Gear Happiness. Two shoots two camera systems.

Unrelated image from the Bowie Project. Serving only as a visual anchor for the blog....

I've fallen a bit behind on the blog this week. We've gotten busy with the usual rush that happens once school lets out. Everyone takes a little family vacation and then the kids are inserted into Summer programs. The phones and e-mail are dead for a week. Traffic abates. Once this ritual plays out the clients climb back into the driver's seat, rev up the engines and off we go again.

Part of the crack VSL crew is working around the clock to format and beautifully design the novel we've been talking about so it looks as gorgeous as it can on any e-reader. But the main crew have been doing more or less traditional photography work. This week we had two days of corporate shooting which felt mostly like the "good old days."

Our first project was photographing executives in a  make shift studio we set up in the client's executive conference room. We were shooting against white with the understanding that the client's in house creative team would be dropping in a uniform, color background based on images we'd shot back before the great recession.

My client was a bit surprised by my retro gear when I showed up. Not my camera equipment but the lighting gear. The last few times I worked with the same marketing person we were using some variation of LED lighting. This week I showed up with some very traditional electronic flash moonlights. I added to the nostalgia with a soft box as the main light modifier and umbrellas for the background lights.

I guess I remembered the big wash of daylight in the last location we'd shot there and how much I struggled to overcome that and light with neutral color and LED lights. They are at their best for portrait lighting when you can control the ambient light in your shooting area. I chose the flash because it was a quick, easy way to get neutral color and to freeze action. But now I have to be careful because I find myself considering flash lit portraits to be a bit too sharp. In fact, I turned down the sharpness in my camera parameters to minus two. And I could have toned it all down to minus three. The cameras are much sharper than they have even been before, especially with the better lenses, but I'm almost certain that particular "feature" isn't usually a benefit for portraiture and I find it makes files that look a bit fake. Too much detail?

You'd think I was grappling with a Nikon D800e but I was sporting a Panasonic GH4 that day. That camera makes very sharp and detailed files, almost as if Panasonic was trying to prove something to the industry...

Things I like about shooting portraits with a Panasonic GH4 and the 35-100mm X lens? Well, wickedly sharp at my typical corporate shooting aperture of f5.6. Very straightforward custom white balance setting. Face detection AF. Touch screen for those times when I want to move the AF point around with my finger. 16 megapixel files that are sharp and detailed without being so big that they bring my computer and my storage system to a crawl.

Things I dislike about shooting with this stuff? It's not my big, square Hasselblad and it's too easy to get good images. Takes all the challenge out of the process. Okay, I'm just kidding. The real challenge is never really the camera or the lighting as much as it is getting a good expression and a nice, happy collaboration with the portrait subject.

I dragged all my stuff in on a cart, navigated the security desk, got badged and escorted and set up. My biggest secret for easy post production these days is to always do a custom white balance right before I start shooting in earnest. Back in the studio not a single file needed an exposure correction (go light meters!!!) or even a look at any color correction. I just edited for expression and composition and sent them along straight.

It was fun and relaxing to catch up with a long term client and shoot in a fashion that we used to do so often. By the time I got back to the studio that client had already given me a recommendation to one of his peers from the Northeast U.S. who contacted me the next day to bid on a project. Ahhhh.

Can the Panasonic GH4 handle executive portrait shooting for a world wide, high technology firm? Duh.

The next day I headed out to work on location with another really nice corporate client and we did the whole load-up-the-cart-and-drag-stuff-through-the-parking-lot again. This time I set up a temporary studio in their conference room and shot glamor shots of four of their server products. Hardware. Just old school product work against white. Making the product shine.

As you probably know I hate doing stuff the same way twice but since I already had the flashes loaded into the car I went ahead and used them again. This created a mental pressure which pretty much made my subconscious demand that I use some alternative camera in an attempt to add some challenge and fun into the mix. I went all counter productive and pressed the least likely camera into the mix: The Sony RX10.

Here's the rationale I came up with: When shooting computer cabinets you need to keep the front very sharp and even the back reasonably sharp. In this day and age this is more about getting the depth of field you require to hold focus that it is about getting enough information on your sensor. I looked at some depth of field tables that showed me that I'd be getting pretty darn good depth of field at f8. More that I would if I used a full frame camera at f16 or even f22. At the same time the RX10 is pretty resistant to problems with diffraction at f8 (although diffraction is also dependent on focal length....). To go one step further Sony has programmed in some software fixes in the RX10 to combat or compensate for diffraction.

The other factor is the quality of the sensor. If we needed to shoot the product (for some insane reason) at ISO 1600 I would have been over to Precision Camera to rent a Sony A7 or Nikon D800 from the get go. But with 400 watt second moonlights, used in close quarters I had all the ISO 100 I could ever have asked for. In fact, I could have bumped the flash power up even a little higher and shot at ISO 80 if I'd wanted to.  But the deal is that comparing the image quality of a still life, well lit and shot at a very comfortable sensitivity setting I would imagine that there's very little real difference between most modern cameras.

I took the leap of faith and shot all the various product shots and detail shots with the RX10 and when I got back to the studio and started working through the raw files and getting them ready for post production I saw what I thought I would, on screen performance that was at least as good (at ISO 100) as the first generation of full frame cameras I used to use and better looking image files (because of the extended depth of field) than I had gotten with any of the DX cameras and lenses I'd pressed into service over the years. The pixels held together well. There were no artifacts caused by noise reduction that I could see, even with pixel peeping, at 100%. Overall, the RX10 delivered files that were perfectly suited for this project. Sharp, noise free and in focus everywhere that I needed them to be.

At the end of the day we had one more shot to take. It was of the company's marketing director. She needed a new set of portrait images for a series of magazine interviews she was doing. Much as I love the Sony RX 10 it just wasn't the right camera for this particular part of the job. I looked around the conference room and realized that I couldn't light it any better than the wash of totally indirect light coming through the room wide wall of windows. I positioned the marketing director so I could put some warm shapes in the background and started designing a shot that called for dropping the background well out of focus while maintaining crispy sharpness in her eyes.

Out came the Panasonic GH4 and the dependable 35-100mm. Before we got started in earnest I slowed down long enough to make an incident light meter reading at the subject's position and I did a custom white balance for the light we had bouncing gloriously around us.  I shot a whole series of expressions and compositions with slight changes between them.  I used the wide open, f2.8 aperture of the lens at the longer end of the focal length range and the results were beautiful. Every once in a while I got some blur from subject movement but the shots without movement were stunning and in terms of focus we had sharp eyes, an acceptably sharp tip of the nose and by the time we got to the dangly earrings we were already going as soft as Kleenex. By the time your eye gets to the back wall all you see are soft, indistinct shapes with calm transition. What some would call quiet bokeh.

As of now all the jobs have been processed, masked where needed, retouched, delivered, and billed. Each job was done for a person who is at least a twenty year veteran of corporate advertising and public relations work. My first client also spent years on the agency side. There was no discussion of "this camera versus that camera." There was no hesitation in the process based on things photographers like to talk about and worry about. Just straight forward work which filled the bill for the job at hand. And that's the way it's supposed to be. That's the way it nearly always is....

Next week we're booked to shoot more portraits and I'm thinking I'll do them mostly with the Samsung NX30 and the 85mm 1.4. On Weds. I leave for a math conference in Denver. It's the same basic conference I shot for here last year but this time I get to transport myself from the early Summer heat and humidity into the Rockies. So much fun. I'm shooting it totally differently that I did last year and I'll write about it as I go along...

Hope the Summer is treating you well, that your clients pay in a timely fashion and that you find great coffee on a daily basis... thanks.


Gato said...

Glad I'm not the only one. I've been running my G6 and G5 with sharpness all the way down and sometimes wishing for a half step lower.

You're going to sell me an RX-10 yet. Aside from all the good stuff you talk about I want to get something with native high sync speed for outdoor portraits. Seems like this would do the job.

Racecar said...

Colorado is lovely this time of year. The cool dry mountain air is magical. It's a welcome foil to the humid hot Texas flatland air. Enjoy your visit.