September was "life in the fast lane" for me. I was booked on a project, or chained to post production, every single day of the month, except for a couple of Sundays. I worked for international bio-chem companies from Switzerland, local tech companies, industrial concerns, commercial construction companies, the Theatre, a collection of health care practices and two law firms. Oh yeah, and one conference. I could stop working on the first of October and coast through the quarter but....I would begin accruing a Karmic Debt for the first quarter of 2016.
But what I want to write about today is a re-cap of the last week. The nuts and bolts of a high end event. How high end was the high end? Well, at the last session of the day, on Monday, they served everyone Moet Champagne. We drank our way through a discussion of securitizing something. I'm not really sure what we were securitizing but it doesn't matter. The actual attendees learned stuff and had fun.
This is a conference about finance and real estate. But it's not a "workshop" about how to buy and flip houses on a "one off" scale. It's for bankers, federal regulators, investors and others who buy thousands of properties, provide access to financing and also securitize the assets for the investment community at large. Attendance at this conference is by invitation only and all attendees are required to agree not to disclose any quotes or proprietary information they discover at the conference. From high executives in the federal government to executive V.P.s at Goldman Sachs, it really is an audience of heavy hitters. At one point I looked up at a panel on the stage and counted 6 CEOs of billion dollar+ companies. Not bad.
The conference started on Sunday evening and went through Weds. This is the sixth year that I've covered the conference and I don't think it violates my N.D.A. to tell you that I did wear a coat and tie for every session. Along with nice shoes. (Yes, I wore pants...).
But my intention here is not to describe the conference in more detail than I need to in order to tell you the story of the photographic coverage.
When I shoot conferences like this one I need to take into consideration that I'll be covering keynote speakers, moderators, participants in panels and emcees. I want to shoot multiple angles of the stage and include wide shots of the stage, and tight close ups of every speaker and panelist. I also need to shoot break out sessions, and coffee and refreshment breaks. Signage shots and venue shots are also appreciated. It's like a long, three and a half day wedding with multiple brides. But unlike wedding photographers my brief is to be discrete, never use flash during a stage session, and never call attention to myself, or try to direct the action. There is no posing and no "do overs." All this means that I shoot lots and lots of frames, not only to cover my ass but also to give my clients lots of choices. Different angles and different expressions.
I really thought a lot aboutwhat cameras and lenses to shoot with. On one hand there is a drawer in the studio that's filled with Nikon goodies. It almost seems logical to immediately go to the Nikon D750 or D810 and fast lenses in order to catch action on a medium sized stage. Here's what the prevalent lighting was on the stage: f2.8, 1/160th of second, ISO 3200. That would mean fast zooms and primes. It would also mean a lot of weight and a lot of time on a tripod or monopod. The Nikon flash system is great but 95% of the time I was required to use available light. If it's your only system it becomes and easy choice but if you have other systems there are other ways of looking at the job.
Start out by asking what the uses are for the images. Where will they be used and how much resolution will be required for those?
Then take into consideration how much you will want to move around. I wanted to be able to hop up and move from one side of the room to the other to catch the correct angles on every speaker. That meant moving a lot. And when you move at a stage show you never, ever cross in front of the stage. You go straight back to the rear of the room and work your way around the periphery. And hopefully you move while the screens on either side of the stage are showing charts and graphs, not during live action magnification where your movements may show on camera. I was walking a couple miles a day during the show, just trying to cover all of the shot contingencies. If I carried the two big Nikons and a couple fast zooms, along with a monopod, I'd certainly have my hands full. And shooting with the D750 is not an exercise in acoustic discretion. The shutter isn't as noisy as something like the D700 but it's still not a husky, sultry whisper in your ear. It clanks and clunks. The D810 is much better but it still makes its presence known when you click.
In my mind the Nikon system is made for advertising assignments, and other times when people know you have your camera out and working, and they are okay with that. The camera bodies are not subtle or demure. Neither are the lenses.
I had several parameters in mind when I decided on what gear to use. I wanted it to be very portable. I wanted a good compromise between great images and files sizes that would be manageable when doing editing and post on 4600 images. But mostly I wanted a camera that wouldn't require me to chimp my way through the conference. I wanted to see what colors I was getting and exactly what kind of exposures I was getting as I was shooting, not in sporadic chimpfests after the fact. You, know, after it's too late to go back and get the shot again. Pretty much, for me it meant using a mirrorless camera system. The one I have at hand is the Olympus EM5-2 x 2. That, and a bag full of light, fast, happy lenses. And a little flash. The 16 megapixel, very pretty LSF Jpegs and the very good response at ISO 1600-3200 turned the trick for me so that's what I went with.
The conference tends to be very interactive. The audience is seated at round tables and the atmosphere is relaxed. There is an iPad in the middle of each table to facilitate anonymous questions in real time for the panelists, from the audience. I am able to move from one spot to the next in order to get different angles of the speakers or panels on the stage.
My main lens for tight shots this year was the older, Olympus 50-200mm f2.8-3.5 that was made for the Olympus 4:3 (mirrored) cameras. I borrowed this lens from a VSL (platinum level) reader just for this event. I wanted the reach, the speed, and the quality and the only things I had to give up to get those three features were autofocus and light weight. I used the focus peaking in the EM-5.2 and, after getting used to the way the focus peaking over-promises, I was able to get really wonderful shots from it.
My take on using focus peaking in this camera is that one needs to err toward closer to the camera. You watch the colored outlines march back through the subject as you focus and at one point a face seems covered with the yellow outline that confirms focus. But, in fact, it's best to shoot at the point when the yellow outline is just at the face or just approaching it. Being slightly forward means allowing the focus to cover the intended target better.
The image stabilization is automatically calculated to focal length as long as you are using an Olympus lens to camera adapter with the full set of electric contacts. And the image stabilization works well. I used a Leica monopod with a small Manfrotto tilt head for the long, 400mm equivalent shots from the back of the room and was wholly satisfied. I generally shot wide open so I could increase the shutter speeds or, at least keep the ISO under 3200. Ideally at 1600.
I also tried out the 40-150mm f4.0-5.6 R, just to see how it competed with the vastly larger and better spec'd optic. I was pleasantly surprised. The cheap, little lens seems to resolve the same amount of information but it does so at a much lower contrast level. Working with the files in Lightroom brings the slow lens files into the ballpark; and they are certainly usable within my client's parameters.
I tried the Olympus Pen FT 150mm f4.0 lens as well. It was not quite as sharp but it did render backgrounds in a very smooth and very pleasing way and, when a bit of clarity and de-haze was used in post, the file attained a crisper, more modern feel. Keeping in mind that we were photographing older people (30+) with no make up, under harder stage lighting and you'll understand (I hope) that high levels of sharpness aren't always necessary--- in fact, many times they are contraindicated.
Two stand out, modern lenses that I tried to use for everything else were the Panasonic 12-35mm f2.8 and the Panasonic 42.5mm f1.7 (which is wickedly sharp and adorable...). Both are stellar performers in the modern idiom. But I take decent normal and wide angle lenses almost for granted...
Out of 4500 images taken I only needed to fall back on flash augmentation about 150 times. Most of these instances were during cocktail receptions when I needed to take candid shots and the occasional posed portrait in big, dark rooms. I used the Olympus FL-600R flash. I got the best results from setting camera ISO to 800, using manual exposure to set an overall exposure that was about one stop underexposed and then dialing down the flash by 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop down. I used a small, white card (a coated business card) as a frontal reflector but most of the flash bounced off the ceilings. Not a problem as I tended to shoot wide open most of the time.
When resolution buys you nothing, it costs you a lot. Stu Maschwitz.
The biggest selling point to me for using the smaller cameras was neither the size nor the weight but the file wrangling. The Olympus has the best Jpegs in the business and shooting sixteen megapixel Jpegs is a delight. Yes, the Nikons can shoot smaller Jpeg files but they don't look as good as the same size Jpeg files from the Olympus cameras. Not by a long shot. The color in the Olympus Jpeg files is just perfect (for me) and they (the Large, Super Fine jpegs) are relatively easy (easier than the Nikon files) to tweak in post processing.
Look, if your client is using the images in small print sizes, and on the web, they are not going to hoist you up on their shoulders and parade around the stadium with you because you went out of your way to provide 72 megabyte, raw, 14 bit, uncompressed files. More likely they are going to be pissed that you used up so many of their human and machine resources to deliver.....no advantage.
And you can be sure that while the images will be valuable to my client for at least the next 18 months the idea of permanently archiving the files for posterity is a bit humorous. I'm all about the idea of future proofing stuff, but only stuff that has a future.
Let's talk about batteries. That's the real weak point for most of the mirrorless cameras (GH4 Excluded!!!). I bought new batteries because on one shooting day I started at 7 am, shot till 7 pm at the conference and then got in my car and hightailed it over to the Theatre to shoot a dress rehearsal of EVITA from 8 pm till 11 pm. I knew I'd be banging though a thousand or so images during the day and another 1,500 images after dark and I couldn't really spend the day nursing a handful of batteries. So I went for battery shock and awe.
I had two batteries in each camera (one in camera and one in the grip) and eight freshly charged batteries in the front pocket of my Domke camera bag. I was getting about 600 images out of each battery but I had enough to be able to make a exceptionally long day work, even if I never made it to a wall plug to charge even one battery.
I think Olympus should consider the Sony A7R ii camera. It's got a small battery and gets a meager # of frames per charge. But it ships with two batteries instead of one. Let's face it, mirrorless sucks juice and in the rush to make everything too small they made the batteries too small as well. Olympus should include a second battery in the box. And lens hoods with their lenses....
That's why I gave the strong shout out to Wasabi Power batteries the other day. At the price point they are effective insurance from being one battery away from a camera with all the utility of a brick.
Many amateur photographers come to this blog and after reading it for a while express their sincere wish that I would just settle into a type of camera and stop enflaming their desire for multiple cameras. It's a simple life for amateurs. One likes to photograph a certain genre and is rewarded for searching out just the right tool for the projects that give them the most satisfaction.
But professionals working in smaller markets rarely have the luxury to choose only one camera and depend on it for the entirety of their work. I have the larger and, from one viewpoint, more capable Nikon full frame cameras and I use them when their primary features are indicated. A great example being the annual report for PEC that we did last Summer. We weren't trying to be discreet or quiet. Everyone on every set knew that we were doing photography and that they were being photographed. The big flash power pack and heads, along with the C-Stands and big soft boxes were a sure tip-off. The AR was a printed piece that had the requirement that the files could be used across an 11x17 inch spread, or multiple spreads, even after being aggressively cropped. In this regard the good, low ISO, high resolution of the camera system was paramount. Another job that used the features of the full frame cameras was the executive portraits we shot (are shooting) for Aurea Software. The style inherent in the project is portraits with extremely narrow depth of field and soft, diffused backgrounds. While possible with a few of the lenses available for the m4:3 cameras it is an easy to achieve style with the full frame cameras.
But the job we're talking about here didn't fall into either of those two camps and it really was a situation where small, casual, easy, quick and QUIET were all virtues.
Oh. We haven't really talked about sound yet. The Nikon D810 is the quietest DSLR I've owned. They did a wonderful job toning down the shutter and lower its sound register to make what sounds it does kick out more pleasant. The D750 = less well soundified. But by comparison, the EM5.2, even without the silent shutter option engaged is an order of magnitude quieter. And it's a real blessing when sitting at a table with executives and still making photographs. The quieter the better.
If someone looked my way while I shot (meaning that they noticed the noise) I headed into silent shutter territory. If they were six to eight feet away I kept the mechanical shutter engaged because I enjoyed the feedback. It keeps me from shooting too many frames because the sound serves to keep me in the operational loop. It makes the number of frames I am shooting more real to me.
I couldn't be happier with a camera for event work like this than I am with the Olympus camera. But what would I change next time around? It's a cinch that I'll narrow down the lens choices to just two. I'll bring along the 12-35mm f2.8 and, as much as I hate to spend money, I'll probably pony up for the new Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 lens. I like the extra reach over the 35-100mm f2.8 Panasonic lens I used to own in the GH4 days and the combination of the two f2.8 lenses covers everything I need in shows like this one. Short, fast sharp and long, fast, sharp with only two lenses. It's a nice idea. I also like that the longer lens has a tripod mount. That makes life easier when working on a monopod or a tripod.
I toyed with the idea of getting a Panasonic z1000 for the extra reach and all the fine things that cameras delivers. Especially at an $800 price point. But the Jpegs of the Olympus cameras, along with the higher ISO quality, are compelling arguments against venturing into sensors that small again --- at least for commercial work. And additionally, we'd be right back into battery angst.
I like that all the cool Olympus cameras use the same battery. I like that all the cooler, high end Nikon DSLRs all take the same battery. Two sets. No confusion.
I sat in my office chair with Studio Dog napping on the studio dog bed next to my desk yesterday and dutifully plowed through all the files I'd shot. I edited down a lot. Took out a lot of duplicates. Took out the bad images from the early period of incomplete flash mastery and I took out images that didn't work for my stylistically. Then I color corrected and sharpened everything with web use in mind. I delivered full size files (no downsizing) at Jpeg 94 in Lightroom. They looked great.
The client got two 16 gigabyte memory sticks. One to use and one for back up (why trust them to back up?). I got handed a check for my services and my usage license. It was a fun project. More so because I think I made the correct choices (for the most part) when it came to selecting the appropriate camera system for the job at hand. Not all jobs fit into one size or type of camera. You don't need an infinite number of cameras to get your jobs done any more than golfers need every different kind of club a golf club maker cranks out. Too many tools make your job harder because you end up carrying them around and using up the electrical energy in your brain making unnecessary and vexing choices. But you do need a couple of choices. Unless you do the same job over and over again. But I didn't sign on to become a brick layer....
So, we shot a big show. Three portraits in the studio and one evening of dress rehearsal this week. It's a helluva good way to really get to know a camera and a combination of lenses. I'm just now, after months of ownership and use, really comfortable with both the Olympus and the Nikon cameras. I may be a slow learner but at least I am thorough.
The Champagne Panel. A litmus test for a classy business conference?
Show Director calling video camera coverage.
The liquid fuel that keeps conferences moving from early to late.
Day after day.
The Rolls Royce of Wireless Microphone sets. Just ask your local cinematographer...
And that's a wrap.