5.26.2014

Another Enjoyable Evening Making Photographs for the Theatre. "Vanya" at Zach.

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Now, on with the show.....
Cassandra and Vanya practice voodoo...
©2014 Kirk Tuck

It was a moist and muggy afternoon and I was packing up to go shoot a dress rehearsal for my live theater client, Zach Theatre, here in Austin. This was my first time to shoot a dress rehearsal on the Topfer stage with the two, new (to me) Panasonic X lenses: the 12-35mm and the 35-100mm. Both have 2.8 maximum apertures and are weather resistant (which never comes up in theatrical documentation....). I had just spent two full days earlier in the week putting the new GH4 through its video paces and I felt like I had a good handle on its capabilities re: ISO limitations and focusing. 

I packed the two lenses, the GH4 and a GH3, along with two extra batteries (unnecessary) and two extra memory cards (totally unnecessary). I also brought along a second GH3 body with a lens adapter. The second GH3 body hosted an ancient Nikon 50mm 1.4 lens and it was set up to shoot monochrome. I brought it along just for fun. I thought about including a monopod but my experience with the in lens I.S. on both lenses convinced me that it would be a non-essential burden. I left it in the studio. 
"Sonya" makng a point.
©2014 Kirk Tuck

The two primary cameras and lenses fit in my smaller, Domke bag and I dragged the third camera along over my left shoulder. Security blanket? Mindless distraction? Who knows?

It was my intention all along to use the longer zoom on the GH4. Most of the images I would be taking didn't require capturing the full width of the stage and I knew from experience that I would be able to handle 90% of the work with a 70-200mm equivalent. I was anxious to put the GH4 to a real world (for me) test and this was a quick way to put 1200 frames on the camera and lens in short order under fun circumstances. I've often said that the only way to really get comfortable with, and to understand a camera, is to spend a lot of concentrated time with it. I figured two full video shooting days and a three hour dress rehearsal would be a good start.
Now I've shot several thousand still frames under several different lighting conditions as well as about 80 gigabytes of HD video. Give me another month and I should have this combination somewhat figured out....

"Masha"
©2014 Kirk Tuck

I tried to be thoughtful about this particular job if for no other reason than that I had just read a book about "mindfulness" and I thought it might be fun to practice really thinking about something instead of just plowing into it using historic skill sets and game plans. So I asked myself, "What is my goal for these images?" And the answer was to capture photographs that expressed the feeling of the play and teased at the flow of the play. I also wanted them to be sharp and bright; well exposed and properly colored. 

Then I asked myself, "What will these images be used for?" And the answer was that the theater would use them for public relations. They would make them available in their online "press room" to any media property that wanted to use them in reviews or announcements about the shot. The theater would use them on post cards and maybe in placed ads, where possible. And finally, they would use them (well) in social marketing. It seems straight forward to ask myself these things but it seems to clarify the process for me. 

©2014 Kirk Tuck

Then I went over the restrictions under which I'd be working. Recently we've been shooting our marketing images during dress rehearsals with small audiences. Having an audience in the house helps the actors fine tune their delivery and gives them a feedback loop to help them understand how lines or actions are playing with the audience. What this means for me is that I'm a bit more restrained about moving around in the theater while I shoot. 

Our other two theaters are set up in less conventional ways than the Topfer Theater. At the Topfer we have a large, traditional stage with a linear demarcation between audience and production. I might move left or right and get a different angle but all of my shots will still be from the audience POV. In one of our other theaters there is seating directly in front of the actors but also on both sides! The action projects out into the middle of the audience. It's a whole different dynamic and when I shoot dress rehearsals there I am able to get shots from the sides. That's not possible on the Topfer stage. 

Our smallest theater is "in the round" and during the dress rehearsals I can circumnavigate the stage to get the best image at any given time. Working in the round is most effective if I've already had the opportunity to see a prior rehearsal so I know where the action is headed.....

Last night we had a small audience so I found a central position about six rows up front the front of the stage and nestled in. I readied my cameras by setting them both as identically as possible. Highest quality Jpeg, tungsten white balance, standard profile, single frame AF, center focusing point. Noise reduction minus one. As I've mentioned before, I would actually feel more comfortable shooting raw but we usually turn the images around pretty quickly and many times there isn't an opportunity to go in and fine tune and then convert from raw. Also, shooting a "baked in" file will certainly make you think and keep you on your toes. There's nothing like knowing you won't be able to fix something in post to make you try harder to get it exactly right in the camera. 

©2014 Kirk Tuck

The stage set was beautifully done and had a great sense of depth to it because of the receding, repeating planes and the lights in the very back of the set. The stage set was built with some foreshortening which made it more visually interesting to the audience. This particular set was originally built for a production of "Vanya" in another city and is being rented by Zach Theatre for this show.

The lighting was both ample and well done. This made shooting much easier because I didn't need to bridge huge differences between highlights and shadows. When I was setting up I defaulted to ISO 1600 on both cameras and when the play started I quickly realize that we were working at higher light levels for this particular play than we usually do and that I could come down to ISO 800 and still get high shutter speed and the ability to stop each lens down by 2/3rds of a stop. At 1/250th of a second I found only a handful of frames with evident subject motion. 

"Watching Spike out at the pond."
©2014 Kirk Tuck

The GH4 has a very nice ability to render good skin tones and simultaneously keep good detail in a white costume (see actor to the right of frame). While the Panasonic cameras are not generally known to have enormous dynamic ranges the GH4 seems to do a good and consistent job not blowing out the highlights in a frame. 

"Spike" and "Cassandra" dancing.

The theater has a large number of multi-color, programmable LED lights and some of the frames show a wash of tungsten light peppered with color elements. The GH4 does a good job discriminating between colors and hues and providing files that match my visual memory of the experience. 

By the end of the evening I'd shot a little more than 1200 images of the play with the combination of the GH4 and the 35-100mm lens. I'm certain that many people will quickly chime in that they shoot far fewer frames. No value judgement from me. I'd love to shoot fewer frames over the course of a play if for no other reason than that I would like to save the marketing folks from excess editing but, if I haven't seen a production when I go to shoot it I have no idea what the "best images" will be and I certainly don't want to miss a set up that everyone is expecting. I'd rather consistently err on the side of caution and over deliver rather than under delivering. Also, in a typical play, when shooting four or five people in a shot, you have no control over everyone's expressions nor can you simultaneously monitor everyone for blinks, closed eyes, odd expression and other photo-killing issues. The best thing I've found is to shoot short bursts when you see something that resonates with your. Five frames or ten frames instead of one frame at least gives you a fighting chance that in one all the parts will come together in a good way. Or, at least in a good compromise...

©2014 Kirk Tuck

There is a difference in feel between the GH4 and the GH3. The 4 seems much more tight and defined. More solid. And that is interesting because the 3 is a well built camera and it's supposed to be similar, from a construction angle, to the newer camera. I can't put my finger on it precisely but it feels like it's all made from a solid block of metal. There's zero flex. From a user point of view the biggest difference between the two cameras is all down to the visual representation of the scenes on the screens. The GH4 has a much higher density EVF and a much more color (and more importantly, contrast) corrected LCD screen. It seems that the EVF on the 4 "looks" into the shadows more deeply but without giving up the good "bite" of contrast one expects in a good finder. 

"Masha" as Snow White.
©2014 Kirk Tuck

I'll stop belaboring the operational aspects of the camera (GH4) with two final observations: The battery/power management is impressive. While I am not a "power chimper" in my shooting style I am presuming that being a high quantity shooter certainly takes its toll on batteries. As I mentioned above I shot over 1,200 images in about three hours and the battery still indicated 2/3rds full at the end of the evening. Great performance from a camera on which one or another screen is always on. 

The second thing I wanted to mention is the speed and accuracy of the autofocus. At no time during the show did I sense any hesitation in focusing at all. The camera just revved up and nailed focus as quickly as any camera I've shot. Full focal length, full aperture and moving subjects....it just didn't matter. And here's the capper: Every frame was accurately auto-focused. I've had more than my share of front and rear focusing DSLRs, including the Sony with several lenses and it's something I think every photographer dreads. Based on last night's camera performance I feel confident that the age of inaccurate focusing is now behind me. At least with these two lenses.

©2014 Kirk Tuck

Now, on to image quality. The colors are great. The tonalities are great. At most commonly used sizes the images hold up well and do a great job right up to 800 ISO. When using Jpegs at ISO 1600 I start to get a little bit of softness and a bit of uniform (not color splotchy) noise in the frames. It's apparent both in shadows and in skin tones when viewed at 100%. On images with tight crops to single faces I would want to work the sharpness and noise reduction controls in Lightroom. I like the frames better when I add higher amounts of sharpness at very small radii. Something like +50 @ .5 (Point five). And then I'll add +13 to +15 on the noise reduction slider to smooth out the sharpening a bit. 

I trust everything else at default.

©2014 Kirk Tuck

So, what do the images look like at 100% when shot at ISO 800? They look a lot like all the high resolution camera files at 100%. The don't seem as sharp or defined as smaller file do. This is something I started seeing when looking critically at files from my Canon 5D2 as well as files I used to get from my Sony a99. I think it has a lot to do with the pixel size on the sensor. But the take away for all of these cameras is that, with the exception of blatant pixel peaking, they all look beautiful at normal magnifications. The same phenomenon occurs in video. HD video on a 27 inch desktop monitor never looks as sharp to me as it does when I look at it in normal sizes. I'm sure there's a technical explanation but I don't remember it.

©2014 Kirk Tuck

©2014 Kirk Tuck

©2014 Kirk Tuck

©2014 Kirk Tuck

©2014 Kirk Tuck

©2014 Kirk Tuck

©2014 Kirk Tuck

©2014 Kirk Tuck

I like the GH4 and consider it a perfectly usable theater camera. A very nice still camera. A genius video camera (for the budget).

But how did I like the play? Here's my one sentence review: A beautiful set! An ALL STAR CAST (Jaston Williams, Beth Broderick and Lauren Lane!!!). A great script. Nearly perfect stage lighting. Great chemistry between the actors. Okay.....it's a perfectly hilarious and wonderful way to spend an evening. With or without a camera.

Personal Note: I showed up for swim practice this morning and the pool was jam-packed. Everyone wanted to burn calories from the long weekend. In the fast lane we had an embarrassingly huge surplus of former All Americans as well as several recent Olympic medalists/superstars. On the deck we had one of the most charming Olympians to have swum at Sydney, to coach us all. And in my lane we had some of my favorite, daily swimming accomplices. We got in a great workout and ended, thousands of yards later, just before the thunder and lightning hit. It was another perfect morning....

©2014 Kirk Tuck



Studio Portrait Lighting

2 comments:

Peter E. said...

Nice article, can hardly wait to get my GH4! Did you use the electronic shutter to cut down on shutter noise ?

Anonymous said...

I really like your theatre projects. You seem to have caught this one particularly well - there's some great expressions in these shots and it's got me intrigued at the production (I'm a big Chekhov fan and I'm wondering what the overlap/cross-reference's in this one are).

Mark

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