Photographing "Tribes," A new play at Zach Theatre. A surprising camera choice.

Mitch Peleggi (former X-Files cast member) in "Tribes."

I'm pretty sure a huge percentage of the photographic community thinks I'm nuts for changing cameras from time to time and constantly experimenting with new ways of photographing things but I think they are equally crazy for doing things over and over again in the same style and with the same cameras. Just look up Albert Einstein's definition of insanity somewhere on the web....

But I have to tell you that sometimes you try something new and it works. Against common legend lots of stuff works really well. And here's the important context: You only need stuff to work a bit better than your best targeted end use...  That web profile photo? Doesn't need to be shot with the new 100 mp Phase One camera. Honest. 

A case in point: My photographic coverage of the dress rehearsal for Zach Theatre's: Tribes. 

There is usually an audience ("friends and family") in the theater for the final dress rehearsal and for reasons of budget (and the fact that all the costumes and light cues are done) we've started shooting the "live" marketing images of the big plays on that day. What it really means is that I'm often relegated to a position in the cross over row in the center of the house.  It's a reach to the stage. And on a show with a small cast and a tight set my full frame cameras, coupled with the 80-200mm f2.8 lens is getting close to the edge of practicality. I end up wanting to get closer and have tighter compositions on my subjects. I want to feel the action in the photographs. 

While the image files of the Nikon D750 and D810 are great and the dynamic range ample, the handling and quickness of the system, for theater, isn't optimal. The light changes quickly and, by extension, so does exposure and even color balance.  Theater photography cries out for the instantaneous feedback of a good EVF camera. I have tried using the Olympus OMD cameras with longer lenses but the focus in low light just isn't fast enough to keep up with the action, sometimes. I've been looking for a different solution. I want a long lens, great image stabilization and fast, sure focusing. I took a deep breath and plunged into shooting Tribes with one of my favorite cameras for most stuff: The Panasonic fz 1000. 

This camera has what I was looking for in all the parameters I just outlined but the perceived weakness of that camera for this kind of work has always been questions about the low light performance of the 1" sensor. Is it too crowded with pixels to keep the noise down to a minimum? Or at least at a level commensurate with the final, targeted use of the images?

On Tuesday evening I headed to the theater with the lightest camera bag I think I have ever taken there. It had just two cameras and two extra batteries. That's it. Two Panasonic fz 1000 cameras (pro's cameras travel in pairs, set up identically. If one fails it's brother is ready to jump into the fray with no hesitation and no set up delays. After all, a lot is riding on getting good marketing images---they help put paying patrons in the seats!

My basic setting for the camera (I used only one) was manual exposure, ISO 1250, raw, and f4.0-5.6. 
I tested the dominate face lighting in an early tech session and found the color on faces to be equal to 3700K with 2 clicks of green. 

Here's my assessment: The magic, dfd focusing of the fz 1000 (same as the GH4) is great. Really great! When used with "pinpoint AF" the camera absolutely nailed every single frame I shot. 100%. If I did not get sharp focus on a face it had to be because I forgot to aim the AF sensor at the face. Better than my Nikons? Well, if the comparison includes the 80-200mm f2.8 then the answer is a resounding yes.

Here's where this seven hundred dollar camera beats the crap out of all the other combinations you might bring to bear in the theater: You get a long, long, very sharp zoom lens that caps out at f4.0. I worked the long end of the lens for a lot of the images and it was wonderful. I doubled my range and did so with a camera that could be handheld down to about 1/60th of second because of the I.S. 

Anything slower than 1/60th is a was at 400mm because you also have subject motion to contend with and their is no magic cure for subject motion as the shutter speeds drop. 

But here's where the Panasonic beats my Olympus OMD EM5-2 cameras resoundingly: The EVF (set to manual, not automatic) when thoughtfully calibrated (which means shooting and comparing the results in the EVF to the results on your post production monitor) is a perfect exposure setting tool. If it looks good in the EVF of my fz 1000 I have a 95% assurance that it will be correctly exposed when I get to the post production stage. That's huge. Try as I might to do the same with the Nikon D810 the rear screen of that camera is good for little more than composition compared to the radically cheaper (but more capable) Panasonic. Again, for a busy shooter doing post processing on say, 1200 files late at night, this is impressive and appreciated. EVF as color meter and finely tuned exposure meter. Sold. Dammit Nikon! Get me a D500 WITH an EVF. Stat.

When I got back to the studio at a late hour I put the images in Lightroom and started playing. Most needed a 1/3 to 1/2 stop nudge up in exposure to be perfect but, in defense of the camera, I tend to shoot to protect the highlights and am willing to put the "sensor invariance" to a little test. The files sharpen up well and there was no objectionable noise in the darker background areas --- certainly no problems with color speckling or grain clumping. The details could use more detail at 100% but in actual use they are right on the money. 

Would I do it again! How about next week. I am shooting another play the Sunday following this one and I'm also bringing along the Sony RX10 (original, not the model 2) to see if the f2.8 aperture really buys me anything. My primary camera will be one of the fz 1000s. I am putting them in their own rotation to try to keep from wearing out one or the other prematurely. I have no idea how well made the shutters are in a "consumer" camera but I do put a lot of internal wear on cameras. I tend to shoot a lot. My final word is that the smaller file size is a post processing blessing and a relief to my client who was getting tired of sorting through 36 megapixel images. "Sufficiency?" Naw, just matching the highest use target to the right camera. 

Experiment successful. And yes, on a paid job. It's not like I haven't put 25,000 exposures on the camera already....

Where's Waldo? Find the grain and lack of sharpness in 
this ISO 1250 image, shot wide open near the long end of the 
lens, handheld. You might see it by I sure don't. 
Not in any meaningful way. 


Dave Jenkins said...

How to have fun and confound the "experts." ;o)

George Beinhorn said...

This is why I'm happy to have discovered your site - real-life experiences free of the usual prejudice: "If it cost $3000, it will always do a better job." I found VSL through Steve Huff's site, where you wrote an article that persuaded me to buy a two-models-old Nikon 1 V1. For my work - which includes way too much indoor shooting (school plays and concerts, classrooms, backstage, meetings, adults and kids in constant motion) - it's so much more fun than the D7000 with its big honking lenses and wood chipper noise levels). So thank your for that.

Kirk Tuck said...

Thanks Dave, A lot of those "experts" are, metaphorically, still using rabbit ear antennae for their cathode ray TVs. "it's how we've always done it...." Sigh.

Anonymous said...

If God had wanted us to give up our Motorola "brick" phones we would have had someone invent.......the iPhone.

Victor Bloomfield said...

This is just the sort of column that keeps me reading you: The real life of a real photographer, doing a variety of interesting things and being articulate and opinionated (but evidence-based) about them. And showing us good examples of the work.

If that were not enough, your good words about the FZ1000 over the past months convinced me to buy one for an African safari to Tanzania and Rwanda. It behaved admirably, just as I wanted and expected. Thanks.

Kirk Tuck said...

Thanks Victor, I value your feedback very much! Great to hear that one of my recommendations was on the money. That sounds like a great adventure (the safaris, not the camera purchase!). I appreciate the good feedback.

PittsburghDog said...

Hi Kirk, given the lighting conditions at this particular theater shoot, would you feel comfortable using the FZ1000 taking non-paid, candid shots at an indoor wedding reception? Not Kirk the professional, but Kirk the invited friend/uncle/etc. Of your current cameras, is this the one you would take for your personal snapshots? Thank you.

Peter Wright said...

Interesting report from the "real world". Target the camera to the job in hand! I would have thought that another advantage over the D810 would be the noise. I wouldn't want to be sitting behind someone using a DSLR, even if my seat was free.

One thing is puzzling me: You say that the Panasonic beats out the EM-5 (I don't own either camera) when the EVF is set to manual and calibrated to you monitor, and used as an exposure/color tool. What did you find the problem to be? I use an original version EM-5, and it seems to do this quite well (by my standards). The only problem is switching back and forth quickly between manual and automatic when using flash and ambient light– I wish it was higher up in the menus or preferably a dedicated button.

(An aside: Perhaps this is one of the things that can be assigned to different custom sets on the new Pen-F?)

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Peter, I think the 1000 does a more accurate job gauging exposure under non-daylight situations and so the starting point for exposure in the EVF is more accurate. The finder in the olympus is less sharp (EM5.2) and less contrasty.

To PittsburgDog, Yes, if no one was paying me I'd be perfectly happy using the fz 1000 in that capacity if I had few other options but in an uncontrolled environment with lower light I'd probable default to the EM5.2, the 17mm f1.8 and the Panasonic 42.5mm f1.7 lenses. Love to shoot that stuff wide open....

Anonymous said...

Hi Kirk, This one of the reasons I read your blog, It's the real deal, no one to satisfy but yourself. You wouldn't use the gear that you do ( No matter the make or model) if you make a living using them. Your requested survey I ditto what was already stated I couldn't have said anything better keep up the good blogging. Thank you best Regards.

Wylie S.

Jim Atyeo said...

Mitch is currently on X-Files round 2.

Mark Davidson said...

I have been using the FZ-1000 on paying gigs for some time now. One other advantage of this camera is the 15fps I can achieve in burst mode. I find myself watching as a subject starts moving towards an action I want o capture and just hold the shutter and I get several images with one always perfect. Lazy? Yes! But I no longer have to curse at my monitor at blinked eyes or awkward mouths. Its virtual silence ensures that I am not creating a ruckus as I would with a DSLR.

It is so fun to use I end up with far more images than my Canons simply because of the pleasure of shooting with such a fun camera.

Luke Miller said...

Kirk - I read your blog daily. I'm a transplanted Austinite, so I enjoy both your photography posts and your glimpses into Austin life. I have a question regarding your experience shooting stage plays with an EVF body. My older Nikon V1 body has enough EVF lag that it is challenging to catch the expressions or gestures I'm looking for. I'm sure the newer bodies are better, but "are we there yet?"


Luke Miller