5.02.2015

An Image I made today of Russell Harvard for Zach Theatre. Almost the end to a long week of shooting....

Russell Harvard will be starring in the Zach Theatre production of "Tribes." 

We've had an exciting and busy week here at the VSL H.Q. We spent three days working on an annual report shoot for a central Texas utility company which necessitated early mornings and the fun filled stress of managing a CEO, a group of marketing and advertising people, four large trucks, eight linemen and assorted additional crew, all on exterior locations. This all followed days of pre-planning meetings, conversations with drone experts assistant booking and lots of packing and re-packing. But we aren't done yet. 

One of the things that jumped out at me from my calendar (and the white board next to my desk) was that we had also booked a marketing shoot for Zach Theatre's season brochure for today. We needed a  bunch of shots to promote our version of Mary Poppins and also a play called, Tribes. After I put all the batteries back on chargers yesterday evening I started packing for today. I would be using completely different lighting gear than I had been using for the A.R.

I packed my standard white background kit because we would be doing a series of set-ups that the art director at Zach Theatre would use in the campaign. She will be dropping images into different colored backgrounds and, in some cases, into composite scenes. What we'd be looking for is nice, clean lines to cut against. We are no longer in the search for perfect white backgrounds right out of camera. And that was good in this situation because our shoot was relegated to a small space that didn't give me the front to back depth to do our traditional white background set up. 

In this case all the lights are in front of our actors and I'm counting on the inverse square law and smart placement of lights to carry the day. I packed our four Elinchrom mono-lights with umbrella reflectors, five light stands, our background set up with a white seamless paper background. All four lights had 42 inch umbrellas mounted on them and I used various ratios between the lights to get the look to the overall light that I wanted. 

I triggered the lights with Cactus V6 transceiver triggers. 

My camera and lens of choice for today was the Nikon D810 with one lens; the 24-85mm f3.5-4.5 G Nikon zoom. It's a step up from a kit lens and I often see them for ridiculously low prices in my favorite camera store. It must have been part of a Nikon bundle at one point. All I know is that while the lens has some linear distortion it's very sharp and very well behaved. It's perfect for work like this where we need to be able to go from full body to close head shots from one frame to the next. 

I packed everything but the cameras into the car last night. Our call at the theater was set for 11:00 a.m. and as today is Saturday (my most holy day of swimming) I was determined to be ready to go on time but without missing the wonderful (and difficult) Kristen Turner masters workout and the post swim coffee klatch at Starbucks. I figure if you are a freelancer you need to get your socializing where you can, right? 

We logged some serious wet miles and we drank coffee. I stayed right up until 10:50 am and then said my goodbyes and headed to the theater to set up. I used the Marshall Electronics monitor we made such good use of earlier in the week because I wanted to be able to share the images we were taking with a room full of make-up artists, costumers, an artistic director, art director and marketing director. God, I was outnumbered.....

The Mary Poppins portion of the shoot went well and we moved on to making images of Russell Harvard for the play, Tribes. Here's copy from the Zach website that explains the play:

As the only deaf member of his sharp-tongued British family, sweet-natured Billy has spent 
much of his life feeling out of place. But when he meets a young woman on the brink of 
deafness, he finds out what it means to belong for the first time. This provocative and 
touching play is as much about the tyranny of language, as it is about the challenge of 
not being able to hear it. ZACH's production will be staged on our Kleberg Stage 
starring deaf, Austin actor Russell Harvard, who won a 2012 Theatre World 
Award for Outstanding Debut Performance, and garnered Drama League, 
Outer Critics Circle, and Lucille Lortell Award nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor.

Same image cropped in to nearly 100%.

Russell was great to work with and we ended up with a couple hundred really good shots with which to promote the play. I was struck with how well the 24/85mm lens worked with the D810. It's a powerful combination and I feel like many people who immediately default to the clich├ęd 24-70mm f2.8 are missing a really good image maker at a very advantageous price. 

The images from Mary Poppins and Tribes are already color corrected and transferred to a small hard drive for delivery on Monday and you'd think that might be a good place to break for the weekend but my iCalendar had other plans. I am also booked to shoot all day tomorrow for the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum.  

This job will be more of a "reportage" style escapade. I'll be "wearing" two cameras; one with the new Sigma 50mm 1.4 Art lens and the other with the Nikon 24-85mm f3.5-4.5. I'll also have a small flash with a modifier and a messenger bag full of model releases. The batteries are recharged and the small camera bags are packed. All that stands between me and the project tomorrow will be our Sunday masters swim workout. That and a full day of shooting and I should have the weekend all wrapped up and I'll be ready to dive into new work on Monday morning.  Yippee. Never a dull moment around here. 

Counting down the moments till my trip to Saratoga Springs, NY gets underway. I leave Austin at 5:30am on Weds. and should be in S.S. by 1:30 or 2:00 pm. It'll be great to see friends and hang with Ben. I'm looking forward to it. After a long week of lugging around Nikons I think this trip definitely calls for the more discreet and almost silent Olympus EM5.2. 

Thanks for reading. I'll catch up with you tomorrow.

Go to Amazon and check out the two new reviews of the Novel, The Lisbon Portfolio. The economy is recovering. Now you can afford to buy a copy!


One more program note: We've spent the last year making hundreds of images for the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum and many of them are used on the new website. That website, the design of which was overseen by David Munns, won the Gold Award for Online Presence at the American Alliance for Museums convention in Atlanta this last week. The site beat out competitors like the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and many others.
Nice to see good work acknowledged.

Another lens review: The Nikon manual focus 25-50mm f4 ais. A classic from the film age that works well on modern cameras.

big electric insulators. Nikon 25-50mm f4.0 lens.

We often operate under the mistaken idea that anything invented or manufacturer more than a year or two ago is crap and that every newer iteration is much better than anything which came before. Where the only metric is efficiency or the only real value is the cost savings to manufacturers I tend to agree. When it comes to finely crafted tools, great lenses and well made grip equipment I'd strongly disagree.

In the past few months since I re-embraced Nikon cameras (and particularly the Nikon D810) as the primary shooting cameras for my commercial image making business I've auditioned a number of different lenses for the system. I've found that many assumptions about lenses are erroneous and little more than conjecture and the general re-spewing of advertising bullet points from the makers.

I don't use wide angle lenses very often. When I do use them it's usually on a tripod and with complete control of focus, exposure and depth of field. I use them when clients want to show expansive works of architecture or when they are looking for dramatic near/far exaggerations. What I want are lenses with simple rather than complex distortion patterns. I'd like the lenses to be sharp across the frame and I'd like them to perform very well at f8. I don't use wide angle lenses in combination with shallow depth of field very often, if at all.

Finally, since I don't rely on wide and ultra wide angle lenses for my day to day work, as an architectural photograph would, I don't want to invest a small fortune in them.  I'll distribute the bulk of my gear investments where I know they'll do the most good for me and that's in normal, slightly wide and slightly long focal length lenses that I can use to make good portraits. The idea of buying a Nikon 14-24mm lens for nearly $2,000 seems wasteful to me and the two samples I tried have lots of trouble flaring with side light and any light source in the frame. But I can make good use of an 18-35 or a 20-35 or even a 25-50 for the vast majority of all my work; including architecture and annual reports. After testing and returning a Nikon 18-35mm f3.5-4.5 G lens (way too much weird distortion and an inconsistent sharpness across the frame) I've settled into using my old 25-50mm f4 for most of the things I shoot that need to be both full frame and relatively wide angle-y.

When I need to go wider I put the 14mm Rokinon f2.8 Cine lens on the D810 and use a very nicely done custom profile in Lightroom to correct frame geometry. The lens is very, very sharp wide open in the middle and the sides and corners come into high sharpness by f5.6. By f8.0 it's perfect. If I need a longer focal length but one that fall under the 25-50mm or the 24-85mm G f3.5-4.5 I'll just shoot carefully with the 14mm Rokinon and depend on cropping to get me exactly what I want in the frame. With the huge amount of resolution provided by the D810 it just makes sense.

But for my All Around best buddy wide angle shooting lens I'm beginning to think that nothing beats the old, manual focus 25-50mm f4 ais.

Why?

Many of the newer lenses I've tested make a bad trade-off. The makers juggle distortion, sharpness and cost in interesting ways. While I understand the mania for ultra-fast lenses in medium telephotos and especially in long telephotos I am mystified about the usefulness of f2.8 lenses for ultra wide zooms. According to Leica engineers making a lens one stop faster requires about 8 times better manufacturing tolerances to make the lens equally as good (meaning sharp and consistent). In almost every focal length being able to go one or two stops slower in the design of a lens increases the manufacturing consistency when grinding lens elements. Since most people are using their ultra wides to shoot architecture and landscape the f2.8 becomes irrelevant and most knowledgeable shooters would gladly go to a lens that only opened to f4 or (God forbid!!!) f5.6 is they could be assured that the slower lenses would have much better resolution AND micro contrast.

To my mind the previous generations of optical engineers made the compromises I like for the 25/50. It's an f4.0 lens so no false heroics in design were attempted for the sake of marketing. It's a very short but very useful range of focal lengths that takes one from wide angle to normal and maintains a consistent aperture setting across the range. The lens design reflects an old school aesthetic wherein the first two stops are "good enough" but two stops down and three stops down are the sweet spot for the lens where the sides match the center for sharpness and they do so without introducing a mustache distortion signature that seems to be the hallmark of more modern zooms.

The 25/50 does have distortion at its widest focal length of 25mm. The distortion continues to about 30mm but the important thing to me is that the distortion is a simple "barrel" pattern in which the side bow outward on a consistent and simple curve rather than having several waving curves across the long axis of the frame. This kind of simple barrel distortion requires only the sliding of the distortion slider in the lens correction panel in Lightroom. The opposite design approach is that which is found in the Rokinon 14mm lens which requires a more complex, custom profile to correct the wave-y distortion and the plunging distortion at the corners.

I like the rendering of the 25/50mm lens. The colors seem rich and not brittle. The sweep across the frame (when photographing blue skies for instance) is consistent in color and value when the lens is stopped down to f5.6 or f8.0. The lens has very good resolution but a lower amount of apparent contrast. The lens is by no means "flat" but when compared to more modern optics it's a bit lackluster. Of course the remedy is simple and is, again, just the matter of moving the contrast slider or clarity slider in Lightroom to taste. It's much easier to add contrast to a file (if it's already rich in resolution) than it is to remove the effects of too much contrast in an image.

I used the 25-50mm lens a great deal last week while we were shooting photos for an annual report. Almost all of the uses were outside in available sunlight (where the lower contrast had the effect of enhancing apparent dynamic range) and in available light augmented by flash from umbrellas and soft boxes. I am certain that people who have had less stellar results than me with this lens stumbled in achieving good focus. A wide angle, manual focus lens with a slow maximum aperture is very difficult to accurately focus on the focusing screens of modern DSLRs. Their screens are optimized for brightness but at the expense of accutance which kills focusing accuracy. I find it impossible to accurately eyeball at the wide end. But when I use the lens on the D810 (in controlled situations) I am using a loupe and putting the camera into live view mode to focus a magnified image and then, once focused I revert to shooting with the viewfinder.

If I'm shooting in bright sunlight I generally use the lens at either f11 or f8.0 and then zone focus using the very legible and detailed focusing scale on the lens. This method has also been foolproof so far. While this lens was made over 20 years ago there are six or seven different images that are ready contenders for wrap around cover shots on the annual report. And they bow to none of the other images we took during the week regardless of the price or pedigree of the lenses used.

Not a bad investment for a couple of hundred dollars.