Performance Anxiety. Photographically speaking.

I don't know about you but there are times when I'm faced with the prospect of either shooting famous people or people I feel very privileged to shoot (two very different categories) and the pressure to do everything right, and quickly, gives me a large dose of anxiety.  If I am shooting a captain of industry like Michael Dell I know I'll need to work fast, deal with a layer or two of handlers, and that I might not get more than five minutes with him to do all I need to do to make what I'd like to be an interesting and print-worthy image.  When you add something more to the mix, like the political head of a province  of China the pressure mounts.

Corporate "meet and greets" like this are highly staged and precisely timed.  While Mr. Dell and his guests met I set up lights in the lobby area of Dell's executive suite.  I would need to have a flexible lighting design that could accomodate a group of up to 20 executives and dignitaries, the lighting would also have to work well when I moved all the other participants out to get a few tighter shots of the two V.I.P.'s.   I defaulted to two lights on stands with medium size umbrellas.  I raised the stands up as high as I could as a precaution against getting a glare in the glasses of one of the participants.  I metered the lights to blend with the ambient light in the large room.  I don't like to test much on site in this venue because there are glass panels on the conference room doors where the meetings are taking place, adjacent to where I set up for photography and I feel like the repeated flashes are intrusive...

Just before the appointed hour and minute my anxiety rises up.  There's litany of "what if???!!!!" scenarios that start playing in my head.  What if the radio triggers don't work?  (answer:  I have a two hard sync cables standing by.)  What if one or both flashes fail?  (answer:  I have four extras plugged in and ready to go).  What if the camera fails?  What if they don't like the set up?  What if someone trips on a cable?  What if they blink in every shot?  The list goes on and on.  I start to get hot under the collar of my Haspel suite.  What if I desperately need to hit the bathroom just as they arrive?  The feeling of panic settles in.  I double check everything I can possibly double-check.  From the camera settings (WB, ISO, file format, f-stop, shutter speed, sync) to the radio trigger channels.

I've already marked the spot on the floor for the two most important subjects, calculated the EXACT exposure and written that exposure on the white tape I use just for that purpose on the bottom of my camera.  At the last minute I slip another camera over one shoulder, just in case (even though I've never had a digital camera fail.....).  By now my mouth is cotton-ball-at-the-dentist-dry and I feel just a bit queasy.  I can feel my blood pressure rise and I can hear the pulse in my carotid artery.

Then the doors open and the performance has to start.  I'm moving people into place with as much deference and grace as I can.  Always mindful that the clock is ticking and whether or not I get what I need doesn't even enter into the scheduling equation.  Execs come out from their offices to say hello and show face.  This slows us down.  I want everyone to move faster.  But there's no way to push.

Finally, I'm getting them into position and my hands on the camera are getting sweaty and my breathing shallow.  I shoot and over shoot to make sure I've got what I need.  We do a group of 25 and a group of 10 and a 2 person shot, and then shots of a gift exchange.  In seven minutes I've shot 125 raw frames.  The batteries in the flashes are holding up well.  Then, with a nod from the PR executive I acknowledge that my part of the event is irrevocably over.  The Chinese delegation will move off to waiting cars, the executives will move on to their next meetings.  I'm finally calm and as the last person leaves the lobby area I review what I've gotten on the camera's rear screen and a sense of relief and exhaustion washes over me.  Now I know I have what I need.  I didn't fail this time.  

And it's all so silly.  I've done this kind of work for decades.  And for many of those years we used unruly and tough to wrangle cameras that would never think of focusing themselves.  Flashes that had one or two wacky automatic settings that were.....eccentric... and batteries that were weaker than a mother-in-law's coffee.  We shot on unforgiving film with no time to take Polaroid tests.  And everything worked.

I think the pressure now comes from my assumption that my clients assume that modern technology is foolproof and that, given my years of experience, I'll be foolproof.  They are playing a dangerous game...

Have I ever messed up an event shot?  Not yet, but my psyche is always on guard against the first time.

Canon EOS1D X

This is NOT an equipment review!  I'd heard rumors about this camera for several weeks.  I didn't know it had been announced until I got a phone call this morning from my favorite "sales associate" at Precision Camera.  Seems my friend, Paul, woke up this morning, saw the press release on DP Review and promptly ordered one from the same guy.  Ian (my retail camera consultant) called to let me know that he'd already placed me on the reservation list to get one of the first five cameras to come through the door.  I don't have to worry about it for a while.  It won't be here until March 2012....

The specs are interesting since they point to a new understanding of the professional market by Canon.  They are combining their two lines of professional cameras, the 1D xx high speed sports cameras and the 1Ds xx high resolution studio and everything else cameras.  The camera will feature a full frame sensor with 18 megapixels, a 12 or 14 fps shot to shot speed and a stated increase in overall IQ compared with all previous cameras.  I think it's safe to say that they have no intention of leaving the dense pack market completely to Sony and Nikon so I'm fairly certain we'll see a "5D-like" camera with a wildly high pixel count in short order.  Canon is taking a cue from the stellar noise and quality performance of the Nikon D3s cameras and updating the sensor tech to give buyers an overall level of resolution that will be convincing enough for most uses.

But, in a sense it's a vindication of what I and many others have been saying for the past few years.  To wit, the endless race for densely packed megapixels was a run in the wrong direction.  There's a sweet spot and the sweet spot seems to be defined by the size of each sensor node.  This is why files from cameras like the Kodak DCS 760 could look so sweet.  The pixel wells in that camera are 9 microns across.  The current APS C and m4:rd's cameras are less than half that size.  And the pixel wells in the 1Ds Mk3 are also 1/3 smaller.

While the bigger pixel surface area theoretically yields more dynamic range and less noise the DCS 760 was early enough tech to have some issues with noise at anything other than it's base ISO.  But over the span of the professional, digital timeline discerning photographers have consistently found that big pixel cameras trump little pixel cameras when it comes to ultimate image quality (not counting resolution beyond native numbers).  The Nikon D2h coughed up a beautiful file with really wonderful colors....as long as you kept the ISO down.  I have a magazine cover for IBM to prove it's stealthy capabilities.

Lately I've tested bunches of Canon cameras including:  the 5Dmk2, the 7D, the 60D, the 1Dmk2N and the 1dsMk2.  While the technical specs of the first three cameras are all really great the files which have the colors and tones I enjoy most are from the 1Dmk2N.  The second place finisher is the 1Ds Mk2.  These are the two cameras with the largest pixel sizes.  Neither of them is as quiet as the 5, 7 or 60D's but I'm betting that most of the improvements in noise characteristics came from improvements in the high speed processors that pull the information off the sensor and "package" it for inclusion on the memory cards.  At ISO 200 the cameras are all great.  The older cameras just have a different color response.

The larger pixel sizes are also not affected by the physics of diffraction in quite the same way.  A sensor with pixel wells that are twice as big as a competing camera all other things cancelled out, would have better sharpness at smaller apertures and this might be just what the doctor ordered for architecture and product photographers who often shoot at f11 and f16.

The change in pixel density philosophy at Canon shouldn't surprise anyone after the introduction of the Canon G11 two years ago.  The company ratcheted the sensor resolution back from 14 megapixels to 10 megapixels in an attempt to provide files that looked sharper on consumer monitors and which had much less high ISO noise.  Most users welcomed the "regression" because, overall, the files looked better and were easier to deal with.

I welcome the step back.  I bought a Canon 5Dmk2 a while back and I dread using it to produce full sized raw files.  When I shoot portraits I routinely throttle the whole mess back to the M size raw file (1/2 size). Don't get me wrong, the big files look great.  Full of fine detail and all that.  It's just that most of the time the files get used at much smaller sizes and I hate the idea of endlessly filling hard drives with big, fat files that basically aren't going to go anywhere.

The bodies are huge but that's a neutral for me.  I need the strength training to maintain muscle mass anyway.  But when I get on my bike and head downtown for an afternoon of shooting just for fun I've got an Olympus Pen EP3 that fits perfectly in my bike bag anyway.

So,  I have high hopes for this camera.  It seems perfectly designed to be an all around camera for professional photographers.  But that doesn't mean I'm going to rush right out and pick it up when March rolls around.  The reservation on the list is a courtesy to ensure I get a camera if I want it.  I can decline when the time comes and the camera will go to the next person on the list.  I think my time might be better spent searching out more bargain cameras whose prices will undoubtably be affected as the supply of new cameras comes to market.  I'll have my eyes on something really sexy.  Like maybe another 1Dsmk2  or maybe a 1d3.  You never know.  March is a long way away.

Anyway, it's interesting to me to see the direction that Canon is taking in their flagship product.  In a way it vindicates the statements made by Olympus.  They basically said that 12 megapixels was the sweet spot for most consumers.  Canon is now saying that the quality of the pixels now trumps the quantity.  A good place to stop.

added 1/2 hour later:  $6900?  Wow.  Thats nearly seven 1dmk2n's at today's market price.  Or 10 Olympus EP3's.....  Some with VF2's.

added on Oct. 19th:  Some  people around the web-o-sphere are already complaining that the 1DX is a failure because it didn't continue the progression toward ever more megapixels.  But I have a simple question.....If lenses can't resolve much more than 18 megapixels on a ff camera isn't increasing the density of pixels kind of silly?  Couldn't you achieve the same size results just by up rezzing the files?  I mean, after all, if the lens is the limit of resolution in the system more pixels isn't going to add more detail, just more size to the files.  Unless you are shooting with some really phenomenal lenses it would all seem moot.  (Contax lens users and Leica 90mm APO Summicron users.....go ahead and bitch..).  A poll of pro's recently done asked about their lens use.  The vast majority depended on the 24-105 and the 70-200L's.  Great lenses but probably straining to put real detail into 18 megapixels...

Catching up. It's been a while.

The last time I really posted to the blog we were in the middle of our extreme, full contact, death match, smack down drought.  I labeled this image (above): drought survivors.  We experienced record setting heat this Summer which, in a bizarre twist, coincides with a growing, national disinterest in global warming.  I can imagine the pitch from the Austin Chamber of Commerce five years from now if the weather doesn't change for the better:  Come see the sand dunes of the famous Hill Country Desert.  Move over Dubai..

Then again, it did rain last Sunday and we've got our fingers crossed that it will do so again.  Some day.  Sooner than later.  Hey! What happened to the hurricanes?  Anyway, we got two inches of rain around here and what's left of our lawn seems grateful.  Is it safe to shoot and drive?  I didn't think so but since there isn't a law against it who cares?

Ben ran another cross country race at Decker Lake (that's him in front)  last weekend and did pretty well.  Bettered his previous times by nearly a minute and a half.  I'll chalk up some of the improvement to diligent and disciplined practice and some of it to weather twenty degrees cooler than his previous races....  We're happy and proud.  He's very matter of fact....

At the end of the race the school threw a big picnic.  Open to all.  Brisket, burgers, hot dogs, veggie burgers and a ton of side dishes brought by the families.  I'm a sucker for condiments.  Love shooting them.  The boys and girls all ate like they'd been out running or something.  We had a cloud burst but that didn't slow anyone down.  Some of the younger kids there looked at water falling from the sky like it was some sort of mythical miracle.

No synopsis of the last few weeks would be complete without mentioning that stalwart VSL supporter and quasi-official bored (not mis-spelled) member, Mr. B, snagged himself a Swedish miracle camera and he's been shooting up a storm.  He's getting it dialed in and dangerous.  Taken at Trianon Coffee in Austin.

Speaking of dangerous, I've made a few trips to city hall to take snaps and soak up the ambiance of "Occupy Austin."  This young man (above) came prepared to do art on many levels.  Note the Polaroid Land Camera on his right side.  He'd shot up his supply of Fuji Instant film by the time I caught up with him.

I also appreciate the Holga.  Different cameras/different looks....

The protest was well attended......by the media.  On the morning it started I would estimate that the number of electronic and still news media had achieved parity with the number of protesters.  It was a well covered event and everyone from the police chief to the youngest protester was well behaved. In fact the chief, Art Acevedo, was working the crowd and posing with people who had interesting signs...

Here's the chief in mid-interview.  Serious on camera.  All smiles minutes later.....

It was tough for the media for two reasons:  1.  The well behaved protesters and professional police force gave them little action or real substance to cover, and, 2.  It was tough to find a place to do your make up before an on-camera report....(see just below).

There was a deficit of interesting protesters and agitators so the media spent some quality time interviewing each other.....

The one person diligently riling up the crowd was the woman in the electric blue dress trying to drum up support for  Presidential Candidate, Ron Paul.  Seemed that no one was interested in taking a flyer but everyone wanted to take a turn arguing with her.

Business is good but, of course, when business is down I'm unhappy not to be working and when business is up I'm unhappy not to have the free time to work on my own stuff.....

Hope you've stayed busy and happy