2.21.2010

Things I learned photographing a TEDx Conference......


There's the TED Conference and then there are TEDx Conferences and I think I should explain the difference first.  The original TED conferences are all about a once per year, concentrated assemblage of international talents from interesting segments of our culture, over the course of three days attendees hear 18 minute presentations from 50 people.  For more information, please go here:  http://www.ted.com

Ruby Jane Smith.  A gifted 15 year old musician, singer and songwriter peforms at TEDx.

These conferences are limited to about 450 attendees and you must become a member of TED for thousands of dollars and then apply to attend.  Obviously, it becomes a very exclusive event very quickly and that is part of its appeal.  But the power of the information presented is available to every one since the conference modules are made available on the web.
Rip Esselstyn, Author of the bestselling book, The Engine 2 Diet.  Leads of the speakers for the day.

In addition to the TED Conference groups can apply to become a franchisee and create and produce a TEDx event in their own city.  The organizers follow certain proscribed rules and seek out sponsors to help produce a very professional event.  Since Austin is quickly becoming recognized as one of the most influential cities in the United States it seems obvious that Austinites were ready for their own TED event.
That happened yesterday on the world famous sound stage of the long running music show, Austin City Limits.  The event was incredible.  Tightly and very professionally organized by a group of people who actually produce events for a living.  The facility is world class and located on the University of Texas at Austin campus.  The whole event was taped for future sharing on pedestal mounted broadcast cameras and the stage was lit by a crew who've done international TV for years.  Our TED event covered on very full day and featured 18 speakers and performers.  With one morning break, lunch and one afternoon break it was a full day for the crew and organizers.

Austin DJ, Dr. No keeps things lively at lunch and during the breaks.

I was asked to be the event photographer.  The rules for the audience were strict:  No texting, no tweeting, no cellphones, no laptops, no video recording, no photography.  All the images would be taken by me and will be shared on the TEDx website.  I had unlimited access to every part of the show.

Now, this is not my first event "rodeo".   I am the veteran of two decades of corporate shows that span the globe.  I've photographed events for 10,000 people and I've done them in places like Monte Carlo, Paris, Madrid and even Nashville.  I've shot them with film and I've shot them with digital.  I've photographed entertainers like the Bare Naked Ladies, Cheryl Crow and Lyle Lovett.  I've photographed speakers like former presidents George Herbert Walker Bush and Bill Clinton,  Sir David Frost, Daniel Pink and many others.  But this is my first volunteer event.  Every person involved in the event, from Manuel's Restaurant who hosted the Speaker's dinner the night before and the breakfast for 400 on the day of to the people who made the programs was a "sponsor".  I was also a "sponsor".


This was my first big event in which I used only Olympus digital cameras.  I took along a small amount of equipment for this show since all of it would be on one stage.  I needed fast lenses that would suck up all available photons and I needed those lenses to be hyperbolically sharp, wide open (because that's where I like to play...).  I choose two lenses and three camera bodies.  I packed the e3, e30 and the e520 in the bag along with the 14-35mm f2 lens and the 35-100mm f2 lens.  That's right.  Both of them go all the way to f2 at every focal length in their range.  And here's the amazing thing:  Both of them are sharper wide open (according to the DXO test performed on the SLRgear website) than any of their bigger format competitors are at just about any f-stop at any range.  Here's the weblink for the 14-35mm. First lens to acheive a perfect "10" in every parameter.  The review of the 35-100 is nearly identical.
Politico, Mark McKinnon shares his epiphany about life.


So.  three cameras, two lenses, a handful of batteries, a Metz 48 flash (dedicated to the Olympus cameras) and a monopod which I quickly decided was unnecessary.  All three bodies feature very effective in body image stabilization.  I put the long lens (the 35mm equivalent of a 70-200mm) on the e3 camera and the 14-35mm on the e30 to start.  The lighting on the stage gave me this basic reading as ISO 1000= aperture f2.5, shutter speed 1/160th of a second.  Both cameras were set to RAW, single frame autofocus, single shot mode, center sensor and spot metering.  Since the majority of the background was black any other metering pattern would be useless.  I made sure to turn off the autofocus assist lights and anything that might make noise.  I tend to shoot on 4 gb cards as they fit on one DVD and I hate to have too many eggs in one basket.

The 35-100 was perfect for tight stage shots of the speakers and for quick, turnaround and shoot, reaction shots from the crowd.  The shorter lens was perfect for shots from backstage and at angles to the stage that showed the performer and the crowd.  The shorter lens got plenty of use during the break.  One thing that's important to note is that all the cameras are always set to manual exposure.  I know from experience that, unless the light techs change the light design during the presentation that my first metered value will hold true no matter what angle I'm shooting at and having consistent images to work with make post processing a breeze.

Both the e3 and the e30 worked well and consistently.  The finder on the e3 is great and the one on the e30 is nearly as good.  The BLM-1 batteries last me about 600 images with an embarrassing amount of chimping.  I took about 2000 images and only replaced the battery in the e3 once.  No other camera needed a new battery.  So why did a I bring along an e520?  Two reasons.  First, you should always have a backup and my shooting style for this show called for not changing lenses and having two cameras with two different lenses at my disposal for immediate use.  I just don't have time to change lenses and it would require something to hold the second lens in.  I might as well have that second lens on a body over one shoulder of the other.  Secondly, I'd read on the DXO site that the e520 was second only to the e3 in low noise ISO performance and I wanted to make some images with all three and compare them.  I had thought about consigning the  e520's after getting newer gear but this article gave me pause.

Surprise, the e520 runs well.  Right next to the e3 but the secret to all three of these small sensor cameras is that you can't keep the noise down in the competitve region unless you nail the exposure.  I want a few frames to be overexposed just so I can remind myself not to slack off and head for the supposed safety of underexposure.

I learned one thing the hard way.  The lights were gelled and when I shot RAW the color corrections were one or two clicks in Capture One 5.0.  When I shot Jpeg (which I did from time to time for comparison) the shifted color was much more difficult in post to bring back to neutral.  It was also easier to get good noise filtration using the controls available in Capture One than to rely on the noise settings in the camera.  I'm rethinking my whole Jpeg versus RAW manifesto and may need to embarrass myself by doing a "180" and go back to shooting all raw.  My close photographer friends will never let me live it down and yet, with Capture One software as the raw converter the raw files look profoundly good.  Yes......better than the Jpegs.........

I got a lot of stuff right.  I wore black pants and a black long sleeve shirt.  And since I've been dying my hair grayer I wore a black baseball cap as well.  This meant that I had a very small visual footprint when I needed to work close to the stage and I was much less distracting the the audience.  I learned that the way a camera feels in your hand is at least as important as its "on file" characteristics.  Especially when you have it in your hands for 12 hours straight.  Yes, twelve hours straight.  Yes the 35-100 does get heavy!  I learned that in a really dark room it's hard to get good focus with just about any camera and lens combo.  But when I needed to use flash I was either photographic couples or small groups.  On the first glimmer of a AF slow down I set the aperture of the 14-35mm to f8 and put two small, white pieces of gaffer's tape on the focusing ring.  One at the one meter mark and one at the two meter mark.  Then I spent my "dark" time zone focusing and using the hyperfocal distance to cover focus area.  With the smaller format it was a snap and all the images taken this way are sharp and the shutter actuation is instantaneous.  I'd forgotten what a useful technique zone focusing is.

I took off any filters and always used a lens hood and that meant that I could shoot into stage lights; actually include them on the edges of the frames, without any flare or halation.  I wore my comfortable Costco all terrain cross training shoes and experienced no discomfort or foot fatigue.

There are two ways for photographers to evaluate events like these:  Did you have fun and meet interesting people?  And,  Did you get great shots?  I'm finishing up the post processing today and I can said with conviction that the Olympus cameras and lenses were incredible.  The sharpness of the images at a nearly wide open f stop of 2.5 or 2.8 is on par with my older Nikon 70-200 at 5.6.  And that's not really fair to the Olympus glass since it has no flare, very little fall off and is actually a bit sharper even at these vastly different f-stops.  The IS in the Olympus cameras works and I never think about dust.  The cameras fit my hands well (I've taken the battery grips off and like both cameras better this way) and feel right.  High ISO noise?  I shot up to 1600 and I didn't see anything that couldn't be easily handled by the noise reduction in Capture One.  (Need to do a comprehensive review on this software.  It is so good).  While my friends swear by the newest Canons and Nikons I love the idea and the execution of the Olympus 4:3rds cameras.  I like the aspect ratio of the format.  I like that they have amazing, pro lenses.  I like that the cameras are relatively small and quiet.

As to the fun quotient I'm happy to report that 90% of the presentations were either very moving or intriguing and thought provoking.  A great average by any measure!  The catering was great, the coffee was wonderful and the crew went out of their way to produce a world class show.  I met some incredible people, like Richard Garriott and John Pointer.  Met a 15 year old musician that will doubtless be making Platinum albums in a couple of years.  Shared glasses of wine with prime movers and shakers in Austin's marketing and advertising industries.  I even got home in time to watch a movie with my wife.

I got smarter, got to shoot all day,  got well fed and met cool people.  All in all a good day.



Behind the scenes at Austin TEDx.  20 Feb. 2010