Wall to Wall fun in Austin. Kinda? Maybe? All depends on how you define fun...

It's another full bore weekend of fun events in Austin. Tonight is the triple whammy or the perfect storm or something. We've got the first full day of Austin ComicCon in downtown, about 70,000 UT football fans, who love to come and watch the longhorns get trounced by small teaching college football teams, just a half mile north of downtown, and then another 70,000-100,000 people sitting in the dirt or in lawn chairs just south of downtown for the first weekend of our giant, homegrown, Austin City Limits music festival. Good lord! Can we cram anything else in??? It's already turkey leg and funnel cake mania.

What does this mean for an intrepid, local photographer? Well, you can get out of town, shoot concert shots for free for the concert promoters,  work in your garden or catch up on all that image post processing you needed to get to. I think I'll just do some billing.

So, how did that shoot with three OMD EM-5 cameras go?

Funny, if we go out and shoot stuff like skateboarding and concerts we can rush right home and add the images to our blogs as proof of concept and completion. Professional photographers don't have the same option with work pictures because even if the subject is A-okay with you using his or her image more than likely the marketing people who are part of the equation have strict rules about embargoing your use of the images until they launch their advertising campaigns or websites first. This is especially true with images of minors. 

On Thurs. I shot images for new marketing pieces and a new website for a very nice private K through 9th school in a tony neighborhood in West Austin. Nearly every image was one of the kids. Very recognizable images of the kids. They are 95% candid images. I've gotten really proficient at coming into classrooms and immediately becoming boring and mundane to the kids. I was happy to be so bland that five minutes was all it took before kindergarteners and ninth graders alike forgot about my presence and focused on their work. But what the kids' ages and the nature of the assignment mean is that I can't immediately share the images with my readers. But I can share what I experienced in my use of the all Olympus, three camera deep, documentary style shooting in which I indulged.

If you read the previous blog post you know I got my hands on three used Olympus EM-5 cameras over the last two months. I spent less than $500 on each body. I bought three bodies because I was intrigued about the prospect of getting back to the way we used to shoot documentary assignments in the film days. Something that got lost in the early days of digital when camera prices were so incredibly high.

When we went out in the film days there were many reasons to use multiple bodies. You could have color film in one and black and white film in a second body. If you were shooting all the same kind of film you could have your three favorite lenses at your instant disposal; one each on its own body. If you were in a fast breaking situation three loaded cameras meant that you would not have to stop and reload film when you came to the end of your first 36 exposure roll. 

I learned the three camera/three lens shooting technique when I was shooting corporate events with Leica M series rangefinder cameras. They didn't have fast zooms (or any real zooms) for these wonderful cameras, just the world's greatest prime lenses. Most Leica shooters had a "holy trinity" of lenses that they depended on for the majority of their shooting. I never liked really wide lenses and chose to use the 35mm Summicron, the 50mm Summilux and the 90mm Summicron lenses. The Summicrons were both f2 while the Summilux was an f1.4.

We even got to chose the bodies that would work best with the lenses. The 90mm lens went on an M6 ttl  body that had the designation, .85  (point 85) and that meant that the finder had a higher magnification and showed frame lines for 35, 50, 90 and 135mm lenses. The higher magnification of the finder helped make focusing longer lenses even more accurate. The 35mm lens generally ended up on a .72 (point 72) version of the M6 which has frame lines for 28, 35, 50 and 90mm lenses. They also made a body with a .55 magnification viewfinder but I was never interested because the wide viewfinder window showed too much of the actual lens in the bottom right hand corner of the optical finder. 

Having the three cameras and the three lenses set up and ready to go was a blessing. It reminded us absentminded shooters that most of our designer clients and magazine editors wanted a wide establishing shot (the 35mm), a tighter working shot (the 50mm) and a bunch of detail shots with the 90mm for their articles or brochures. Any longer or shorter focal lengths fell into the specialty category...

I've always been partial to the 50mm and 90mm focal lengths but I have a legion of photographer friends who seem to love the 24, 28, 35mm lenses for their work. I think it's because they have trouble committing to what should end up being in their frames and so they default to putting everything including the kitchen sink in...On the other hand they think I have tunnel vision. 

In the times of film one could do the same thing with three inexpensive bodies as well. Say three OM-1 film cameras (small and light with great finders) and a 35mm, 50mm and an 85mm. But when digital lurched into the picture the need to buy an expensive body just to get enough megapixels to keep editors happy meant that most of us could only afford one workable body. At $6,000 to $8,000 for a flagship body there wasn't much left over to plunk down for a second body and none of the manufacturers really made less expensive bodies that could replace the big one in a pinch. This cemented the all-zoom era. The holy grail became the one zoom that was fast enough and had enough range to take care of the traditional focal lengths. My favorite of the era was the Nikon 28-70mm f2.8 which was a beast when it came to size and weight but which performed very, very well. This changed the way we shot because the fast primes with good performance fell by the wayside in deference to one camera convenience. 

Well, say hello to 2014. And say hello to the power of used cameras. The Olympus EM-5 is a monstrously good camera. It's one point of slight weakness is the lower resolution EVF compared to the newest generation but it's hardly a deal killer. The sensor in the camera kicks butt and the selection of small, fast, light and amazingly sharp lenses is wonderful. When I realized that I already had all the lenses I wanted/needed, and that I could get the EM-5's used for under $500, I decided to put together a documentary style shooting system that would take me back to the efficiency of the three camera past. 

The assignment from the school was to come and photograph the kids engaged in everything from worshipping in the chapel to creating killer robots in the robotics class. One fourth grade science class was busy learning how to make ice cream in plastic bags and the art teacher was trotting out some fun Andy Warhol work to motivate her class in their creation of collages. Wonderfully cute kindergartners were using some Apple TV apps to do their work on huge Smart screens. Another class was doing reading assignments on their iPads. And on and on. Guitar classes. Gym class. Even a couple of group shots. 

I've decided that I shoot stills almost like video. I don't shoot careful and precious, parsimonious bursts of images. I am not cheap with frames. I like to shoot and move and shoot and move until I know I have the perfect selection of both expression and composition but also that the action is just right. Might take five shots but it might take fifty until everything lines up just right. I came home with 2,600 shots. Yes, it takes a bit of editing to winnow the take down to the best stuff but you can see lots of frames that were close (but no cigar) and they really make it clear, by comparison, when you come across the shot or shots where you really nailed it. 

When I started the day out I had a camera with the 17mm ( think=35mm) over my left shoulder, a camera with the 45mm 1.8 (think=90mm) on my right and a third camera with the 25mm 1.4 (50mm equiv.) around my neck, hanging down on my chest. This is basically the same configuration I used with my old Leicas so I was almost immediately at home as to which camera offered what coverage. I kept the ISO for all three at 800 and would occasionally change up to 1600 in a dark space or drop to 400 for outdoor shots, like group shots.  While the lenses are reasonably sharp wide open I wanted to be sure of the image quality and tried not to go below f2.8. For the most part this gave me shutter speeds in the range of 1/60th to 1/125th. When you toss in the five axis image stabilization the only thing you really need to worry about is the subject movement. And kids do move. Timing the peak of action works with classroom shots the same way it works for sports. 

I got to school at 7:45 a.m. and got right to work. My motif is to enter a class, nod a greeting to the teacher and them fumble with one of the cameras until the kids stopped paying attention. Sounds time consuming but generally we're only talking about a couple of minutes. I'd start taking images just as though it was the most natural thing in the world. If a child started aping or clowning for the camera I would keep my facial expression neutral and just stop photographing and turn away. It worked every time. 

There were two considerations that I should mention about the modern classroom. One is that there's more screen and projection technology in classrooms that every before. The projects and large TV screens still work with moving raster lines on the screens or in the process. If your camera is set above 1/60th of a second you will get bands of color instead of a nice, white composite image of a screen. The bands of color are unattractive but that's the nature of scan lines. You'll have to experiment but you probably need to stay down under 1/60th to make the images work and to be able to show consistent work on the large screen or projection area. The prevalence of screens means that flash is a no-no as well since the illumination from the flash tends to wash out detail on the screens. 

The second consideration is the inevitable mixed light. Fluorescent fixtures overhead and the standard bank of window all along one side of the classroom. If you stand with the window to your back you get one color balance, if you shoot from the other direction you get a different color balance. If you shoot right down the middle you might wind up with different color casts on each side of a face. The only real solution is finding kids who are positioned in one direction or the other.

My client is a return client and we've worked on a lot of these details before. One thing they requested this time is that we use no flash or supplementary lighting at all. Setting up light stands creates a danger zone for fast moving young children and the flash is disrupting in a class room setting. In fact, I enjoyed using the OMDs because their shutters are quieter by a big margin than the shutters and mirror recharging on any of the mirrored cameras I have used. Multiple that by a factor of two for full frame cameras. 

I've used Canon, Sony and Nikon full frame cameras and the images from them are gorgeous. But guess what? So are the images from the latest sensors in the M4:3 cameras. I was so happy to work with cameras that have decent EVFs on Thursday. The last time I shot at the school I was using the Canon 5Dmk2 cameras. Having the instant assessment of the preview at my eye level finder meant so much less interative work to get images I really liked. I used the built in level when necessary and it was great. But to me the biggest revelation in using the EM5 is the camera's ability to do really good automatic white balancing and to really nail exposure. When you get those two things right everything else just falls into place. 

Another aspect of contrast detection AF mirror-less cameras that thrilled me was the focusing accuracy. You may think that the super quick focus of mirrored PD AF cameras is a wonderful thing until you've struggled with focus shift. I used an 85mm 1.4 Zeiss lens on my Canon cameras on the last go around and if you focus wide open and then the camera stops down to expose you'll get focus shift. It's part of the lens design. It's also tough as nails to hit sharp focus on the Canon screens that are optimized to give bright viewfinder images at the expense of visual focus acuity. In order to be certain I'd gotten the images I needed from that 85mm I really needed to be on a tripod, using a loupe and the camera's primitive live view function. 

When you switch to mirror-less cameras one of the first things you notice is that you don't have focus shift and you don't have front or rear focusing issues. If you nail focus on an eye then that's where the focus actually ends up. If nothing else the focusing accuracy of the mirror-less cameras will probably be the nail in the coffin for mirrored DSLRs. What good are 36 megapixels and high DXO scores if the damn camera doesn't nail focus. Doesn't happen to you? Lucky. I've been shooting the Nikon D7100 and the Samsung NX 30 side by side with their respective 85mm lens and it's heart breaking to get a great expression with the Nikon rig only to find, on closer inspection, that the focus is just a tad out.  The Samsung is a much less expensive camera and comes with its own issues but focusing accuracy is not one of them. If Samsung has the focusing speed for moving objects figured out in the upcoming NX-1 I'm pretty certain that it will smoke the category for professional APS-C cameras in such a way that Canon and Nikon will have a major game of catch-up on their hands. 

But back to the OMD EM-5 experience. If you chuck the battery grips and use the cameras "naked" the weight is barely noticeable. You can port them around all day long and never miss a beat. Someone asked me if I was using Black Rapid straps with these tiny darlings. I wouldn't think of it. The straps would end up weighing as much as the cameras and the criss cross of three sets of camera straps across my chest would be confusing and ultimately entangling. Stick with the regular straps on your cameras and you will be quicker, more comfortable and richer. My take on Black Rapids is that they are for people living in the early century paradigm of carrying only one brutally heavy and expensive camera. The BR straps are ill designed for people who want to carry multiple small cameras. 

On to files: I did a number of tests in offices and other areas that had fluorescent ceiling lights and found that the Olympus cameras do a great job of nailing white balance. Exposure is easy because you can see the effects of your choices in the EVF even before you commit to the shutter release. Toss in a live histogram and you really have no excuse for not nailing exposure on every frame. Some small tweaks might be required in post but nothing big and dramatic. 

I also compared raw and SuperHighQuality Jpeg files side by side. The lightly compressed Jpeg files are meaty and wonderfully balanced. This is a camera (the EM5) that I would use in superfine jpeg mode over RAW for just about all of my day-to-day shooting and never blink. And what that means is net savings on memory card space and increased battery life. Plus much quicker post processing.

So, let's talk about batteries. I bought a bunch of extras because, well, they are small and light and the reviews told me to expect about 400 shots per battery. I did have to change on battery on the body I was using the most at about 2pm. The other two cameras soldiered through to the very end of the shoot. Take extra batteries but you might be pleasantly surprised. 

The three camera shoot worked. I have gotten lazy though. About two hours in to the shoot I switched out the 45mm 1.8 for the Panasonic 35-100mm f2.8. I just found that I needed/wanted something longer and I relished the flexibility of that zoom. I used it mostly wide open and it was a good match for the two other primes. It worked well with the in body I.S. of the camera.

So, to sum up: Small, light, quiet, unobtrusive, sharp, great color, perfect exposures. No lens changing. No flash. Files very malleable in Lightroom. Great tolerance for shadow recovery at ISO 800. No need to carry a camera bag with me at all during the day. One fat memory card per camera with lots of headroom left over at the end of the day. 

On Monday I'll deliver about 1800 files or about 15 gigabytes of stuff to my client. It fits on an $8 memory stick. I'll write up an invoice after I finish this blog. It's a happy story of tools that work and files that play nicely. No sore shoulders but my thigh muscles are a bit sore from all the squatting down to get on the little kids' levels to shoot. Also, a bit sore from genuflecting in the chapel at successive sessions with different grades. Nothing to do with the cameras.

I brought along one extra lens that I didn't use. It was the 7-14mm Panasonic. I brought it along in case my client needed some exterior architectural shots. It staying in the bag. That's okay, I'll use it next week on an architectural assignment. 

I stuck in a shot of my Nikon F4 as a reminder to myself of just how hard it was to get the same level of photography in the film days. Painstaking work to put the right combination of filters on the camera for fluorescent lights. Nothing usable over 400 ISO. 36 frames between reloads. And that one camera and lens weighed more than all three of my little digital cameras combined. Paying our dues back then was a whole different ballgame but there you have it. Now that I've been able to go back to a three camera style of shooting I am loathe to ever buy another overweight, oversized camera. Goodbye Nikon D7100? We'll see. 

I'm tired from a long week. It's mostly the swimming that wiped me out. We've been building up our "base" of endurance with longer sets of longer distances. This morning we hammered out nearly 4,000 yards in an hour and a half. I hear a nap calling my name......