Getting more focused on good camera and studio technique.

Caught mid-sentence in the Craftsy.com Studios.

I was having a discussion with friend, Frank, over coffee yesterday in the late afternoon. We'd both put in long, hard days and it was refreshing to share a little time with someone as interested in the holy triad: photography, video and marketing. When it comes to marketing I defer to him. He's an actual pro. But I can hold my own in discussions of photography and to a certain extent in video. 

We've both been buying m4:3 cameras and we both are excited about the introduction of the Panasonic GH4. But over the course of our conversation the talk turned to the use of small cameras for professional work. When it comes to format my brain ebbs and flows. Sometimes I like the look a full frame file can give me and sometimes I like the ethos of the smaller cameras. After all, what were the original Leicas if not the answer to an earlier generations fixation with larger and more ponderous cameras?

And all that started me thinking about how much good image quality we leave on the table by not practicing each piece of our craft with diligence and purpose. One reason people seem to shoot raw files is to be able to fine tune color and exposure better, after the fact. After having shot an image casually. Many think it's a badge of honor not to use some of the functionality of the cameras when making images. For example, to eschew the use of face detection auto focus when doing portraits or to not take advantage of a camera's software filter to improve an image. 

I'm still amazed at how opposed most people are to the idea of using a tripod where it's possible. I'm often guilty of believing what an LCD shows me when evaluating exposure instead of taking time to meter a scene. 

I was still thinking of this last night. I'd made basil linguini tossed with a smoked salmon and parmagiano cheese cream sauce for dinner and then, while my family relaxed, I went out to the studio to pack for a shoot we did this morning. I went out on location to a rehab hospital to set up a temporary studio and shoot twelve staff portraits against a seamless background. 

While I was packing I was thinking about our conversation and about getting all the details right up front. Would this make shrink the quality differences between full frame and smaller formats? I had already made up my mind to shoot these portraits with a Panasonic GH3 camera and a moderately long zoom lens. At the last minute this morning, before heading out the door, I tossed my RX10 and a couple extra batteries into my jacket pocket. 

After I set up the lighting in the small room at the client's location I pondered the cameras. I would be shooting under controlled florescent lights and I would have the camera on a tripod. My brain reached for the GH3 but my inquisitive and mischievous side came up holding the RX 10. "What the hell?" I thought, "Let's give it the old college try."

I set the camera for medium sized, super-fine Jpegs and started doing the due diligence check list. I metered the position in which I would place my subjects with a Minolta incident light meter. I ended up with 1/60th at f4 at ISO 250. Perfect, considering I was photographing adults and I would have the camera on a tripod. Next I pulled out a Lastolite gray target and made a custom white balance. And then I did it again a couple more times just to make sure. 

I enabled the camera's face detection auto focus and figured out a standard for head sizes that I'd apply to each sitter---for consistency on the website. Finally, I enabled a filter called, "Soften Skin," took a few test shots of my client and evaluated them at the largest magnification the camera is capable of. The effect was perfect. Nice and sharp on features, eyelashes, eyebrows and hairs but a slight softening of intrusive skin texture. Not plastic, but, on the other hand, not cruelly clinical.

I shot these same settings for twelve people which equalled about 500 frames. Since the camera was doing the focusing and aesthetic work for me I was absolutely free to focus on composition and building a nice rapport with the sitters.

When I got back to the office an hour ago I dumped all the files into the latest rev of Lightroom and started peeking at the images. There's strong detail in all of the images but the areas of skin are smoother and less contrasty than a typical shot. The color is perfect and at 1:1 there's very little real noise. 

The images are right on the money. Exactly as I'd planned them and the camera was all but transparent. Granted, the front shoulder is not going to ooze away into Bokeh Heaven but the background only six feet behind the subject is smooth and texture free. 

Based on the intended and contracted use for the images they are for the most part interchangeable with the full frame files I did for the same client just last year. The camera didn't miss a beat. Didn't miss focus or deliver unwanted artifacts. It proved to me that many of the situations that we think to be the provence of bigger cameras are only thought of that way because of history and tradition. 

I'm sure that if I had not taken the time to meter and white balance I would have had to struggle more with the files and I would have found more "forgiveness" in the full frame images. But that's where photographic best practices and diligence come in. Those things enabled me to press a smaller, cheaper camera into service without penalties. And yes, I'd do it again. 

This business is changing. If things need to be faster and cheaper than the projects should be easier to do. And that's the arena in which small, mirror less cameras with fast, sexy lenses thrive. 


Dave said...

If you have them around and the mood strikes you, I'd love to see a head shot or two from the RX10. I'm seriously weighing the path out of Nikon DX and there are two extremes; RX10/GH3 or D600/610, Sony A7, etc. Its like the old Stealer's Wheel song... clowns to the left, jokers to the right :)

Ash Crill said...
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Anthony Bridges said...

When it comes to gigs, I still default to the 5D3. Recently, I shot a birthday party for one of the grandkids. I used my X100s & a manual flash. Didn't miss the 5D3. AWB was better, jpegs were just fine and I could flash sync to 1/500 and 1/1000 to kill harsh window light.

I still prefer the 5D3 for detail & autofocus speed. However, it's folly to discount the ability of good, small format cameras.

Craig Yuill said...

I usually shoot RAW+JPEG. For my APS-C DSLR I find that JPEG works fine for most shots. But my smaller-format mirrorless camera doesn't quite have the same DR, and JPEGs are prone to highlight blowout in contrasty light. RAW allows me to get more detail out of highlight areas. That said, in less-contrasty lighting JPEGs are perfectly fine in the smaller format. I suppose this highlights the importance of carefully controlling the light (and, thus, exposure) to get the best results.

An interesting post. Thanks for reminding us again to always try to be diligent and use best technique when taking our photos.

Wolfgang Lonien said...

For the last three events ("Happy Hour" in December, Playmate and then a Beauty / Fashion shoot in January), I took my Olympus E-PL5, with the 25mm PanaLeica and 45mm Olympus lenses. Missed the viewfinder which I had to take off for the radio remote, but the results were sometimes better than from others who used some big Canikon gear. And yes, I metered quite often, and tried to get everything as perfect as possible in camera, which also saves a lot of work afterwards.
Since I have some nice lenses already, I see an E-M10 in my future rather than a D610... the lighting makes much more difference than a camera IMHO.
Oh, and yes, as long as these models weren't half covering/hiding their faces, the near-eye-detection worked just super fast and also perfect. Didn't have many misfocused images at all.

OtisMosely said...


Thanks much for the blog. I've followed for a while and really enjoy it. I too wouldn't mind seeing a picture or two from this shoot, to see what you mean by the softened look you used. Something you would have been able to do with the GH3 as well?

Penfan2010 said...

Kirk - thanks for the great post. I've done my best to shoot with RAW over the years, but really don't like messing about too long on the computer. I do love the OLY and Panasonic JPGs anyway, and your article made me realize that shooting JPG is like shooting color film and sending it to the lab for processing. You chose a roll of film based on its distinct color "signature" and lived with it (at least, I did). Thanks as well for reminding us of the importance of the technical discipline to get as many things right up front. Digital has made me very lazy indeed in this regard.