My friend, Lane, asked me to volunteer to shoot portraits for Aids Services of Austin. Every year they do an "Aids Walk" as a money raising event to continue their good work of providing critical services to people in central Texas living with HIV. Lane is producing public service announcement/television spots to promote the Aids Walk (more information: here). Lane needed an assortment of images that represents a cross section of ASA supporters and I was happy to help out. He started casting a couple weeks ago and by yesterday morning we had a roster of 38 people who were eager to help by being on camera talent. We scheduled 20 minute sessions starting at ten a.m. and ending around six p.m.
We wanted a cool, gray background and Lane wanted the images shot in 16:9 to fit (without cropping) in his HDTV frame for TV. I set up a gray background and lit it with a 18 inch beauty dish covered with some white diffusion. I added a 1/2 tungsten to daylight conversion gel filter to the middle of the diffusion on the light to cool down the spot that would be created directly behind my subjects. I used an Elinchrom flash into an 80 inch, white umbrella as my main light and used no fill whatsoever, depending on the white walls of the studio to provide enough bouncing fill light to keep our shadows from going inky black. I was very happy with the light.
Now, here is the interesting twist....instead of pulling out one of my full frame Sony cameras I decided to put my philosophical money where my mouth is and use......
....the little, Samsung NX300 camera instead. I've been writing about small cameras for years, and using them since Olympus came out with the very first Pens. And I've used them as back-up cameras and as main cameras on smaller projects or person work but I've never really pressed them into service as full on commercial cameras for a day long shoot. My biggest concern was that the two batteries I had on hand wouldn't last through the day with constant shooting and chimping. I was wrong. My first battery lasted nearly 1,000 frames and my second battery was still going strong as we ended up the day. Our total frame count was around 1350. I was pretty much stunned by the battery performance.
One of my other concerns was my own prejudice that the contrast detection AF, while very good in bright sun, might fail me in the darker studio. I set the AF for single shot and engaged the face detection magic. This is NOT how I would have shot in times gone past. The camera was set up at ISO 100, shutter speed at 1/160th and the aperture around f5.6 to 7.1. I used two Elinchrom monolights and I triggered them with an older, Wein infra-red trigger that I mounted in the (pleasantly conventional) hot shoe of the NX300. In the Sony cameras, if you want a bright image in the studio in your EVF you have to click a setting called, "Turn setting effect off." Samsung calls the always bright setting the "framing mode" so I set that in order to compose images with a bright image on the back screen of the camera.
I mounted the camera on a tripod and we got started. Once I got to the point where I trusted the camera to nail the focus on faces (every time) I stopped trying to be a control freak and let the camera do the face detection AF for everything. I shot in the super fine Jpeg mode and I was very happy with the camera's choices of contrast and color. I left the imaging parameters in "standard" with no customizations. The files come into Aperture needed a little bit of contrast boost and, frankly, that's just the way I like them. Better to need to bump up a little contrast rather than trying to pull contrast out of an image. And I think the way the files are set up they do a good job protecting against blown highlights.
Lane and I have worked together on photography and video projects for over ten years now. We've always used typical, big cameras in the work we've done for his advertising agency. He took one look at the Samsung CSC camera, shrugged and never blinked. The idea that non-photographers care about which camera is used on a shoot is, for the most part, a silly myth invented by forum rats to justify their camera purchases.
We used the kit lens for this project and the long end was just about right for covering a nine foot wide roll of seamless paper from a good shooting distance. I would have preferred a longer focal length for a few of the close ups I did but they were not for the client, the close ups were just for my own fun. When I look at the results from the 18-55mm lens I'm pretty much satisfied. We were shooting about a stop down from wide open at the long end but the lens still delivered very sharp files. When you consider that the primary use for the files will be in 2K television you realize that you'll just be throwing sharpness away at a certain point. And we had a lot of sharpness we could throw out, if needed.
We moved pretty quickly to get everyone through yesterday and not clog up the works. We had couples with babies and moms with toddlers and a mom and fourth grader team. Everyone really got into the spirit of the day and relaxed and played. The images I've included in this blog are just quirky, fun selections I made while scrolling through the thumbnails in Aperture.
While I was using the Samsung NX300 in this instance, it's safe to say that any of the cool, little mirrorless systems would have worked equally well on this project. We weren't in a situation (more than once or twice) where we were shooting individuals, we were mostly shooting groups of two and three where focus on everyone in the group was much more important than using a style that calls for extremely narrow depth of field.
I decided to use the smaller camera because it seemed like a fun thing to do. We were in the studio. If I concluded that something wasn't working I was just a step or two from the equipment cabinet. But what I've found is that the whole industry is changing and camera selection along with it. Smaller and lighter is more fun and less precious. I was sure the smaller camera would do a great job and I like the way the jpegs work in that camera. I didn't want to shoot raw and process through 1300+ big, 24 megapixel raw files to get to what we wanted. When you decide that you are going to shoot Jpeg in the studio, at normal ISOs, you basically put most cameras on even footing. Once you set a custom white balance in a studio space you've eliminated a lot of the reasons that people choose to shoot in raw.
I've written a lot about my camera selection here but it was really one of the unimportant decisions in putting together this shoot. We're getting to the point again where most of the new cameras are interchangeably competent and that's nice because we can stop making them such a focal point in our process. A bigger concern for me was how to create the kind of back light Lane had in mind and how to do the amount of vignetting on each frame to match the ad agency's original vision for the lighting.
I struggled in trying to decide what kind of lighting to use. I've been working pretty steadily with my new fluorescent fixtures which I augment with a few LED lights but for this project I decided to play it ultimately safe by choosing electronic flash. I figures that I'd have some fast moving babies and toddlers as well as very active adults and I'd want the "freezing" power of flash. I also want to use a big light source that wouldn't suck up all the space in the studio and which would be easy to move around and reconfigure for smaller and larger groups of people. That meant that I was less interested in setting up a six by six foot diffusion screen and all the attendant light stands and more interested in a combined solution, like a big umbrella or a big soft box. I chose the umbrella light because I like the wrap around of an 80 inched and I really valued the portability and flexibility for this project.
The choice of camera and lens took all of 30 seconds while the lighting took just a bit longer. The hard part of the shoot was making a uniform style for all the images and then working to keep everyone's energy levels up so they felt good and genuine in front of the camera. That's the part that took up the next six hours.....
Sometimes I think we focus on the wrong parts of photography. Choosing and buying cameras is the easy part. So is reading the owner's manual and figuring out the right settings. The hard part of this business (or craft or art form) is figuring out what to shoot and what you want your images to ultimately look like. Lots of stuff is binary but the human reactions you want to get from your subjects in a photo are totally out of the science grid and firmly in the random, chaotic and unpredictable category. It's really your experience and your ability to mentally and emotionally change gears that makes or breaks projects that depend on getting good performances from other humans. All the spread sheets in the world aren't much help there....
We've seen workshops about the Zone System and about One Light and every permutation of waiting for the light in landscape photography but I'm going to be first in line for the workshop about how to make people happy, engaging and part of a collaborative approach to making fun photographs. That's a course I never see and it may be the only important or useful course for smart ( or overly smart) photographers.
To wrap up and summarize: We had a project that needed to yield images for television, social media and some print advertising. We used a smaller camera but I didn't worry because it cranks out sharp, nice, 20 megapixel files in a competent and straightforward way. The lighting was much more important than the camera and lens selection in this instance and keeping people engaged and giving their best energy to the photograph was more important than the lighting. If nothing else the use of a non-traditional camera in this setting was like a tacit excuse to be a little less serious and have a bit more fun. Certainly there was nothing intimidating here for the portrait subjects. They had a great time....
Shoot essentials: Cold, bottled water for everyone. Coffee for everyone in those critical, first two hours of the morning. A lunch break where we could leave the studio, sit around the dining room table and decompress and talk about what's working and what's not. A close by bathroom. An extra camera battery. A lot of energy. The stamina to be on your feet for six hours and the patience to wade through a thousand images.
at work in the orchard of photography.
Support the Aids Walk.