those moves on a regular basis but he did it without all the drama and complexity of setting up a huge stand and a ten foot crane. And he did it without a crew.
No matter how complex you want to get with video, or with many different subjects in photography, a monopod is an ultimately useful starting point for camera stabilization. For the most part, except for locked down video interviews, or technically demanding photography, I prefer a stout, footed monopod to just about any tripod. I'm brand agnostic. I mentioned the biggest Benro monopod but there are dozens of good choices in the market from which to choose.
External Monitor/Recorders. I'm currently on my third generation of Atomos external monitor/recorders. I call them monitor/recorders because these are the two different functions the products I use offer. You can get inexpensive five and seven inch monitors that do not record digital video, and they work great when it comes to offering you a magnified view along with some better focusing options, but I really like the ones that record as well as monitor. My last "upgrade" was from an Atomos Ninja Flame to an Atomos Ninja V.
If I was looking for strictly a monitor the "Flame to V" wasn't much of an upgrade. In fact, in a couple of ways it was a downgrade. I moved from a clear and bright seven inch screen to a five inch screen. I moved from a unit that could take two "hot swappable" batteries to a unit that takes only one battery. But since I was also looking for a state of the art recorder the V is the better option.
It's smaller and lighter so you can more easily balance it on a cage or on your camera. The screen is capable of higher brightness and the touch controls are more detailed and mature. I like using it because it allows so much more choice when it comes to the kinds of video files you can create. While files straight out of most cameras are a very compressed file type called Long GOP, which saves space on memory cards but is tougher for computers to edit, the Atomos units can take the uncompressed content over HDMI and make ProRes or DNx files that are in an All-I format. It's a format that takes up more space on a memory card (or an SSD) but which requires much less furious calculation and demystification in the editing process. And, since every frame is self contained it's less prone to showing motion artifacts and compression artifacts when edited.
But I really like the Ninja V because it opens up nerdy, fun file types from certain cameras. With the Sigma fp you can import ProRes Raw files in 4K. If you use a Panasonic S1H you can import files into the same ProRes Raw format but you can do it in 5.9K file sizes. You can do the same with the S5 and, promised in early 2021, an upgrade to the S1 will allow it to do the same.
A good monitor is a lifesaver for stuff like long lens follow camera work in theater or sports. You can punch in a focus while you are rolling which is something most cameras don't allow on their own. You can also set exposures quickly and accurately via waveforms on the monitor and, if you have a human subject you can use your vector scope feature to get near perfect flesh tones which will save you a lot of time and energy in post production.
I love the fact that my "V" takes fast, relatively cheap (compared to big, fast SD cards) SSDs. I just bought a terabyte SSD for additional storage and it's faster than any of my SD cards (which are mostly V90s) and cost me about $100. I can shoot video to the SSD and then, using a simple SATA to USB-C cable, hook the drive directly to my computer and edit to and from the drive. Of course, I would generally back up the original material somewhere else first.
Gimbals for everything. Kind of kidding here. If I were getting my feet wet in video I'd start out the way I did and buy a decent $100-$150 gimbal for my iPhone. The Smooth 2 from Zhiyun is the one I bought but I'm sure it's been superseded by something better at the same price by this time. What this "entry" gimbal does is teach you how gimbals really work and let you practice without wearing yourself down trying to grapple with the weight of a bigger gimbal+camera+lens. Gimbals add the ability to move with and around subjects with a lot of freedom. And most phones are good enough video cameras now to make the exercise fun.
If you aren't shooting video professionally or if your style of video only calls for using a gimbal on relatively few shots you can look in the used market and find some real bargains. Gimbal makers are in that classic super fast improvement stage where more and more features are being added and more controls put at operator's fingertips. The integration with phones and iPad is also accelerating. What this means is that gimbal power users, and twitchy consumers, are dumping recent models of gimbals at a record pace.
The Ronin-S used to be the "go to" gimbal but that was two years ago. It hit the market at somewhere around $700-800, depending on the accessory package. I bought a complete, clean, used one a couple months ago for a little over $100. A couple of weeks ago a local videographer upgraded from last year's ultra darling gimbal, the Weebill S to the newest DJI RS2. He went from a $500 gimbal to a $900 gimbal and sold me his clean and perfectly function Weebill S for around $250. And that's with a transmitter package included.
At those kinds of prices I think most of us can afford a good gimbal. And the funny thing is that the two used gimbals I bought this way were both models that operators were raving about and salivating over in the last couple of years. Tons of great work has been made by users of both models.
Here's a couple of important things to be aware of when using a gimbal: You have to take the maker seriously when it comes to weight limits. The overall weight of the camera package affects the motors of the gimbal and can cause muttering and vibration if you go over the limits. Second, getting the camera balanced correctly makes the gimbal easier to operate and provides the smoothest results. Small cameras work better than bigger, heavier cameras. I'll happily trade off a bit of full frame S1H performance for a more nimble and manageable camera like the G9 or GH5. Finally, don't think you'll be using big, long zooms with your gimbal. While there are models out there that will handle heavy loads those are not the models that most of us want to toss money out for one man projects or advanced amateur learning adventures. Long tracking shots with f2.8 Zooms are probably still better handled by using dollies or other methods.
These three categories of accessories have provided the most fun and the best looking video for me in 2020 and I think they up the production quality of projects in a cost effective and meaningful way.
Beyond that the biggest lure for me is still lenses. I'm constantly surprised at what a different the right lens makes. But you can research that just about anywhere.
Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. I'm feeling gratitude for just making it through such a chaotic year. I hope we all make it intact into 2021.
We're sticking to home base this year. No celebrations with relatives other than a call on Zoom with Belinda's family. We'll all bring pie and coffee to the call. Ben, Belinda and I are all fortunate to be able to work almost exclusively from home. I'm probably the person in the family who deals with people outside our "bubble" the most but in my work encounters up until ten days ago I've been extremely careful to always wear a mask and require mask wearing by ANYONE at my location. We're finishing up for the year. All the rest of my work is post production alone in my studio and delivery via FTP.
I'm hoping all three of the major vaccine makers are up and running with safe vaccines in very early 2021. I'll be first in line to get my two doses, right after they take care of all the essential medical personnel and the first responders. Oh, and the workers who have to deal with the vagaries of face-to-face service with the nut jobs in our culture.
It's bittersweet to see the stock market set new records while pandemic induced poverty is still rampant and may be growing. We're the lucky ones. We have a great roof over our heads, food on the table and gimbals in our bags. Time to think about 2020 contributions to charities.
If you itemize on your tax returns your advisor should let you know that there was a rule change just for 2020 that will allow you to maximize your deductions to charities. I've got the local food bank on my list.
If you can it's a good time to make a difference. Everything helps.
Off to see what I can do to help with dinner. Have a great holiday and I hope you drop by tomorrow to see what my fevered brain has concocted for your reading pleasure. - Kirk
Taking a break this morning to unwrap my Holiday Gifts from Panasonic. Santa came early with updates!
The GH5S is such an eccentric camera but maybe that's the way cameras should be. I think it's misguided, both on the part of the makers and the users, to claim that every new camera is potentially a multi-capable, ultra-hybrid that is capable of super high resolution, incredibly low noise, gifted with a minute profile and yet also capable of tossing off the intense heat internally generated by enormous video files while also focusing with radar-quickness --- and all at an affordable price point.
My little(?) GH5S makes no claims for all around-ness, instead it just does a few things very well. It does those things excellently, if you consider the price. But it's not going to be your uncles do everything toolkit. Especially if your uncle acquires cameras by comparing everything on a specification spreadsheet.
Here are the things the GH5S does well: It makes very good 4K and 2K video files and does so with a wide range of file types and frame rates. It makes lovely, small raw files. About 10 Megapixels. But it's also the first Panasonic m4:3 camera to make those files with 14 bit raw files -- which is also lovely. The size of the camera, even with a battery grip mounted, is just perfect for my hands. The camera is solid but also not too heavy. It's rarely a burden. I guess if I put an enormously long lens on it I'd start to gripe a bit but then that's true with every system.
So, if you don't want or need to print really large and you like to make your own cinema it's a practical and very well constructed camera that won't break the bank and which will go a long way on a single battery charge.
Of course it has it's flaws. Or maybe limitations is a better way to speak about them... The camera doesn't have image stabilization. There are technical reasons for this but it is what it is. You can use stabilized lenses on it but if I use non-AF, non-stabilized lenses on it I'm either looking to shoot in good light (for photographs) or to use a tripod or a gimbal for video. No way around it. This is not a camera for photographers who want to brag about being able to handhold an exposure down to half a second. I only wish the people I want to make candid photos of would also hold still for half seconds at a time.
Some will also find the 10 megapixel size limit to be too far a reach for their style and I get that. It's why I never think of this particular camera as my "everything" "workhorse" camera. It's just not. But if you surrender to the idea that you are happy sharing your work electronically; on websites, sharing sites and blogs, you'll come to love the haptics of the camera and the pristine nature of its mature sensor tech.
If you are ready to vie with David Fincher for the title of "next great cinema master" you'll find that (excuse the hoary phrase...) this camera punches way above its cost and weight. The video files out of the GH5S are pretty sublime. If you get your exposures and color balance correct you'll be amazed at how rich and satisfying the files are. Add the DMW-XLR audio attachment and some thousand dollar microphones and you'll be equally amazed at how good the recorded sound can be. Even the V-Log is better than it should be.
I use the GH5S, currently, as a walkable notebook. I like the way the files look when I prep them for sharing on the blog and on Instagram. I like the way the video looks when I use the camera on a gimbal, a video monopod or a tripod. One thing that makes it all work for me is the way the menu echoes those found in all my other Panasonic cameras. And, one of my favorite Panasonic Lumix hardware consistencies is the position of the three buttons right next to the shutter button. The same on all six camera models I use most. The left button is for setting white balance, the middle button is for ISO and the right hand button is for setting exposure compensation. With those three buttons and the two setting dials I can do 95% of my shooting (in photography) without ever having to hit a menu.
While the GH5S is nobody's idea of a perfect solution to shooting everything in the universe it is a calm, happy and transparent camera that is a friendly companion with a well defined feature set. Add the Panasonic/Leica 12-60mm lens and you've got something really special. Just don't imagine that it will rival the resolution of a Sony A7RIV, the tracking AF performance of a Canon R5, or the low noise capabilities of the Lumix S1. You'll be disappointed if you do.
If you just want a friendly camera for nearly everything you'll want to share electronically then this one is very well sorted. At least for me.
The perfect m4:3 combo? A three pack. A GH5S for great video. A G9 for great photographs, and a GH5 for the perfect blend. Add very well designed Panasonic/Leica lenses for the win.
It was a beautiful day for walking yesterday, here in Austin. The sun was bright, the sky was clear and the temperature never crested 80°. I grabbed a taco from Torchy's on 2nd and a coffee from Starbuck's on 3rd street. The rest of the time I spent just looking at buildings and people and working with the 25mm Panasonic/Leica lens on my GH5S. Here's some of what I saw:
I'm on vacation from work. Not on vacation from photography or blogging. There's a distinction to be made.
It was a great day to swim, eat a fajita taco at Torchy's on 2nd St. and to walk around with a funny hat and a earnest camera.
I'm not working on any more projects for clients this year. It's a bit of burnout and a bit of precaution.
If you are a crazy person, and you truly believe that mainstream news is lying to you all the time, and that the wearing of masks will lead to the emasculation of the USA male population, and the onset of insanity in everyone around you then all I can do is wish you well and keep my distance. A lot of distance.
But, if are still intellectually functional, and you look at the pandemic numbers and the case increases, you might understand my reticence at going to work with a bunch of people who are essentially strangers. I don't know how many rogue, teenage children they might have living at home who talk a good game but are still enjoying an active, covert nightlife with risky and possibly asymptomatic friends. If you are the marketing director who will be standing near me all day when I shoot "the big job" I'd rather take a pass and wait a while. What's the good of making more money if you aren't going to be around to enjoy it? Or, even worse, what if you live long, long time but with debilitating side effects of a nasty, nasty virus ?
I dropped by Trader Joe's in my neighborhood on the way home. They are still limiting the number of shoppers allowed in the store at any one time. Masks are absolutely mandatory there and have been since March. Everyone was doing a great job at social distancing. It's pleasant to see that a lot of people understand how they can help stop the spread of Covid. And also the flu.
I needed to stock up on bean dip, chips, Candy Cane Jo-Jo's Cookies and sundries. I can never get out of the store without spending $60. It's worse than Whole Foods. But a lot more fun. But my real reason for turning off the phone and leaving the office was to avoid offers I might not have the fortitude to turn down...
I just wanted to walk.
My Apple Watch asked me if I wanted to record my walk. I indicated, "yes."
I walked for three and a half miles and shot about 100 frames with my current camera crush; the Panasonic GH5S. I went for nostalgia where the lens was concerned and popped a 25mm Summilux lens on the front.
The combo was light, dimensionally agile and comfortable. Almost like achieving neutral buoyancy.
I've been wearing the hat for a while and I try to remember my sunscreen but got some bad news from my dermatologist anyway.
I had a biopsy done on a small spot on my face and it turned out to be squamous cell cancer. I have to go in for Mohs surgery the first week of December. That sucks. It's sure to trigger all my medical phobia, plus I'm afraid that any scar will ruin my chances at becoming a late arrival but wildly successful star in Hollywood. Or Bollywood. I'd go either direction depending on my share of the distribution rights....
But seriously, I'm told I'll be out of the pool for a week or two. That's never good. I'm already starting to book up days at the nearby Enchanted Rock Wilderness area. Most likely I'll try to wear out a couple pairs of hiking boots. Guest passes galore.
I'll let you guys know how it goes. Maybe the beautiful girls will assume any scarring on my face is from my Schläger matches at the University of Heidelberg. Those Korbschläger are keen weapons... But maybe my surgeon will be so good and I'll leave without bragging rights. One can hope.
90% of success is just showing up. Over and over again.
When I first started working as a commercial photographer, after stints as a university lecturer and an advertising agency denizen, there weren't a lot of options when it came to packing and transporting gear. We ALL used small armies of assistants to carry, drag and otherwise move our needed gear from location to location. When I left the warm nest of advertising to venture into the dangerous wild lands of photography we usually (desperately) needed to add light to whatever scene we were trying to shoot because we were locked into using slow, color transparency films with (now almost) fantastical ISOs like: 80. Or 100. And we did so with medium format and large format cameras.
Getting good, color correct shots without buckshot sized grain made the use of big, electronic flashes more or less a requirement. It was also a time of many soft boxes so it was a rare day that we might have a reason to use direct flash. More power was always welcome.
My main lighting kit consisted of two Norman PD 2000 flash boxes and about six of the heavy metal heads. The weight of each flash generator was about 32 pounds. The heads weighed about eight pounds each and then there was all that heavy duty cabling and even heavier duty extension cords. We moved with all the grace and speed of sedated water buffalos. The idea of moving between, say, three locations in a day was considered either an Olympian endeavor or a fantasy.
Sure, there were guys strutting around with 35mm cameras and goatees who claimed to be able to do everything with a tripod and some Kodachrome 25 (yes, as in ISO 25) but the advertising agency and corporate clientele I dealt with demanded quite a bit more from their images than the editors of magazines that tolerated and abetted the "small format" shooters. And, of course, the "gold standard" of the day was still the 4x5 inch view camera.
The missing components in that era were strong and lightweight cases in which to transport all the heavy gear. We were so delighted when companies like Pelican hit the market with their resin cases because they were less than half the weight of the wood and metal Anvil cases that were in wide use. But the Pelican cases weighed multiples more than similar cases available today. We kept our assistants busy back then. And they stayed in good physical shape out of necessity. Loading in to a remote location took hours. Getting stuff set up was a process. And taking it all down and packing it out felt more like punishment than the coda of a successful shoot day.
I thought long and hard about this as I was pulling a Think Tank original "Airport Security" rolling case out of the hatchback of the Subaru a few days ago. Back before we ended our commercial engagements for 2020...
How far we'd come. I still light stuff and it still requires moving gear, but nothing like what we did back in the 1980s, 1990s and even into the new century. The ingredients of the present rolling case, if well packed, can rival or exceed what our last century gear was capable of delivering when augmented by 400 pounds of heavy support equipment.
I bought my Airport Security rolling case around the time I was writing my first book about lighting. I'd made a switch from big boxes that plug into the wall to make bright flashes to using Nikon's little hot shoe capable Speedlights. I was amazed enough about how far we'd come with digital gear and efficient lighting to write a book about it. And almost every location we shot on for the book was handled, logistically, by the stuff packed in that one piece of luggage.
Cameras, multiple flashes and triggers, extra batteries, big lenses; the works. Three compact light stands rode in the front, stretchy pocket and a small Gitzo tripod got strapped to the side. No carts, no assistants, no back strain. It was a shift that changed the face of commercial photography on location. But as much as it was made possible by better and better camera sensors and more controllable and powerful small flashes it was ultimately facilitated by the noble rolling case.
"Wheels for everything!" became a mantra.
I have two different Think Tank rolling cases. The biggest is the original (and now travel-battered) Airport Security to which I've added a slightly smaller "Airport Essentials XT" that's also a bit lighter. And I like the fabric better (it's charcoal gray instead of ballistic black) because it looks more au courant.
I bought the second case for those clients who think they might like to add some video to their mix on what starts out as a predominately "still photography" shoot. The second case carries Atomos monitors, audio recorders and interfaces, microphones, batteries, more batteries and mounting hardware for all the video oriented stuff.
The advent of good, sturdy rolling cases was pivotal for me. As was the introduction of flashes that could be individually controlled by their cameras. It meant several kinds of freedom for my ways of working. I could do away with assistants for all but the bigger projects. I could pack everything into the back compartment of my vehicles and still have an available backseat. In some cases (domestic, large airplanes) I could wheel all my gear aboard planes and tuck it into luggage compartments instead of having to check cases. I no longer need to find parking close to wheel chair ramps to get my gear into client buildings. And the list goes on.
I worked with an assistant that I really liked all the way up till 2001. She was great. We carried gear all over the place and depended on a collapsible cart for the heavy stuff. When I was out of the country doing work she freelanced for other photographers. When I came back from an extended trip we met for lunch to catch up and talk about future work.
She'd spent part of the previous week working with a semi-famous (at least in commercial circles) photographer who flew in from NYC. He arrived at the Austin airport with at least a dozen Anvil cases of lighting and support gear. My assistant found herself in a crew with five others. Their job was, essentially, moving the gear. There was no heavy cart to ease the burden. Apparently the photographer's M.O. was to just hire enough strong help to carry all the cases wherever they needed to go. Through airports to waiting taxis. From the taxis to the client locations and all the way down the long halls of corporate America.
The next time we worked together the assistant arrived and we started loading the much smaller (and better packed) cases from my studio into the car. The cart goes in last. When I brought it out to the car she looked at the cart with an unusual expression. And then I saw a tear roll down her face and she smiled at the cart as if it was an old friend she hadn't seen in years. Our day was nimble and efficient. And I worked with her until she headed to Los Angeles to work in movies.
I decided, at that juncture that I'd never find another assistant of her caliber again and that's when I started eyeing the rolling cases and the smaller and lighter inventory of photo luggage.
There are still times when I load out heavy. If we're shooting video on a big set with lots of daylight gushing into our space and the need for lots of light I'll still bring the cart and as much gear as I and an assistant can handle. But over the last decade, out of hundreds and hundreds of location assignments. It's usually just me and a rolling case or two. I like it that way. It helps me maintain the self-delusion that I am, at heart, an introvert who just wants to be left alone.
I've talked about Think Tank stuff but I'm brand agnostic. If a case packs well, is solidly made and has good wheels and an extendible handle that's sturdy I'm good with it. If I find stuff that works better under a different label I'm good with that too.
Now that I'm doing more work with video I have a dream/plan to investigate not bringing my own lighting gear at all but finding a good key grip with a grip truck full of stuff and just having that company show up at our shooting locations to carry in grip gear and lighting and to set it up under my direction.
I have this fantasy of showing up with just my camera and a few of my favorite lenses, walking into the shooting location and setting up my camera on a tripod that's already been set up and made ready. At the end of the shooting day I would disengage the camera, thank all the crew, and walk out the door --- completely unencumbered. Almost seems like a full circle back to the old days.
But for now the rolling cases make life easier and much more mobile. They sure beat the crap out of shoulder bags for moving between two disconnected points.