2.05.2016

Flip-Flopping on gear? Or making smart selections based on the final image targets? That's part of the job...


I'll start with an analogy: I have several friends who are chefs. They own their restaurants but they still get in their kitchens several times a week and "work the line" because, beyond their restaurants being businesses, they also enjoy the art/craft of cooking. Of making stuff with their own hands. A couple of these guys are in their mid-fixities and have a good thirty years of food service experiences under their belts. They've learned some valuable information about successful cooking that makes them fast, efficient and, by extension, profitable. 

To help them in their work they've learned to choose the right tools for each process. And few tools are as important to a chef as their collection of knives. They have paring knives for fine work, they have big cleavers for heavy duty chopping, and they have assorted serrated and non-serrated utility knives for chopping and filleting and slicing. But, here's the important thing! They don't do every task with one magic, perfect knife. 

It just doesn't work that way. They select the knife that will work best for each kind of work they do. The could do okay with a few well chosen knives but it would not be as much fun and it would just make their work take more time. Some dishes might suffer from the relative mismatch of tools and ingredients... Fingers might get nicked. So, selecting the right tool = good. 

What does this aside have to do with us photographers? Well, there seems to be a pervasive mythology in photography at large that somewhere, in some mythical camera store out there, exists a perfectly sorted camera for every user. One all purpose machine that is a perfect fit for everything the photographer might ever want to do. One need only find their own mythical
"perfect" camera and all the pieces will finally fall into place, guaranteeing the buyer and user of said camera the success they've always pined for.

(A quick note: This is mostly aimed at professional photographers and people who would like to be professional photographers. At least the ones who regularly read VSL. If you don't do commercial photography for a living none of this may apply to you because your predilection could be to shoot in exactly the same way, all the time. And that's sensible.)

When one comes across a blog or an article written by a famous photographer who is sponsored by, say, Nikon, and the entire article or blog or interview is devoted/dedicated to describing their work with (example) the Nikon D810 and a few, selected lenses, the reader might come away from the article with two ideas. First, since no other cameras were discussed the reader might assume that the D810 is the writer/photographer's sole camera. That this brilliant photographer (who is obviously successful) has distilled down all of the many choices in the marketplace, examined all the variables and has ferreted out "the perfect camera." 

The second point the reader might come away with is the idea that the camera is the photographer's magic talisman and that the camera is somehow the photographer's partner in creating the work that makes him successful. No perfect camera = no success...

There is a well known photographer and blogger named Thom Hogan who writes a good blog on gear. He has been a long time user of Nikon equipment and has written a number of good guides for those cameras that do admirable jobs as replacements for the camera maker's manuals. If you only read his reviews about Nikon cameras and don't explore his other writings (on Sansmirror.com) you would miss his frequent discussions about the other cameras and other formats he buys, and regularly uses, in his landscape and wildlife photography. Even within the subset of "Nikon" he has not settled only on the most powerful, full frame, professional camera available but also shoots (and seems to be very impressed with...) the APS-C (cropped frame) D7200 body. 

He also makes good use of, and has frequent, nice things to say about Olympus micro four thirds cameras, of which he was a fairly early adopter. In fact, just last week he wrote an article ruminating about which mirrorless camera represented the best value to him, in addition to his full frame, Nikon system. His article nicely summarizes a professional perspective of choosing the right camera for the appropriate occasion. (For him, the second camera system is Olympus!).

(Sometimes I feel as those talking about the "one" perfect camera or the one perfect system are just like the characters involved in the pursuit of the One Ring of Power in the "Lord of the Rings.")

I was thinking of this enormous compulsion toward singular specificity, and the desire of photographers to want/need to winnow down their choices to a final selection of "tools" that equals one. The misplaced desire to use one Phillip's head screwdriver for every task. All of this was going through my head as I did my planning and pre-production last night for this morning's shoot. 

Ah. The details. 

I've shot lots and lots of products in studios. At one point  we shot every product that came through the door with 4x5 view cameras, and learned early on how to use tilts and swings to extend focus in our shots. We also shot a lot at f45 and even f64 in heroic attempts to make everything sharp. But now the small size of the imaging pixels makes stopping down treacherous and the tilts and swing have vanished from our arsenal of ready solutions. But there is one constant in product photography....

The closer you get to a product (subject); the more you fill the frame, the harder you will find it to get all of your subject in good, sharp focus from front to back. Some mistakenly believe that using a wider angle lens will get you something, and it will. It will get you an exaggerated perspective that's usually not at all what a client wants. Using a smaller aperture with today's smaller pixel (each pixel's size) pitch will give you a generalized softness when diffraction kicks in. What's a photographer to do? 

I've written before about the challenges of getting enough depth of field and the "gadgeteers" are quick to recommend "focus stacking" as the logical solution. And, indeed, that's a good solution for people with time on their hands, and maybe one or two "perfect" shots to get out the door, but it's not as practical as it may seem. At least not in a production sense. 

It takes a lot of time and precision to get the focus just right through each subject. And you'll need a number of files (sample points) to effect a seamless transition from one end of the product to the other. Lots of raw files being flung around and a bit of clean up work needed on the back end as well. If a client wants you to create one perfect image, and it's mandatory that everything be sharp as a tack, this is the way to go. But imagine a real world job where you are tasked (or have bid on) shooting and post processing 20 to 25 different angles in a day, complete with some clipping paths, and you might find focus stacking super high res files to be.....burdensome.

I maintain that by knowing your client's final target for the images you are creating you can fine tune your camera choice from the tool box and have a much more productive and enjoyable shoot. But fine tuning the camera to the final target presumes that you aren't stuck in the mindset of "one precious" camera or format. As a working professional with a wide range of subjects to shoot it behooves you to have a wider tools kit; which doesn't necessarily need to cost a fortune to assemble. 

So, last week I wrote a blog, here, about shooting a black, metal product on a white background at the studio. I talked about using the Olympus OMD EM5.2 camera instead of my Nikon D810 camera for precisely the reason we've been discussing. The imaging sensor in the Olympus is one quarter the size of the Nikon. The Olympus evens the playing field, as far as resolution goes, with its Hi-Res mode. The smaller sensor gives me two f-stops more depth of field compared to the full frame camera. Getting two more stops of DOf while getting the same resolution seems like and endless win, right? And last week I was pretty happy with the results but believe me when I tell you that it was a real struggle to find the absolutely exact point on which to focus in order to spread that depth of field out over the entire front to back geography of the product. You also have to keep in mind that there's a vertical axis to worry about as well. 

I sent off the results and the client was very happy. I could see a little bit of unsharpness creep into the very back end of some shots but it's only something we might see if we enlarged the images to a high degree. Not something we might see on a page size image. Even less apparent on a website. 

But, if you have a curious nature, and you like to play around with the variables, there's always the attraction to try to improve the process on the next go-around. Right?

When the same client called me on Weds. and confessed that he had sent along the wrong product and asked for a partial re-shoot I understood and was eager to help. But also eager to try a slightly different approach. I conjectured that, if the jump down from full frame to micro four thirds format had gained me a couple of f-stops of depth of field, how would an even smaller sensor camera perform? Not a thought I would have entertained before the introduction of Sony's really high performance 1 inch sensor....

I'd been shooting professional jobs with the Panasonic fz 1000 routinely this year and understood how powerful these cameras can be if you use them under the right conditions. The right conditions for the one inch sensor cameras include shooting as close to the base level ISO as possible, getting a custom white balance that's right on the money to start with and getting the shooting camera on a stout tripod in complement with using at least a 2 second delay, via self timer, to trigger each exposure. 

I reset the studio and positioned an array of four LED lights over the shooting table. I blocked out any extraneous light from the banks for windows in the studio and I set the Sony RX 10 camera on the tripod. I decided to give it a go for this project. I would pull the memory card and examine the first test on a 27 inch monitor and, if the camera failed to live up to my expectations, I could easily switch back to the Olympus camera I used the week before. 

I metered carefully and then did a custom white balance. The RPS CooLED lights were 5100K with a minus 7 green adjustment to pure white. Nice, and kudos to Sony for engineering an easy custom WB solution. Easy to use, easy to remember. 

Then I spent the morning photographically examining the product/subject, trying to coax out the best angles and the coolest intersections of heat sinks and inputs; heat sinks and logos. When I sat down to do my post production from the 20 megapixel raw files I'll admit I had a big smile on my face. The images looked great. In fact, I did even less post production PhotoShop stuff on the Sony files than I had needed to do last week with the Olympus files. But I'd chalk most of the differences up to the second shoot being more fine-tuned than the first. Having my lighting down a bit better because I'd had time to think of ways to improve it over the course of the week. 

Does this one success mean that I'll be rushing to Precision Camera to trade in all my Nikon and Olympus cameras and lenses in order to buy......more RX10's? Nope, that would be a bit crazy. Does it mean that the RX10 is a better studio camera than the Panasonic fz 1000? Nope, I'll rotate cameras on the next one but in my experience they are almost equally good. 

The Nikons are perfect for the kinds of annual report portraits that bring in good fees. They are also good tools for images that require lots of detail along with flexible depth of field controls. They are infinitely better for high ISO shooting and shooting with automatic flash. I'll keep them for those reasons and also for the clients who are convinced that only traditional "professional" camera belong on their shoots. We are still in the service business after all. 

We keep the Olympus cameras because they do so many things well but mostly for those times when you really, really need image stabilization; particularly in video. They make marvelous hand held interview cameras and handheld b-roll cameras. Plus the resale value on m4:3 always sucks so it just makes economic sense, after the first year, to use em up in the business rather than trading them away for a song. 

Is this "flip-flopping"? Is this being "wishy-washy"? Will I read more whiny nonsense about how often I "change" cameras? Frankly, I don't give a crap. If someone can't understand the idea of using the right tool for the target (job) in front of them then they don't understand the nature of doing commercial photography; or any other craft for that matter. 

This isn't a call for everyone to abandon whatever they are shooting with to shoot the way I do, it's just a suggestion that there are optimal formats for every task out there and it's not a short attention span or flip-flopping to want to make your jobs easier and better. It's just good business. 

Don't let your camera's ego hold you back.


13 comments:

Wolfgang Lonien said...

I'm only an amateur, but I still think I see and understand what you mean.

Oh, and one way to help you with focus stacking would be to try Olympus' new firmware versions - I think your E-M5Mk2 has in-camera focus stacking starting with firmware 2.x, for the E-M1 it would be versions 4.x. Having said that, I still see that macro photographers swear on smaller sensors.

The problem for me arises in regards of cost. Sure I would want a 24x36mm sensor to get more separation with longer lenses (like 85mm instead of my 45mm Olympus), but which one to get? A D610 has its focus points on a relatively small area of the frame, and to focus/recompose blurs things quite a bit when working with (close to) wide open lenses. A Sony of the A7 family tho it surely has a much nicer viewfinder and even IBIS in the newer ones might not be as much camera as is needed (lots of button presses just to *move* that focus point). And if you don't want to spend that much money, then those Zeiss primes aren't exactly cheap as well...

Good that I didn't borrow a D800 or D810 from some of my friends and colleagues - could be a rather expensive experience. Oh, and the same is true for Canon; look what Elena does with her 135mm/2: https://www.flickr.com/photos/75571860@N06/

Thomas Rink said...

Some thoughts on the subject: I agree that focus stacking is a pain with today's cameras and lenses which are less than optimal for manual focus. But, I've read somewhere that some of the newer m43 cameras support automatic focus stacking (I forgot model and make of these cameras, though)?

As to diffraction-induced softening, this can be remedied by a healthy dose of the "Detail" slider on the sharpening panel of ACR or Lightroom. It doesn't even introduce artifacts.

Best, Thomas

Patrick Dodds said...

In their mid-fixities? That's me!

amolitor said...

Any teasing I have indulged in has been based on your obvious love for cameras, not any sense that you're genuinely indecisive.

In any case, I apologize for any moments that may have stung. I'm confident that I speak for many others in that point.

Wolfgang Lonien said...

Hmmm looked it up again, about that "stacking" with the newer Olymus cameras.

And no, only the E-M1 can do in-camera stacks automatically. But all three, the E-M1, the E-M5Mk2, and the E-M10Mk2 can do "focus bracketing". The latter means that the camera will more or less automate the shooting process, but you still need 3rd party software like Helicon Focus to stack them together.

Some links, in case you (or your readers) are interested:

http://www.imaging-resource.com/news/2015/09/15/olympus-breathes-new-life-into-e-m1-with-big-firmware-update-e-m5-ii-ga
http://pen-and-tell.blogspot.de/2015/09/bald-ist-weihnachten-neue-firmware-fur.html (in German, but with a few examples of the E-M10Mk2)
http://peterfraileyphoto.blogspot.de/2016/02/olympus-fw-40-focus-stacking-60mm-macro.html (E-m1, in-camera stacking, hand-held), and
http://pen3.de/blog/114/ (Frank Rückert who does this since years, and became one of the German Olympus "Visionaries" (supporters)

HTH,
Wolfgang

Dave Jenkins said...

Doesn't Nikon make an 85 or 90mm Tilt/Shift lens?

Dog Photographer said...

Great post. Thank you.

RayC said...

So I understand this perfectly well from a Pro position - I was one for 20+ years before I made a carreer change - I had 11x14 down to 4x5 view cameras, a nice medium format set of tools and a full suite of 35mm gear. Matching the tools to the job is part of being a real pro in my mind. Now I'm no longer a pro but still enjoy "going into the kitchen" but it is a different series of trade-offs. I now travel a lot in my current day job. I (occasionally) have some downtime often in unique locations where a stroll with a camera is a great way to exercise both body and mind but...

What camera to bring? How much to carry (no assistants anymore) and limited carry tolerance along with all the tools required for the day job. For awhile I carried Canon APSC DSLR, too much. I then swung the other way to a little Samsung TL350 with a nice little zoom and RAW capability which I loved, but that little sensor just failed in post processing too often. So (partially due to you in one of your former Sony passion periods and partially because Olympus just doesn't "work" for me) I tried the Sony NEX6 - a camera that I had a love/hate relationship with. I've since moved to the A6000 which solved many of my hate issues and the sensor quality is more than good enough for me. Now the problem goes back to lenses... the kit zoom is t best okay but it sure makes a very portable system to tuck in the work bag. I have a much better zoom lens but the size makes it less likely to make the bag, and even if available less likely to make it on a walk around session. I really like zooms and a single prime is not a good fit for me so I'm slightly stuck on what is the best tool for this situational "work" . The good news is the new 6300 and new lenses give me hope for the Sony line but no pull on my pocketbook.

William Beebe said...

I had to smile a bit when I read your knife-camera analogy. As a bit of an amateur chef I'd have to compare today's cameras to knife sets, and individual knives to lenses. And if you think that knives are dull price-wise (no pun intended), then you haven't looked at the Zwilling J.A. Henckels Bob Kramer Stainless Damascus Ultimate Collection 20 piece knife set for just $3,500.

In my film days I would have agreed with you about trying out different cameras. They were far less expensive back then, and shifting from one system to another was something I could do without going into debt. But today's cameras, starting at around $1,000 new, body only, give me great pause. So I've stuck to just one manufacturer (Olympus) finding it's more than good enough for my needs. I was tempted by the thought of switching to Fuji until I started to tally up the cost of replacing what I already have with Fuji. By the time that exercise was done I put it down and went out to use the camera I already have.

Kirk Tuck said...

Andrew, if I can't take a little ribbing about my camera habits I'd be an awfully unhappy blogger! But the whole idea of flexible tools is contextual and I wasn't sure a lot of readers got that there is a difference between trying to make money with cameras versus making personal art....

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Blogs... There is one specification difference between the FZ1000 and the RX10 that I've noticed that is never discussed in the reviews – the difference in close focus ability. The 1” sensor giving greater DOF for a given FOV than a larger sensor and the close focus ability of the RX10 should make it a better camera for close up work like that you describe. As you use the FZ1000 in some future project I would appreciate some discussion of this difference, if it actually exists....

amolitor said...

Good point. For the amateur trying to make something good, almost no matter what that means, fewer options is almost sure to be a benefit. Find something you like, learn to use it, and make something out of what it can do. The limitations will help you cut the world of opportunities down to manageable size.

For the professional I guess it's turned around. Breadth matters, specifically because it's not personal work.

Dave Jenkins said...

A pair of quotes that you and Andrew may like, Kirk:

“Forcing yourself to use restricted means is the sort of restraint that liberates invention. It obliges you to make a kind of progress that you can’t even imagine in advance.”
-- Picasso

“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”
-- Orson Welles