Math Conference. A wonderful opportunity to try out different cameras, lenses and approaches. A fun and interesting way to spend three days!

Kirk and Stan Y. at the Math Conference. AT&T Conference Center at UT.

Three years ago I got an e-mail from Stan, who reads the VSL blog and also teaches at Cal Poly, in the  Math department. He works with a group that spreads a way of teaching Math called, IBL or, Inquiry Based Learning. Each year there is a gathering of mostly university level, but also some high school level, Math educators and they share new knowledge and techniques with their peers. Speakers present new methods that they've used to make learning deeper and better. Less rote memorization and more actual learning. Stan asked me if I would be interested in photographing the conferences. I immediately said, "Yes."

I offer the conference a number of different photographic services. I set up a temporary studio in a meeting room at the conference locations and we make portraits of speakers, board members and others for the IBL people to use with articles on their websites. This year I used a Nikon D610 with a 24-120mm lens to make the portraits, and I used three Cactus V6 transceivers, one Cactus RF60 flash and two Yongnuo flashes to light the portraits. It's a quick and easy lighting set up with enough power to adequately photograph small groups as well. 

I cover the main sessions in the large ballroom and try to get a mix of speaker shots along with shots of the attentive and inquisitive audience. After the large "main tent" sessions the conference has a daylong series of "break out" sessions that run concurrently. Each break out last for half an hour at a time and there are four classes in four different rooms. I try to get by each room during the half hour to photograph the speakers and the engaged participants. The sessions go on until the coffee breaks and then, fully fueled, they begin again. Like most conferences there is a fun banquet on the evening of the first full day and this year's keynote was light-hearted and enlightening. Just as in almost every other profession the rate of change in colleges and in teaching is astounding!

I worked on the IBL conference in this same venue two years ago and knew that two of the presentation rooms would be dark. They were especially dark in the spot where the presenters podiums were situated. The lower illumination levels are actually good for the screens upon which the speakers present notes, graphs, illustrations and PowerPoint stuff but it also means that the photographer is best served (when shooting available light) to shoot with a camera that's very clean at 6400 ISO. Knowing this I decided to use the Nikon D610s for the first two days of the conference. Those were the days on which the rotating classes were most concentrated. 

After the "main tent" session in the morning I am kept moving all day long. I go from classroom to classroom and always under the time constraint imposed by having to cover four instructors over the course of each half hour. I went in with a different methodology that I usually use. I brought along the Berlebach ("crutch") monopod and used one camera and lens. In the smaller classrooms and for almost all the social receptions I used a D610 body and the new (to me) Nikon 24-120mm f4 G lens. The combination of the monopod and the VR in the lens was perfect. No frames were lost to camera shake. None at all. Occasionally I tossed out a few frames because of subject movement but the camera and monopod never failed me. My ISOs ranged from 640 to 6400 and I was surprised, in post production, to see just how clean the higher ISO shots ended up being. A tiny bit of noise reduction at the extremes was all that was required in order to deliver perfectly usable shots under some really chaotic mixed light situations. 

I had some trepidation during the planning phase for the job about the use of my second lens, the Nikon 80-200mm f2.8 (push-pull design) because it doesn't feature vibration reduction of any kind. I found that VR was largely unnecessary if I used the monopod for all of my shots. I thought there would be a bigger learning curve on getting the feel of shooting with the monopod and a heavy lens just right but after 20 minutes and the first 100 shoots it seemed like a very natural way to shoot with the long lens. 

I know it will drive purists crazy but I did two things that I think make shooting an event like this manageable and shootable. First, I tried to use the lenses at their wide open apertures. I understand as well as anyone else that the sharpest zone for most lenses is when they are used at least two stops down from wide open but I also understand the trade offs of slower shutter speeds or higher ISO settings. My compromise was to always aim at the widest aperture on the lens. After all, why spend money on fast, premium optics in any system if you are afraid to use the apertures you so dearly paid for? Right? In addition to keeping the ISO and shutter speeds in optimum ranges this sort of project is one that benefits from using narrow depth of field to isolate main subjects with more clarity. 

The second thing I did was to shoot in Large Fine Jpeg format for the Nikons. Modern cameras are worlds better than their predecessors at getting good white balance under most situations and post production software is getting better all the time if bigger corrections are necessary. Shooting in Jpeg as opposed to raw meant being able to shoot more variations which gets me a better range of expressions, etc. It means that I'm able to use the DX crop mode if I want more effective reach than using full frame files. The important thing to consider before hyperventilating about a "pro" using Jpeg files instead of raw is that nearly all of the files are destined to be used on the IBL website and not as double truck spreads in a printed annual report. That last 5% (if that) of quality isn't going to be perceivable once the files are down sampled from 6000 pixels to less than 2000 pixels. 

If I found myself shooting the 80-200mm f2.8 to capture the keynote speaker I would, from time to time, click into the DX mode for a 1.5X crop which gave me the equivalent of a 300mm f2.8 lens. It also gave me a tight head and shoulders shot from a distance that didn't impinge (as much) on the speaker's space.  I did the same thing with the 24-120mm lens. I might be in an unoccupied row in a classroom shooting a demonstration and I might decide to get closer than the maximum focal length of the lens allows. A click into the DX mode buys me an instant "180mm" lens to use at f4.0. I realize that I can crop frames after the fact but editing through 3500 images at a whack always makes me appreciate images that come into the mix "pre-cropped." It's easier to see, after the fact, what my primary intention was in the shooting the image in the first place. If you can remember, after the fact, exactly how you wanted all 3500 images you shot in three days cropped in post production then you have more extreme powers of memory and retention than I have ever had...

At this point I would normally complain about the weight of the Nikon full frame camera bodies (I kept a back up D610 in the bag...) and their attendant lenses but I can't this time. You see, I used the big wooden monopod for just about everything. It was quick to reposition and worked well because the head was easy to tilt up and down. But most importantly, if I kept my bag in a central location (usually a corner of the ballroom) and only walked around with one camera and one lens on a support then anytime I stopped the weight of the camera and lens was balanced on the vertical shaft of the monopod instead of upon my shoulder or neck. It's the first three day conference I've shot that I remember waking up the day after the conference without a sore left forearm from carrying and holding up a heavy camera and lens. The Nikon D610 is a fast focuser (and accurate) and it nails exposures the vast majority of times. It also does a good job nailing down color balance in locations with mixed lighting. In many ways it's a great system for events ---- especially when used with a fairly fast (in context) and wide ranging zoom lens like the 24-120mm f4.0. 

Does this mean I've abandoned the micro four thirds cameras I just re-bought? Interesting questions and one that I discussed with Stan on Friday afternoon. In politics you could (justifiably) call me a "flip-flopper" because after our discussion I felt a bit of a challenge to come back the next day and shoot with the smaller camera system instead of the big Nikons. Friday night I stuck the Nikons back in their drawer and hauled out two Olympus EM5.2 camera bodies (with attached battery grips) and a small selection of lenses, along with a couple of small flashes. That's what I took with me for the last day of the conference. 

As expected, the high ISO performance wasn't quite as good as the Nikon's (about a stop and a half different) but the color (read off the full sensor in real time) was more accurate and required a little less post processing. The exposures were also better nailed down, but I attribute that to the almost unconscious ability to pre-chimp all frames in the EVF. My one point of real concern was in shooting the instructor shots and the speaker shots because the Nikons had been so useful in the days before for that kind of work. I kept thinking to myself that I should have purchased the fast and sharp, Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 in order to get the reach and speed I might need to replicate the quality of what I'd done with the previous cameras. But it was useless worry when a much cheaper (and to my mind more elegant) solution presented itself while I cruised through the lens drawer....

I found the Rokinon 85mm f1.4 lens for the Nikon as well as an inexpensive Fotodiox, Nikon to micro four thirds adapter. After one dials in the focal length the EM-5.2 camera brings to bear its remarkable, five stop image stabilization and you end up with an effective 170mm f1.4 lens. Just to be safe I used it mostly at f2.8 but I did make a few forays into the world of f2.0 and everything seemed to work well. The long focal length, coupled with powerful image stabilization and very useful focus peaking in the EVF combined to give me images that are within a gnat's whisker of the image quality of the Nikon combinations. There were trade-offs in both directions but the median results from both cameras? Very good!

The image just below is of Southwestern University president, Ed Burger. It was shot with the Nikon D610+80-200mm f2.8 at f2.8, ISO 1600. Great Keynote speech.

The image directly below is of Dave Kung. He is a math educator at St. Mary's College and was our plenary speaker at the very end of the conference. (Incidentally, I expected his speech to be aimed at his core audience (other mathematicians) but the subject matter was so compelling and so well presented that I left the speech with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. Amazingly good!!!).
It was shot on the same stage with the same lighting (but from a different angle than the image above) with the Olympus EM5.2 and the aforementioned Rokinon 85mm with adapter at f2.8. Also shot at ISO 1600. Both are equally good to my eyes.....

The bulk of any conference is the social interaction between professionals and this conference was well constructed to give many opportunities to meet new colleagues and share good information on a one on one basis. I like making images of people who are engaged in conversation. It's fun to try and show the energy and joy people have when sharing something they feel strongly about, something they love.

Attendee during a break. 

Whether the conference is for profit or for the benefit of society the one thing that 
fuels early morning sessions, long technical discussions and events that start early and 
last into the night is coffee. Good coffee that never runs out. 
The AT&T Conference Center got that exactly right!

A few images from the conference.

While the budgets for conferences are different between big, profitable corporations and the non-profit associations trying (with no other motives) to move the process of good education forward, I can tell you which ones I like to shoot best: I like these educational gatherings. The attendees and speakers are more relaxed. There's no hierarchy of status or stature. No CEOs to be feared. No nervous "chain of command." Just good people getting together to figure out how to teach our kids (and your kids) math in a way that helps them learn better and for the long haul. These are happy, determined, gracious professional people and I hope it shows in the photographs I took for them. Well done IBL crew!

Tomorrow I'll deliver 2,521 large, Jpeg images on a memory stick. Actually, I'll deliver two sticks; one for the local group that helps to fund the conference, and the mission of the IBL Math initiative, and one stick for them to pass on to the committee that heads up the organization. I hope my images help them expand their "market" and bring in new educators who are interested in learning better techniques of teaching higher math. 


Michael Matthews said...

No tries with the inexpensive Olympus 40-150mm? Did it fail the test? Or was it just too slow for the conditions?

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Michael, I packed the 40-150 f4.0 to 5.6 along for the ride one saturday but yes, I felt like it would have required ISO 6400 to get a usable shutter speed at the long end and I was also having so much fun shooting the 85mm on the adapter.... I'll press it into use. I promise.

Fred said...

Hi Kirk,

This post was interesting to me in two ways. I took a couple of math books with me on vacation this last week and I was thinking as I was taking pictures that both image stabilization and a monopod would be good to use and that was before the coffee.

I'm glad you enjoyed the conference. It is a very important and interesting subject.


Kirk Tuck said...

Thanks Fred. I am really enjoying using the monopod and I find the results are at least equal (for long lenses) as those I am getting with image stabilization. It's the camera and lens combos without stabilization that I am looking forward to revisiting. Especially the Nikon d810 and the Sigma 50mm 1.4 Art. I already like the look of that pair and can only imagine the increase in overall performance I may get from a more stable (but still mobile) platform.

Hope vacation is good.

The conference is very worthwhile. Lots of good information about an approach that's so different from one person standing in front of a class lecturing.

Victor Bloomfield said...

Speaking as a retired university prof who did, and taught, a lot of math, I greatly enjoyed this post for your celebration of the content and motivation of the participants. Photo equipment is obviously important, but subject is more so. Thanks.


Patrick Stuart said...

Olympus just knocked a few hundred $ off the price of the 40-150 Pro, so maybe the wait was worthwhile.

James Pilcher said...

Hi Kirk,

When will Henry White be photographing his next conference? Maybe you and he can compare notes.

Honeybadger said...

Hi Kirk,

I took the plunge and got the Oly 40-150 2.8. I would say it has the resolving power of the Keck reflector telescope in Hawaii. I photographed a cowboy singer on stage with it, and you can blow up the photos and clearly count, in sharp relief, the stitches in his jeans. Hand held. That will do piggy.

Robert said...

Good work for a good cause... Can't beat that!