I have a very upbeat and congenial client that is an electrical utility. They are growing quickly, fun to work with and we all get along very well. Last year they tapped me to do their Annual Report and it was a great assignment. Today's assignment was less glamorous but well worth an hour's drive out of Austin.
It's the least glamorous job corporate photographers do but one that seems to have good value for our clients. It was a ground-breaking. A good, standard, public relations event complete with a city mayor, a city manager, some state representatives and local luminaries. I was tasked with getting good, basic coverage of just about anything visual I could find.
The project was in Marble Falls, Texas which is just an hour's drive nearly due west of Austin, Texas. It's in the opposite direction from my studio as SXSW so, all in all, a blessing.
I packed up a bunch of competing camera gear into a new (much less expensive) rolling case, along with a laptop. I'd be shooting big Jpegs because my client wanted me to hand off the images at the end of the event. No chance to edit, or save anything via post processing. That always makes me a bit nervous when DSLRs are involved...
I went in with the big guns; a Nikon D810 and a D750. The D810 was equipped with the 24-120mm f4.0 and it doesn't matter what I had in mind, lens-wise, for the D750, because it never came out of the bag. I knew the D810 would work well for the big "shoveling dirt" shot, along with a bit of judicious fill flash, so I reckoned that would be my "go to" camera. Just for grins I also packed a Panasonic fz 1000 because I didn't think the Panasonics were getting enough love lately ---- what with my recent Sony immersion.
Turns out that the Panasonic is perfect for overcast day, groundbreaking events! Just perfect.
I put the rolling bag in the car and headed over to the local coffee shop. My favorite cinematographer was there with his wife. He sprung for my coffee. It was a small, drip coffee. Had I known someone else would end up buying I would have splurged and gotten the extra large, super deluxe latté with everything on it, and five extra shots of espresso (kidding, I'm kidding).
I headed West on Highway 71 and was nearly killed as a woman and her friend swung their Ford Escape in and out of my lane at 65 miles per hour, over and over again. Seems she was busy texting and couldn't be bothered to pull over and type. Not a smart idea on a four lane, undivided highway just bristling with large trucks and a 70 mph speed limit... The last I saw of them all the cars in our vicinity were pulling away from a stoplight/intersection; the light had turned green, and the two woman were parked in the middle of the left lane of the roadway, fully stopped, heads down and staring at their phones as cars careened around them. Madness. Just madness.
I crossed over the Pedernales River while listening to NPR. The commentators on the radio were talking about election strategies. I popped in an Elvis Costello CD and soldiered on down the winding Texas highway.
I always try to come to jobs a bit early. Today I left earlier than usual since we have big thunder clouds and endless rumors that a hard rain was coming. I didn't believe the estimated travel time from Google --- but I should have. I arrived about an hour and a half early. That gave me time to roll past the shooting location and take a look before doubling back into town proper to grab an early lunch.
It's not that big of a town and I was trying to make an executive decision between Whataburger and Schlotzsky's. Schlotzsky's was closest to the job site and so won, by default. I had the original. True story= the original Schlotzsky's Sandwich Shop started in Austin, Texas. I discovered it when I was working, part time, in a hi-fi store next to the UT campus. I was majoring in electrical engineering and the lure of audiophile gear was strong. I'd be embarrassed to tell you how many tube amplifiers I built in my dorm room, and I've probably owned more different sets of speakers that I have owned camera bodies.....
At any rate, the audio shop was in the bottom floor of a high-rise residence tower across from the University of Texas at Austin and the fledgling Schlotzsky's was next door. I worked all day on Saturdays, selling Crown, Phase Linear, Audio Research and Linn Sondek gear and, if we were on a roll, we'd order a bunch of the big, original Schlotzsky's sandwiches and work through the day, grabbing wedges of the sandwiches between sales. Nostalgia is powerful. I still crave them on occasions.
I always keep a good book in the car to pass the extra time created by my need to be early. Today's book was a compendium of short stories by Ian Rankin. He's an amazing writer. His character, John Rebus, is a police detective in Edinburgh, Scotland. I've read all but the most recent of Ian Rankin's "John Rebus" novels but I'd never read the short stories. I should never have started. It's like opening a box of really good chocolates. Or a great bottle of wine. You just can't stop once you've had the first taste. Don't like fiction? That's like saying you're not really fond of sex....
I stretched out lunch and savored several of the short stories but a glance at my watch told me it was time to get going. I made it to the job site and pulled out the Nikon D810+24-120mm f4.0+Nissin flash and, as an afterthought, the little (?) Panasonic fz 1000. I put the Nikon rig over one shoulder and the Panasonic around my neck.
The dark, gray clouds were swirling above the big, white tent my client had set up. There were plenty of chairs underneath for the audience. In the background were two giant bucket trucks and in between the trucks was a prepared patch of soil complete with twelve shovels stuck in. At the end of the speeches the board and local dignitaries came over and, in unison, turned a shovel of dirt. It was actually quite nice, visually. The sky glowered while the Stars and Stripes fluttered at the back of the group.
I started out with the Nikon D810 but as always, it was the same old problem. A perfect scene shown on the rear screen but a stop down darker exposure on the actual files. Or a series of exposures that was a bit more erratic than I would have liked. If I checked the histogram on every single review I had a fighting chance at getting good exposures throughout but, frankly, the old tech doesn't do well in unusual lighting situations. At least not for me. And, remember, I've been successfully shooting with older Nikon stuff for decades.
I started using the Panasonic and my initial excuse was that I wanted the long reach of the 24-400mm lens. But after seeing how much more exactly the smaller, cheaper camera hit exposure and white balance pushed me to use the small camera more and more. Even my images shot under the light sucking canopy of the tent were perfectly usable shooting ISO 1250 with a wide open 400mm equivalent lens. Damn that I.S. is good!
At the end of my two hours on location (one spent shooting details and "arrival" candids, one spent documenting the actual event) I realized that the vast majority of my shots were done with the smaller camera. It just worked so well that it became transparent in my hands. I did use the big Nikon for about 125 shots (out of 600 total). I used it with flash for the big group shots of 50-60 people as well as the shots of the "ground-breaking, shoveling" moment. All those shots were in manual, pre-tested with attention paid to every single histogram.
The D810 is a hit or miss camera for me. I sometimes get amazing shots from it and other times I get dark, contrasty exposures and the incidences are randomly distributed among various shoots. It's almost like there's one little adjustment that I've screwed up and overlooked.... Makes me question my own abilities...
When the event came to an end and all the cookies with white chocolate and macadamia nuts were gone, people started to head for their cars and eventually the local population was back down to the photographer, the marketing team, the videographer and the workers busy deconstructing the physical trappings of the event.
My direct client had let me know that she needed all the files right after the event. Her team would be going straight back to their office to make selections and send out various press releases. I opened up the hatchback of my Honda CR-V, reached into the new (cheaper) roller bag and pulled out a vintage MacBook Pro. Then I loaded the images from the two camera's cards onto a 16 gigabyte flash memory stick to hand off. I'd archive the files on the array of hard drives back at the studio. As the files drooled onto the flash stick I amused myself with one more short story...
Everyone smiled and said, "Well done!" and I crawled into the car just as the first wall of wind and rain started sweeping through the open field. I drove home listening to the rhythm of the wipers across the windshield, and a mix CD of my favorite Zombies tunes sorted together with my favorite Beach Boys songs. The gray clouds followed me all the way back.
The one question in my mind, functioning today as a photojournalist, is whether we have reached some sort of new juncture in how to capture breaking events. Is it just me or are the benefits of small, fast, sharp bridge cameras like the Sony Rx10 (either version) and the Panasonic fz 1000 are just easier to use and deliver better results than our historic dinosaur style cameras? After today I think I know what the answer is for me.
(Written on Monday, March 7th).
Some online classes that may be of interest to you:
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.