Making robots and speaking Chinese. Sure is fun to be a student these days.

Part of the Robotics Team.

Now that I'm totally finished with my photography project at the school I wrote about I thought I'd spend a little time mulling the assignment over and thinking about what worked, what didn't work, and how to improve my odds the next time I embark on helping to create an image asset library for a company or institution. 

I'm an eternal optimist at the start of every job and an anxious pessimist when I'm packing up the cameras and lights and heading home to start the post processing. I see little reason to worry up front so I'm always a tad light on pre-production planning and making tight schedules. I see little reason for hope once I've snapped the last image and I bite my nails in post production, certain that everything I tried will fail.

The reality is that I spent three days of walking through and around the (pre-K to eighth grade) school relentlessly making photographs. I seem to have arrived at the right spots at the right times to catch well over 2,000 good images (edited down from 3800), but many of them are variations of a set-up. I could get to a higher percentage of keepers if I shot less but my philosophy when shooting in a documentary mode (we did no set-ups) is to keep shooting in the belief that no matter how great the shots you already got are there's bound to be something even better, if you give it all a chance to play out. So that means I shoot the hint of a smile and wait around for that hint to blossom into a full, genuine smile; shooting all the time. Same with action. I also find that the longer I shoot the less attention gets paid to me and the more authentic the expressions and actions of most groups become. I'm sure you can make a case for being a parsimonious shooter
but I'll still be thinking you've left some good stuff behind....

When I get ready for post production that's the time when I start remembering all the times I mis-set the ISO, or dialed in the wrong color balance, or leaned to heavily on image stabilization, or just gave up shooting too early. But when I finally dive into the chilly, dark waters of PhotoShop I usually find that I didn't mess up nearly as much as I anticipated. The files are pretty good, and the camera I expected to be a noisy mess at 6400 redeemed itself with flying (not speckled) colors.

My goal in this project was to help the school increase the depth in their library of images for marketing and community building; a library of photographs that I helped to start by shooting individual days of documentary style photography for them, five years ago. I wanted to give a sense of what it was like to be a student at the school and what it is like to be a teacher, and even what is looks like to be a parent. 

While I am a spry, youngish and cool photographer, I cleverly disguised myself as a 60 year old who might look and dress like a grandparent of any one of these kids. It was a disguise that worked well as I remained on most of the kids' radars for about thirty seconds. That meant I could move around classrooms or into auditoriums garnering about as much attention as if I had been wearing a cloak of invisibility. I also got to school early in the morning so the kids (and the teachers) could get used to seeing me with the old Domke camera bag slung over one shoulder and the brown, shined dress shoes on my feet, walking around with a camera in my hands and a vacant smile on my face. 

We had some parameters that we established years ago. We don't want to disrupt classes or programs so we don't set up shots, don't ask students to pose, and we don't use lights --- especially not flashes.
Anything at all that's a distraction violates that old Heisenberg Theory. The same goes for assistants. 

As I started my photography each day I'd enter a classroom, smile at the teacher (all of whom were notified that we'd be on site and dropping by) and I would ignore the students while looking for the best light. I wanted something more than the ceiling mounted fluorescent illumination and was always happy to find a wall of windows which I would place at a 45-90 degree angle to my shooting vector. You can see an example of the light I tried to find in the image above. Then I would move on to the next classroom.

I started out on the first day carrying my camera bag and tripod but by lunch time I'd come to realize that the full load of gear in the bag was a distraction, and it was also tiring to carry and keep track of. I decided to leave all the batteries and accessories in the bag, leave the bag in the administration offices and just wear a camera over each shoulder. Less weight, less profile, less fuss. 

I got a lot of good use out of four lenses but truth be told I could have just as easily pared down the inventory for the first day and a half of shooting to two lenses and, by the third day I realized that I could have pared down the camera inventory again to one camera and one lens. More on that to come...

On the first day I used a couple of current Nikon full frame bodies, convinced I needed their clean, high ISOs and their wide dynamic range. I paired them with the Sigma Art 24-35mm and the 50mm Art lenses but I quickly realized that, even though the 50mm is one of my absolute favorite focal lengths, it was too limiting for this kind of shooting. I was often trying to isolate a few students in the middle of a classroom and there just wasn't enough reach to make it work. And, in reality, as invisible as I was, being a stranger and getting right up in a kid's face violates that unspoken social contract of having a defensible circle to exist within. Photographs don't really get better when you violate someone's comfort zone...

I ditched the 50mm early on and exchanged it for the all purpose, Nikon 24-120mm f4.0 VR lens. A much better choice for most classrooms simply because it gives you the option of going from tight shots to small groups, from one position. And, yes, I know you are an expert at using your feet to "zoom" but in this case the desks kept getting in my way.

For the next day and a half the 24-120mm held its position as the alpha lens. Not necessarily for ultimate image quality but certainly for the flexibility and access to compositions I needed. The one thing I was missing was the ability to really isolate a subject by working the magic of limited depth of field. Back to the camera bag for another exchange. This time the 24-35mm for the less exotic and less sexy 85mm f1.8G lens. 

By the middle of the second day I was pretty much a fixture. As exciting to the kids as the gray of concrete on the sidewalk. That was great! It meant I could walk into the middle of an outdoor basketball game, shoot 100 images and retreat without any of the kids grinning into the camera, or flashing totally out of place gang signs at the camera.

I would start on the first floor of the main building and try to get to an English class at the same time as the students. Once the class got rolling and I'd found a good position for the light, and for a nice background, I would work the crowd while trying not to make eye contact or show much emotion. I tried to work near the students' eye level for the most part because it seemed more natural. With the 24-120mm I trusted the wide open aperture even though I knew it might be just touch softer than I might get by stopping down. A bump or two of the clarity slider in post sharpened up nearly every image shot that way, very well. 

The 85mm lens on the second camera came in handy consistently when I wanted to show a student sharply rendered in the foreground but with another student, out of focus, balancing the frame on the other side. I used it whenever I wanted backgrounds to go soft and nondescript. 

I was happy with the performance of the big cameras and the fun selection of lenses but by the end of the second day I was getting a bit bored with them and ready to try something else. Something counterintuitive. It was in the evening after shooting the second day that I really decided to put the smaller, Sony RX10ii into play. I figured I would throw that camera a bunch of easy photographic situations  (bright sunlight, stuff that doesn't move, etc.) and see how it handled real life. 

On the third day I started out with one Nikon over each shoulder and the Sony around my neck. But I kept having the cameras bang into each other and so I peeled off the camera with the 24-120mm lens and just kept the Sony, and the Nikon camera with the 85mm lens, because it could do the one thing that wasn't exactly a strength of any camera with a smaller sensor: isolate backgrounds. 

But several hours into the shooting I decided to dump the second Nikon as well and commit to using the Sony. My logic was simple; we were nearly 2200 shots into the project by then and had covered almost all the stuff on our wish list. If the Sony excelled, or was just competent, I felt like we'd be in good shape. And the beauty of shooting in modern times is that you quickly discover, through endless chimping, if something is going tragically wrong. But nothing did. 

With only one camera to deal with I made every effort to play to the Sony RX10ii's strengths. It has a low profile and, with the fake sounds turn off, is nearly silent. In addition, the image stabilization works well. And, I have been working on my handheld shooting techniques for a long time. 

In the end I shot over 1500 frames on the last day, with the Sony. The numbers are deceiving because I was using the technique of shooting with a fast frame rate in order to play the odds and get a greater number of sharper photographs. By the end of the third day I'd covered every classroom and hallway and walked up and down the stairs enough to overload a FitBit. I shoved the gear back into the Domke canvas camera bag and headed back to the VSL world headquarters. I don't know why but I really enjoyed listening to the Cranberries all the way home. 

So, what works on a shoot and what works in post might be two different things, right? I kept thinking that using the Sony might have been a mistake. I let other reviews from other writers put the fear into my cognitive systems that the Sony would fall apart if I used it at ISOs exceeding 800. I also heard the jungle drums of lackadaisical users telling me how much better the files would be from the new, full frame sensor cameras. Equivalence and all that noisy crap...

I spent the full day after the active photography mired in the tar pits of editing and post processing (which are two distinctly different things). Editing is the process of looking at the images and completely removing those that you don't want, don't need, or are embarrassed to show a client. You edit them out. Once you edit out (and throw away) the offending images you then sit down to process or post process the remaining, edited images. 

If you are working on a large, calibrated monitor you find yourself blowing stuff up and looking too intently at the nuts and bolts but it can be freeing because, in short order (if your shooting techniques were good) you come to realize that the technical differences between different systems and sensor sizes is, very tiny in the real world, and blown out of proportion in that part of the intellectual strip mall where people talk and write a good game without ever seeming to put a memory card in the slot of their camera. The difference in quality between a file, shot at 3200 (and exposed correctly!!!) in a full frame camera versus a one inch, state of the art, small camera is about 5-10%. And that is the difference when examining them side by side on a 27 inch monitor. Used in the real world, on a website or in a publication the difference (if not directly compared) would probably not even be noticeable to a lay person. 

The real measure of quality is in the success of visualization. An exciting photo with some noise always trumps a boring photo with less noise. Always. So, if a smaller or older (very familiar) camera allows you to go in quieter, shoot faster, chimp better and still get within 10% of a slower, louder, more cumbersome camera then --- which one wins?

I'll readily admit that the Nikon D750 with an 85mm shot at f2.0 is far better at creating a steep defocusing ramp from subject to the background. But that was the only real advantage I saw using the bigger cameras. In fact, in one instance I had the Sony set incorrectly. I'd been shooting outdoors with auto-ISO engaged and the aperture set to f11. I came into a class room directly from the outdoors and there were some kids using VR goggles to see 3D constructs and I pulled the camera up to my eye and banged off thirty or so frames with the RX10ii. Having the shot in the can I took the time to slow down and check my settings. The upshot is that the small aperture had driven the camera to set ISO 6400 to compensate for my f11. It also drove the shutter speed to 1/50th (which was the low parameter I set) so I was dependent on the noise handling of the sensor and the image stabilization in order to have it all work at the longer end of the zoom range. 

Shockingly, in post processing, I blew up these frames across the screen and they were not just acceptable, they were sharp and contrasty. There was a little bit of speckled color noise but not anywhere near what I would have expected. More like what I used to get  with a Nikon D2X at 400 ISO. The redeeming factor is that the Sony more frequently hit the exposures more accurately than either Nikon, and the new noise reduction algorithms are killer good. I could actually shoot the Sony at ISO 6400 and have stuff I can turn in without tossing and turning in bed. 

On a different note, this was the trial by fire shoot for the Sigma 24-35mm lens. I'll be honest and say that if I could go back in time I would take the $1,000 and put it into my retirement account instead but....it does make wonderful photographs. Absolutely wonderful. It's just that I'm not convinced they are $750 better than the images I was already getting out of my older, used 25-50mm f4.0 Nikon. Two stops faster, yes; but then how often do we really shoot wide open with wide angles? And actually, that's a serious question. I'd like to know...

Any of the three cameras would do fine but the choice of lenses is more critical. One needs a lens with some reach. You don't need 200 or 300 mms of reach but the 120mm was in the "good" zone so the 24-120mm was ultimately the most useful for working flexible and fast. That's in the Nikon camp. But across both systems the 24-200mm f2.8 of the Sony is the star. The stuff I shot wide open matches the sharp look of the Nikon frames, even when blown up to 100% or splashed across a big screen. 

Sometimes we talk about what we would do differently if we got a "do over." 

But I've been getting somewhat of a "do over" every year from this client and it makes for a lot of fun changing stuff around. My best image ever for this client was shot two years ago with a Nikon D7100 and the same 85mm f1.8 G. Lens. My best images this time are a toss up between the Sony RX10 and the 24-35mm on a Nikon body. But what will I change next time out?

I'll start with the portage equipment. I'm done buying dedicated camera bags and dedicated camera rolling cases. I'll head to the big box hardware store and buy myself a Husky tool bag with its own built in dolly handle and wheels. I think it would be fun to just drag all the shooting stuff  around, park it in the halls when I duck into the classes, and then be able to change my mind on the fly, and change lenses to match. So that's the first thing. 

If I do that then I can bring anything I want and that means I would include my 80-200mm f2.8 for the Nikon cameras; just to get that extra reach on the playground or on the basketball court. 

But my real aspiration would be to boldly ignore my fears of how clients might perceive the smaller cameras and go out with just the Sony RX10ii (and maybe a second one for back up) with a couple batteries in my pocket. That camera is a professional working tool, not a pejoratively labelled "point and shoot" or "compact camera." We've got to get over those labels. If it quacks like a duck it's a duck. If it shoots like a professional camera then it is a professional camera. 

Final note: The RX10ii has more accurate exposures and much more accurate color temperature rendering than any of my (state of the DSLR art) Nikon camera bodies. That makes shooting quicker and processing quicker as well. Given how close the overall quality is between the formats it makes the smaller camera super compelling for documentary style shooting. Other styles have different requirements. That's why we still get to choose. 

That's my take.

Take a class: Become more skilled and knowledgable. Have more fun.

One of the original Craftsy Photo Classes and 
still one of the best! 

I met Lance a couple of weeks ago in Denver
and found him to be really fun and knowledgeable 
this class reflects what he teaches in hands-on
workshops in Ireland and Iceland, as well as 
cool places around the U.S.

How to make what we shoot into a cohesive
train of visual thought.