Coming back to the blog after a long and dusty trail of jobs.

I started working on projects last week and haven't slowed down since. I've learned that post production takes about 50% more than the amount of time it takes to actually shoot something. I've re-learned that camera bags get heavy by the end of the day. I've learned that no matter how long you've been doing this and how lofty the client there's always someone at an event who thinks you're the same thing as the party photographer at the frat house; who demands, in that imperious sort of voice saved for communicating with fast food cashiers and professionals from the plumbing and pest control industries, that you immediately follow them and photograph said order giver and her friend, Missy. Missy being too important to walk across the room...

If you've read the blog before you probably know that I was out this week photographing a conference at a conference center west of Austin. We started packing on Saturday night. The first wave of packing is to make a list of everything you want to bring.  My list included a Sony a77 camera, a Sony a57 camera, a 16-50mm 2.8 lens, a 70-200mm lens, a 24-85mm cheapo lens, six sixteen gigabyte SD cards, two extra batteries for each camera. One Sony HVL- a58ef flash unit with two extra sets of batteries. One Leitz monopod. One Leitz Tiltall tripod. Some Stride peppermint gum and an iPad. As an afterthought I added a small 160 LED panel and an extra battery for that.

Before I pack everything into a Domke shoulder bag I put everything on a table, pull all the batteries and put them all on chargers. I like to make sure all the batteries have a fresh charge. I must be doing something right with my Sony camera batteries because I'm routinely getting well over 1,000 shots in each camera, per battery.

Sunday was an easy slide into the job. My house is about four miles from the venue and the first part of the conference was a reception and dinner on Sunday night. I arrived at 6pm for a 7pm start. The dinner and reception were held in a large pavilion but the show crew was busy in the main auditorium, setting up lights, sound and staging. I stopped by there first as the event company is one I've worked with in five countries and for over twenty years. They are also based in Austin. I chatted with the show director and dumped the monopod and tripod in safe place behind the curtain wall since I wouldn't really need them until the next morning.

The staging was relatively simple. The had two ten by fifteen foot screens, one on either side of the main stage. The screens would be part of a two camera I-mag set up and the show would cut between live stage shots and charts, graphs and other infographics during panel discussions and lectures.

I took a few minutes to talk with the lighting designer who let me know that the front lights (the lights that wash the people on stage) would be  unfiltered tungsten. I said that would be great and I was happy I'd be able to set the camera WB at tungsten and be done with it.  He burst my bubble and told me they'd be dimming them to 75%. I concentrated for a minute, trying to channel the information I once read in my Kodak Photo Data Guide from 1978. It came to me. The 25% reduction would drop the color temperature to around 2900k and it's possible that the light would add .05cc's of green.  Simple enough setting with the Sony cameras.

I headed down to the dinner/reception location and got myself set. One camera dialed in with a 16-50mm fast zoom for use with flash and the other set up to do available light and also some work with a small LED panel.

I've shot corporate events for years and I'm always reminding myself that event planners want to have a record of all their hard work. That means shooting all the different flower arrangements, table decor and any extra touches they've put into a party or dinner. It's good to do this before the guests start to show up or, invariably, you'll be trying to shoot as people walk in and out of your backgrounds.

If there's an ice sculpture it's a good idea to get it shot early.  That dolphin is going to look like a jelly fish later on....

Everyone gets cranked up at a different speed when doing event work. No two photographers I've watched do it the same way. I like to stand around and just observe until at least the first fifty or sixty people show up. I like to the first arrivals get their choice of alcohol and start drinking before I start walking around the crowd shooting. It's like warming up a car engine on a chilly morning.

I like to shoot real candid photographs. I don't mind shooting pairs and trios and foursomes but I'd rather slink through the crowds, stalk the beautiful people and try to be as anonymous as possible. Works for some crowds and not for others.  While the sun set outside I was trying to work fast and get nice blends of on camera flash and exterior ambient light.

The Pavilion sits up on a hill and is surrounded on three sides by one of the nicest golf courses in central Texas.  The pavilion has a wide porch  on those three sides and people took advantage of the unusually temperate day to loll about outside. I took the opportunity to substitute the small LED panel in place of the typical flash. The panel has a control dial that allows the unit to be turned up to full power or all the way down in a smooth and continuous arc. I set the Sony a57 to 3200 ISO, opened up the 16-50mm lens to f3.5 and set the WB to AWB. My goal was to use the dial on the light to create an amount of front light that just barely overpowered the ambient light. I was in manual exposure and I worked the shutter speed dial as the daylight dropped.  Since the depth of field was limited by the f-stop I shot more to make sure I had "keepers."

It worked pretty well but eventually I got tired of working nearly wide open on the lens and switched back to the flash for small groups.  When the host got up on the small stage to welcome everyone I used the LEDs as my main light there as well.  It's a different way of working. Some things are better than with flash and some are worse. If I had been shooting advertising and had been able to set up the shots and work on a tripod it would have been a wonderful style to shoot because it's so easy to see the effect as you are shooting.

The evening's festivities wound down around 9:30 and I headed back home to recharge two batteries and get ready for the long Monday. When I hit the studio on my way into the house I checked e-mail and noticed two different client messages. Both needed some files generated and retouched ASAP and I figured I'd better just sit down right then and knock them out instead of letting it go into the week.

While I worked on the files on one computer I downloaded the evening's memory cards on a second computer, using Lightroom 4.1. I renamed the files and wrote them to two different hard drives. Once the files were downloaded I put the memory cards into a small, manilla envelope and wrote the job name and creation date on it and put the envelope into the job file for safe keeping. This way, even if both hard drives were fried by lightning or capitulated to some more arcane disaster I'd still have the originals to go back to.  It's standard procedure around here now that the cost of SD memory has dropped to almost zero.

I'll put the cards back into service as soon as the job is completed, the clients have multiple DVD copies and I've burned a set or two for myself.  When I finish making conversions from the raw files (after the job is backed up) I'll dump the raw files and keep only the final high res jpegs. On a job like this nearly all the uses will be in electronic media and 3200 original raw files from cameras that shoot 16-24 megapixels is just too much to store for posterity.

I hung a navy blue poplin suit, white shirt and thin black tie on my closet door, took a shower and hit the rack.

Ben and I were up Monday morning at 6am. Pretty standard this year for weekdays. I delivered Ben to cross country practice and headed back to the studio to pack up and eat a quick breakfast. I've gotten into the habit of eating plain Greek yogurt with a fistful of walnuts and a little drizzle of local honey on top.

I got the last close in parking space at the conference center and was on the show floor with the director and client at 7:15 am.  We spent a half hour shooting various "stage looks" and lighting designs for everyone's portfolios.  The main doors for the 350-400 attendees opened at 8 am and the conference was scheduled to start at 8:30 am. I staked out a place at the table that faced center stage, put down my camera back and then headed to the atrium area just outside the ballroom to grab coffee and an apple.

The conference started at 8:30 on dot and we spent the entire day, from 8:30 am to 6:30 pm, divided between individual speakers and panel sessions. I keep two cameras and two lenses with me and the monopod. I shove a couple extra batteries in my pockets along with two extra memory cards. Part of the job is to shoot various angles and magnifications of each speaker and of each panel member as they speak on stage.  This requires me to move around a bit and I always try to time my moves with slide changes on the big screens or audience laughter or responses.

I'll kneel down next to the the side of the stage to stack up panelists with a bit of compression using the longer lens and I shoot corner angle shots of the full stage at the widest angle for a little forced optical drama. You have to have a certain balance. You don't want to shoot so many images of each person that your wading through and endless sea of big, fat raw files but, at the same time you are covering live performances and you're trying to catch moments where people looked engaged and focused and they are not making funny expressions with their eyes or their mouths.  Some people look natural pretty much all the time and some people have faces that are constantly in motion-----and not always in a good way.  You get a rhythm over time.

There's a break every two hours. At the morning break there's always coffee and pastries and fresh fruit and bagels. The next big break is a seated lunch in the conference center's elegant restaurant.
And then the afternoon is broken up with several more breaks. The favorite is generally the one with all the ice cream treats and fun cookies.

I try to pay attention to the content of the show but I am just a small business person and most of the jargon, acronyms and subject matter is way over my head. The distinguished speaker from the Deutsche Bank spoke better english than most people I know but he might as well have been speaking German for all the good it would do me. Anybody else not know what a "Non-Agency RMBI" is?  Oh well.

After the last session (Champagne served during the panel debate...) everyone headed back into the atrium for yet another "heavy hors d'oeuvres and cocktails" reception before crawling into the town cars and limousines that whisked the attendees off to various restaurants across town.

I tossed the hardware back into the bag, hoisted it onto my shoulder and headed back to my car. Back at the studio I answered e-mail while backing up  Monday's covey of memory cards and writing out yet another envelope for temporary storage in the job folder.

Tuesday was a repeat of Monday. And I guess I should mention that in the between times between sessions, during lunches and breaks, I am trying to get photographs that show people networking and building business relationships. I get my best stuff on the last day of most conferences because people have had enough time to get acclimated to my presence and become well bored by the whole idea of that novelty of the 20th century, documentary photography.

But I'm also constantly on the prowl for little visual tidbits that I take just for myself. The way a man pours himself coffee, the over the top shoes worn by the remarkably good looking woman who just happens to be the youngest of the attendees, the way the swivel chair bases all line up. It's fun and it's generally what I remember most from the many conferences I've shot. The way the key lime pie looked on it's white china plate was more alluring than the keynote speaker at a show in San Francisco.  The flowers and the sky, smashed together with a 15mm lens was more fun than the famous band at another outdoor venue and, of course, the woman with the stunning eyes trumped presidents and CEO's for pure magnetic attraction.

We wrap up around 6:30 pm on Tues. night and I head home to shove the last of the memory cards into the system. The suits are still fresh so I hang them up. The shirts get in the bag that goes to the dry cleaners. I check my black tie for food spots and count myself lucky once again. I kick off the Cole Haans and relax with the family as the cards drone on and spit their files onto the spinning platters of our reality.  Before I head to bed I go out and transfer the SD cards into yet another envelope for safe keeping.

The show is over but the work isn't done.

Weds. morning was set aside for two bid meetings, back-to-back. I know I'm just the "invited guest" to round out a three way for one of them but I think I have a good shot at the other job because it's largely portraits in my style and it's an art buyer I've worked with.

Played with the dog for an hour and then headed to Esther's Follies for an absolutely fun assignment. Esther's Follies is a live cabaret/theater that does political comedy, topical comedy (think: Honey Boo Boo meets Snooki) and magic. Every year I get a call to come in for an afternoon and shoot a non-stop, hyper photo shoot to generate advertising images for the next year.  We were originally booked for last Weds. but you'll remember that was the day I damaged my poor back and, as a consequence, I had to re-schedule.

We did the shoot the same way we do our running shoots for Zachary Scott Theater. They run through the acts and I shoot like crazy.  I did bring along four Elinchrom monolights and a bunch of Varistar umbrellas and we did use them for some stuff but most of the images were done with the stage lighting and a follow spot.  I leaned heavily on a pair of Sony a57's because the file size is just right in raw, they have really clean 800 ISO and very satisfactory 1600 ISO and they're nice and light.  I used a 16-50mm on one and an 85mm 2.8 on the other.

The lighting was high enough to be able to shoot 1/250th of a second at f5.0 and the camera locked focus at least as well as my Canon 5D mk2 ever did. We did that all afternoon and then I headed back to the studio to go through the same routine I've already written about above: Ingest through lightroom to two HD's, pull the SD cards and put em in a job jacket until I've finished post processing and burned disks for myself and the client.

Quick shower, change of clothes and back out the front door to a public relations company party. Their speaker/guest of honor was a woman astronaut who was part of the crew of the first successful, commercial spaceflight and space station docking.  She grew up in Iran and emigrated to the U.S. with her family when she was 16. A great argument for digging in and doing your math and engineering courses. The party lasted all the way through the debates, sparring me all that.  Home, see family, pay bills, sleep.

So now it's Thurs. and I can't put off the post processing of the two jobs any longer.  I drop Ben off at cross country at 6:30 am, grab  coffee and some Greek Yogurt with walnuts and then head to the studio for a marathon of post. I started with the Esther's Follies images first because it's a smaller job and it's visual candy. The routine is to open up the folder in Library mode and start tossing out stuff that doesn't work. Blinks, blurs and bazingas. I grind it down from 1300 images to about 700 images. Then I switch to the develop  module and start color correcting and contrast correcting the raw files. I batch as many as I can.

Every hour on the hour I get up to stretch my back, throw the tennis ball in the side yard for the dog or make a cup of tea. In three hours I'm finished with that job and I push "process" and convert the files to highest res Jpegs, color space= sRGB.  That's the way my client likes em. We deliver what our clients like.  So now those files are processed but not yet burned to the disks. The SD cards stay in their envelopes and I move on to the big conference job.

Whoa!!! That's Huge!!! I forgot that I ended up shooting about 3800 raw files. Damn. That's too many. But there's no way to get through them if you don't start on em. Into library mode to start winnowing down. If I find an expression I like I just keep one out of every three similar files. I edit until lunch and I'm less than a third of the way through. The dog is helping me. She's sleeping on her studio dog bed and occasionally she gets up, comes over and licks my hand and then growls at the screen. I instantly delete anything at which she growls.

I take a break around 4pm to pick Ben up from school and then I get right back to it. I've lost me assistant editor. The dog has decided that hanging with Ben and begging for treats beats the hell out of grinding out work with the pack leader. It's lonely at the top.

As Belinda pulls into the driveway from work around 6:30 pm I've just finished my final edits and color corrections. Luckily, with the pre-chimping capabilities of the Sony EVF's I'm already right in the ball park on 90 % of the files. That certainly saved me a couple hours, at least.

I winnowed down 3800 files to something like 2600 files and they've been converting since around 6:30. Judging by the progress bar I've got about an hour or so to go.  That's as much time and energy as I want to spend on everything today. Ben needs some help with calculus and physics and Belinda reminded me that it's my turn to do the dishes. The dog reminded me that she really likes walking the neighborhood after dark----she loves to smell the deer and armadillos.

Tomorrow I'm scouting a spa for a shoot next week but as soon as I get home I'll be burning DVD's in three different computers. Then I have to do the billing (still have some stragglers from last week to bill) and then I get to deliver the jobs to my clients. My goal is to have everything out of my hair by the end of the day Friday. Barring any glitches we're right on target.

My big observations from these last few days: 16 megapixel raw files trump the crap out of 24 megapixels for overall processing efficiency.  Even with i7 processors this stuff takes time. The ISO performance of the a57 is great. What noise there is tastes like dark, monochrome film noise and not the color splotchy kaleidoscope that drives people nuts.  I even went to 6400 on a few of the reception images and I'm happy to deliver them. Used at less that full screen they are quite good.

In better light the a77 files are great. But for $600 the a57 is a very good deal and a very good work tool.  With both cameras the electronic first shutter curtain and the stationary mirror both make the cameras much quieter in use than their flippy mirror poorer cousins.  Much better for any conference use than the Canon 1DS mk2 I used for some of the same conference last year....

The 16-50mm 2.8 Sony zoom lens is flawless. I wish it was 16-60mm but it is what it is. I would buy it again in a heart beat.

The 70-200mm 2.8 is just as good as the Nikon and Canon counterparts (yes, I have used all three) and it's just as heavy and burdensome as it's lofty associates as well. But the images are wonder.

The batteries in both cameras lasted twice as long as I thought they would and that made me very happy.  The image stabilization also worked very well with both lenses.  I still feel more comfy with the 70/200 on a monopod but that may just be a prejudice I picked up from the days before I.S.

I felt oddly disconnected from the blog and yet I just didn't have the energy to write anything cogent or interesting while I was so immersed. We've already booked up three days next week so I hope to get some writing done this weekend.

Lots to discuss. Hope you've had a good week and that this sheds some light on the glamorous life of a freelance content creator.


Richard Alan Fox said...

Great post Kirk, a perfect storm.

John Driggers said...

Non-Agency RMBI - ummmm Non-agency residential mortgage backed investments (not backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie MAC, etc) would be my guess.

Kirk Tuck said...

I think John's right. I'm going to buy me some when I head over to Walgreen's next time...

AndyK said...

Musical saws are interesting instruments. Now, they just don't pick any old, random saw. The saw has to be tuned to a specific key or it won't sound good if there any other instruments or professional singers who expect to sing at an actual pitch that has a name. One often runs into saws tuned to the key of G. The most common is, of course, the C-saw. :)

Keith Mallett said...

Great blog Kirk. Read every word and enjoyed learning more about your work and methods. I think that's the real value of your blog - a great insight into the life of a working photographer. Cheers, Keith.

Keith I. said...

Great post. Thank you for sharing the day to day and your thoughts. A good read to start Friday.

Paul Glover said...

Love these insights into the working life of an established professional. They always give me something to think about.

Your approach to keeping the originals on the SD cards is one of those "obvious" ideas that I'm surprised I don't hear more often. You get broadly the same level of backup on the originals as you would with film, but can re-use the cards later. If you were especially paranoid about disaster recovery, they could even go into a safety deposit box offsite.

Also that Greek yogurt with walnut and honey sounds like something I need to try...

Kirk Tuck said...

Paul, the plain, non-fat Greek yogurt isn't sweet at all, it's almost tangy. But the nuts add some good fat and Omega-3's and the honey brings it all together. Yummy.

atmtx said...

I'm glad business has picked up. Maybe you are too busy ;-)

Kirk Tuck said...

I've decided over the last four years that it's impossible to be too busy. You can always turn something down.