8.21.2014

A look at yesterday's job through the rose colored glasses of non-perfectionism. A tale of two camera systems.

 This image of a corner of the Denver Convention Center has absolutely nothing to do
with this particular blog post. It's sitting here on top of the page because I like looking at the 
colors and the shape. Done with the Pentax K-01.

Starting the day with an active meditation on seriousness.
And the cult of coffee-ism. 

One of my favorite Austin ad agencies got me hooked up with a cool software company which one might call a "start up" if not for the fact that they have nearly 500 employees, offices around the world and tons of income. One thing they did not have, and which they understood the need for, was really nice photographs of their top twelve executives. Yesterday we aimed to fix that. In a previous meeting we worked together to craft a creative brief that called for me to a formal yet edgy and modern portrait, a series of action portraits at a conference table, capturing hand gestures and facial expressions as in an interview and then, finally, a waist up portrait in an exterior hallway (beautiful architecture everywhere).

The men and women we were photographing were already "warmed up" for their media experience because many of them had been interviewed for a video project the day before. 

I found a conference room that faced north a got beautiful, diffuse but directional light during the entire day. The back wall was a beautiful soft green/teal airbrushed glass. I had every intention of lighting the crap out of every shot and brought along enough gear to light up the entire floor of their office in this exquisite bank tower but when I started figuring out the shooting angles and how I wanted to pose the people for the interview shots and formal portraits I instantly saw that nature had done a much better job with the lighting than I ever could. It was just up to me to position each person to get some good modeling on their faces. This sounds optimistic but it turned out to be so true. Perfectly done lighting without lifting a finger. All of the flashes and light stands and umbrellas stayed in their cases and my most important tool of the day was my tripod. 

I had planned to shoot everything with the Panasonic GH4 and the two f2.8 zooms but.....

I was seduced by the lure of two other camera systems. The Samsung NX 30 and the Nikon D7100. The odd couple. The "hey, let's go all experimental today" cameras. Why? Who besides a good psychiatrist can really know?

Just for the sake of rationalization let's say that corporate portraits are one place where narrow depth of field imaging sells really well and I wanted to make sure I could get that look (in spades) from one of the cameras. The second rationalization is that I think the Toshiba 24 megapixel sensor with no anti-aliasing filter (in the Nikon D7100) is going to be a cult sensation. According to DXO tests it delivers nearly 14 EVs of dynamic range and it's amazingly detailed. I thought this job might be a good shake out for this recent addition to the tool kit. Even with it's funky but solid 18-140mm super-zoom kit lens. 

The day was fun and we worked at a nice pace. We had people schedule at 30 or 40 minute intervals but as with most freeform executive suites the players swapped schedules with each other all day long. My real goal was to slow them down, get them into the spirit of the shoot and not to relent until we had three good shots in the can for each person. At first I leaned on the Nikon and the zoom but I kept tossing the Samsung NX 30 into the mix with its ultimate lens, the 85mm 1.4.  I was shooting that combo at ISO 250, f2.2 and 1/200th of a second and I loved nearly every frame I pulled out of that camera and lens combination. While the operational aspects of the NX 30 are no where near as solid as the Nikon camera the lens and the sensor in it made up for all the finesse and structural nuance Nikon could build into their picture taking machine. 

Easily the best six portraits I've done this year I did hand held with the NX30 and the 85mm 1.4 lens. The pity is that I don't have permission yet to show them off. Once the client's website goes live you know I'll share them with you but for right now you just have to take my word for it. All the stuff I know about artificial lighting and state of the art cameras just went out the window and the stuff that will make it into my portfolio, from that full day of shooting will be from the NX.

It's eerie when you finally connect with a camera; when you finally discern it's reason to be there. I had to overlook the fidgety function controls and the fact that every frame seemed to see a slightly different color balance (thank goodness for raw files...) but in the end it's the highly sharp center surrounded by lush and glorious out of focus areas, provided by a premium lens, that nailed it for me. At the end of the day I had two wishes. First, I was wishing (hoping) that the rumors swirling around in a tiny part of the industry are true and that Samsung will both introduce a new, pro or prosumer camera body with an even newer  sensor. And that, if they do I get my hands on it soon. In the company of their 85mm 1.4 I would consider a well finished pro came to be a marvelous, dedicated portrait camera for studio and location work. 

The proof of the pudding is in the eating so I'll stop writing about the NX 30 and just leave it with this: With this lens and the current sensor  the Samsung imaging chain is easily on par with any APS-C camera out there from Canon or Nikon. I don't have enough experience with the Fuji's to make a statement about them. With this in mind the NX30 is going with me on my next high ISO shoot over at the theatre. There's a dress rehearsal for a one person play coming up and this focal length and sensor combo should be perfect. 


 The NX 30 body under discussion.

The Luscious Lens. May be the best one out made just for DX format.

And that brings us to the question of "what the hell were you doing with a last century paradigm Nikon body at a Kirk Tuck photo shoot?"  Well... hmm. I think I touched on this earlier but my experiences with Sony camera bodies and flashes, Panasonic camera bodies and flashes and just about everybody else's cameras and flashes has been at best, mediocre. While I may be missing some secret tricks or something it seems that most people's flash/camera combos don't do a great job of mixing ambient light and strobe. They are also a bit inconsistent for me. I'm sure someone has mastered the flash riddle on mirror less but I'm just not there yet and I've booked about $10,000 work of event work this Fall. The kind of assignments that call for flash in dark ballrooms and racetracks at night and in concert performances at night, etc. 

Whenever a new type of assignment crops up I tend to review the way we handled similar assignments in the past. How can I get the images my clients want with the least amount of fuss and failure? When I divested my Nikon gear back in 2008 the one tinge of regret was the fact that their flash equipment, and its integration with the bodies, was the first perfect match in the digital age and it's still, in my humble opinion, the top of the game in 2014. By that I mean I can focus in near darkness, on a guy in a dark suit, push the shutter button and nail the flash exposure with no real intervention from me. 

Remembering this pushed me to head over to Precision Camera and check memory against reality. I tortured my favorite sales guy for a while and discovered that my memory and reality matched up pretty well. The flash performance of the iTTL flashes and the current Nikon bodies is great. Having settled that I started imagining the working situation: Impromptu group shots requiring wide angles of view. Couples and foursomes requiring the middle range. Speakers at podiums requiring longer, maybe 200mm equivalent angles of view. That's when I started researching the Nikon 18-140mm zoom. According to DXO, DPreview and the invincible Ken Rockwell this lens is very sharp even wide open. At nearly every focal length. It matches the Toshiba sensor in the D7100 well. In many regards it's the perfect extra long ranging zoom lens. It has one huge, major, gasping flaw: It has more distortion than a car radio turned up to maximum volume. Brutal amounts of distortion. It requires minus 7 correction at the wide end to cure barrel distortion while the pincushion distortion which comes into play from 35mm onward requires a +8 correction to cure it well enough. 

If I were buying the combo to do architecture I'd have my brain examined by several professionals. Wouldn't work at all unless your client designed fun house mirrors. Ditto with product shots of products that are largely composed of straight lines. Amazingly weird. But for grip and grin photos in the Four Season's ballroom it's the best. Fast focusing, four stop image stabilization, sharp wide open and the equivalent (for 35mm frame dimensions) of a 28mm to 210mm lens. Amazingly good for what I have in mind. A specialty tool, like a hex wrench, that exists to do one thing well----social, event photography. 

At any rate that's as much as I can rationalize my purchases. But I will say that after seeing the performance of the naked Toshiba sensor I am thinking of using the D7100 camera (with a different lens) as the view camera of the studio for images requiring very high resolution. I did put a 55mm Micro Nikkor on the front and at f5.6 and ISO 100 the detail seemed endless. And profoundly sharp. 

Now, for all the linear and literal readers out there. Don't get your boxers in a bind. I am not abandoning the m4:3 cameras and lenses I've been using with much happiness for the last six months. They are much more fun to carry about and much more fun to use with manual lenses and with continuous lighting (my personal quirks abound). If you've read the blog for long you know that the gear inventory never stands still.....and that I think it shouldn't stand still. Curiosity is part of the art. The tools are woven into the process. And the D7100 is a wonderful camera with which to shoot flash on the run. No excuses.


So, between the two APS-C cameras, and the various strange lenses, the shoot for the technology client went very, very well. What a gift not having to light everything. I packed up and headed home to do the post processing. Because I was working with people who are not "on camera" professionals I felt the need to do lots of shots to catch the best expressions. When you couple the human needs with the fact that there is zero recycle time with available light my frame rate soon got totally out of control and when I finished downloading the UHS-3 SD cards I found I'd shot 1600+ images. Which occupied nearly 28 gigabytes of hard drive space, times two (the backup drive). 

I brought the files into Lightroom 5.6 (thank you Adobe for the instantaneous Cloud upgrades...) renamed them and started my edit. This morning I'd worked the pile down to 650. If you look at it from a per set up basis it's really only 18 shots per set up, per person. I'm loathe to edit further because at a certain point an errant art director will start saying, "Is this everything we shot? It seems like we shot a lot more. Oh? We did? I'd like to see them....all." 

The files started life as 20 or 24 megapixel raw files. In the case of the Nikon files they are shot as 14 bit images with lossless compression. The images are huge. Way too big (note to camera industry: Kodak gave us raw file capability in all file sizes in their DCS SLR/n camera. Why can't we have that in all of our cameras? I'd love a half sized RAW file in the Panasonics and three or four smaller files in the Nikon and Samsung.). 

I exported the files as 1800 pixel wide, mildly compressed Jpeg files and sent them along to a gallery on Smugmug.com. That way the client, the agency and I can all look at the images and discuss them with each other remotely. They'll pick finals and we'll retouch em. Even the wonky lines from the 18-140mm lens.

On a business note I thought I'd share one aspect of billing a job like this. These are all busy people. We did the shoot yesterday but they may not get around to making final selections for a week. Or a month. Or ever. You just never know. So I bill jobs like this in parts. The first bill goes out as soon as the gallery goes up. That invoice covers the shooting and licensing fee for the images we created. It also covers the cost of editing and then creating the gallery. 

Once the client and agency make their selections we'll send along a second invoice for the post production and retouching of the files along with any additional usages they may have decided upon once they've started working with the material. 

If you do billing like this you start the clock on payment right now. Today. If you wait until the end you might be starting the billing cycle clock thirty days from now (or longer) and you'll suffer by not having the cash flow and profit from work you've already done. 

Finally, as always, remember that Samsung sent me the camera and the lens I discussed above for free and that I also participate in their Imagelogger (image sharing) program. I'm never shy being critical about their cameras. I don't pull punches but you need to know the provenance of the camera and lens so you can evaluate my experiences with the knowledge that I may be introducing some unconscious bias. As with all gear: try it out for yourself or only order it from a store that has a liberal return policy. Every hand and brain is different. 

Check back in on Monday. I am taking delivery of two HMI lights from K5600 Lighting. They make all kinds and sizes of HMI lights for the movie industry.  I have high hopes for these small but powerful, daylight balanced, continuous light units. One is an "open face" and the other a fresnel. There will be much spirited portrait play in the next few weeks. Count on it.