An interesting job with mixed light sources. On the stage.

I had several assignments during the course of the day this past Friday but this set of images for Zachary Scott Theatre was the most interesting to photograph. There's a scene at the end of the play, The Laramie Project, where one of the actors (Jaston Williams, of Greater Tuna and Tuna Texas fame) stands on a square riser covered in grass and is pelted by rain as he stretches his hands out from his side.  In the context of the play it's a very powerful moment.

I saw the scene the first time ten years ago during a dress rehearsal shoot and we captured it on film.  The shot was okay but not quite what we wanted.  Then, ten years later, I shot the scene again, during a recent dress rehearsal.  Technical issues kept me from getting the shot the marketing director and I both wanted.  The spot light on the actor was too contrasty (for the camera...just right for the audience) and the letters across the back were not bright enough.  The slow shutter speed we needed in order to dig into the darkness meant that we didn't get any sort of frozen motion on the rain drops.  We knew we'd have to light the shot to get the image that we both could visualize in our heads.  

I wanted to light up the rain drops and I knew I would have to do it with electronic flash to freeze the  motion of the rain.  I also knew from experience that the light from the flash would have to come from behind so that it didn't wash out the word, "hope" that was rear projected onto a screen behind Jaston.  It also occured to me that I'd have to filter the flash in order to get the color temperature of those light sources into the ball park with the stage lighting and, especially, the spot lights that were the main source of illumination for Jaston.

Finally, we needed to do all of our set up and all of our testing without Jaston in place because we didn't want him to have to spend much time at all in the water.  Even though the water is heated our supply of warm water would only last 11 minutes before the temperature dropped by 30 degrees or so...

To facilitate our set up I had the crew bring in a mannequin and place it on Jaston's mark.  We put the same kind of shirt on the mannequin that Jaston would be wearing so we could look at the reflectance and  see how to best light the set up so that we didn't burn out the tops of his shoulders or plunge the bottom part of the stage into blackness.

I placed two Elinchrom monolights behind the subject position to create effective backlighting for the rain (and for Jaston).  I used small, carefully focused, umbrellas with black backings as modifiers.  Through trial and error I found a sweet spot that did what I wanted with the rain (make it stand out against the background) and didn't over light Jaston in the process.

Since the main, filtered spot lights were around 3600K (as measured by a Minolta color temperature meter) I knew I needed to add a 1/2 CTO filter to each of the flashes for a better balance.  The flashes are as far back as I can get them; nearly touching the back screen.  Each one is just out of the frame on either side.

I was using a Sony a77 camera with a 16-50mm zoom as my main camera.  I settled on ISO 320 as being a good compromise between sharpness, the mix of the flash and low noise.  I shot each frame in raw.

The main frontal illumination for Jaston came from two spot lights mounted on a catwalk overhead.  He was also lit by a bank of blue gelled spots from the rear left and right. (You can see them in one of the photos below).

Once we had the test shots sorted out and approved by both the marketing director and the artistic director for the theater we removed the mannequin, quickly mopped the stage and then had Jaston step in and get settled on his mark.  I shot a couple frames of Jaston with no rain in order to assess how the light on his face looked and then I called "places" and asked the scene manager to "cue the rain."

I shot many variations of hand and arm position but all other settings were left alone.  We knew we had the lighting and color nailed.  After we got what was called for in the initial brief I wondered what the scene would look like from about five feet higher up so we gave Jaston a little break, reset the camera position up two rows in the audience seating and went through the process again.  I liked it better because the position change helped to "move" the word in the background up which gives us a few more options in final production.

I like the way the water dances off Jaston's shoulders and trickles off his ears. We started our set up around 3:15 pm and had all the technical stuff locked down and ready by 4:00 pm.  Jaston was on the set and ready. We shot for about 15 minutes, looked at samples and declared the shoot "wrapped."  The house electrician helped wrap cables and lights while I packed cameras and lenses.

Just a few photo tech notes:  The lights were far enough away from the water so that there was little danger in them getting wet.  Even so, we made sure that both cords were plugged into a GFI socket that would trip if there was a grounding issue.  I brought a total of four lights and four stands to cover the project even though I was pretty sure I would only need two.  I triggered the flashes with a Light Waves 2 radio trigger.  I brought two sets with two extra sets of batteries.

I brought two identical camera bodies just in case one failed.  I brought a total of four camera batteries.  I brought the 16-50mm zoom and a number of single focal length lenses that would cover the ranges of focal lengths I knew I wanted, just in case the lens failed.  I also brought an 85 and the 70-200mm 2.8 G Sony zoom just in case I wanted to go tight in on Jaston.  It never came up.

I cut filters for the lights in 1/4 and 1/2 CTO strengths, enough to cover all four lights, so I'd be prepared for more or less filtered main stage lights.  

I love working with a professional crew.  Having scenery manager who understood every hose, nut and bolt of the water prop was very efficient.  Having the house electrician at the lighting board for the theatrical lights was great.  We were able to adjust the levels to match the projected word light levels.  I love working with experienced marketing directors because they don't waste anybody's time with the newbie mantra, "Let's keep going, I'll know it when I see it."  We were on the same page from the first discussion.  And finally, working with a professional actor is so luxurious.  No nervousness.  No pretense.  Just, "Where do you want me? What is my action?  What is my affect?" Done.

And that's a wrap.  I didn't even need to ask someone to hand the actor a towel.  It was in his hand five seconds after the rain shut off...

This is the final camera POV.  You can see the two umbrella augmented monolights on either side of the curtain screen.  If you look directly up from the actor you'll see the two spots that are lighting the square grass prop and the actor.  Just to the outside edge of each umbrella you'll see banks of three blue gelled lights that edge light our subject.

Thanks to all the people at Zach Scott Theatre who made this moment and thousands of other magic moments happen.

(this post was edited at 7:47 pm to reflect my changing mood.)

Here's a great post from TOP:  http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2011/12/the-problem-with-perfection.html


Earlier this week we celebrated our 5 millionth pageview since starting in January of 2009. Today I'm celebrating our first day of over 50,000 page views.

I know that page views and individual visitors are different but it's a metric that means some people read some things that I wrote over 50,000 times today. That flat out amazes me. Thanks for being part of the discussion.

That's a lot of coffee...

Why I think the Olympus OM-D, EM-5 is making so many waves.

You would think that, with the earth shattering performance numbers presented by DXO, that the Nikon D800 would be monopolizing the photographic conversation across the web-o-sphere but that's clearly not the case.  The camera of the season is the Olympus OMD.  But, in a disconnect, the cameras most existing professionals will use from now until the near future will be traditional, full frame cameras.  To be more precise, the overwhelming majority of existing professionals will buy and use the Canon 5Dmk3 and the Nikon D800 and it's because they have already bought into a commercial paradigm that is too scary for them to turn away from. And because they are not risk takers.

For the last decade the drumbeat of common knowledge has been to embrace two camera features:  One is the lure of full frame that came from not being able to buy cost effective full frame cameras from Canon until 2007 and not being able to buy any full frame camera at all from Nikon until the introduction of the D3 in 2009.  The other "must have" feature has always been massive resolution.  The more the better.  But crucially, for those with their noses pressed hardest to the paradigm, over 20 megapixels.

The reasons for this selection process are many but I suspect it goes back to the idea that being part of the pack is safer than wondering through the savanna alone. It also paid off in producing images that were high enough quality to pass the test for most clients, be they magazines, ad agencies or direct to businesses.  But part of the appeal is what always makes the Bell Curve relevant = most purchasers are not early adopters, are not on the cutting edge and seek the tried and true solution, vetted by the more adventurous. If they bought a Canon 5Dmk2 a year or two ago they would be able to tell clients that they were shooting with "an industry standard."

A current selection from the big two buys them the same cover.  So why all the noise about the Olympus?  I think that people have, for years, understood that it was possible to reduce the size, weight and costs of camera systems with new technology.  Nikon and Canon had lots of legacy lenses in the pipeline and a leadership position in large sensors so it didn't make sense for them to embrace new lens mounts and new camera sizing.  Olympus tried to compete with their four thirds cameras but their dependence on a moving mirror technology meant that the cameras couldn't be reduced in size enough to make a difference when viewed next to their competitors.

By removing the mirror altogether Olympus could now make (in the micro four thirds space) a line of cameras based around a much smaller lens mount.  That meant the cameras could be much smaller too. And the actual lenses.

The first few iterations were aimed in the right direction but issues abounded.  Especially for professionals.  The lack of a built in eye level finder meant sacrificing the hot shoe in exchange for viewfinder usability.  The focusing was too slow.  The response of the cameras was slow for professional work.  And the sensor they were using in the EP1, EP2 and even in the EP3 didn't perform at the level of the their APS-C competitors.

The demand for a small camera was clearly there.  At least for a huge number of non-professionals who didn't need big bodies to impress clients, giant lenses for sports magazine work, or the safety of the herd mentality.  The ones who would embrace a great, small camera system were the same ones who restlessly rotated between Panasonic LX-5's,  Canon G12's, Leica X1's and a series of small interchangeable lens cameras from Olympus, Panasonic, Sony and Samsung.  They were all looking for the same thing:  A cost effective package that, when used well, would create the same kind of results, on paper or on screen,  they were getting from a Canon 7D or a Nikon D7000 but in a smaller package with much smaller lenses.

Last year was a turning point for the micro four thirds systems.  Part of the momentum in their direction was created by the introduction of four new lenses that the segment desperately needed.
The Olympus 12mm 2.0 and 45mm 1.8 added critical focal lengths and lens speeds the market had been asking for.  The 25mm 1.4 added the normal lens mastery (hello HCB) that had been missing and the announcement of the 70mm f1.8 by Olympus signalled that they were committed to making serious camera equipment again.  Deep breath.

When the OM-D hit it became an instant hit (back-ordered everywhere) because of three critical features:  A set of lenses people wanted, at one third the size of similar lenses for traditional digital cameras.  Very fast and sure autofocus.  And the image quality that the market had been demanding.  The camera now achieves an image quality at parity with it's similarly priced competitors. And that is it's most compelling new feature.  Parity.

The market wanted the size reduction.  The market wanted the cool lenses.  The market wanted fast and sure autofocusing.  But they were not willing to give up perceived image quality of existing cameras in exchange for the benefits of the size and weight reduction.  When Olympus removed IQ barriers all of the other features were unleashed to become market drivers.

While people can argue the relative merits of OVF versus EVF for as long as they have breath, the tipping point for the entire mirrorless catagory is the adaptation of high quality EVFs.  It is so for Sony, Panasonic and Olympus. And, as the fastest growing category of serious cameras it will drive EVFs into the other segments of the market at a much greater speed. The EVF makes all the cameras all terrain photo tools.  From high sun to no light.

The OMD is nicely designed and feels good in the hand.  The finder works well but it is not this camera per se, that is moving the market, rather it is the confluence of technology, the desire to physically downsize systems and the desire to lower costs that make the camera an important mile stone.

Another aspect that is rarely mentioned is the relatively open standard of the lens mount.  Something that is not currently lost on Canon users.  I've read statements by quite a number who would like to get into the Nikon system in order to leverage their perception that the performance of the new D800 is a must have for their market niche.  The barrier is the need to totally exchange all of their Canon lenses for Nikon lenses.  They will lose money.  And, sadly, when Canon comes out with their 54 megapixel, full frame camera in a year or two the same users will lose money switching back.  If you limit your system choices to variants in the micro four thirds segment you can freely invest in bodies from different makers and still use the lenses you've selected.  And, for the most part, they will be lenses optimized for the sensor size.

The reality as I see it is this:  Most of the cameras on the market right now, that have recent sensors of 16 megapixels and more, will do a good job creating the files we need for most of our uses.  In web advertising, most print, all newspaper, high res monitor display, etc. the 12 megapixel cameras dating back to the Nikon D2X are all perfectly capable.  The newest cameras offer lower high ISO noise.  Fees are flattening for most professional work.  It could be because people's approach to photography is pretty much homogeneously aligned.  (and that is not necessarily a dig at the capabilities of the photographers as so much work is driven by client desires, comprehensive layouts and expectations.)  It could be because of market forces.  But clients now understand, perhaps better than their suppliers, that tour de force photo tool inventory isn't nearly as important as it once was and, that by any measure  even the less expensive tools are of such high quality today that, practically, they are interchangeable.

Once professional photographers catch up they will return to the time honored marketing tradition of selling their personal vision instead of their technical inventory.  At that point they'll consider the same cameras that their hobbyist counterparts are embracing today.  And for all the same reasons.

It's good to remember that in the age of the Nikon F2 and the Canon F1 that the most popular professional photographer tool was the Nikon FM or the Canon AE-1.  Both were small, light and capable. Neither were originally aimed at professionals but were quickly adopted for many of the same reasons m4:3rds is in ascendency today:  Smaller, lighter, easier to use, cheaper and just as good image quality.

The Olympus is selling like hot cakes not because it is so good (and it is a very good camera) but because it represents a tipping point into a sea change of camera buying by most serious amateur photographers.  The fact that it has been anointed by no less than DPR is a testimony both to the camera and also to the prescience of the uber-marketers that the dam has indeed broken for a whole category and that the lines between camera types are being erased.

If you can't imagine them prying your hands off your "full sized" body or your eye from your optical viewfinder, and you can't imagine not hearing the clickty clack of your mirror banging around as you shoot photographs then you may be the newest iteration of all those people who, in the early part of this century, were still resisting any experimentation with digital imaging and  predicting that it would be years at least, and maybe decades, before digital technology would be as good as film......

The OM-D is the lighting rod.  It's the shot over the bow that says this (the sector)  is both good enough and, in many ways, better.  The real alternative?  Big ass medium format.  But that's a whole nother blog.

The traditional, big DSLR?  Quickly becoming the Firebird Trans Am of an older generation.  Wearing their Members Only jackets and revving up their engines... While the world drives by in a Prius.  Or, are you still using your Motorola Brick cellphone instead of an iPhone?

Finally, everyone I know has asked if I have an OMD, if I have one on order, if I'm getting one from somewhere.  And if not, when?  The reality is that while I like the camera just fine and would love to own one I'm intrigued by rumors of a new Panasonic GH3.  I'm still having fun with the Sony's and I'm in no rush.  It's all fun.

Additional reading: http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2012/01/its-new-year-im-playing-with-new-camera.html


The invitation to coffee that will almost assuredly cost me $1500.

This is the new OM-D with a Leica 25mm f1.4 Summilux hanging off the front.

I should have used caller I.D.  I should have feigned some contagious illness but I didn't.  I accepted an invitation to have coffee with my photographer friend, Frank, and now I think it's going to cost me.  Big time.  You see, I've been trying to avoid looking at the OM-D EM-5 directly.  When I go to Precision Camera I avert my eyes away from the Olympus case and chant, over and over again, "Sony. Sony. Sony."  I've been an Olympus Pen fan since the 1970's and I've been a digital Pen fan since the first day the EP-2 hit the stores.  Especially with the grace note of the elegant VF-2 electronic viewfinder perched regally but functionally in the accessory shoe.  I rushed out to buy the first EP-3 in town and it's so good I thought I'd never want to upgrade to a new Pen so quickly.

But there it was.  Unassuming but gaunt and with hip understatement.  Frank knew how to play me.  Like a sommelier showing off a wonderful vintage bottle of Petrus.  Almost daring me not to try a sample. He reached into his Domke bag and pulled out the OMD and presented it to me with the ultimate, modern Olympus lens cleverly clicked into the lens mount.  It was the 45mm 1.8, a lens that compels me to never sell a Pen body again.  Not even to make room for a new one.

I lifted the camera up, switched on the power and brought it to my eye.  I was expecting the same electronic viewfinder performance I got with the VF-2 because the specs are similar but it was nicer.  More refined.  The optics in front of the screen were clearer and cleaner.  The image was so well calibrated that I could move my eye from the finder then to one side to directly observe the object I'd focused on and the effect was almost identical.  The finder easily rivals the clarity and color accuracy of the Sony a77 or Nex7 EVFs.  

At this point you can head over to DPReview and read all the specs.  You can also read their test reports.  They'll tell you that the OMD is on par with the best of the APS-C cameras, like the Nikon D7000 or the Canon 60D.  That the high ISO is clean as fresh laundry right up to 6400 ISO.  That the buffer is quick to clear with the right cards.  That the frame rate nearly twice as fast as a D800.

But here's the one thing they won't tell you and it may make all the difference in the world to you if you are a camera sensualist:  It has the nicest and quietest sounding shutter I've heard since the Olympus e1 camera from 2004.  But it's even quieter and more refined than that high water mark of shutter elegance.  It may be the perfect camera shutter from a auditory point of view.  The sound of the the shutter is what I imagine the door of a Bentley car feels like when it shuts.  Reason enough to own the camera even if it were only as good in the files as its predecessor...

But as the web at large will tell you, the images are wonderful.  

I don't have any first hand information (yet) about the images.  But I trust some of my friends who got their cameras early and have been raving about them ever since.  No one is bothered by the much discussed noise from the image stabilization, in my crowd.  I put my ear to the camera while sitting at an uncrowded Starbucks at the end of the day and I couldn't hear it at all.  If the noise bothers people they must be living in anechoic chambers and shooting with the cameras right next to their ears.  The camera had me at......'snik'.

If you plan to get one I'm recommending the black body because it looks so stealthy with the Leica 25mm mounted on the front.  It also looks really good with the black battery grip attached. More advice?  If you don't already have a collection of Pen or Pan lenses then forego the kit lens and select the 12mm Olympus, the 25mm Leica/Panasonic and the 45mm 1.8.  You'll have the important bases covered and the whole kit will weigh less than a Canon 24-105mm L lens (without body attached!!!).  If you want to branch out you'll find a good mix of lenses between Olympus, Panasonic, Leica and Sigma. Not to mention the millions of other brand lenses you can press into service with the right adapter.  It's an amazing leap forward for Olympus.  Did I mention how much I liked the EVF?  Oh?  I did?  Okay.

How fast is my camera? How fast is my brain?

Sometimes beautiful people zoom into and out of your field of vision very, very quickly. Few things are as frustrating to a photographer as missing a good shot of a beautiful stranger.  Mostly I miss things because I don't anticipate events very well.  Sometimes I miss a shot because mycamera wasn't ready.  It was turned off, or "asleep" or the lens was capped.  Sometimes I miss shots because the camera's exposure settings aren't set right.

I was holding my camera in my right hand when I saw this beautiful person in my extreme peripheral vision.  She had slowed down at the intersection to check for cars.  I brought my camera to my eye while giving the shutter button a nudge.  The camera sprung into action, I framed as she accelerated by, I manually focused and snapped one shot.  And then she was gone.

I usually don't chimp much.  This time I was anxious to see if I'd gotten anything. This was my frame (above).

When I'm out shooting I don't turn my camera off. Ever. I turn my cameras off when I get into my car to go home.  That's why I usually carry an extra battery when I head out.

I never use a lens cap when I'm walking around.  Why put barriers in the way of getting a good shot?  I put my lens caps back onto my lenses when I get into my car to go home.

If I'm shooting in manual exposure I try to keep tabs on changing light and keep my camera operationally current. Then, if something cool happens I have a better chance of being ready.

If I'm using a manual focusing lens I tend to pre-focus the lens for the kind of work I'll anticipate doing.  As I was walking I had the focus preset for around fifteen feet.  When I brought the camera to my eye I only had to fine tune the focus. Not start from scratch.

I'm not that sharp and my reflexes have slowed down so I need to give myself every advantage in situations where things crop up quickly.  My camera is only faster than me if I don't handcuff it with my own bad habits.

This was taken on Saturday.  Shot with the Hasselblad 80mm Planar lens.  Aperture f4.  ISO 50.  I was able to get good focus by using the focus peaking feature in my camera.  Sometimes you get lucky.  Most of the time you make your own luck.

Street Musicians and their dog.

They played with an ernest honesty. 
I put a few dollars in their case.  I liked the way 
their little dog "owned" the violin case.
It's a rough way to earn a living.
I wish them good luck.

Techno-Babble: Sony a77 with adapted Hasselblad 80mm lens. ISO 50. Lightly post processed in SnapSeed.


WAA. WAA. LEDs can't be good until they are over 90 CRI. Oh yeah? We've got that right now.

I know, I know.  You tried a tiny little battery powered LED panel a few years ago and it didn't put out enough light and the light it did put out needed to be color corrected.  That means they'll never, ever change and you'll never have to consider LED lights ever again. Ever.  Cause nothing ever changes.

Sadly, reality is about to intrude into your lighting world view.  I was researching new products from notable manufacturers and I've found that there are a number of new LED lights that are just now hitting the market and they've all crested the 91+ CRI threshold.  That means they are getting close to pure daylight rendering in imaging applications.  One of the companies I watch is Lowel.  They've been making lights for still photographers, movie makers and videographers for decades.  Their founder, Ross Lowel,  wrote a great book on lighting called, Matters of Light and Depth, which I've read through so often the pages are raw. (He was a cinema lighting pro).

Lowell jumped into the LED market with a small panel that blended lights between tungsten and daylight just a couple of years ago.  It's called a Lowel Blender.  It's a small light that mainly used camera mounted by electronic news gathering, ENG (read: video) guys but also, increasingly, by cinematographers.  It's metal, tough as nails and bright for the size.  Turn a dial to go from 3200K to Daylight, or anywhere in between.

The engineers at Lowel bided their time until the LED bulb makers started supplying the markets with higher accuracy bulbs.  Their new Prime(tm) line are all rated at 91 CRI (Color Rendering Index) which is a gold standard for professionals in a number of imaging fields.  Here's the webpage for their Prime(tm) panels: http://www.lowel.com/prime/

In one fell swoop the folks at Lowel have vacated the one niggling problem with the previous generation of under $2,000 panels, the tendency to have color spikes or a color cast that photographers needed to correct for best results.  The lights are available as either tungsten fixtures of daylight fixtures and feature a 50 degree light spread angle.  The chassis are all metal and have a functional yoke system for adjusting them around one axis.

The lights are available as 200 bulb fixtures or 400 bulb fixtures.

The interesting thing to me is how the improvements came about. I don't mean the engineering but the marketing that drove the engineering.  We creative people think that we drive the industries that we buy from but apparently nothing could be further from the truth.  When I spoke to a product manager at Lowel I guessed that movie and video professionals demanded better performance and that led to the development of more color correct LEDs.  The real story comes  from the retail sector.  Apparently major retailers found out that higher CRI lights made products look much, much better than the typical mixed store lighting.  They're the ones who started demanding better and better color performance.  It started in the higher end retailers and it's relentlessly trickling down into the mainstream, big box stores.  It's all about retail sales.

Humans like to see colors clearly and cleanly and marketing tests showed increased wallet response from consumers under improved light sources.  We benefit from the big store's massive retail buying power. But Lowel isn't the only manufacturer who will incorporate the new technology.  I'm sure that current bulbs with lower CRIs will be phased out as economies of scale come into play and the new bulbs will become an industry standard.  Give the science guys five more years and every LED will approach 100 CRI.  Except my own custom LEDs.  They're 110 CRI. (just kidding, the scale only goes to 100).

You can find out more about LED lights and applying LED lighting to still photography, here:  The Ultimate LED book for photographers. 

Need to know more about lights and lighting equipment in general?  You could do worse than to pick up a copy of the Lighting Equipment Book......

To see a wide range of LED product that's pounding and stomping into the general photo market check out B&H's website (no affiliation).  Try here: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/buy/LED-Light-Sources/ci/12248/N/4294551085  Warning, there are many, many pages of LED light/candy to look at...

Street Shooting at Cinco de Mayo. Photographer as anthropologist.

I'm still breaking in the Sony cameras so I walked through the thong with the camera set to face detection, zoned autofocus, single shot mode.  I put the camera in the "A" mode and worked with the Sony 35mm 1.8 DT lens, set to f3.5.  I would see something interesting and bring the camera up to my eye and shoot.  I took the strap off the camera.