On an exciting adventure with Super Assistant, Amy S. Tales of Nikons and flashes and electricity.

It was still dark when Amy pulled up in front of my house, grabbed her grip gear and headed over to the studio car. She had a look in her eye that said, clearly, "You want me up at this ungodly hour you damn sure better be stopping by Starbucks!" I had loaded the car up with all the things I thought I would need last night and just had to put the case of cameras and lenses in (we don't leave cameras in the car overnight...).

After swinging by the coffee shop we headed up Mopac Expressway and on to our destination in a small town on the other side of Lake Travis. We were off to shoot day two of an annual report project for a utility client.

Our first shot was the CEO standing in a field in front of a row of several of the company's trucks. We positioned the trucks in the early dawn using a compass to make sure we'd get light on the sides of the trucks in the time window in which we were shooting. We started ultra wide, using a Rokinon 14mm f3.2 Cine lens on a D810. Amy put up a two stop diffusion scrim to the right of where we would be our main subject, the CEO,  to block direct, angled sunlight from hitting him and then we lit  a sweet spot of our exec to stand in with a large softbox (30 x 40 inches) from the right side of the camera. The box light was powered with an Elinchrom flash head and an Elinchrom Ranger RX AS system (1100 watt seconds at full, we used it at 3/4th power).

All through this shoot we had the new Marshall Electronics monitor plugged in to the camera; not so much for my use because I had the monitor on the back of the camera to reference, but so the art director, the marketing director and the CEO could look at the images and buy into the project as we were producing it. I was taking advantage of some of the D810's special features to make the shots I wanted. The first cool thing was to use the ISO 64 option. ISO 64 is not some pushed or pulled "extra" setting on the ISO dial, rather it's the native ISO for the camera. It's at this setting that the dynamic range is widest and the light transfer is at its highest efficiency. It also allowed me to use a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second with f8.0 so I could sync flash and control the ambient light in the background in an optimum manner.

The second two features would of course be the wide dynamic range of the camera and its high resolution and sharpness.

I had the monitor attached to one leg of the tripod via a Manfrotto Magic Arm. In this way I could angle the monitor away from the sun and over to the side away from the camera so I could continue working while the clients reviewed the images on the monitor and we wouldn't step on each other in the process.

I had forgotten how wonderful it can be to work with a diligent, professional and highly trained assistant. Amy was totally focused on making the shoot work smoothly for me (first) and then the client. Light stands got sandbagged as a matter of course, apple boxes magically appeared when I was ready for a higher elevation on the tripod. Bottled water appeared in my hands at just the right moment and disappeared when I was ready to re-embrace the camera. One thing I particularly loved was having Amy provide a "courtesy" flag for me when I was working in direct sun. We'd set up the camera and if I was standing in full sun Amy would appear with a black flag and hold it over me to minimize reflections on the camera screen and to keep me from getting sunburnt.

When I stopped to talk with the client Amy would immediately head to the equipment cases to bring order to gear chaos, to wrap cables, find errant lens caps and stuff soft boxes, hastily tossed to one side, back into their correct cases.

Another advantage of a good assistant is their patience in "standing in" for the final subject so the photographer can make sure the diffusion scrim will cover the subject with good shade and to make sure the composition really works once other humans are inserted.

I worked with an interesting assortment of lenses today. We started and ended with the 14mm Rokinon Cine lens and I will readily admit it's getting a lot more use since I uploaded a custom lens profile for it into Lightroom CC. I shot raw all day long and I immediately selected the profile when I got back into the studio and batched it to all the 14mm shots in the folder. It was fun to watch the previews pop into corrected-ness as the program churned through the giant files.

The lens that ended up in second place (as far as number of frames goes) was the older Nikon 25-50mm f4.0 ais Nikon lens. It requires a bit more contrast and bit of a sharpness boost in post production compared to some of the other lenses but once treated correctly it blossoms and is beautiful and highly detailed, but in a nice, calm way. I used it for abstract/technical shots in an electrical substation and I also used the longer end for some environmental portraits; both inside a substation control center and out in the field.

I used the Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art lens for one series of the CEO standing with a series of transformers behind him. It's my first encounter with this lens and I was duly impressed with the high resolution and drawing of that lens. I need to experiment more with it but it's a very fine optic, especially used the way we did, at f5.6 and focused manually to about 10 feet.

I got good use out of the old 80-200mm lens when we we're photographing electricians working in bucket trucks and being lifted up into the nose bleed heights and also for tight headshots of the CEO and other key employees. A nod also to the 24-85mm Nikon G lens for helping me get a bunch of quick moving, hand held images of truck crews.

Once we switched locations and concentrated on getting a good selection of environmental portraits of the CEO we also switched from using the heavy and powerful Elinchrom Ranger flash system to using a low cost, low weight combination of two Yongnuo electronic flashes triggered by Cactus V6 transceivers and ultimately triggered by a Cactus flash with built-in transceiver in the hot shoe of the camera. The flashes were firing into a 48 inch Softlighter umbrella that was postponed about six feet from out subject. With both flashes set to half power and a double net cutting sunlight on the CEO the lighting output was just right and the recycle time was good.

Interesting tip: We usually use a light, silk diffusion cloth on a Chimera ENG panel to block sunlight from hitting our exterior portrait subjects directly but we had a consistent wind today that threatened to either flip the panels around in their clamps or act as sails and knock the stands down altogether. In situations like this you can use black "double nets" to knock down the effect of sunlight coming from one side or above. The net allows air through the mesh and so is less prone to becoming sail-like and creating mischief. The net, when compared to the silk, also gives you a different and more intriguing look in portraits. A certain harder quality to the skin tones that can work well.

The flash and camera batteries worked all day long without slowing down but when we hit frame 700 at about 3 pm the batteries in the field monitor finally gave it up. I was about to have Amy replace them. We had plenty of spares as it uses the same batteries as the big Nikons. But I held off because I could tell that the darkening and surrender of the monitor gave the client the suggestion that we'd done what we'd set out to for the day.

All the batteries are back on the chargers. I've downloaded and color corrected today's files in groups. I am currently in the process of uploading them into a private gallery on the service I've used for online proofing since 2005. It's Smugmug.com and so far it's rare for them to ever miss a beat. I have over 150,000 files uploaded into the site for my clients and even folks who worked with us ten years ago can go back and reference their galleries at any time.

I am halfway through the uploading of photographs to my online gallery and thinking about the rest of the project. We have two or three more days of shooting and I need to supervise a drone shoot before all is said and done. I am happy to say that we're providing the client with a fast moving team, quick and effective lighting designs and good, general problem solving and we're collaborating on the look and feel of the images for the annual report. In the end my goal is to work hard at making all of this easy. I want the client to end up with a cohesive selection of images. I want their biggest problem to be that they are unable to choose because they have so many good options.

I've been working since 6 am and it's now almost 9:45pm. When the last of the files is uploaded I'll take my sore, tired body and crawl into the house, grab some water, brush my teeth and get ready to do it all over again tomorrow.

Amy's contribution of services probably saved us two full hours of time today and made the project much easier and more pleasant for me. By extension the client is getting better quality work because I can concentrate solely on my part of the job. Holding the silver sun umbrella over my head in the hot afternoon sun was a definite plus...

After tomorrow we take a break. Utility companies don't push their employees ( or suppliers) to work all weekend. We'll take up again on Monday. But that doesn't mean that freelance photographers can kick back and just enjoy the weekend. We have a shoot for Zach Theatre on Saturday; we're making new images for their season brochure. And as you probably know I always think working with actors and their creative teams is fun. On Sunday I'm spending the day shooting advertising images for the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. Also a fun client and this year their newly redesigned website took gold at the annual convention of museums in the U.S. I was thrilled that my photography was so well represented.

The countdown is one week and a day until the boy is back in Austin and Studio Dog is once again euphoric.

Hope you are also having a fun and productive week!


Upcoming field trip to the great north. Traveling for fun.

Studio Dog puts her foot down and demands we organize a party to "fetch" our 
young college student back home. She is tired of having her own room and having 
to scratch her own belly. "Bring me the boy!" she growled. 

So next Wednesday I'm heading up to Saratoga Springs, NY, by way of Albany to help Ben pack up his winter gear, have dinner and coffees with my friend, Fred, and generally take a three day break from the constant stress and responsibility of being a Texas artist. I am sure Ben can hardly wait to leave his enchanted enclave at Skidmore College, trade the bracing freshness of 60 degree days for the 95+ with bountiful humidity of his home town, and rush to the chaffing, unfathomable boundaries of once again living at home with his parents after almost a year of freedom. 

I have only been to Saratoga Springs once before and that was last Fall. The leaves were turning colors and there was already a briskness to the air. It seemed like a foreign country to me. But I quickly came to love the small town, it's great restaurant scene, the community feeling of the Uncommon Grounds coffee house and the ten minute walk through a majestic neighborhood that connects the college with the town proper. 

There is one perplexing decision to make for this trip....Which camera and which (one) lens should I bring? The front runner at the moment is the Olympus EM5.2 with the Panasonic 12-35mm lens but I do have a line on a Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art lens and I may just be a big enough sucker for new gear to snag that and slap it on the front of my Nikon D610. I'll decide the night before. 

While I am excited about the trip and also the prospect of having boy around for the Summer I once thought of buying a place up in Saratoga Spring to use as a Summer home. Then I woke up from my Disney-like dream sequence and remembered that I am still a freelance photographer and am lucky to own one home. But I will make the most of my three days unencumbered by the hard work of making photographs so I can have fun making photographs. It's all very confusing but I think I know what I mean. 

That's Weds. through Friday of next week. If you read the blog and you happen to see me at Uncommon Grounds don't hesitate to drop by and say hello. If you seem nice I might even buy you a cup of coffee.

Kirk buys a seven inch Marshall Electronics video monitor and uses it all day on a still photography shoot. What the hell?

There I was with my big Nikon D810 on top of the Manfrotto cinema ballhead ready to shoot some incredibly cool video content of super-superstar vocalist, Jennifer Holliday, for my friends at Zach Theatre. The four big florescent light fixtures were slamming around electro-luminescent craziness and I had a Sennheiser lavaliere microphone clamped to Ms. Holliday's collar ready to record every ounce of perfect conversation that got uttered.

I had carefully focused my 85mm lens, marked a spot on the floor for Ms. Holliday and then stopped down to f5.6 to give me enough depth of field (or so I thought) to cover small amounts of talent movement. It all started out in the just right category. The voice through my headphones was wonderful and the image playing across the 3.2 inch screen on my camera looked just like the footage I saw earlier this year on the Academy Awards.

And then Ms. Holliday became a bit more animated and my day started falling apart. She took a step forward and I knew she would be out of the sharp range of focus. I went to manually focus only to be thwarted by a combination of eyes that have long since lost their perfect performance coupled with a camera screen that's great for composition but sucks for trying to achieve sharp focus. At some point I switched out of video mode and refocused. Thanks goodness for the off camera interviewer's interjection... But for a few minutes I was praying for focus peaking.

While Nikon may, at some distant time in the future, add focus peaking to the D810 I'm sure not counting on it. But then I remembered that a lot of video field monitors have focus peaking as a feature. I started looking around. I wanted to be prepared for the next session. I wanted to re-master sharp focus.

I made pilgrimage to Precision Camera and looked at their monitor selection. The one that made sense was the Marshall Electronics M-CT710. The screen looked pretty good, the controls are pretty straightforward and it has focus peaking. It also came with two batteries, a charger, an A/C adapter, a sunshade and two different HDMI cables. The batteries are copies of the Nikon EN-EL 15 batteries I use in my two Nikon cameras and one of the HDMI cables, the HDMI standard to HDMI mini fit my two cameras. At that point I made a note of the price, $345, and decided I'd wait and buy the unit the very next time I got booked to shoot video for a client. The very next time....

Miraculously, I exited Precision Camera without making a single purchase. Not even a lens cleaning cloth or a battery!!!

I got into my car and, in accordance with Austin's new hands free cellphone ordinance, decided to check my e-mails and texts on my phone before firing up the automobile. There was a message from the client that I will be working with all week long. We're working on an annual report project and she wanted to know if I had a monitor or laptop we could bring along to really look at the shots as we went along.

Now I hate shooting tethered to a laptop outside of the studio. Just hate it. It's ponderous and plodding and the big screens are hard to shield from bright, ambient light, and if your battery runs out in the middle of a field there's really nothing you can do----Apple Macbook Pros now "feature" non-changeable batteries (really, it's a good thing?). But I don't mind being hooked up to an HDMI monitor.

After I read the message I returned to the store and pulled out my wallet. That part where I talk about being a good steward of the family's money? That's over. Again. But I do have a snazzy, new 7 inch field monitor.

I charged the two batteries last night and spent time going through every control until I knew how the new monitor worked with the D810. I packed extra batteries and an extra HDMI cable and tossed a little Pelican case full of video capability into the car.

This morning we were shooting in a huge water chiller facility in a medical center. The "heros" of the shot were a rep from the company I am shooting for and his customer/counterpart at the medical center. I set up the camera and comped in the shot. A nice, wide one that showed off big, industrial gear and featured the two guys right in the middle, talking shop and looking at an iPad.

I set up a couple of background lights to keep the back wall and area from going too dark. It's a nice way to add depth and make sure the image fits into a usable tonal range. I used a large light as a main key and a fourth light as a back lit to subtly rim my human subjects. All of the lights were battery powered electronic flashes being triggered by a brand new set of Cactus V6 transceiver/receiver units. I was also using a new Cactus flash as a master unit to trigger everything else.

When I got the lighting set up and dialed in I added a  super clamp to the leg of the tripod and a Magic Arm to the clamp. At the other end of the Magic Arm I attached the new monitor and fired it up. Then I put the sun shade on it to make it look even cooler. All at once my client and I could see the live view image up big and personal. The color was fine (we were shooting raw but still making custom white balances as we went) but the cool thing was being able to see the image so big.  The client was able to see the composition clearly and quickly let me know how to fine tune it. I could "punch in" on the image and see the level of detail.

When I switched from a wide angle zoom to a manual focusing 85mm f1.4 I was able to call up the focus peaking feature on the monitor and see, very clearly, exactly what was (and wasn't) in sharp focus.

I left the monitor attached for the entire shoot and it gave my client additional piece of mind while allowing me to dodge the burden of a bigger, heavier (and more flare prone) laptop and all the inefficiencies of actually shooting tethered. We're charging the batteries now for tomorrow's shoot and we'll be bringing it along.

While I bought the monitor ostensibly for video it seems to serve a useful purpose for still imaging as well.

One more addition to the gear list for those shoots where clients are adamant about assessing the images before, during and after we shoot. I've decided to like it.

Thanks for reading.

The Luminance Conundrum. Why some video might look off.

Engineers know that you can't optimize for everything. Something in the triangle or dodecahedron of choices has to give in order for something more important to spread its wings. The people who design cameras must be plagued with issues like this all the time. Questions like: Do I make the chassis big enough to conduct heat away from the circuitry or do I limit clock speed of processors in order to keep the components cool enough? How many screws do I need to put into the lens mount in order to make sure big lenses don't cause problems? How simple do I have to make the image processing in order to have the camera shoot fast enough for the marketing people? Do I vent for heat or give in to the mania for "weather proofing"? Should the lens be fast or sharp or small? --- I can't have all three.

I've written before about my misgivings concerning the Olympus EM5.2 video but I'm starting to mellow as I dig into the files and come up with some workarounds to the standard shooting set ups. I was frustrated that a camera with some of the prettiest files I've ever seen (as still images) seemed to have issues with detail and sharpness when shooting video. I used the neutral color profile and turned various settings like contrast and saturation down to keep the files from seeming too thick. What I was getting was files with bigger sharpening interfaces that I wanted. It was as if the camera was set to use bigger radius settings in sharpening for video rather than using small radius settings and a higher percentage of sharpening. I wanted the files to be more subtle and more detailed---or at least as detailed as 1080p video files could look. My reference standard is the GH4 but I would be satisfied if the EM5.2 came close. In its standard set-up the files looked as though they were not as well sharpened as they could be and then had a layer of noise reduction over-layed on to them.

I had a little epiphanal insight about the whole mess this week. I was playing around with the camera and switched the profile to monotone (green filter setting) to make some black and white images. The camera went from sharp (in color) to ultrasharp (in monotone). I sat down along a babbling brook to meditate on what might be the deal when it dawned on me that Olympus's engineers must be doing most of their image sharpening in the luminance channel so they could prevent excess noise in the chrominance (color) channels. This would give them good sharpness with low chroma noise when people make images in color and in Jpeg (although I am sure somewhat the same choices are being made in raw).

While they have mastered this technique for still images where there is ample processor time to make everything match up video works in a different way. In the long GOP files noise in color is probably being handled as a median, homogenous setting that requires less speed from the processing engines. And, in fact, when I shoot black and white video, which throws away the chrominance channels I find the video to be sharply detailed and nearly immune from aliasing. Something is happening when the color is applied.

I went back into the menus and made a few changes that helped me produce video files that I am happier with. To wit, I have started using the muted color profile, leaving the saturation and contrast sub controls zero'ed and then bringing down the sharpening to its minimum level. Of course I am using the image stabilization without digital manipulation (mode 2) and I have tried to be very careful not to under or over expose. The final step is to go to the custom curves setting and flatten out the profile just a little bit more; raising the dark part of the curve and lowering the higher tones.

When used this way the camera delivers a flat file that can be messed with in post processing to bring back the contrast and saturation I am looking for. Minimizing the sharpness in the shooting portion of our program is helpful but there is still some sharpening going on. I can live with it.

With the help of these settings the Olympus EM5.2 is quickly becoming my "go-to" camera for any situation that requires me to go "off tripod" and follow something or someone around. It's a great little ENG (electronic news gathering) camera and the constant movement largely masks some of the shortcomings I was seeing earlier in my ownership.

When using the camera in this way I have also found that the best files come from my slower FPS settings. I am happiest with the files (color and sharpening) that I am getting at 24 fps. I would also say that lens selection is helpful. While someone from Olympus suggested that I would get the best quality from their branded lenses it's not really the case. I'm getting my best files (not over sharpened...) with older, legacy Nikon lenses as well as manual focus lenses made for the ancient Olympus half frame series of cameras. These lenses don't seem to have the clinical sharpness of the newest glass but their "rounded" quality and lower contrast seems to help when the camera translates stuff into video. Yes, the newest Olympus glass, like the 75mm f1.8 and the 45mm f1.8 are nifty sharp in still imaging but they are a bit too sharp for video rendering that I prefer.

Every time I get better results I get closer to thinking that the EM5.2 could be the best all around camera on the market today. It's clearly the most fun to shoot with, if it fits in your hands.....

Perhaps the engineers at Olympus decided not to have a separate sharpening protocol for video and depend on the sharpening for full, 16 megapixel files, the result being the over bearing sharpening characteristic when the frames are down sampled to a bit less than 2K for video. I don't know. I've never been a software/firmware guy. But I do know that they understand the issue. Whether or not it's cost effective to fix it is another matter. At this point I am very comfortable shooting good video with these work arounds. I'm glad I spent the time to "zero in" the cameras for the way I want them to look because I think the image stabilization is a big evolutionary step in shooting video.

My favorite rigging is to use the uber-sharp Panasonic 12-35mm f2.8 on the camera, a set of Apple earbuds plugged into the headphone jack on the HLD-8G grip and a small, Azden shotgun mic secured to a tripod socket mounted accessory bar. The camera focuses quickly, the lens renders things in a nice way and the Azden mic is a surprisingly good little shotgun microphone for under $100.

Yes, I have better headphones. Yes, I have better microphones. Yes, I have a fluid head tripod. But the whole idea is to come up with something that is small, light, agile and capable. I think of my rig as the video counterpart to Henri Cartier-Bresson's little screw mount Leicas with collapsable lenses---ready and infinitely available. It's a new age for videographers and these smaller cameras are a bridge between accessibility and ultimate quality. For me it's an engineering compromise I am now ready to say "works for me."  Thanks for reading. 


Most interesting musical instrument at Eeyore's Birthday Party.

I wish I had been able to also show the front of this dress because the whole thing was pretty amazing. The woman who wore it also played it, as a multi-faceted percussion instrument, with drumsticks to actuate the different sounds. It was kinetic fashion at its best. 

Shot with the Oly EM5.2 and the 60mm Sigma dn.

My big acquisition for the day? A chocolate pecan pie from Whole Foods Market. Finally a purchase I can eat. Certainly trumps lens lust for pure enjoyment at a reasonable price...

Have you seen one of these in the wild? it's a Voitlander 17mm f0.95 and it's a pretty amazing lens.

You never know what Frank will bring to coffee. Last week it was this combo, the EM-1 and the Voitlander 17mm f-superfast. I played with the lens for a while and was quite impressed. You can emulate the look of a 35mm on full frame right down to the narrow depth of field and from what I could see it was sharp, sharp, sharp. Of course where I was seeing the sharpness was in the center because the sides and edges were at a different focusing distance from the center and the depth of field limited the theoretical sharpness we could expect. As it does in nearly every fast lens. But, of course, no sane human is using these high speed optics to do copy work, right?....

My tiny review? Great build quality, nice finder image. Perfect heft.

I went to Eeyore's Birthday Party and I felt the magic but I just didn't get any great images.

Eeyore's 2015, Acrobat.

I'm guilty of going to Eeyore's with mixed feelings about photography. Every year the party gets bigger and bigger and every year I feel more and more like a tourist there instead of a documentarian. I guess that's how you come to know that you are really tapped out. Now, don't get me wrong, I still think Eeyore's Birthday party is one of those quintessential Austin events. 

The drum circles were operating a full intensity and ringed with an asteroid field of observers that was so dense photographers defaulted to a "hail Mary" approach to shooting, holding their cameras above their heads and craning their necks to see the images on the rear screen in live view.

The forest was filled with cliques of counterculture types looking defiant while trying to be surreptitious in their consumption of cannabis. Jugglers juggled and topless woman bounded through the throng with their breasts painted in bright colors and funny patterns. 

It was 94 degrees by the time I got there and the heat was oppressive after our mild Spring. I tried to force myself into a formalist exercise by taking only one small camera and one inappropriate lens (or maybe my lens was appropriate but my brain wasn't properly calibrated for it. Whatever the reason I felt as though I was just "phoning it in" and so I dropped the camera to my side on its slender strap and just watched the people play. And that was alright too. 

I can't really blame the camera or the lens. I was shooting with the Olympus EM5.2 and the Sigma 60mm f2.8 dn lens. It's just that everywhere I looked I had seen it all before....

Time to search for new experiences. Thinking about a shooting trip to Mexico City..... more later.


We are currently supporting a play about LBJ called, "All The Way." How are we helping? With marketing photographs, research video interviews and more.

Show logo.

I've been producing photographs for marketing and advertising at Zach Theatre for 24 years now and I love it. Everyone on the casts and crews is so focused on doing the best possible production they can, show after show. For the current show the marketing and public relations people have taken their efforts to a higher level. We've done five different assignments to create photos and video as well as making research interviews with which to inform the cast and give them insight into a personal side of the former president.

Our first shoot was at the LBJ library where I documented Steve Vinovich interviewing the head curator, soaking up the displays and collections and actually giving me an interview at the museum's replica of the Oval Office. I switched back and forth between one Nikon camera on a tripod (for video) and one Nikon handheld for photographs. 

Our next shoot took place in Johnson City, Texas. Steve V. and the artistic director from the theatre toured the boyhood home of LBJ, had a wonderful lunch at the 290 Diner with the head park ranger and got a tour, in a convertible Lincoln Continental complete with "suicide doors", of the LBJ Ranch and even got a private look at the inside of the main house. Again, with two Nikon cameras I was able to record the interviews and the tours on video while also stepping over to the photography side to make interesting images.

Next up was a long interview with several of LBJ's contemporaries, two men who worked with him in the White House during his presidency. Again, once I got the camera rolling for the video recording of a nearly two hour interview I was able to move around the large room and grab additional photographs.

As we got closer to the show we scheduled a "studio" shoot with Steve Vinovich on one of the three stages at Zach Theatre. We shot various images with Steve in character, all against a white background. Once they had selected a good frame the art director at the theater dropped in the background that you see in the image below. In about 15 minutes we had twenty different poses to use. 

Steve Vinovich in his role as LBJ.

The final assignment was to do our regular dress rehearsal shoot. It's a long play and there's a lot to cover so I ended up shooting about 1300 photographs divided between two Nikon cameras.

While it may seem like a lot of coverage we collectively wanted to do whatever we could to fill the 300+ seats in the theater every night and to tell a compelling story about LBJ to the community that grew up in his own backyard. The show runs through the 10th of May and you can get more details about Zach Theatre's production of "All the Way" here: http://www.zachtheatre.org/show/all-the-way

Twenty four continuous years is a long time to serve a client but I really love the relationship. I can truly say that after hundreds and hundreds of productions I completely understand their mission, their vision and the best ways that I can help them succeed. I feel like it's an honor to be their photographer.  


No sexy photographic tools here. Just the nuts and bolt we use to get jobs done.

I was struck, as I was filtering through six years of blog posts, by just how many cameras and lenses I had written about. Some breathlessly as though the cameras were destined to change the very fabric of our industry. Every step forward by the camera makers was analyzed and pored over as though the addition of 4 or 5 million pixels would change lives. One stop less noise would cure malaria in our lifetimes. I know why I wrote those reviews and why you read them, it was because the new products represented a form of movement and being a predator species we are drawn to movement. In millennia past the recognition of movement was how we hunted down prey.

Unintentionally we've sent the message out to new photographers that the road to mastering the making of images rests with magic cameras and lenses.  But every day I find, in video and in still photography, that the camera is just one part of the puzzle and it's a part that's interchangeable, for the most part, between brands and specifications.

When I look across the studio this little corner is one of the vignettes my eyes land on and it's probably the most cost effective and hardest working gear in my studio. Without the stuff here I would have trouble getting to the spot in which I need to be with my cameras, I might not be able to see through the finders of my cameras and I certainly couldn't make the lighting work. The fun/interesting/sensible thing about this collection of things is that they have remarkable longevity.

To the left, by the door, is a hard sided, Tenba light stand transporter. It's hexagonal and holds even my tallest light stands and tripods. The hard, internal panels are covered with ballistic nylon. I bought this bag/case to transport light stands, tripods, umbrellas, soft boxes and electrical cords in around 1991 from a camera store that has long since closed. The bag/case has been on dozens and dozens of airplanes, even making a round trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. It has travelled on hundreds of trips in half a dozen cars.  In 24 years of service I've never had a broken piece of gear emerge from it. I've long since forgotten what I paid for the bag/case but it didn't seem like much. That's a good investment in gear.

Just to the right of the Tenba stand bag/case is a wire container filled with light stands and arms for C-stands. I have always liked to be able to look across the studio and see what stands I have readily available as I pack or when I am shooting in the office. Bags like the Tenba are good for travel but they cloak the inventory and make it less immediately accessible. One day in 1988 I was shopping around in a Container Store and found this little container. It was designed to hold rolled up blueprints or CAD drawings. The top has a wire grid which separates the blueprints from each other, it also works well at keeping light stands separated. The container has wheels on the bottom so I can roll it around the studio. I paid $14 for it and it has survived rough light stand insertions and random studio accidents better than I would have ever imagined.

To the right of the wire frame stand container is a small, two step ladder. It's made of lightweight aluminum and it allows me to shoot at eye level with people much taller than me. It's also helpful when you need just a little bit of "looking down" point of view. Being five feet, eight inches tall in a world of giants, the ladder gets a lot of use. It's also nice when I need to get seldom used gear off high shelves... That particular ladder arrived in 1995 to replace a wooden version that didn't survive a really rough project. One more thing! The new ladder also doubles as an extra sitting stool when all the chairs are taken and people keep pouring through the door.

I am constantly amazed when I meet photographers and videographers who do not have the pleasure of owning a stout and compact-able cart with which to move the mountains of gear that are sometimes required on location assignments.  I bought one of these carts many, many years ago and after much abuse we were finally able to kill it by moving a thousand pound, fully configured server rack across one building at Dell Computer. As we reached our intended location the front wheels hit a bump and the entire front of the cart collapsed under the weight of modern computing.

Mea Culpa! I read the instructions, the weight limit was a stated 500 pounds. But I did mention that the stalwart cart did not give up the ghost until after it delivered the goods to our shooting location. I went out the same day (sometime in 1993) and bought another one. At the time it cost about $125 but I feel, some 22 years later, that I am getting my money's worth from it. A decade or two more and I should have it fully amortized. I cannot imagine going on a shoot with eight or ten light stands, a stout tripod, a case of camera gear, two cases of lights and all the accessories and attachments and not having a rigid cart for transporting it all from car to client and back.

Finally there is the green PVC pipe. It's a more recent addition, purchased from a photographer exiting the business in 2009. It's filled with frames for diffusion clothes, nets, black flags and other light modifiers. A good pro can use just about any light source to deliver enough photons but the real secret of good lighting is in shaping it, diffusing it, sculpting it and keeping it from going where you don't need it and don't want it.

Those are the things that I see in that particular corner of my studio/office and they remind me that cameras and lights come and go like leaves turning or budding in the seasons but the power tools of the craft, the support stuff, is all there for the long haul.

Funny to me to look at the various stands in the stand holder. The oldest one is nearly as old as my business and the younger ones are at least five years old. There are two more nests of them around the office space. Some are small Manfrotto stands that fold up short and were bought to hold speed lights. Three are C-Stands bought to hold anything you need held, and the rest of come in like stray cats looking for regular food and shelter. Who would have thought I'd have such loyalty to my light stands? But, in truth, they've never let me down.

There are some things that are unchanging in our businesses.

Starting over again. We're archiving the past and starting fresh. VSL re-imagined: Post #1.

2300 blog posts is a lot of words.  And a lot of images. The original content on the Visual Science Lab covered the years between 2009 and yesterday. We discussed a lot about cameras and lights, tripods and books, workshops and industry trends. But that's all in the past. If you read them I'm happy, if you didn't it doesn't really matter because reading them now would be nothing more than looking back at the wake of a boat to see where it has been instead of looking forward to where each of us is going. By eliminating the previous posts I can start fresh. No baggage. And believe me, the stewardship of all those posts was starting to drag me down...

What is happening right now? Today? In the next five minutes? With life? With our art? That's what we'll talk about as we move forward.

The Visual Science Lab has always been about the art and business of visual work. From now until some time in the future we'll continue discussing cameras, video, writing, books, coffee and swimming. If you want to come along for the ride you are welcome.


"Please pay your income taxes!" My government says to me. And then they ask me to give them other valuable stuff as well. Would I work for free for the U.S. Government? Not any more than I already do....Thanks.

I am a generally patriotic U.S. citizen. I pay my taxes without cheating. I keep my lawn clean of refuse and I pay what I think are enormous property, sales and income taxes every year. And I rarely ever complain about it. In fact, this will be the first time I've complained about my money and the government on the blog.

But this is what happened this morning:

I opened my e-mail program and found an e-mail from an employee of the Voice of America Online. It's part of an agency that's sponsored and funded by the U.S. government to disseminate good propaganda about our country in the hopes that people overseas will believe it,  won't really hate us, and won't try to kill us. The VOA gets about $200,000,000 per year to "spread the good word."

The e-mail referenced some images I had made of a mall in Austin being renovated for re-use by a local college. You know, transformation story. Good stuff. The images I did of the project ended up on Atlantic Monthly's online site. The VOA saw them and thought they would like to use them to reach some of their 40,000,000 yearly unique, page viewers. But here's the problem....they wanted to use them without paying for them. Not a red cent. No trade of value anywhere on the board

.....except they did toss me one little bone.... in accordance with copyright law they would go ahead and give me a credit line. If I gave them the use of my valuable content free of charge.

I counter-offered and suggested a very reasonable $250 but the woman I was negotiating with told me very clearly that editorial clients NEVER pay for content and that everyone else is VERY happy to have this valuable credit line.

Of course I find it exhausting and counterproductive to work for free, especially for a government that I already financially support (no tax refund checks here...) so I asked the woman a few questions.

1. Are you a volunteer for VOA or do you get paid for your work?

2. Do you receive benefits and retirement credits at your job or must you provide those from your own pocket?

3. Aren't you ashamed to be asking a struggling, middle class artist, who's trying to put his kid though college, to provide you with valuable creative content for free? If you are not you should be!

I may be missing a good bet here. I'm certain there is a prince in Nigeria who frequents VOA Online just searching for a nice photographer to split his fortune with..... Yeah. He'll see my credit line. For sure.

My short, sassy review of the Samsung NX-1. A hybrid that's good in both camps: photographs and video.

Disclaimer: In the past Samsung's P.R. agency has sent me cameras to shoot with. If I agreed to participate in their program, Imageloggers, and post weekly images on their social media site I could keep the cameras and lenses they sent along. I did so in 2013 and for part of 2014. While some of the cameras were wacky (two different white cameras with heavy "selfie" credentials) and some were half-baked (like the Galaxy NX---Android OS camera) there were two that stood out as competent shooting cameras. One was the NX 300 and the other was the NX 30. Both of these cameras could and did generate really nice files.

Last Fall I kept hearing about an amazing new Samsung camera coming down the pike. I waited and waited but it never seemed to come. I wasn't disposed to continue on with Samsung's program or to make any sort of wholesale switch to using their cameras instead of the Olympus and Nikon cameras I preferred (compared to the Samsung cameras available at the time) and so I stepped away from the program and gave away most of the cameras I'd been sent. Then Samsung launched the NX1 camera and, on paper, it looked fabulous. The two lenses that Samsung paired with the camera also looked pretty sweet. One was the 16-50mm f2.0-2.8 which had been out on the market for a while and the other was the brand new 50-150mm f2.8. If I had no other equipment investments these two lenses might be enough to entice me into the system....

When I looked at the initial specs for the camera I'll admit I had a few feelings of regret for exiting their Imagelogger program before I could actually get my hands on the camera we'd all been waiting for. It seemed to be everything I wanted and had talked about over the years. It has a big, bright, detailed EVF. The resolution is class leading for APS-C cameras. It features in-camera 4K video and it shoots fast. What's not to like?

The way I saw it this camera might be the camera of choice for one part of the market; it would be great for people who weren't invested in an interchangeable lens system yet, who also wanted their camera to be a true chameleon. A state-of-the-art still camera and a production ready video camera. But in the end the camera will probably appeal most to people who are looking for a less noisy but similarly priced competitor in the 4K video market, when compared to the Panasonic GH-4.

Having exited their program (amicably) I left a message for the folks at the P.R. firm and requested an evaluation copy be sent along. I wasn't seeing a lot of reviews and I thought I'd run the camera through its paces and see what we'd come up with. It took a long time to get a review copy. A really long time. By the time it showed up my enthusiasm had cooled a bit and large swaths of the market were already moving on to the next big thing. It's a fickle gear market, that's for sure... but I am happy I had the chance to put the camera through its paces.

I'm not going to detail the specs and stuff because you can find that at DPReview and if you have any interest in this camera I'm sure you've already read their review. I'm just going to quickly cover how I feel about the camera.

Here's the good: If this camera had come out a few years ago Samsung would have trouble ever keeping it in stock. Right now it matches most of the best points of the mature APS-C products on the market, like the Nikon D7200 and the Canon 7D2 with little concessions on each side. The image quality of the 4K video files can be quite good. As a video camera it would considered an insane bargain but for one short term glitch (which I'll cover below). The files from the NX1 are very detailed and rezzy but the trade off is a bit of dynamic range. The frame rate is terrific but the focusing acquisition in low light levels leaves a bit to be desired (by comparison). The camera handles well and feels comfortable and the battery life is good.  The image quality is very good and while the color palette is different from the Canon and Nikon cameras I doubt that any of them is a reference standard for true color. I actually appreciate having some choices in color response.

The bottom line is that if you are in the market for an APS-C format camera that's a great all around photographic performer and you like using the raw format for shooting stills, and you go with the two, fast, f2.8 zooms you'll most likely be just as happy with this camera as you would be with the competitors from Canon and Nikon. If you are keenly interested in video you'll be even happier. The 4K video is really very good and relatively noise free up to 1600 ISO. It's a fair and even alternative for many uses that currently fall to the GH4 from Panasonic.

But here's the bad: My first observation, and it's one area in which I strongly disagree with the reviewers at DPReview.com is about the EVF. While I love the idea of EVFs and I enjoy working with good examples the NX-1 I've been loaned isn't seamless. It jutters and jitters a bit, visibly, when I pan it. And I'm not panning like a  centrifuge, just a nice, easy pan.  I thought I might be having a too critical moment so I grabbed the EM5.2 out of the bag and did the same pan with the same equivalent focal length and confirmed that the EVF on the Olympus is  smoother and less plagued by refresh lag than the NX-1 when panned in the same fashion.  The EVF on the NX1 is also darker by default but can be adjusted. When I mentioned this to the folks at Samsung they were concerned since they hadn't had the same complaints from any other reviewer. I'm presuming that the camera I had in my hands has an earlier version of the firmware and that this has been remedied. But the careful buyer might still check.

Samsung seems to be following a good trend in that the firmware fixes are coming fast and furious for this new camera. It's always nice to see new features added and performance improved on a camera you already own!

To put it into perspective the EVF, as it is now, is fine for most of what I would use the camera for. That's video. No one does fast pans in video. More like slooooow pans. In all other regards the EVF image is quite good. I just have to be honest and say "ouch. let's not too pan fast.

(edit: After some feedback from Samsung I re-tested the EVF. As shutter speeds go higher the effect subsides and lag becomes almost invisible. The critical juncture seemed to be at 1/125th of a second. To put it all into context most fast panning will be done trying to capture sports and that will be done at shutter speeds of 1/500th and higher where this camera performs as well as any EVF camera on the market. At very low shutter speeds I stand by my original assessment. ) 

On video: Samsung is like that guy who comes to the party and gets just about everything right but ends up accidentally sticking his hand in the punch bowl and then wiping his hand off on the white tablecloth. The guy who gets the up to the podium, delivers a great and riveting speech and then knocks over the microphone and trips over the cord. For some reason they've always made decisions that end up compromising the products that should have done well. To my mind having an optional EVF would have made the NX300 a wonderful and very cult-y camera. With  the stinky baby diaper hold rear screen only it becomes just another good performing snapshot camera. The Galaxy NX was also an interesting product and might have succeeded if not for the 28 second start up time and the ever intrusive nature of the Android OS. It was a camera for God's sake, not a downmarket laptop... But the screen on the back with a hood to block sun would have been a videographer's dream if that camera had done video like the NX1 does....

And it looks like they've done it again. They created a camera that's competitive with the big guys in the market for almost all kinds of still imaging. They came out with two really great lenses to hang on the front of it. The brought out a sensor that has the resolution, dynamic range and the high ISO performance people want. It even has 4K video that can be saved in camera. On memory cards.  If we stop there we'd all love the camera. Really good 4K video and great still image quality? We can overlook a little bit of low light focus anxiety.  After all, the Nikon D600 and D610 were no great shakes when the light got low. We might  be able to overlook the EVF's problems (in my sole experience) with fast pans.

But Samsung didn't stop there. They just couldn't help themselves. They seemingly just had to stick that crazy hand in the punch bowl. They decided that instead of suggesting that potential 4K users buy good, fast memory cards they chose to use a brand new video file standard called H.265. The advantage of this "codec" is that it creates really small, very compressed video files that fit onto SD memory cards. You could write lots and lots of minutes of good 4K video on smaller, slower and crappier cards. People could use cheaper, older SD cards --- and that would be good?

(Edit: One of my video buddies took me to task for being unfair to the NX-1 and Samsung's choice to use the new H.265 codec. He pointed out that the power users in video are now looking for cameras which can output a clean (no words on screen) and relatively uncompressed (much bigger) file over HDMI. That makes the in camera codec more or less meaningless to the group that will use this camera for many and more complex projects. He also pointed out that Samsung could have (and perhaps may in the future) used the new codec in a different ways, leaving the file size on card the same as the competition but doubling the quality of the footage. Apparently there are choices within the codec. Okay. So, with an "inexpensive" Atomos Digital recorder one could pull uncompressed video out of the camera that should be amazingly good. That's a plus, not a negative...)

But there's no free lunch. If you use a new compression scheme to write tiny files to the camera's card at some point the files have to be converted/expanded to something else in order to be edited in one of the two 800 pound gorilla editing programs, Adobe Premiere and Apple's Final Cut Pro X. Both of those programs run optimally with a codec called ProRes. It's almost an industry standard. But converting those H.265 files requires a few things that those programs don't provide. The first is a conversion or transcoding application. The second is a super fast, insanely powerful computer with which to crunch lots and lots of data during the conversions.

Remember those little foam dinosaurs that came in little capsules and the advertising copy that accompanied them which claimed that if you soaked them in water they would magically grow to 100X their size? Well the Samsung 4K, H.265 files do just that when you convert them into something you can edit with like ProRes. They seem to grow to about 10 times their original size.

All of a sudden you've got about three times more storage needs than if you'd have shot the same 4K files on a Panasonic GH4 camera with it's nice and easily editable 4K files. But the files don't just take up space--it takes lots of time to do the conversion. Running our liquid Nitrogen cooled Cray CS Cluster Super Computer with 80 processor nodes the conversion time was still daunting. (Sheer hyperbole! It's not really that bad...). To be fair once you convert H.264 files to ProRes they too vastly increase in size...

This critique is the hit a company takes when they decide to be the first adopter of new technology or new standards. I'm sure, in a year, lots of other makers will offer cameras with the choice of H.265 because the quality can be stunning or the space savings effective (but not both at the same time) and apps will be optimized for the workflow required. But right now it's an issue for anyone who has cobbled together a good workflow with existing video file types. And according to my very professional and hardworking video expert many clients are now asking for shooters to use cameras that output ProRes directly! But I think that's a bit crazy too.

Wrap up. The NX1 can be very good. Many who started with other brands will find the human/machine interface a little eccentric but we can chalk that up to familiarity versus change. I can tell you that I mastered the NX1 menus about ten times faster than the Sanskrit Encyclopedia that is the Olympus OMD menu system... There are some little operational glitches but most can be cleaned up with future firmware updates. If you are starting from scratch and have no preconceptions about how cameras should handle or how menus should work this is a good, feature rich camera to look at.

If you are really into video and lust after a cost effective 4K tool with a bigger sensor than the one in the well regarded GH4 this is also a good video camera for the money. The same operational issues plague it as plague Nikon and Canon and most other DSLRs that are pressed into service as video cameras; to wit, the menu driven control functions like microphone levels instead of external dials---so we can't be too critical. The NX1 trumps Nikon by having focus peaking in the system and trumps both Nikon and Canon by offering very pretty 4K files right out of the camera.

On the dreaded forae the most often dredged up stick against the NX1 is the lack of lenses available natively for the camera. I think that's a red herring for most people, including working professionals because most will be very well served by the two professional quality zooms for 90% of their work, and the holes in the system can be plugged by using third party lenses or lenses from other systems that are adapted with lens adapters. Again, a key advantage of most of the mirrorless systems.

If I could change one thing on the camera what would that be? I would ask the engineers at Samsung to offer a choice of both H.264 and H.265 codecs in video. That way people who need to move quickly could use the camera in their current workflows. This would let the user decide where to place the efficiency versus storage fulcrum. And seriously, UHS-3 cards are already dirt cheap.

The Bottom Line: Would I buy one?

Let me hedge a bit here. I might buy one. If I did it would be solely for the video capability of the camera. The features of the still side of the camera are ones that don't really interest me or which I have covered well enough by other systems. I don't care at all about NFC since I'll probably never buy coffee at Starbucks with my camera. I don't care about wi-fi as I'm probably not going to share unedited corporate video over the airwaves. I don't care much at all about fast frame rates or "the world's fastest autofocus." I'd buy one to get around the few caveats I have about the GH4. The Panasonic is a beautiful and useful camera but one that has a fairly high noise floor and which shows noise in shadows from ISO 400 onward. The NX-1 yields a less noisy file that still looks good, sharp and detailed. The camera offers most of the same video usability features as the GH4, including: headphone jack, external mic capability, focus peaking and various set up controls.

I figure that adding a body only and a Nikon lens adapter gets me into a 4K video camera with a lot of capabilities for a fairly low price along with the ability to use an endless supply of manual focus lenses with hard focus stops and physical aperture settings. The bigger sensor and the lower ISO noise can be real benefits and the camera is rugged and seems solid. You could produce good video with this set up. If you want to see a creative piece done with one go here: https://vimeo.com/121238971

With a few more firmware upgrades and a bit of time to let body only prices drop we might just have a killer video production tool on our hands for around $1300 bucks. A bit more than half the price of just the digital recorder you'll need to get actual 4K video out of a Sony A7s..... interesting value proposition, yes?

Oooh. Nikon's 50mm f1:1.2 lens on the front. Lots of big, soft directional lights, acres of detail. I'm guessing that's what Samsung had in mind from the beginning.  Hmmm.

Test the GH4 and the NX1 side by side and it really becomes more about preferences than superiority of one over the other. It's an interesting niche for both of these cameras because it's a clear indictment of Canon and Nikon's foot dragging where performance in video is concerned.

I've finished with my review and I've boxed up the camera to send it back. Just waiting for the Fedex.

The Visual Science Lab clocks in the 2,300th blog post since 2009. Have you read them all yet?

Every time we hit another century mark here I like to call it out to my readers. It always feels like an achievement. At least it's a lot of practice typing...

So I've just posted the 2,300th blog post earlier today and I'm amazed that I'm still enjoying the blogging, the writing and photography in general. Things are no more sure in our industry today than they were six years ago when we started. We rode the crest of the high wave of cameras sales back in 2008-2008 and we've been sliding down the backside of the wave ever since.

When I started writing I was toying with Olympus E series cameras and now I'm happily playing with the m4:3rd series. I'm on my second go around with Nikon's cameras. I've tried a lot of others in between.

I hope you've enjoyed what I've written and you'll support the site by commenting and checking in when you can and think it appropriate. If you need something from Amazon you can support the site by clicking through our links to buy your stuff. If you have something fun to say we'll probably post it.

My tolerance for snarky, anonymous commenters hasn't increased but I am having more fun just clicking, "Spam." when I come across mean copy-grunge. I figure the troll-y ones will give up sooner or later if their handiwork flies off into the void.

I'm not sure how much longer there will even be an audience for traditional camera based photography blogs but I'll keep writing until the daily page views dwindle down too far and then we'll pack it in and shut it down.

For now I'm happy with the frequency and the audience and I'm interested. I hope you are too.

Happy 2300. 

Today I spoke at a Society for Marketing Professionals, Lunch and Learn session. We talked about how to leverage good portraits in the Enterprise space. (Written a few weeks ago...)

I wrote an outline for the presentation and within the outline was section called, How clients screw up portrait sessions. The marketing folks were intrigued so I thought I would share it here now.

The idea is that companies go to a lot of trouble and spend good money setting up on location portrait sessions for their executives and key personnel. They bring good photographers onto the location and they proceed to hobble the whole process through a series of missteps and erroneous assumptions.

Here's what I know:

1. Too Small. I'm not talking about format size or focal length here, I'm talking about the fact that after talking all about things like shallow depth of field and large, soft light sources the photographer walks through the front door of the business and is ushered into a microscopic conference room. By microscopic I mean something like 10 feet by 12 feet with ceiling heights that must be the minimum which city codes allow. As the client is saying, "I hope this room will work. It's a crazy day around here today. We have clients in town and it's the only conference room we have available." you are wondering where you can put the lights and what to do with the conference room table that takes up over half the floor space. And that table? It weighs a ton.

You hear the client again and she's now saying, "So can we do that technique where the background goes completely out of focus and we don't even see what's on that white board right behind the subject???"  You look for your 85mm f.009 lens but then you realize it never got invented.

2. Scouting that presumes daylight never changes. Or traffic. Over the years you learn that every location needs to be scouted. But every once in a while you drop the ball---or the client is so tight on budget that they only can afford for you to start your car twice. Once to drive to their preferred location and once to drive back to the studio. And if you could take the bus they'd love it.

I learned again the hard way. The client raved about the really nice lighting and the sweet background she saw for the location she scouted. But when we showed up the location was in full sun with shadows from the sparse foliage of the almost dead tree dappling the entire scene. The sweet background area was totally backlit by this point and the area filled with cars.

I asked the art director when she scouted it. Seems like it did look pretty nice about four weeks ago in the early morning. Before daylight savings time. She got to work the morning morning she scouted at 7:30 am but our shoot with people is scheduled at 9:30 am today. The cure? Bag the whole thing and remember to do your own scouting next time.  Or get the scrims out and the big flash and the big reflectors and go to town. But it won't look like Waldon Pond no matter how good your technique.

3. Location Greed.  This one is probably partially your fault. You were talking to the A.D. about the backgrounds and maybe you suggested that more than one background would be useful to keep everything from looking too homogenous. You were thinking maybe two or three different locations with different backgrounds that could all be rendered out of focus. If you shot twelve people during the day you'd have four in each location and the variation would be nice while the style of shooting would surely tie everything together, aesthetically.

Your client took the idea and ran with it. If a little is good then more must better, would be the thought process. She's figuring that if changing backgrounds makes everything better than we might as well change for all twelve images. Doesn't really matter to them if the location only has three good, different views. That's surely your problem and not theirs. Hmmm. Twelve different portrait set-ups. That will sure keep you moving all day long.....

There's no cure for this one. You have to kill it in the planning or scouting stages. Otherwise you are doomed to a day of dragging gear and people around and around.

4. Massive wardrobe malfunctions. It all sounded so wrapped up when the client asked you for suggestions for wardrobe. It's a big corporation, most of their clients live in the northeastern U.S. and wear button down shirts and leather shoes with laces. Everyone agreed that coat and tie for men and smart business outfits for women would be the safe way to go. You talked about shying away from trendy fashions and loud colors, talked about the issues that might jump up with detailed patterns in clothing, even remembered to ask that the men shave a couple hours before their portrait sessions and then the day arrives and the CEO has forgotten to wear a suit but thinks the promotional, logo-ed polo shirt might just cut it. Angie in accounting has decided it would be a good day for a bright magenta blouse. Hedrick in customer support is in his third day of growing a quite "iffy" and uneven beard. Joe in legal is wearing a light colored suite with a herringbone pattern that's so defined it's already moire-ing before you've even looked through the lens. The CTO is wearing the awkward, shiny dress shirt in which he slept; for the second night in a row.

Although we stressed consistency in the memo we've got some execs who feel like a T-shirt makes any suit sparkle and others who just gave up and wore just the staid but ill-fitting white shirt with no tie and no jacket. Althea in H.R. spent the lunch hour crying and comes in with eyeliner drooling down her face and that guy in programming has on his Fantastic Four T-shirt over his long sleeve thermal.

While everyone else is happy to be photographed in front of the stark background we all chose together there's always that one key executive who read somewhere that outdoor photographs are all the rage and demands that he alone be allowed to do his "headshot" in the little patch of nature given over to the people who still go outside to smoke cigarettes. It's cold. He wants to wear his down vest...

And there is absolutely nothing you can do about any of this. You deliver a web gallery and wait as each person in each corporate silo contacts you individually in order to get a "private appointment" to re-do their image at your place. Just make sure you process their credit cards in advance...

5. Changing direction after the fact.  "Every photo we want taken is to be used on the web as a horizontal. I want to make sure you give me landscape images, okay?!" Asks your direct contact. You nod in agreement and as you shoot images all day long you marvel at how cool everything looks at a horizontal with some "air" around the people. It's a nice look. The web designer is happy and starts using the images all over the website. And then the nonsense starts. First off it's the assistant to the CEO who is calling to complain that when they "right clicked" on the CEO's image on the website and cropped it vertically and re-sized it to run on the cover of their printed annual report the image looked "all digital and blocky." Can you fix it right away?

Remember the long discussion with the guy who wanted his "headshot" done in the smoking gardens? Well now he would like his shot to match those of the rest of the senior executives. Can you just drop in a new background? And make the lighting on his face match?  At the same time five of the execs saw the image you did in the smoking gardens and would like to have the stark background dropped out and a "nice, garden-y" background dropped in to their photos. And could you make the light on their faces match.

"Ooops. That group shot where we asked for full lengths of all the people? Right? Well wouldn't you know that Bruce wore brown pants with a blue jacket and he wore brown shoes. Could you change the pants to black, lighten his jacket for some contrast and change the shoes to black?  Since you already have the file open in PhotoShop could you also change a few other pairs of shoes we don't like?"

6. Scheduling Nightmares. If you are an experienced photographer I'm going to guess you'd like about an hour at the location just to unload your vehicle, get the gear inside the building, get to the (hopefully) huge conference room where you'll be shooting and get your lights and backgrounds set up. Right? You probably talked about that with your client far in advance.

But many times we'll arrive and discover that no one has informed security that we'd be there. Even worse, no one has informed security that we would be bringing in cases of equipment. Sometimes it snowballs from there. Your liaison chooses that day to run late. Security can't do anything till they hear from your liaison. Someone finally untangles the security issues and you're frantically pushing that cart full of gear down the long, long hall to the conference room---when you are joined by the marketing director (your contact's boss). He wants to know if you can be set up in five minutes because the CEO's schedule has changed and, well, he wants to be photographed, now!

You rush to get everything set up and to move the furniture around and test whatever you can before the big man steps in for his headshot. You moved mountains and got everything ready as fast as you could and now the big man is a "no show." The original, appointed start time for everyone else arrives and there's still no CEO. You have the regularly scheduled people starting to show up early but the marketing director has everyone in a holding pattern, waiting for the boss of bosses to show. An hour into the holding pattern someone gets a text and the announcement goes out to "stand down." The CEO has re-decided to come at his scheduled time. But your original requestor is now miffed that you are no longer on schedule. You spend the day making up for lost time.

A corollary to this is the time crunch.  When asked about scheduling you let the original requestor know that a good portrait takes time. Everyone is different and getting the right look from some folks (sales people?) can be a quick and easy thing while with others (engineers?) you'll need to work for a while to get a pleasant and natural expression. You ask for 20 or 25 minutes with each person. The first two people to show up are former models as well as professional actors who each hit their marks, flash you the perfect smile and give you thirty frames apiece of real gold. Your requestor takes this two person statistical sample, extrapolates and starts slashing the time for each session down. Then the difficult subjects start to show up. The pathologically shy. The incredibly obese. The relentless blinkers. The "deer in the headlight" people. The "glowing" sweaters.  Suddenly it takes more time to get something good for each new arrival, and again, the requestor is miffed.

There is a variation on this and it's one we don't indulge at all any more. It goes like this: As you get better and better at making portraits you are able to put people at ease, light them and get good images more reliably and you actually can go a bit faster than you might have initially scheduled. This is a good thing because the gaps allow you time to rush to the restroom or grab a bottle of water. The gaps in time which you create through your expertise and experience allow you to double check the work you're doing and continually fine tune stuff. Maybe you even have time to personalize the light for each face! You're bringing value by being good at what you do. If you finish early that means you've saved some valuable time for your client. They can get back to their desk and get more work done and the people who came to sit for portraits can head back to their offices to do more online shopping or other mission critical work.

But some clients don't see efficient expertise as a plus. They have some strange concept in their heads that revolves around the idea that they are just paying for your time. That time elapsed is the only measure of productivity.  If you get done quicker they consider it their mission to find more people to photograph. Many more. Your well planned and well executed shoot devolves into a cattle call. This is something you need to nip in the bud.

With portraits comes the need for lots of post production work. Each person's images will have to be edited, ingested into your system, labelled, globally color corrected and put into a web gallery so someone can select the right frame. Once the frame is selected you might need to do a little or a lot of retouching. I recently retouched a female board member's selected photo and even though I've been working with PhotoShop for several decades it still took the better part of twenty minutes to get just right. If you multiply that by ten or fifteen people you'll easily find that however much time you spend on location you'll spend an equal amount of time in post production. And someone has to pay for that.

We don't charge by the hour anymore. We charge by the person. Add a person and we add a fixed amount to cover our time, usage and post production. There's a minimum charge to go out to a location and set up but after the minimum it's a "per head" charge. If your client understands that it will cost them an additional $XXX for everyone else they put in front of your camera they slow down the gushing pipeline pretty quickly. And if you do finish early you still got everything done you said you would.

I laughed when someone at a corporation I don't work for (and probably never would) told me about a photographer who assured the company's marcom people he could do "a day's worth of portraits for a dayrate of $800." Turnkey. Including "quick retouching of selects." My acquaintance went on to say that the marcom people lined up enough people to form a line that rivaled the lines at an Apple Store on the first day of a new product release. The poor photographer probably shot 60 or 70 people that day, spending a couple of minutes with each person, then spent days and days post processing. It's an unwinnable situation.

7. Privacy and the public theater of getting your headshot done. In the world of medicine they have laws called the HIPA laws that ensure patient privacy. No one will be standing at the door of your hospital room goading you to share your X-rays or to laugh along at your current prognosis. But for some reason the culture at some companies is one that allows employees to stand at the door to your makeshift studio and yell over to Bob from accounting, "Hey Bob, don't break the camera!" "Smile because (fill in the blank)." And yes, the hoary, "Say Cheese!!!"  I guess these folks think that they are helping you get a dignified smile from Bob by making bizarre faces and questioning Bob's sexuality in a very public venue but really it just means we have to get Bob mentally back into the process over and over again.  We try to make it a rule to keep the doors closed and the onlookers to a minimum but when the top guys in the company come in to play "frat house" with each other it can be hard to control. You might want to discuss this with your original requestor. The extra time between sessions also helps to control lingering. H.R. might want to send along a message not to leer at the cute persons of the opposite sex as well. You'd be amazed.....

Clients will be clients but it might be a productive thing to discuss some of these issues with them. Do it nicely and figure out the reward for them at each step. It might make your life easier and your portraits better.

One last piece of advice.... As soon as the last person on your list steps out the door of your makeshift studio start breaking down and packing the gear. Don't stand around and chat with the client. For some reason they can't stand to see the gear set up and ready and no one being photographed. So help me, if you leave it set up they'll keep finding people to stick in front of your camera. If you pack now you might just get out in time to actively participate in rush hour.


Saturday afternoon walk with an ancient (but interesting) lens on an Olympus EM5.2. Walking through downtown Austin, Texas

Is this bokeh or is the background just out of focus?

There's something about older lenses that I find appealing. I could describe various attributes but it would sound like I'm criticizing the lens instead of explaining why I actually like it. I have a very old Olympus Pen FT lens that's a 150mm f4.0. It was made either in the late 1960's or early 1970's. It was originally made for Olympus's line of half frame Pen cameras with their zany vertical format and the generous 72 exposures on a roll of normal 36 exposure film. But to my great joy all of these lenses will fit on (with an adapter) and cover the frame of the current micro four thirds cameras. 

While I go back and forth about lens sharpness and contrast there was something very different about lenses back in the days when black and white was the dominant film stock for a lot of pros and even more amateurs. I could conjecture that the lenses were made to be a bit less contrasty in order to capture more tonal range with the idea that you could compress the range to your liking in the development of the film and if not there then in the selection of your printing paper. The Pen lenses have a softer character to them but the detail is hidden within and can be coaxed out with a bit of post processing. 

I hadn't done a fun walk for a while so I grabbed this old lens and put it on the front of one of the EM5.2s languishing around the studio. I needed to drop by Zach Theatre and take five minutes of video for an upcoming event so I brought the second body with a modern, 12-35mm f2.8 lens for that purpose. The shoot was unguided by third parties and as a result was over in a flash...

Zach Theatre sits right on the south shore of the lake that runs through downtown so when I finished my job I walked across the street, over the bridge and into downtown proper. The modern lens went back into my bag and I pulled out the long, skinny optic from yesteryear. The EM5.2 is the best camera I've ever shot with when it comes to using manual focus lenses that have no electronic communication with the bodies whatsoever. The combination of image stabilization (yes, I manually set the focal length for 150mm....) and well designed focus peaking makes getting good images with longer, wackier lenses a breeze. 

Every image in this post was done with that camera and lens combination. The camera was set to aperture priority and ISO 200. Every once in a while I'd nudge the exposure compensation dial but the camera meter mostly agreed with me. 

Is this glorious bokeh or ---- is the background just out of focus? (intentionally).

With focus peaking engaged hitting sharp focus is quick and accurate. When you use focus peaking the peaking outlines show against a slightly darkened frame as you are focusing but the minute you touch the shutter button the screen goes back to normal brightness and the peaking indicators disappear. The only thing that could be better would be if I.S. remained on even without having to touch the button. A 150mm lens on the smaller format means a lot of magnification and that means a lot of bouncing around of the finder image as you focus. Not a big deal and I got used to it quickly. 

I think the lens is too soft to use wide open for general photography. It might be a really nice effect for backlit portraits or romantic shots but the lens sharpens up a bit at f5.6 and that's where I chose to park the aperture of the duration of my shooting extravaganza. I think it's just right. Not too much depth of field and just enough sharpness to make my brain believe that we're doing stuff just right. 

I'm not at all used to shooting with such a long lens. The dogs just above were shot from across three lanes of traffic! That means I had to scan much further ahead as I walked down the street looking for interesting things to photograph. 

There is a pedestrian bridge that spans the lake that runs thru downtown. On the way back to south Austin I crossed the bridge and found not one but two wedding parties who were celebrating and being photographed on the bridge. I stopped to watch the two photographers and two videographers tackle the bigger of the two wedding parties. I presumed that the group of people in tuxedos and magenta dresses had come from a hotel ballroom or other venue and were just getting the group images done. I conjecture that because there wasn't any family around, just the wedding party. 

The second wedding party was a smaller group and it appeared that I'd stumbled into their section of the bridge just as they were exchanging vows. The longer focal length gave me a discreet amount of distance in which to shoot.  I loved being out of their attention. The image below is so much more fun because of the compression that I think it would have been had I been closer with a wider lens. Funny how my brain starts looking for scenes that match the focal length on the camera....

Sometimes the things I love about certain photographs are really just fragments of the photograph. For example, in the image just above I love the out of focus bicyclist in the foreground. It's just so out of place and unintentional.

Wedding documentation crew. "We don't need no stinkin' suits or ties!!!"

From one bridge to another one hundreds of yards away.

At the moment I was shooting for the expression on the face of the girl in the middle of the frame but in retrospect what I really like is the look of all those glasses on the table, nicely but subtly backlit. 

A nice urban scene just waiting for something interesting to be dropped in...

There is one thing that I found to be very, very nice in both the original EM5 and the EM5.2 and that's the monotone setting in the camera. I use it a lot and usually I choose the green filter setting when I am shooting outdoors. It seems to render tonal values correctly. As of this moment these cameras are my choice (over the Nikons) for black and whites that start their lives as Jpegs. 


Work Note: The printed annual report is not dead. We are starting an annual report project in the middle of this coming week. Numerous locations in Texas and lots of expansive landscape style photos. There will be a mix of people shots but the wide, graphic shots dominate this one. 
I can hardly wait to drive around, maybe there will be BBQ.