10.05.2016

A quick look around the studio at the lighting, etc. from yesterday's shoot.

We started with two soft boxes for our main lighting and used the 4x6 foot panel as an overhead "wash" light but some objects really wanted to be lit from above and skirted with black to read correctly. The big, silver reflector in the foreground is black on the opposite side and is blocking light from outside a window that was making a tiny reflection on one particularly shiny object. Count the number of light stands....overkill. 

Common 5-in-1 reflectors are cheap and ultra-handy in and out of the studio. Silver to block the light coming through windows, black on the other side to kill reflections. Turn the covers inside out and you have one gold reflective side and white on the other. Lose the covers altogether and you get a diffusion disk that's great for doing Minimalist Lighting (tm) set ups. I also use them outside. Silver toward the sun with the talent underneath for shade. The black helps subtract light from above and it's easier on the eyes. 

The reverse side. 

Three, big SMD LED lights illuminate the 4x6 foot Lastolite 1.25 stop panel. Shiny board on the table gives a crisp cutting edge for clipping paths while a smaller SMD LED with barn doors directly illuminates my background.

This is the reverse angle to the shots above. We wanted backlight for one really cool, highly machined product and it was the perfect setup. The Marshall monitor in the foreground (right) works well and moves super quick. It's plugged into the HDMI port of the A7Rii. Love the side arm on the Gitzo tripod. Need to find a side arm for the much bigger Benro...

These three lights do most of the heavy lifting (light-wise) around the studio and on most corporate locations. Clients seem to find flash on location disruptive. I just like the WYSIWYG nature of the LEDs (and all continuous lighting). 

Vital furnishing. This is Studio Dog's down comforter on top of her oval shaped bed. She generally likes to be comfortable if she needs to supervise both a photographer and an art director. 
She would often get up and circle the studio as I worked to make sure none of the cables or sandbags needed a warning growl.

Just a quick post to show how messy I get when I'm working on a project. 


How reliable are cameras? Why do I always write about cameras needing to travel in pairs?

I am always, always shocked to meet a photographer with pretensions of being professional who is out on a location with only one camera. And lately I've been meeting more and more photographers who tell me that their cameras are so reliable that they've never even thought of buying a second one...just in case. That's fine with me. I love competitors who will one day let a client down instead of making a modest investment in a back-up camera. Clients who've been badly burned by lackadaisical photographers are easy to win over.

But why the my paranoia about camera reliability? Why do I bother bringing along at least one extra camera on every single engagement? Why don't I just take my chances along with seemingly everyone else? There's got to be a few backstories, right?  Well, in fact, I have a few at my disposal to share.

Many years ago the gold standard of professional film cameras was the Hasselblad system. The cameras were expensive and by all accounts very rugged. But they did have a few idiosyncrasies. 
If you tried to shoot a 500 CM body before fully winding the camera between frames the whole camera and lens would lock up. You needed to be able to take off the film back, stick a specialized tool though the rear baffle shutter, engage a slotted gear on the back of the stuck lens and re-cock the lens shutter (leaf shutter technology...). Only then could you shoot again. 

There was one photographer in Austin who was notoriously cheap and, though his business could well afford it, he owned only one Hasselblad camera body. Being anxious about technical things he never bought the emergency tool and never learned the technique of unlocking a stuck camera. Several times a year he'd be shooting in his studio or on location and, yep, the camera would lock up. Sometimes with clients and models on the set. When this happened the whole shoot would come to a stop and he would send his assistant, along with the camera and lens, to Precision Camera so the owner and repair guru, Jerry Sullivan, could unlock the camera for him. 

The roundtrip to the camera store took an hour or two. Longer if Mr. Sullivan happened to be out at lunch. You can imagine how well this went down with some clients. To be fair though, Austin was pretty laid back in the 1990's and I guess everyone could have just grabbed a beer, sat on the loading dock and spaced out. I just know this wouldn't fly today. Not with the deadlines everyone is under. 

When I bought into the Hasselblad system I started with two of the ELX motor drive bodies. They were supposed to be built to take lots and lots of exposure cycles reliably. As my business grew and the cameras became central to my workflow I added another motor drive body and one of the workhorse, fully mechanical, 500 CM bodies.

I would always take the three bodies out with me if I was going to be shooting out of town. Just in case. Paranoid, right?

Well at one point on a dry and toasty August day I found myself in San Antonio working for one of the big home improvement chains. We were shooting a sports oriented campaign for the stores and it revolved around kid's sports. We were heading into late afternoon and we'd already shot a complex basketball shot with complicated lighting and a camera rigged onto a backboard. We'd shot a fake swim meet, and some young track stars running hurdles. Our last images of the day were going to be about kids who participate in Little League Baseball.

Our location scout had found a great ballpark and locked down the location. Our casting person had pieced together a small team of young men who play baseball and outfitted them. We set up to shoot in the late afternoon and we were contending with a lot of wind and a lot of dust. Apparently, there were dust storms in west Texas but we hadn't heard about them yet. The nice thing about the approaching storms was the way the dust diffused the sunlight and gave me a very interesting (and compelling) light to work with. 

We were finally set and had a shot blocked out. One of our super stars would be sliding into home plate as our catcher tried to tag him out. The temperature hovered in the low 100's and we were moving fast to get our shots before the sun moved out of its perfect position. I had a 110mm f2.0 Planar on my tripod-mounted camera and I shot off about half a roll of 220 color transparency film when the camera and lens just locked up. The client sensed something had "gone south" and came over to see what was wrong. I didn't feel like trying to perform field surgery with the special tool so I reached into our equipment case and pulled out a second, identical body and stuck on a similar lens; the 120mm Makro Planar. We picked up right where we left off and started working on different angles and different actions.

And then the second (almost brand new) body locked up and I started getting nervous. What were the odds? I Grabbed the third body and put the 80mm lens on the front. I figured that with the bigger transparency we could crop in and still get a nice angle of view, even though the lens was slightly wider than I would have liked. We were able to get through the rest of the project and finished with our last shots just as the sun started to set and we started to run out of light.

Since  I was 70 miles from home and had a crew and cast of nearly 16 along with me I was deliriously happy I happened to have the third body with me. The cost of not having it would have been multiples of the one time purchasing price. The client was pretty impressed too. It was an agency I still work with. 

It was a weird event and it never happened again. The repair service cleaned out the bodies (too much coarse dust) and we shot with those same cameras for years afterward. But it was a good lesson.

Of course many readers might be tempted to think that my misfortune could be tied to the fact that these were mostly mechanical cameras with lots of moving parts and tight tolerances, and I can give you that. But...

I remember when the Fuji S3 digital camera was a popular workhorse camera of the early digital days. I bought two of those as well. They both worked perfectly for months. Then I was up in a helicopter shooting luxury properties at Lake Travis when the screen on the back of my shooting camera started flashing an error message. "Card Not Readable." or something like that. Maybe it was, "Card Error." 

I popped the card out and replaced with with a different one. It gave me the same error message after three exposures. I pulled the lens off the offending camera and put it on my back up camera and put a fresh card into that camera and formatted it. We got through that shoot thanks to the back up camera. And it's a good thing we did because the helicopter my client rented was a Bell Jet Ranger and back in the early part of this century the hourly retail rate was around $650. 

"Ah." You might say, "That was a Fuji "Frankenstein" camera. Not the solid technology you would expect from Nikon or Canon!"  Had I been using a real pro camera I might not have had those problems, right? Well that brings me to the Nikon D2X. A camera that I really loved. A camera that I bought to replace the Fujis after a few more card disasters. I'd purchased a D200 and wanted the D2X as it had a few more megapixels and also had a reputation for uncanny sharpness and resolution, so I splashed out $ 5400 and got one. It worked for a week and a half before the shutter stopped working ( purchase new from a Nikon USA dealer) and it had to be sent back to the manufacturer. Seems that there was a "known" early shutter problem and a few subsequent recalls. 

I circled back to the D200 and used a D80 as a basic back-up camera until the D200 developed  non-linear, front and back focusing problems with all of my Nikon lenses. I found this out on an event location when I tested and evaluated images the night before the opening of a 2500 person conference in Orlando. Off went the D200 (which, incidentally, could never be repaired correctly) and I rushed out to a local camera store and bought second D80 to back up the first one. (I guess it would be perceived as "piling on" to mention the three different recalls for my recent Nikon D750...hmmmm). 

I'll close by saying that even the best camera in the world failed me once. It was a Leica M3. Outfitted with a dual range, 50mm Summicron lens. It had just been overhauled by a Leica certified technician and I took it on a romantic trip to Paris as my only camera. On our second day in the city, standing in front of some magnificent example of architecture, the camera locked up and would not wind. With two weeks of vacation in front of us I sighed, pulled a credit card out of my wallet and went looking for a camera store... Time and opportunity lost, not to mention yet another mostly unnecessary camera purchase. 

So, when someone says they don't need a back up camera I'll just assume that they don't do this photography stuff for money or for clients with real content needs and real deadlines. Because my experience tells me they are heading for a fall. Not just by a camera failing on its own but also failure due to drop damage, drip damage, or my favorite = the time an assistant stuck her finger through a fragile shutter curtain. The spilled coffee, the unlatched case, the fast sprinting hit-and-run thief, etc. etc. 

Even though we were shooting in the studio yesterday I prepped two cameras. One to actually do the job with, the other just in case. If you are serious about providing good service you should be serious about having gear you can use if your main camera does a swan dive. You don't have to be two identical Phase One 100 megapixel cameras but your back up should be able, at the minimum, to give your client useable files for the project at hand. Even if that second body has to be rented for the job. 

Get a back up. A decent back up body is less than the charge for one day's work at most people's fees. Seems like good insurance to me; clients are hard enough to find and please...



Going close and deep with the Rokinon 100mm f2.8 macro.



I've been photographing for a high technology healthcare client this week. They make things like CPU controlled joints and prosthetics. We were shooting against a white background and all the products will be clipped and have the backgrounds dropped out. The client likes big files and I like sharp files. I used the Sony A7Rii and a fairly recent lens purchase, the Rokinon 100mm f2.8 Macro.

The lens is physically large but not too heavy. It comes with a very deep lens hood (and I use lens hoods all the time) and seems to be very, very well made. The model I am using is an FE Sony mount so I'm not using an adapter.

There are many lenses I use where I am happy to auto focus and might thing twice about buying a model that "only" features manual focusing but in studio macro work this is not one of those lenses. The need to place focus very accurately means the lenses we use for close up work in the studio should be manual focus lenses.

When I use this lens in the studio I am generally collaborating with an art director and so need to share the preview image and the review image on a big enough monitor so we can both see the images and evaluate them. While many photographers like shooting tethered to their computers I prefer a smaller monitor that I can use right next to the camera as we move it around the studio. I also prefer to have the images written to the in camera card instead of to the hard drive of a laptop. I use a small, battery powered, Marshall field monitor for preview and review purposes.


While I have spent time and energy calibrating the monitor we don't rely on it for color judgements, I prefer to make a custom white balance, shoot raw and fine tune the resulting colors in post production. The highly portable monitor is a great tool on the set since the HDMI connection gives me live view imaging on a bigger screen throughout the shooting process. It is easier to see sharp focus that evaluating for focus on the camera screen and it also shows focus peaking and zebras generated by the camera. When attaching the monitor to the camera the camera screen and EVF turn off. This adds much more life to the camera battery. We were able to work with the camera on continuously from 9:30 am, yesterday morning, until nearly 1:30 pm  before we changed camera batteries. I think four hours of run time is great, considering the compact size of the Sony batteries.

Circling back to the lens itself I have to say that it is a very good option. I've used it now on a number of industrial shoots like this one and find it to be sharp across the frame by f4.0 and able to go head to head with any Leica or Zeiss lens I used in the past for macro work. Keep in mind though that the Zeiss and Leica lenses I am referencing all were designed and manufactured back in the film era and so, I am sure, there are newer versions that may be even sharper than the Rokinon. 

One aspect of shooting close in is always working with depth of field. There's never enough. At least I think there is never enough. I needed to get enough DOF to keep all parts of the products I was shooting in focus and even though I am very aware of the theoretical sharpness robbing effects of diffraction from stopping down too far I pushed my envelope of technical prejudice and worked with f-stops starting at f11 and going all the way down to f22. 

When I examined the files this morning at 100 % I was happy to see that the images were still more than adequately sharp, even at f22. I have not tried shooting at f32 as I think of that stop as a "hail Mary" stop. Put there when nothing else but DOF matters. 

The art director and I worked with five SMD LED lights which gave us the ability to see, in real time, what we were getting. The lights were bright enough to make fine focusing easy and the ability to punch in and magnify the preview image all the way up to 25 times was wonderful. That magnification would be useless if you tried to use it while handholding but with a heavy duty tripod it becomes much more practical. At 25x we focused on the grain of metal machining. It was a perfect target. 

So, three things have changed since I first started doing fine and close product photography back in the film days. First, we've switched from flash to continuous lighting which makes the process of photographing much less iterative and much more immersive. It also allows me to select and aperture and fine tune exposure via shutter speed (unlike flash which allows control mostly through aperture and ISO). Second, the use of a very portable, battery powered monitor with a much bigger screen (compared to the camera) allows the process to be quicker where collaboration is involved. The art director and I can easily share the monitor and position it on the fly. Finally, using an "all live view" camera along with a well calibrated monitor means we are shooting with a live histogram and lots of good feedback. Once we nail the look and feel of a shot on our monitor we are able to shoot a couple of frames and move on where, in the past, we would have bracketed exposures or moved them to the big computer to evaluate. 

As good as the lens is and as fast as the shooting process has become the choke point is always the lighting. Not every object fits into cookie cutter lighting templates. Yesterday we had curved products, built from carbon fiber that had a highly glossy finish. It was a lighting challenge that took an hour, in some instances, to solve. As good as cameras are the bottom line is that lighting still drives the need for experience and expertise as well as understanding all the fundamentals of lighting science. My copy of the book, Light, Science and Magic never gathers dust. And no matter how many things you've lit Murphy's Law ensures that there is always something out there to stump you. 

Final thought: The 100mm f2.8 Rokinon Macro is a great lens for a price of around $550. I look forward to spending some time shooting portraits with it in order to understand its strengths and weaknesses as a portrait lens. For now, I am happy that it's a great tool for traditional, industrial close up work.