A gear assessment after three long days of shooting.

This photograph has nothing to do with the blog. I shot it for a client that changed their mind and went in another direction. But that's another story. This story is about examining process.

Everyone does photographic work differently and we tend to work in such isolation that I thought it would be fun to deconstruct a job I just finished and explain why and how I did what I did the way I did it. But first, a little history.....

Up until 2001 there was a big category of corporate photographic work that fell under the general label of "events". These might be sponsored trade shows, technical conventions, sales meetings, annual technology showcases or incentive trips for top performers. Whatever species they were they generally hired a photographer to go along and document the event. The images (as color prints) were often provided to the attendees as souvenirs of their own participation in the event. The images were also used to promote next year's events (in the case of technology showcases and conventions) and the branded showcases generated images that would be used on corporate websites and blogs. Photographers were kept busy serving a number of masters which may have included: The marketing team, a separate event team, the PR people for the client, and the sales team.

It wasn't unusual to start early (6:30am) at to work well past midnight covering VIP dinners, speeches, break out sessions, product demonstrations, documenting decor and signage and thousands of other related photo jobs. Some jobs required immediate processing and proofing or even scanning to provide fast images for "breaking news" PR stories.

When 9/11 hit it decimated the event photography market for corporate photographers and had just started to recover by the end of 2006 when the growing recession started to push down dates and billings. By the time the whole market went south in 2008 anyone in the business might have been better off looking for "retail" clients (weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc) or just exiting the business.

Recently, my company got booked to do a corporate event. I can't talk about the actual client or the actual event but that's not important. What I want to talk about is how I handled this event and the things that I learned about shooting after the paradigm shift.

Here's a description of the event: One location, three days. 250 extremely high demographic VIPs from several continents. One day of casual meetings capped with a social event and a live performance by a name performer. Second day, wall to wall panel discussions in the same ballroom, from 8am to 6pm, followed by a cocktail party.

Second day, non stop panel discussions from 8am until 2pm. Event ends. My requirements: Photograph every speaker, every event, every session. Wide shots of the ballroom in session. Wide shots of each panel in session. All keynote speakers. Entertainment documentation. Candid shots of guests interacting.

Signage shots, food documentation, property shots for future events. All the images shot on Sunday had to be post processed and delivered by Monday morning, before the start of the session. Shots from day two and day three didn't need to be delivered until two days later. The client emphasized: A. They wanted plenty of choices. B. They wanted complete discretion. (no lighting, no stopping for photo ops, no set ups) and they wanted the photographer to blend in with the crowd. Forget the photo vest and the dockers khakis with running shoes, this was suit and tie all the way. C. They wanted great images. (which client doesn't?).

Here's what I packed: a. Olympus e30 body b. Olympus e3 body c. Olympus e520 body d. 35-100 mm f2 lens. e. borrowed 14-35mm f2 lens. f. 14-54mm lens. g. 11-22mm lens. h. 40-150mm lens. i. 50mm Macro lens. j. 25mm pancake lens. k. two Metz 48 flashes. l. one Speedlight Prokit diffuser for the flashes.

As I was getting ready for the first day's shoot all the horror stories I read about the Olympus noise issues at high ISO crept into my head and made me anxious. I knew that they were no match for a Nikon 700 but hubris demanded that I stand my ground and accept my choice from this past summer.

The first day was casually paced and the cameras and lenses acquitted themselves nicely. The 35-100 f2 (ff equiv = 70-200) was wonderful at capturing the performer on an outdoor stage. The e30 worked perfectly with the Metz AF48 flash for quick candids and the Speedlight Prokit diffuser was noticeably better than other flash diffusers I've tried in the past. Day one was a "no issues" day. The post processing was done in Lightroom 3.0 beta and went off without a hitch.

Up at 6 am (two hours too early by my reckoning) to shower, breakfast, get coffee and show up to deliver the DVD from the night before. Now the real fun would begin. A large ballroom with low room lighting and a wide stage lit with an array of tungsten spots on a truss suspended in front of the stage near the ceiling. a row of computer controlled LED's behind the stage for floor level accent lights and another truss behind the stage to rim light the participants in the panel discussions. The panels were as large as 12 people plus moderators. They were spread across the stage in swivel chairs. Comfy, padded swivel chairs. To each side were giant screens that would show magnified views of speakers as well as charts and graphs. The standard power point content.

I chose a table near the front of the ballroom and staked out a small area. I wore a dark suit, subdued stripped shirt, red knit tie and a pair of black dress shoes. So did nearly everyone in the room. Including the women. If I had not dragged along the cameras no one would have guessed that I was the "odd man out". When you are going low profile you need to choose your gear wisely and keep it close. Flash was totally out for the sessions. I needed speed and reach so I put the 14-35mm f2 on one body and the 35-100 on the other body. Set both at ISO 1250 and waited for the conference to begin.

I didn't want to move around for no reason and I didn't want to keep my camera bag at the table or on the floor where people might trip over it so I put two extra batteries in my suit pockets along with two extra 4GB CF cards. I kept a small notebook in my pocket along with a Sharpie and my old fountain pen. Unless I needed a back up the two cameras and two lenses would do for the entire daylong first installment.

What I found. With both cameras set to their default sharpening positions and with gradation set to normal and noise filtering set to low the cameras did a decent job giving me sharp files with very little blurring from the noise filtration. The only problems I had in post were images that were more than one half stop under exposed. These files showed more noise than most other brands of cameras would show. Knowing the production company was using tungsten as their main light source allowed me to preset a WB that was reliable. The only variation came when shooting the moderators who were seated in front of laptop computers. The blue of the screens caused a mild color cast and the mixed colors were impossible to totally correct. But certainly not a big issue nor an issue endemic only to the Olympus cameras.

The 35-100mm was the most used lens and therein lies an issue I am grappling with today, the day after the show. My left arm and shoulder are sore from holding up the lens and body. I guess I'm out of shape but nine hours of four pound weight lifting certainly do take their toll.

Let's talk about exposure for a moment. Someone will probably wonder why I didn't use ISO 800 if there was a noise concern at faster settings. Here was my math for the longer zoom lens: I wanted to use an aperture of 2.5 (two thirds of a stop from max aperture) or f2.8. That would allow me to render the back curtain out of focus and on the Olympus Super High Grade glass even wide open apertures are very sharp and well corrected. While it's true that the built in Image Stabilization would have allowed me to use shutter speeds down to a tested 1/50th with good results the real caveat is subject movement. And my experiences in the film days and the early days of digital taught me that, to stop subject movement of a speaker, would require shutter speeds of between 1/125th or 1/160th at a minimum. Given the light levels on the stage that pretty much dictated an ISO of 125o. The optimum max setting on both cameras is really ISO 800 but post processing counts for a lot (while adding time to the back end of the process).

Wearing the dark suit is always good for the times when you need to move and find different angles. In the dark of the ballroom you present a less distracting contrast. When it was necessary to move for better or different angles I followed a pattern where I would move straight back several rows of tables and then head to one side or the other of the room. I would move in for side shots and then head to the back of the room for a wider view and then circle around the back of the room to the other side for opposite side shots.

I brought the 11-22mm lens but never needed to use it. There was ample space to move around the periphery of the stage and still get wide enough shots to include all of the stage and the side screens. None of the other backup equipment was used either. I brought a monopod with a Manfrotto ballhead but soon discovered that I got more "keeper" frames with the IS off the monopod than on. If I turned off IS the monopod worked but the movement wasn't abated as much as with the IS. When I used IS on the monopod the focusing accuracy began to suffer. I dumped the monopod in the production area at my first opportunity.

The e3 and the e30 are supposed to share the same AF system but the e3 was by far the better focuser. It seemed to hunt less and lock in quicker than it's brother camera. I switched lenses between the two cameras to see if that was the differentiator but no. I did not experience any front or back focusing from any of the combinations except when I tried to use IS with my monopod.

The cameras are set up differently and many people comment on the fact that the e3 has a "push the button and then swivel a dial" control for changing modes while the e30 has a manual dial. I must say though that I generally use both cameras set to manual so it's something of a non-issue for me. There is a menu display that can be brought up (with both cameras) on the rear LCD and that makes it easy to make quick changes in everything from sensor selection, iso changes, color balance shifts and even drive speed. It was very useful.

Not useful was the swivel screen. I would only use that capability with live view and this was decidedly not a situation for live view. The most useful thing about a swiveling LCD screen in the ability to face it back into the body so it doesn't get scratched in transport.

The smaller mirror and shutter in both cameras made them much more stealthy than the shutter in my D700 and just a little quieter than the sweet shutter in the Nikon D300 (that is a nearly perfect camera....).

I had lunch both days with the attendees. I did not bring along the cameras to the on site dining room and even though they recognized me from the conference the participants did not rush over to talk about camera crap like they do at most high tech functions. These people had their agenda thoroughly sorted and were the no nonsense sort of people who might think that hobbies and hobby jobs are a waste of time and resources. Nice for me as at other shows I sometimes can barely do my job because so many people come over to chat about cameras and other photo accessories, oblivious to the fact that I'm usually running on a tight schedule.

In retrospect the job would have been easier with a Nikon D3s and the 70-200mm but they don't make a fast, normal zoom with VR and the mirror noise is more than I would be comfortable with. It's also a much heavier and larger package to walk around with.

What would I wish for from Olympus? Not much. A cleaner high ISO. And I'm sure that will come. A price drop on the incredibly good 90-240mm 2.8 lens (the equiv. of a ff 180-500mm f2.8) that's sharp edge to edge, wide open! That's about it. I love the small and light profiles of the bodies. The e3 finder is as good as any I've seen for the price. the files had great color with very little cast to the flesh tones.

In fact, after years of nursing Nikon files through the process with their attendant flesh tone difficulties, I found the files from the Olympus cameras to handle flesh tones superbly. And, after all, flesh tones are 90 % of what I shoot.

The visual differences between the e30 and the e3? The 30 is more saturated. The e3 is more neutral. Noise wise they are so close that the noise results become more subject and exposure driven than camera sensitive. Of the two I like the more demure out of camera color from the e3.

I used Lightroom for post because of the range of tools it has but if there were substantially fewer files than the 2500 I shot I would have preferred the color and noise tools in the latest rev of Phase One's Capture One software. It's amazing where the Olympus cameras are concerned!!!

Most important gear? According to the client, who expected that the images would be good, the three nice suits were the standout accessory. She mentioned that in the early days of these conferences they often wound up with photographers who showed up dress in battered khakies and a "ratty fishing vest". According to her they stood out like a pig at a horse race.

This led me to a train of thought that's stayed with me all day today as I sit in a dark room and stare at a monitor. We're in a profession where, if were are practicing at the top of our craft and in good markets, we can expect to charge fees commensurate with other professionals. Perhaps a bit more than accountants and various corporate managers and perhaps a bit less than our GP doctors and family practice attorneys but can you imagine any of them showing up at a business function NOT wearing a suit and tie? Interesting. I wear a suit and tie or jacket in nearly every intersection I have with a corporation's top people, both out of respect and because it breaks down one more stylistic barrier between our industries. It's a short hand way of requesting that they treat you with the same respect that they have for other professionals.

When I was younger I thought dressing for success was bullshit. I didn't have clients who dressed well. I also wasn't able to charge nearly as much as I do now. Which came first? The chicken or the egg?

The job is wrapped, the files have been edited, color corrected and converted (in that order). They'll be delivered as max quality jpegs. I'll deliver them on a small, USB hard drive. The job has already been billed.

Wow. Two cameras, two lenses and one flash. That's it for all three days. No tripod. No other lights. No exotic wide angles. No extreme telephotos. Just straightforward stuff. Love it.

The final steps are to burn three sets of DVD's and then push the files off one of the two hard drives they reside on now. I'll keep one set handy just in case. Everything else will get files. I noticed that one pair of shoes needs a shine. The shirts need to go to the laundry. I'll clean the cameras and clean out my brain.

Then I get to work on some product shots for a designer friend. That's here in the studio. ISO 100 and all the light I could ever want. And I get to wear my ratty jeans and a pair of sandals. I could even wear a photo vest if I wanted to...........

Just thought it would be fun to devolve a job while it's fresh in my head. More later.


Bill M said...

Outstanding. Thanks very much for this. Fascinating to follow along as you debrief. Please keep doing this!

I'm surprised that you found your arm tired from the weight of the camera, after downsizing (heh) from your Nikon system, where the combined body and 70-200 lens would have been a lot more weight.

How did you like Lightroom 3 Beta, compared to LR 2? I haven't made the jump, as they make no guarantees that the final release will be compatible, and I don't want to lose my edits...

What was the the purpose of the notebook, the Sharpie and the fountain pen?

Rusty said...

Nice. Did you shoot Raw?
I have your books BTW.

Norbert Hofmann said...

A very good blow-by-blow account. Extremely interesting for an amateur (with absolutely no intention on going pro) to look at your way of working. Thanks a lot


Anonymous said...

Your post is very informative! Makes me want to take the plunge and get the 35-100mm. THANKS!

Pete Aston said...

Very interesting read, thanks for posting. I happened to see a photographer yesterday bulging out of a tatty bomber jacket and I thought how unprofessional he looked. But then he was shooting pretty girls draped over a Ferrari while I was stuck in an office, so there might have been some jealousy involved!

N-MD said...

Not that I have one, but isn't the D3 / D700 barely breaking a sweat at ISO 1200 or even ISO 2400? It seems that attribute would be worth any pain with flesh tones those cameras might have. Not to mention I would imagine the Nikon flash system is a litte better developed than Olympus'.

Mark Olwick said...

Outstanding post, Kirk. Thank you for sharing that.

Peter Frailey said...

Very informative, Kirk. Regarding monopods I find with my own camera (lighter setup than yours (E520 with heaviest lens the 70-300) that when hand held, camera motion is more of a tight circle around the bullseye; with a monopod the up/down motion is eliminated but side-to-side motion is increased. It is as though the monopod can't eliminate my hand motion, but only redirects it into side-to-side motion.

Peter Frailey said...

Kirk, I have a question about LR3 (I have LR2.5 and have not downloaded yet the beta 3.0). Do you find the default settings give a different interpretation of the Oly Raw file than does LR2.

Peter F.

steveburns said...

"It's a short hand way of requesting that they treat you with the same respect that they have for other professionals." That is so true.

Years ago on assignment to do a portrait of the owner of a privately held pharmaceutical co in NY. The subject arrives, enters the room and the first thing out of his mouth was " I was told that I was being photographed by Karsh, and you're not Karsh." My response was that I was expecting to be photographing Chruchill.

Smile's all around, the designer's jaw nearly hit the floor. The reason I got away with it was that I had visually placed myself at the level of the subject by dressing appropriately, as he did. I asked for that respect, and it allowed us to spar in jest.

The portrait came out great.

Enjoyed your post immensely. What I remember from the last major event I shot where the three days of walking, walking and more walking. I was beat!

Danny Chatham said...

Want to have a ball shooting your personal stuff
again?Get the OLYMPUS EP1,its even better than the E3&E30 in clean images.The methodical type
shooting you do is well suited to this little jewel.and thanks for having the guts to be different.

kirk tuck said...

Steve, I'll never forget the day I rummaged through the closet and found one of my favorite old suits to wear on assignment to photograph the CEO of a rather large company. He walked in wearing the same suit! He smiled and said, "Nice suit. I like your taste in clothes." We both laughed and have had a marvelous working rapport ever since.

I remember early in my career being asked to photograph a clean room. As was the custom among young Austin creatives in the dead of a hot summer I showed up in cargo shorts and a pair of sandals (dress sandals?). The sandals didn't meet the safety standards and the shorts didn't meet anyone's standards. I was not asked back.

Dressing well is a marketing strategy, not a "lifestyle" decision...

kirk tuck said...

N-MD, You are absolutely correct in your assessment of the cameras' high ISO capabilities. My only rational explanation is that the Olympus cameras have faster equivalent lenses and that the smaller format bodies yield more depth of field which is a mutually advantageous couplet.

As to flash. All TTL systems seem roughly the same to me. That's why I generally used them in the old fashion guide number method. Distance and aperture = perfect exposure every time.

kirk tuck said...

"What was the the purpose of the notebook, the Sharpie and the fountain pen?"

Bill, I like to take notes. If I meet someone interesting, if I have an idea for a book, or some visual cue gives me an idea for the novel I am forever trying to finish. The fountain pen adds excitement and adventure to my life as I am always anxious that it will leak and leave a black spot on my white shirt. I keep the Sharpie handy in case I want to write on some white gaffer's tape. Some times I'll put a piece of white tape on a secondary flash and use the Sharpie to note which channel the flash is on.

Mark Crowley said...

Such great insights. Thanks for sharing.

Ibarionex said...

Great entry. The insight you bring to negotiating the social end of the gig and not just the technical ones are greatly appreciated and insightful. Keep up the great work.

Bill Beebe said...

So you did finally break down and purchase the E-3. I thought you would. lol.

matt s said...

What a great article Kirk. Tons of info in there for me to digest far beyond the main points you made.

If the result of you leaving Flickr is more articles like this, the photo community should have kicked you off Flickr a long time ago.

Thank you.

kirk tuck said...

Bill, you can read me like a cheap book. I just hope that cheap book is one of mine...... :-)

Dan said...

You mentioned ISO 100 back in the studio in your wrap comments. You may want to compare the overall IQ of the E3 at ISO 200 against IS) 100. I think you will see some DR improvement at 200.

If I'm not mistaken, the engineered "sweet spot" for the ISO setting on the E3 is 200.

Dan Ferrall

Charles Black said...

Kirk, Always nice to read your entries that reflect real considerations of a workng pro. I constantly remind people that a real pro doesn't come up with excuses for why his gear isn't good enough etc. He (or she) knows light; knows his gear; knows how to combine the two with a subject to produce results his clients like. All of which involves style and technique in a way that I think people don't appreciate in this age of digitally induced gear lust.

Bold Photography said...

Kirk - nice summary. I am now just barely recovering from the shoot I did this weekend -- but the dress code there was a (supplied) t-shirt, jeans and my camera. 9,500ish photos later, I'm very sore and happy about the results I got.

I'm glad that your event went better - I'm sure your billings were much higher than mine! :-) I *could* go to the next one in a suit, but laying on the ground in a suit doesn't bode well for the cleaning bills....

Matt said...

Great read, Kirk. I surely appreciate the insights and education you provide. I find myself reading your posts (and books) over and over again because I find the information so very worthwhile.

perry said...

nice read Kirk!

thanks for speaking to our class last week, it was great. ps I ordered your book :)

Elise Walker said...

Thank you for this post. I love reading about the lives of event photographers because I'm aspiring to be one myself.

Anonymous said...

Great read and outstanding review of two Olys. Your on-hands review makes me want to go and buy an E-3!

Paulo Rodrigues said...

"in the early days of these conferences they often wound up with photographers who showed up dressed in battered khakies and a ratty fishing vest"

Did nobody else read this and immediately think of David Hobby ? :)

kirk tuck said...

Paulo, I'm pretty sure David dresses the part when he's on assignment. He's a pro. But I sure am seeing a ton of photographers in videos and such that need to work out more and snack less!

Thanks for the response. Kirk

Paulo Rodrigues said...

How very dare you! :)

C. Kurt Holter said...

Great post. I'm known for wearing jeans for regular commercial shoots, but when I'm covering an event like this one, I always wear a suit, and frequently get positive comments.

If it's a local shoot, the comments are usually along the lines of, "we didn't recognize you in that suit"!

...but I wholeheartedly echo your observations that one's dress can go a long way toward one's credibility

Cliff LeSergent said...

Kirk, I see you're using Metz 48 flashes now... what happened to those Vivitar DF 383's you were trying? Care to give us a quick comparison of the two units?

By the way, my copy of your "Commercial Photography Handbook" finally arrived the other day (ordered it in September). The demand must have been higher than Amazon expected... but it was definitely worth the wait!

kirk tuck said...

Cliff, Thanks for the note. Her's a quick assessment: The Vivitar recycles in about 8 seconds with NiMh's/ The Metz in about 4 secs. The Metz allows FP flash. The build quality is better on the Metz. One reason to love the inexpensive Vivitar 383df is the built in slave mode coupled with power ratio control. And when you go into the slave mode it cuts off the auto shut down.

Thanks for buying the third book. It is my absolute favorite and I can't understand why it doesn't outsell the first and second. Please post a review if you have the time!

All the best, Kirk

Anonymous said...


Have you considered picking up a F1.4 lens. I have used the 30mm Sigma, and currently have the 25mm Panasonic which I prefer. I find the large aperture lets me use lower ISO levels and provides great creative options. The 50mm F1.4 Sigma could work well for you.

kirk tuck said...

Here's the coda to this article. We're booked again for this year's (2010) conference! Just found out today.