12.14.2017

Sometimes we know what a job will entail. Sometimes we just wing it. But if you are going to "wing it" you might as well come prepared.

A view looking straight up. A ceiling detail from the 
Alexander Palace in Pushkin, Russia.
Camera: Hasselblad Superwide.

I didn't think I needed the Hasselblad SWC/M (the Superwide camera with the fixed 38mm Zeiss Biogon lens) for my assignment in Russia many years ago but my friend, Paul, insisted I take one along, so I did. It turns out that the fixed lens camera was useful for just about every situation. Many times, just like a cinematographer, I'd want a wide, establishing shot to go along with all the detail documentations I was doing for the Worlds Monument Fund. During the course of a couple weeks on the ground there I probably put 40 or 50 rolls of film through that camera. (zone focus only, frames hand cranked, twelve on a roll. No automatic modes, no built in meter, no raw file butt saving in raw).

Before I left on this particular mid-winter trip I did a bunch of research. I researched the weather and eventually bought the U.S. Army Ranger's book on cold weather survival; along with lots of layers of Polartec and down. I took to heart the three main pieces of advice: 1. You can't do your job if you are physically compromised. 2. If you keep your feet warm everything will follow from there. 3. Don't get wet, and if you do get wet get dry ASAP! I still have the insulated, Vasque hiking boots and a box full of wool socks.

The other bit of research I did was about

12.13.2017

Living in the present. Just getting the job done. Moving toward the holidays and thinking about what worked this year and what didn't.



It's 5:05 in the afternoon and I'm sitting at my desk, sometimes glancing out the window at the end of a gray and chilly day. I've got a bag of grocery store popcorn propped up in my left hand desk drawer for easy access and, when I look across the office, strewn with bits and pieces of photo gear arranged in a chaotic collage on the floor, I see three little green lights telling me that the lithium batteries for the three Vision 4 monolights I used in this morning's portrait shoots have recycled and are ready and waiting for the two shoots we have booked for tomorrow afternoon. 

Over by the equipment case there are four more little green light arrays telling me we've almost topped up the lithium batteries for the Godox flashes that will illuminate the white background that's on the assignment schedule.

I've spent the last few hours editing down the take from this morning. After a night of mostly illusive sleep (thanks to a big possum and a territorial Studio Dog) I was up this morning before the rest of the creative population brewing coffee and making a breakfast taco with scrambled eggs, sausage and cheese. At 7:15 I pulled on a jacket and walked into the studio to grab the gear I packed last night and load it into the car. Once again I cursed the bane of working on

12.09.2017

Which camera have I enjoyed using the most in 2017? That's easy...

 Panasonic's cute, cuddly and capable G85.

There are some cameras that are extremely capable but aren't much fun to shoot and then there are cameras that just beg you to keep their strap over your shoulder and take them everywhere. They are like a perfect traveling companion; unassuming, quiet (especially the shutter), compliant, collaborative and easy to get along with. Over the many years in which I have plied my trade as a professional photographer, and have satisfied my yearnings as a devout and committed hobbyist, I've owned plenty of both kinds of camera. 

I put up with five pounds of the Kodak DCS 760, and it's voracious appetite for batteries, only because it was capable (within a tight operational window) of producing some of the absolute best images of its day. I put up with all the foibles of the Nikon D2x for much the same reason.

Over the years digital cameras have become operationally better but there is still some combination of handling characteristics, design decisions on the part of their creators, and their innate affability that makes certain cameras gloriously fun and effortless to enjoy. The Leica M3 is one. The Nikon FM is another. What Nikon user didn't like the F100? How about the Canon 7D? Or the Olympus OMD EM-1? All cameras that bring a smile to the face of most users. All cameras that make the pursuit of photographs a bit more fun.

And then there are all the cameras whose files were technically perfect but

12.07.2017

Timing can be important for swimming...

The Rollingwood Pool in the middle of Summer.

It's so easy to do easy stuff. It's easy to swim in a pool filled with nice, warm water. Even easier to swim in a nice, warm pool when it's sunny and warm outdoors. But then there are those days that push you right up to the point of defeat. Days that test your discipline. Days that make you want to stay at home and eat cookies and drink coffee and sit on the couch, wrapped up in a blanket, and watch movies on Netflix. Those are the days when the temperatures drop into the upper 30's and your comfortable, heated pool is closed (for months now) for repairs and your best swimming option is the 69 degree water at the (outdoor, unheated) Deep Eddy Pool. 

Today was just such a day. I started out slow, drinking a perfect cup of Illy coffee (thank you! most generous reader, Michael Matthews!!!) and reading the typically depressing news on the laptop that sometimes lounges at my end of the dining room table. Studio Dog was sitting next to my chair and looked a bit cold so I tossed my old, worn down jacket on the floor and she curled into it with a smile on her perfect face. 

I put off swimming as long as I could today, I even went to the Blanton Museum to see the new show. (See previous posts). At some point I realized that left to the tyranny of my subconscious I would skip the swim altogether and rationalize it all away. In my brain's defense, it may drop into the high 30's, midday, in your neck of the woods but it rarely does in our little corner of Texas. The wind was whipping a cold, steady rain around in a sadistic, staccato pattern and leaves were falling all over the place. The sky was steely gray. Everything was working against my resolve.

Then I remembered that my friend, Emmett, had asked about swimming today and, in a fit of hubris, I had assured him (days ago) that I'd be at the pool and ready to swim promptly at 2 pm. Now, when I promised this the sun was shining, the birds chirping and the cute young people were in shorts and t-shirts taking advantage of the mid-80 degree day. But, a scheduled swim is somewhat sacred so I grabbed my stuff and headed off to the car.

I looked back over my shoulder to see Studio Dog in her down bed by the front door just shaking her head....

When I got to the pool the person at the front desk (an open air front desk....) was in a big, fluffy jacket and also had a blanket wrapped around himself. He smiled and said that the water was great. I should have known it was a lie.

I walked into the open courtyard that is the men's changing area (open to the top but not on the sides....modestly. I mean we're swimmers for God's sake, not politicians or actors...) and changed quickly into a Speedo Endurance Jammer suit, grabbed my goggles and (slightly) insulated swim cap, wrapped myself up in a towel, stuck my already freezing feet into a pair of Croc's for the long hike down the stairs to the water, and headed out.

There is a moment, when your teeth are chattering, your large muscles are involuntarily shivering, and you can feel the icy wind cut through your thin towel, that you pause and think, "OMG, what the hell was I thinking?" Maybe you look around, through  your cloudy old goggles, to see if anyone actually saw you come down to the pool edge. Maybe, you think, it's not too late to retreat. But then you realize that if you back away this time it will be harder the next time and you may be triggering a series of surrenders that will haunt you, and make you fat and lazy. 

So, I tossed my towel onto the stone wall five feet from the pool, slipped off the Crocs and crept to the absolute edge. It's the moment of truth. I stop thinking. I take a deep breath and commit. The cold water instantly hits every square inch of your once warm body and you know you better start swimming before your resolve (and the heat of your inner core) give out. I lunge into the water and start swimming. Each lap gets a little less .... uncomfortable. And then you pass a certain point (at about the half mile mark) where you are actually warmed up and enjoying the feel of the water, the swim, the adjacency to the weather, and the way in which you feel strong and invincible. Unbeaten.

If I'm lucky that feeling stays with me through the next mile and a half. By that time I've swum for about an hour and I'm starting to think of other things I need to be doing. But now I don't want to stop because I know I'll have to get out, dripping wet, and make my way down the walk way to the long flight of stairs as the wind whips at me like practical joker snapping a towel at swim practice. 

But if you stay in the cold water too long then hypothermia kicks in and that requires many cups of coffee to cure.

I look with scorn at the ladder and pull myself up onto the deck. It's a mark of shame in our family to put a knee down on the deck when exiting the pool so you have to save just enough energy to pull yourself all the way up on the edge and into a standing position while looking as graceful as you can. I manage it once again. By the skin of my teeth.

I make it up to the locker room when I remember that Emmett never showed. So much for the sacred nature of scheduled swims...

As I walk to the car carrying my wet towel and suit I notice the first snowflake flutter down and melt on the asphalt and I smile. I got that swim in just in time.

 Winter in Paris. 1994.


The Pared Down Video Rig. For those times when you must work hand held and want to travel light.


I recently worked on a project (as a second shooter and equipment renter) with a good friend who is a veteran videographer. While the project had one component that called for a three camera, two subject interview, with all three cameras on tripods and everything well lit, the rest of the project was classic reportage. We were tossed into unfamiliar interior and exterior locations and tasked with shooting unscripted documentations of diverse groups of people, along with on-the-spot, unrehearsed  interviews with people we were pulling from the locations.

It's one thing to shoot video when you have time to meticulously treat a room for good audio, and when you can spend a couple hours pre-lighting for an interview situation in a conference room, but it's a whole other thing to work on a windy day outdoors with difficult subjects (as well as people (non-subjects) in the vicinity who could have been dangerous and were very vocal about their distaste for any and all media presence) as the sun comes in and out of the clouds.

For me it was a two day crash course in how to most efficiently and effectively use a Panasonic GH5 as an ENG (electronic news gathering) camera.

Here's the rig (photo above) I've distilled down from my experience and the feedback of my boss, the director and producer (who was also shooting exclusively with a GH5...instead of his more familiar Sony FS-7).

The main thing is to work to the camera's strengths. This camera (GH5) does a couple of things really well. It's got great image stabilization (otherwise there's no way we could have gotten the smooth footage we did without tripods....). While it's very good at stabilizing the video image with any lens on the front it's even better with a Panasonic dual system AF lens on it. We used an Olympus 12-100mm on one camera and the inexpensive Panasonic 12-60mm  3.5-5.6 lens on the other camera. Both systems worked very well but the native Panasonic lens, in conjunction with the video stabilization in-body, was almost like using a perfectly balanced gimbal system.

I'm happy working with the Olympus Pro lens because I like how sharp it is, how much range it has and how easy it is to switch to, and use, manual focusing. If you are working in uncontrolled and quickly changing environments a lens that goes from the 35mm equivalent of 24mm to 200mm is great to have. In most situations I just didn't see how I would have had the time to change from one prime lens to a different prime lens...and still gotten some of the fast breaking opportunities.

The way I used the camera and lens combination most effectively (as far as focusing goes) is to turn off the "continuous AF" in the movie menu and to put the external camera switch setting at S-AF. I would line up a shot and then do a half push on the shutter button to get the camera swiftly lock in focus. Once I got the "in focus" confirmation light I could either push the shutter button all the way down or take my finger off the shutter button altogether and start the video recording by pushing the red, dedicated video button. Focusing was never an issue on this project. In S-AF, with center points selected, the AF just snapped into play and locked on in 100% of the situations I encountered.

Another strength of the GH5 is its small profile vis-a-vis a traditional professional video camera. We chose not to couple the cameras to Atomos external monitors/recorders (even though we did bring them along with us in the cars...) in order to keep the overall profile of the camera systems as non-intimidating as possible.

But losing the big monitors doesn't create much pain with the GH5s. The things you need in order to operate are still there: A perfect EVF and a full complement of video meters --- vector scope, waveform meter, histogram, audio level meters, etc. If we were working without the need to capture sound, as one might when trying to get b-roll for a project, we could have done without the audio adapter and the cage, but....

...the audio adapter is a low cost, high quality way to get professional sound into the camera. It's light and fairly low profile while providing clean pre-amps for professional microphones. My camera is set up with the adapter cabled to an Aputure Diety short shotgun microphone. The only thing missing from the photo above is a set of closed back headphones I use to monitor sound. With the switch of a cable I could have the microphone on a boom pole in less than a minute. Very versatile.

The final strength of the GH5 is its ability to shoot very, very clean 4K video into the camera at high bit and overall data rates. The stuff we ended up with was incredibly detailed and, using hand-tuned profiles, it was easy to color grade and match, camera to camera, in post.

Take the rig off the tripod, add a cool looking side grip to the left of the camera and you are ready to head onto the street, into a remote location, and have a chance at coming back with good material. In most instances I felt that I was the limiting factor. That's the way it should be..

Christmas Comes Early for Austin Photographers, Art Lovers and Photo Enthusiasts. It's the New Show at the Blanton Museum: "The Open Road. Photography and the American Road Trip."


I've been waiting for a free morning to go over to the Blanton Museum and see the new show they hung in the big, downstairs gallery spaces. It was worth the wait!!! If you love the work of Robert Frank, Garry Winograd, Lee Friedlander, Eli Reed, Ryan McGinley, Ed Ruscha, William Eggleston and many more working art photographers, you will absolutely love this show. It's a fabulous assemblage of images (and curation) that more or less explains the theory and raison d'ĂȘtre of what we are now more or less calling "Street Photography." 

If you live within a hundred miles of Austin then get in that giant Chevy Suburban, enormous dually pick-up truck or on your carbon fiber Bianchi Oltre XR2 bicycle and get in here. The work is beautifully displayed and, in the Texas tradition of wide open spaces the gallery is uncrowded; the work is given space to breathe.

I love the idea of "The American Road Trip" and actually was approached to do a book about road trips and photography in 2010. The project fell apart in a bizarre series of very one sided negotiations with a giant publisher but that did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for the wider subject matter.

There were a number of pieces in this show by rather famous photographers that, in seeing them in person and writ large, changed my mind (to a more positive appreciation) about several represented artists who worked in color in the last century. I can now understand their work better for having seen it as it was intended to be viewed.

Toss that old Leica M3 over your shoulder and head over to see the show. Remember that Thursdays are free and, if you are much older than me, you will be entitled to a senior discount on all the other days. 

Wow, a chance to see beautifully done, large prints by great artists/photographers rather than just another opportunity to pontificate about tiny, compressed Jpegs on the web. Who would have thought it?










12.06.2017

A quick and anecdotal note about choosing mirrorless cameras or DSLR cameras. What do the people who sell them buy?

Image from this year's Eeyore's Birthday Party in Austin, Texas

I was at our local community college for an advisory board meeting today at which we discussed the state of photographic education as it relates to our school. We looked at short term plans, the architectural drawings for a vast new studio complex that will open to students and faculty in two years, and much more. The photo program is one of the biggest and best in the country for two year associate degrees, it's well funded and well equipped. They've been at the forefront of the technology side in photographic educations for quite a while... but still also teach traditional photographic techniques and even printmaking.

As part of our annual meeting we advisors also pull out our crystal balls and try to predict the future, based on current trends. The overall consensus is that the market for photographers, both commercially and direct to consumers, is improving and that in the future the photographers who will be most successful, financially, will be the ones who are able to incorporate video, motion graphics and graphic design into their business offerings. No miraculous insight there; we've been saying that in the blog since 2010. 

After we covered all the agenda items we moved on to lunch and a less structured and more social give and take. 

The subject of camera technology came up and we looked to our fellow advisory board member, the professional representative from the biggest camera store between Los Angeles and New York City. We were curious what trends he is now seeing in the retail sector vis-a-vis camera sales. More specifically, what's selling now and which market segment is doing better: DSLRs or Mirrorless (or, as I say, "mirror-free")?

He smiled and said, "This should sum it up for you. We have 14 sales associates who work the counters at the store. Of the 14 there are 13 who have gotten rid of other systems in order to move totally to mirrorless camera offerings. There's one person left who still shoots with a DSLR."

So, the take away from this small discussion was pretty straightforward. The people whose full time jobs are to counsel and sell cameras to the general public are themselves strong proponents of the newer technology. Or at least 13 out of 14. 

It's interesting to hear this point of view since what we see on the big sites is a stalwart defense of the traditional camera companies and a minimization of the obvious shift in the markets. 

Discuss?


Pondering the utility of very fast lenses for formal portraits. Hmmm.


Photographed with a Nikon 105mm f2.0 DC lens on a Kodak DCS 760 C camera. 
Early days of digital. 

I'm in love with the idea of using very fast short telephoto lenses to make portraits but I'm a bit conflicted right now about their ultimate utility for more routine, commercial headshots. 

I think it's safe to say that a lot of people love the look of a portrait where the eyes and lips are rendered sharply but the depth of field is so narrow that the background, and indeed, and even parts of the subject just seem to melt way into a fascinating blur.  It's a style that gets a lot of play across the media landscape. 

The easiest way to get the look is to use a longer lens than "normal" and to keep the camera-to-subject distance relatively close. (Not too close or you risk distortion...). The final step is to use the lens as close to its biggest aperture as possible. 

I'll be honest, it's a look I like in a lot of portrait work but I've always had a bit of an issue getting the look just right while using flash. One of the reasons I headed into using so much continuous light over the years, and so often, was to have the ability to dial in just the right f-stop with the easy and nearly endless combination of f-stops and shutter speeds that continuous light sources enable. When I set up studio flash shots I was limited in how wide an aperture I could use by the minimum power setting available in studio flash units,  the intensity of unwanted ambient light, or the limitations of using fast shutter speeds (with focal plane shutters) for flash sync. 

Working at f1.2 or 1.4 with flash just seemed to be a big hassle. Especially when the warm light from my modeling lights polluted the clean, daylight balanced light of the flash. If I turned off the modeling lights then focusing became problematic (yes, even with DSLRs....).

With newer flashes and high FP flash I can work with wider apertures and flash easier now than in the past but I still find it a bit daunting. 

Which brings me to the point of this post: Are fast aperture lenses wasted when doing flash lit portraits? 
I still find that if I use low ISOs and higher shutter speeds I still get alternative light contamination from windows, the modeling lights and the practical lights on the location. The only way around it is to block light sources with black curtains and to dim modeling lights after fine focusing. It's all a pain in the butt compared to shooting with LEDs or even tungsten lights. 

In most situations I'm not interested in using available light to make commercial portraits because most of the light I find just hanging around in modern offices comes from the ceiling and is a mix of "can" lights with compact florescent bulbs mixed with traditional "in the ceiling" fluorescent fixtures. The colors rarely match and in most situations there's also an incursion of blue daylight coming in to make things more interesting (and less controllable). 

But the whole reason to light someone is to sculpt the light and bring dimension to their face. It's also a great way to eliminate all other conflicting light sources. 

In a controlled environment I can choose a high enough shutter speed to kill most non-photographer supplied light sources but if I want to shoot at f1.2 I might need shutter speeds at around 1/250th, even at ISO 100. I guess it's time for me to go through this whole learning cycle one more time....especially now that electronic flashes have gotten so much more flexible and controllable. And now that modeling lights (more and more often) are LEDs that are daylight balanced. And especially now when Olympus and Panasonic are offering lenses with fast apertures that are actually very sharp even when used wide open. 

After doing this for so long it's kind of humbling to go back and re-learn again and again, but that's the nature of the game. 

If you have any secret tricks for shooting portraits with super wide open lenses and electronic flash I really wish you would share them with me. I'll try them out. Anything to keep the work from looking stale.



12.05.2017

A VSL reader asked how I adapted a 50mm Carl Zeiss lens to my Panasonic G85. A quick explanation.


The Contax 50mm f1.7 Planar, made for the Contax Y/C manual focus mount is widely regarded as a stellar normal lens for full frame, 35mm format cameras. I bought a copy over a year ago and used it frequently on a Sony A7Rii, a Sony A7ii and a Sony A6300, all with great results. While I recently dumped the Sony cameras I was not foolish enough to get rid of the little collection of Contax Y/C lenses I've acquired.

Shortly after taking delivery of the twin GH5s I ordered a Fotodiox branded Contax Y/C to micro four thirds lens adapter. It cost me about $20 and allows me to use the 50mm f1.7 lens on any micro four thirds camera.  This is a great thing but comes with several caveats. First, I have no real way of knowing just how precise and absolutely planar the mount might be. I am taking a leap of faith that this sort of machining should be child's play in an age of unprecedented precision. I taped up the graph paper on the wall and lined up the camera as well as I could and tried to look for softness in one corner or another. Nothing leapt out at me as horrifyingly out of whack.

The second thing you need to be aware of is that for $20 you are NOT getting a Metabones smart adapter, you are getting a totally dumb adapter. This means that the camera can't record any metadata for the lens you have attached, won't know the focal length, won't know the aperture at which you are using the lens and ----- absolutely won't autofocus the lens for you.

Most of these things don't matter to me but may be very, very important to you.

On some cameras you'll need to dive into

A quick and positive observation about Adobe Lightroom's handling of Panasonic GH5 raw files.

Audio Accessory of the Year. With its attendant camera...

I was photographing for a client yesterday, a law firm in downtown Austin, and we were shooting people images for their website re-design. One of the partners who is taking the lead on the project asked me to shoot all of the portraits (both set up and candid) as squares. I was more than happy to accommodate his request but I was preparing myself for the usual task of re-cropping the images in post production. 

With past camera systems having the ability to crop square in the finder meant that your Jpegs opened up in your post processing program as genuine squares but the raw files opened "full gate" and had little lines to indicate the square crops that you thought you wanted. This meant that each raw file had to be handled and cropped individually. 

Imagine my surprise when I ingested 525 Panasonic raw files into the latest rev of Lightroom and watched as the program wrote previews as squares; just as I'd shot them. The raw files could be changed into "full gate" files but the default was ready to go squares just as

12.03.2017

Winding down the year. Kirk's pick for his favorite lens(es) of the year.


There are two lenses that have been stand out lenses for me this year. Since I am bringing these two lenses to your attention I should point out that my embrace of them, in this calendar year, does not mean they were both introduced this year. One is relatively new while the other has been around, and earning great praise, for several years now.

No reason to belabor this; the two lenses are the Olympus Pro series 12-100mm f4.0 and the Olympus Pro series 40-150mm f2.8. Both are big, heavy (for their format) zoom lenses and both share a number of attributes. The primary benefit of both is sheer image quality. It's visible (at least to me...) when compared to every day lenses in either the Panasonic or Olympus systems. Both of these gems are sharp, detailed and nuanced. They represent a high water mark, as far as image quality is concerned, for micro four thirds system zoom lenses. 

Both lenses share a mechanical clutch system that supplies real manual focusing instead of the usual, fly-by-wire system. This means that one can pre-focus with assurance, rack focus in video with repeatable results and even shift from focus point to focus point by hand with repeatable results. That's a wonderful thing and a major reason that I also have the 45mm and 17mm counterparts stuck in my head (and in my shopping cart). 

I have shot at least 10,000 images with each lens and I've found the results to be limited only by my own skill set. When I apply appropriate technique; taking time to focus with diligence and to put the camera and lens systems on tripods, I get results that I would not have imagined. This should not really come as a surprise to me as a careful reading of posts from long ago would indicate that Olympus has been making masterful lenses for smaller sensor cameras for a long time. Back in the era when Olympus made Four Thirds cameras (they had mirrors and a different lens mount than their current cameras) they made a Pro series of lenses that included stuff like a 150mm f2.0, a 35-100mm f2.0 and a 14-35mm f2.0 that were (and still are) all spectacular. Sadly, the sensors of the day were not up to showing off the sheer potential of those lenses. If anything, the current lenses are even better.

I'll start with the first Pro Olympus lens I bought this year. It was the 12-100mm f4.0. I bought it hoping to cover the range of useful optics for my work with one solution. I worried that such a wide ranging zoom might not be up to the task of making technically good images across its vast focal range but my worries were unfounded. I use this lens when doing hand held video with the Panasonic GH5, I use it when shooting product and people against white (because of its range AND it's resistance to obvious flare and veiling flare. I use it for event work combined with on camera flash; and I even use it for general street shooting. In most capacities I use it at its widest (f4.0) aperture because it's proven itself to be sharp even when used wide open and, at its widest f-stop it's the equivalent depth of field that one would get on a full frame 24-200mm lens at f8.0 for each angle of view. Perhaps not the best tool for dropping backgrounds quickly out of focus but certainly great for making sure everything that needs to be sharp in a frame stays within the system's depth of field.

When I shoot stuff that needs to be perfect (or as perfect as any photo can be) I stop down to f5.6 or 6.3 or 7.1 to achieve the absolute best of which the lens is capable. It's a dandy process and has delivered results in all kinds of conditions.

Speaking of conditions, both of the zooms I'm discussing are water/weather resistant. While I don't spend a lot of time shooting in the rain I do end up far from the car, shooting location stuff for clients, and sometimes get caught without a rain cover handy. I've been caught out in the rain with this lens (attached to a GH5) twice now and have found no ill effects from the exposure. 

From lens cap to lens hood and all the way down to the other end of the lens barrel I can testify that this is a remarkably able and handy lens and isn't really big or heavy at all when compared to lenses made for larger formats.

The second lens is the Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 Pro. It's a lens about which I have nothing at all bad to say. It's sharp at every distance and every focal length at which I've employed it. But it goes beyond sharp into intricately detailed. When I put the lens on a tripod (with its integrated tripod mount) and take portraits using a large soft box and electronic flash, I get a level of detail that rivals that of any camera in and around its resolution (in the range of 18-24 megapixels). While neither lens is cheap both are well built and solid. 

I've used the 40-150mm at its wider end (40-60mm) for a number of portraits and have used the longer end (100-150mm) for much documentation of live theater productions and in each situation I've have gotten better files than I expected. The lens is satisfyingly sharp wide open. Becomes close to perfect by f5.6 and rewards me with better files than I imagine my talent should supply. 

If I could have only one lens to shoot with for all of my assignments it would be the 12-100mm for its wide range and high degree of performance. If I were unconstrained by commerce and wanted only one lens with which to do my own art it might be the 40-150mm. I say might because I also have a long love for the "normal" focal length; the 50mm for full frame or the 25mm for micro four thirds and I have not yet worked with the 25mm f1.2 Pro lens from Olympus.

Had I gone in a different direction I might have chosen to pair a different lens with the 40-150mm. I might have selected the 12-40mm Olympus Pro but it would be hard to give up the range and proven performance of the 12-100mm for the potential benefit of one additional stop of speed and the need to always carry two different lenses instead of being able to pack down to just one camera body and lens and still feel secure in knowing I have most working situations covered. 

Everyone comes to this craft with different need parameters. Many times these parameters are based on one's shooting history. The need for flexibility is ingrained in commercial shooters of a certain level, hence zooms feel like the right answer. 

If I were doing photography specifically for myself and no one else I'd love to take the bold move of packing just two lenses and making due with the 17mm f1.2 Pro and the 45mm f1.2 Pro lenses. Along with two identical bodies, those two would make a wonderful package for an artist. 

I know myself really well though. I would quickly succumb to the siren's song of the 25mm f1.2 Pro as well. Something about that focal length just makes perfect visual sense... But if I was shooting just for me I might want to pair all these optics with the Olympus OMD EM1.2. Logic insists that they are "optimized" for their own flagship camera. That being said, the GH5 is the perfect compromise for someone like me; trying to straddle two different imaging industries....

Camera and lens selection is almost always a moving target. I am thankful I've found two lenses that alleviate so much of my indecision and mental turmoil...

By the way, neither of these two images are from either of the lenses mentioned here. They are both from another lens that's one of my favorites; the 42.5mm f1.7 Panasonic lens. Amazing for its size and price. I often, irrationally, think of picking up and extra one, just because....






12.01.2017

Price Drop+ New Project Inspires the Purchase of a Third Neewer Vision 4, Battery Powered Monolight.


Neewer Vision 4 Mono Light.

Several months ago I decided to get rid of an accumulation of Profoto, Elinchrom and Photogenic electronic flashes. I sold them off or traded them away for interesting but unrelated things and I was happy to see a hodgepodge of reflectors, speedrings and other geegaws exit the limited space of the studio. 

On a lark I bought a Neewer Vision 4 mono light that I saw and read about on Amazon.com. The ad copy said the light was designed and "engineered" in Germany, that it was totally powered by a large, lithium ion battery, and that it was capable of putting out 300 watt seconds of flash power 700 times in a row. On one charge. At $259 it sounded unbelievable. I bought one.

I used it several times to create some ads (with subject motion frozen) for Zach Theatre, using it along with some other, smaller, battery powered lights. I found the Neewer to be reliable and to put out a nice quality of light. I was still amazed that one could get that kind of power and flexibility for the price; especially after having purchased 30 years worth of Elinchrom and Profoto gear....

I got used to using the flash for a number of different projects (mostly on white backgrounds) and when I saw the same unit listed in mid-November, on Amazon, I noticed a price drop to $229 so I bought a second unit, along with a couple of speed rings and a collapsible 47 inch Octobank (Phottix). I've used the two lights as the main and secondary lights for even more projects since. 

Earlier this week I was looking for something I'd bought in my previous orders on Amazon (love the transaction records!) that I had sent to Ben at school (Illy coffee) and stumbled across the information about my purchase of the second light, along with a notice that the price per unit had now dropped to $199.00. I noted this and filed it away in the avaricious/acquisitive area of my brain. Later in the week I had a pre-production phone call about a confirmed photoshoot in which we'd need to freeze action of a person running, a person jumping through a banner and a person jumping and striking poses with the aid of a mini-trampoline. This was followed by a call from a law firm which wants to shoot a series of partner portraits outdoors. 

When I got off the second call I decided that it would be nice to have a third mono light with a high flash capacity and fast recycle times (instead of relying mostly on smaller, double A powered flashes) so I bought it one more time. At $199.00 it's a crazy bargain for me. It comes with a Bowen's mount reflector, a diffuser sock for the reflector, and a wireless remote trigger (which means I will now have two "back-up" remotes --- oh joy!).  It should be here early next week and I've already made a space for it in my Manfrotto flash case (wheeled for my hauling pleasure). 

As I stated previously (sorry you can't look up that review....), the only thing that vexes me about this product is the 30 to 45 second on time for the (LED) modeling light... But for the price it's still a screaming bargain in my estimation. 

Sometimes you use LED panels and sometimes you use electronic flash. All depends on your need to freeze motion in a photography for a particular collection of projects. Funny thing, looking back at the time in which I was shooting mostly with Profoto, I have spent more money on a single reflector from that Swedish company than the cost of this complete and ready-to-use flash unit. That certainly puts the cost into perspective for me...Bargain!

If you want one the $199 price sure beats the $259 price. Here's a link:




flash with included remote. The stand adapter doubles as a hand grip so you can 
have your tall assistant act as a human light stand; if necessary....



Chair Stacking on Second St.


This must be the work of that chair stacking cult I've recently read about.
They come into cities and just stack things. Mostly chairs but
sometimes also bar stools and even recliners!

Panasonic GH5 + Panasonic 42.5mm f1.7 lens.

The Ongoing Battle Between "Need" and "Want."


I was intrigued when Olympus announced the 45mm f1.2 Pro lens a little while back. I asked my local dealer to put one on "hold" for me when they came in. He called me last Friday to let me know that a small number of the lenses had arrived and that one had been set aside for me. And all at once I was grappling with the same old conundrum: Is this something my business desperately needs? Or, is this something I think sounds really cool that I would really like to play with?

I did the logical thing. I put the 42.5mm Panasonic lens on my favorite GH5 and went out for a long walk through downtown this morning. I pointed my camera and lens at lots of stuff and made lots and lots of photographs. Now I have just spent some quality time looking at the images in Lightroom. Between this much cheaper lens and the older, manual focusing 50mm f1.7 Zeiss Yashica/Contax lens collection (we have three) in the equipment case I think I'll be okay. If a windfall comes in I'll capitulate and indulge in the new 45mm but for now I'm happy with the coverage I'm getting from these two (in house) focal lengths and the added comfort of also having this important focal length range covered by both of my existing Olympus Pro zoom lenses. 

Cleaning out the accrued mess of 20 years in my current office space. Man, we hold on to stuff for way too long....


11.30.2017

Sure, you thought you loved the new gear. How much do you love it a year down the road? The "One Year in Service" review of the Aputure Lightstorm LS-1 LED Light.


People get all giddy and euphoric when they buy new gear. Even though they are trading the money that they traded their time for they must feel as though they'll get ahead by purchasing this latest thing and that the promise of leveraging their new gear will offset the short term pain of earning, and then parting, with the hard won cash. I know I generally feel that way...

We typically enter into the process of an eventual (photography) transaction out of boredom. In my case I already owned some good LED lights and they were working pretty well on most of the video and still projects I used them on. But recklessly, I ventured on to the internet and started just, you know, looking around to see what might be new in the world of lighting (which is generally less costly than looking around at new lenses, which is generally less dangerous than looking at new cameras).

So, it was about a year ago; maybe a month or two longer, when my "research" brought me face to face with a new generation of LED lights that boasted higher output and much higher CRI's (color rendering index) than the lights in my existing inventory. One thing led to another and I started to fixate on the (almost unnoticed) short comings of the five or six lights I had in house. How could I possible survive with lights that bared crested the 90 CRI threshold when I could be working with lights that breezed by with CRIs of 95 to 96? How would I be able to look clients in the face

11.29.2017

Sony Savant, Gary Friedman, has launched his new book (the "platinum owner's manual" -my advertising construct) for the Sony RX10iv.

http://friedmanarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/11/one-amazing-incredible-camera-except.html

I'm supplying the link but am not directly involved nor harvesting affiliate cash. I've always found Gary's books to be well done, logical and easy to read. He's a clear voice in the photo world who seems capable of mastering any camera Sony can throw at him.

If you have an RX10iv and you'd like a very good tutorial this might be the right book for you.

WARNING: He quotes the nefarious Kirk Tuck in the introduction......


Digital Photography Review's Richard Butler names the Sony A9 BATTERY as his pick for "Gear of the Year"....

... and makes the argument that this battery finally helps mirrorless achieve parity with DSLRs; in the power management department.

Apparently no one at DP Review actually tested the Panasonic GH5, GH4 or GH3 cameras and their batteries. Panasonic has been doing batteries correctly for years and years. And years. Even a cursory test would have shown that, when not using the built in flash, many users are able to get well over 1,000 still photo exposures while videographers tell of the GH4 cameras getting up to four hours of HD record time on a single battery!

But wait!!!! Here's what Richard Butler himself wrote about the GH3 battery back in April of 2013:

"One of the great advantages of the GH3's increased size is that it can take an unusually large battery for a mirrorless camera. The 7.2V, 1860mAh battery give 13. 4Wh of power, 50% more than the OM-D's battery, for example. This give the camera an impressive battery life of around 540 images per charge or 270 minutes of recording time."

(The typo, "battery give" is still in the review but should be "battery gives").

If we consider that Butler was quoting CIPA numbers for the battery at that time then the cameras with built-in flashes were always at a disadvantage as the ratings were done with 50% of the shots being done with the on board flash engaged. Something that the "pro" DSLRs did not have to contend with...

I guess we should be magnanimous and welcome the editorial crew of DP Review into the mirrorless world of 2013 (the year the Panasonic GH3 appeared in shops).

Glorious week for them. First Barney Britton's "non-hands on (un)real worldly recommendation of the Nikon D850 as his pick for "Gear of 2017" followed by blanket editorial amnesia of all mirrorless batteries pre-Sony A9.

We wait for the next Italian boot to drop... will it be "Sony camera strap, accessory of the Year!!!"?

In case you are interested here are the CIPA test methodologies from a trusted source = CIPA. http://www.cipa.jp/std/documents/e/DC-002_e.pdf

I spent a year shooting the A7Rii. I never lived in fear or anxiety about its use of batteries.


11.28.2017

Offering the right video services to the right clients....discovering your niche.


The market for video services can be as stratified as the market for photography services. There are people offering wedding videos and there are big, polished teams offering very high end television commercial productions; and there are a lot of producers offering services somewhere in between.  

In one sense the market for successful video production companies still has some barriers to entry while the barriers to an effective photography business have become much less daunting. The difference is not so much defined by one's ability to afford expensive gear but by one having the time to pursue a steeper and more diverse (light, sound, direction, editing, etc.) learning curve; and by having the ability to dedicate large chunks of schedule to projects with finite deadlines. 

While one might pursue a part time career as a portrait or wedding photographer by working just on the weekends, while maintaining a regular, forty hour per week job, it's a different scenario for someone who wants to provide commercial video services to companies, associations and corporate enterprises. To do this kind of work you need to be available during regular work days; not just on weekends. All of your meetings and most of your actual time in production will need to occur during Monday-Friday, during traditional 9-5 work hours.  A project with two shooting days generally requires at least a day of pre-production and two or three days of editing after the video capture. And experience tells us that during every part of the project clients expect timely communications throughout.

Smaller companies with very modest expectations (and budgets) might not expect you to show up with current  top of the line models of cameras, lenses, microphones, etc. but as you climb the ladders of the industries you target you'll be working with many full time, in-house producers who will understand the benefits of different tiers of equipment. My philosophy is that as long as the gear you use isn't a limiting factor in a given production you can use whatever you want but when you know you need better ( or more ) you'll need to bite bullets and rent or acquire. And you'll need to know where those lines are...

I'm sitting down today to get a grip on just what I'm offering clients in the way of video services. I'm doing this exercise to clarify, in my own mind, what works, and to predict, as well as I can, what I'm likely to be offering over the next twelve months. As I do this exercise I am coming to (re)understand that there is a wide range of physical tools with which most of us can successfully work but there are definitely required "soft" tools that are the underpinnings of a successful, small video production business. 

Those soft tools include an understanding of the construction of a successful storytelling video narrative. How do we tell the story from start to finish? That understanding leads to the need to be organized and to get all the pieces (scenes, clips) one needs to construct a project. From good interviews to good b-roll. From good, clean audio to logical, visually pleasant editing. These are skills. Skills come from understanding concepts (how stuff works) and are honed by hours and hours of practice. These are things you can't buy in a box and bring to a shoot in a Pelican case. They either come packed in your brain or not at all. 

As an example: In the past week and a half I noticed that I was hesitant about using my wireless microphones on busy jobs, preferring to either use a wired, boomed hyper-cardioid microphone or a wired cardioid microphone. When it came right down to it I hadn't used the wireless gear in a while and have always been a bit hazy on the exact operation of my Sennheiser EW100 G3 system. I've gotten away with my workarounds but the avoidance of mastering and using a valuable and useful tool really bugged me so I set aside all of yesterday morning to go through every parameter of setting up the system, syncing the transmitter and receiver, setting levels, running the resulting signal into my cameras and also placing the lavaliere microphones just so on clothes to make them sound good and to prevent noise from clothing rustle. 

I watched several videos that focused entirely on setting up and using the system. I unplugged everything and reset both the transmitter and receiver and then went through the whole process of putting it back together, syncing and getting everything ready to record. I mic'd myself and recorded material over and over again at different levels to make sure I understood how to set "sensitivity" in the transmitter and how to set the corresponding controls in the receiver. 

I feel so much more confident with the system today. I'll go through the same self-training at least two more times before I use the wireless system again on a paying job next week.

The same practice of concept+skills applies to moving the camera. To choosing the right file settings for the video files. It's a combination of comprehending the underlying concepts and then practicing the implementation of those concepts at every step. 

I also evaluated the broader skills ( or limitations) that I've always had. I'm uncomfortable with large crews (probably why I became a photographer in the first place) and I'm impatient with the effort it takes to get everyone on the same page and moving in the same direction. But I'm good with lighting and good at explaining what I'm setting out to do with clients. I'm good at directing interviews and I'm good with client engagement.

All these things shape what I want to offer clients. And I intuit that trying to do the business the way someone else might do the video business is probably not going to work as well for me.

What do I want to offer my clients?

The optimum project would be one that requires lots of beautifully lit, engaging interviews coupled with great alternative scenes and clips (and still images) that create visually compelling b-roll. I love getting onto factory floors and showing process and workflow. I love getting shots of people moving through the spaces as they work. I love getting closeup details and getting footage from a point of view that's different. But most of all I want to translate an interviewee's authentic story into a perfect clip. 

Here's what a perfect laundry list of my discrete services would look like: 


- lighting, shooting and directing interviews.

- lighting, shooting and directing work processes in real world situations.

- creating and blending still images into the video storytelling timeline.

-creating good quality sound at every step.

-Help write scripts that feel comfortable say out loud, and to direct. 

-Lead a small and agile crew that travels light and moves quickly. 

It would be great to offer video services that are accessible, both financially and in terms of time efficiency. This means providing the right set of camera resources with which to do the jobs we work on but not straying too far from the camera handling characteristics I'm used to. Camera handling should be second nature when on the job. 

The clients we want are corporations or organizations that need good, efficient interviews and resulting short videos that explain the client's unique position within their industry. To get across a message that's important to our client's success.

The most enjoyable projects are the ones in which we interview one or two primary subjects who tell their stories. Their interviews provide a narrative backbone on which to build the video. We might use 3 or 4 minutes of a person's video story (their audio tracks) but only see the person on screen for a half or a third of the time. The rest of the visual imagery needs to be "eye candy" ( intentional b-roll) that directly relates to what's being said in the interviews. 

If the subject talks about a love of the outdoors then we'll shoot b-roll of him walking through the woods or fishing in a stream. If the subject talks about the radical advances in his industry wrought by a new device or process then it's imperative that we show the device or the process. And show the final product and how it affects a customer's life...

The best way for me to deliver value to clients is to immerse myself in understanding what the client needs to say with the video in order to move their game forward. 

The best clients involve me in their project early enough so I can help them mould the story in a way that makes it possible to produce within their time frame and their budget. 

At the very end of the process it's wonderful to deliver a video that tells a compelling story which changes opinions, helps to market a worthy product, motivates change and makes our client look brilliant. It's a lot to aim for and that, in itself, might be the biggest barrier to entry in the business. 

What am I not going to pursue next year? 

I'm not looking for big, blockbuster projects that require lots of special effects, tricky compositing or vast legions of crew. Projects are like vacations to me; they should be fun, simple and over in two or three weeks. Nothing numbs creativity like projects that drag on forever. They are like graceless subroutines in one's mind, taking up space and attention from everything else. 

We're not looking for projects that require endless BaseCamp e-mail chains before, after or during production. And that probably means we won't be competing for the big budget work that comes from larger ad agencies.

And we're certainly not signing up to do a low budget copy cat production of something someone's VP saw in a TV commercial. 

The goal of every project is to enhance a client's ability to communicate, with video, in markets that never existed before. It's tough to afford a Super Bowl TV commercial but it's easy to leverage the internet. And that's where opportunity still seems endless. As long as you have some good video to share...




11.26.2017

Re-thinking what it means to work as a freelance photographer/videographer.


Deep Eddy Pool. November 25th. 2017

I think the very nature of freelance photography work has changed. The process of making a good, or at least effective, photograph has become much easier and quicker than it was. The projects that used to take weeks now take days. The projects that used to take days now take hours. Since the time required to make images for clients keeps shrinking it long ago made sense to jettison the idea of billing by day rates, or by the hour, because one would keep delivering a finished image which has equal or greater value to a client but at an ever declining rate because of ever increasing efficiency. 

For years now we've looked at projects and bid them based on the value they'll provide to the client. And honestly, we also bid based on how convoluted the client's internal processes are. In many engagements it seems we spend more time on conference calls and in meetings that we do actually shooting the images. And then there's the time we spend ensuring that we get paid......

It makes more sense to bid the creation of images as a compound process which takes into consideration the amount of time spent meeting, figuring out the creative direction, shepherding the idea of collaboration, pre-production, scouting, post production and administrative nonsense into one fixed price instead of trying to break it out into line items for some linear thinker in someone else's accounting department. 

e.g.: Three minute video interview, in town, on a client location, with two cameras and two production people = $3200  Add in editing and it's $4,800. We don't break down the numbers. We say, "It will cost $3200 or $4,800." If there are no line items then there is nothing to squabble about. The client can either afford and approve the project or walk away. 

On another note, there is a tendency for people to bring an employee mindset to the freelance field. They may offer their services at rates that are not particularly profitable but try to make up for under charging by attempting to work as often and for as long as possible. If what you do doesn't require any real problem solving and involves the same basic routine done over and over again than I guess it all boils down to how much boring, repetition you can stand? 

But if your idea of being a photographer means that you are a creative problem solver or a creative collaborator, or a translator of marketing concepts into high quality image content, then I think the idea of trying to cram 50 or 60 hours of work into every week is very counter productive. 

Creative people work best (at least from what I've seen working in the field for a long time) in spurts. It's like being a sprinter in the swimming world, you might be able to crank out a good, sub-minute 100 meters on a good day, at a race, but you can't step up to the blocks hour after hour and crank out the same stellar swim (unless you are Michael Phelps or Jason Lezak), and you certainly can't perform at that high level day after day as you get older and your endurance diminishes (as it will for everyone --- ). 

Good creative work, and the creation and implementation of evolving styles, (like swimming) requires down time, recharge time, unencumbered time to ponder and the time to look around at things that are seemingly outside the myopic world of photography. Recovery and re-imagining. As an example, to be able to take better landscape photographs of 18,000 foot mountain peaks you'll probably need to spend more time learning about mountain climbing and practicing mountain climbing rather than focusing like a blunt laser on which camera to use or which lens might deliver the sweetest bokeh. 

If you want to be a better video interviewer of CEOs it would certainly pay off to spend a bit less time experimenting with V-Log and to spend a lot more time reading up on the world of business in which your target clients are engaged. (To do this you must incorporate your experience and continuing education into your overall pricing!!!).

But most of all, if you find, or are finding, that photography is taking up every minute of every day you may want to consider that you might be in danger of becoming photo-rexic and need to dial down the compulsion to a safer level. You could spend all day, every day, reading about photo stuff on the web. Some from people who probably know far less than you already know. But you'd be isolating yourself from valuable social networks while narrowing down your focus from the things that might have once made you an interesting person into a person who.......can operate a camera.

As I age up from my long, long adolescence into "middle age" I find that dialing back the hysteric need to be "all photography all the time" is healthier. If I can clear my mind of the endless internal chatter about photography I can better see actual (non-viewfinder) life swirling around me and refreshing my ability to look at the world in a happier and more comprehensive way. If I step away from the computer my life is enriched even more.

I've been thinking about the time I spend swimming lately. I swim for a number of reasons; one is to stave off the ravages of aging and the inevitable (but slow-able) decline of physical endurance. I swim to maintain good health. But I also swim because the process of spending time with my fellow swimmers builds or reinforces social community. 

On Friday evening I got several texts from fellow swimmers as we jockeyed to find a time to meet up yesterday so we could swim as a group. We ended up at Deep Eddy Pool at 10 am Saturday morning. We all jumped into empty lanes and, after a decent warm-up, took turns suggesting sets to swim. We interspersed short sprints with long endurance swims. We kicked some sets to build overall speed. We commiserated about the (cold) water. 

But once out of the water the sense of community and connection remain. On most Saturdays we'll head off after a swim for a group coffee. We'll share stories and news. We'll find out what other people do and how their slalom through life/work/family is going. We'll offer sympathy, humor and genuine friendship. 

One of my fellow swimmers is a restauranteur. Sometimes he and I will swim in the middle of the day on a weekday. Sometimes we depend on each other for the discipline we need to get out of the office or restaurant and make it out for a swim. And sometimes, after the swim we'll head out for a ramen lunch or to grab some sushi from some place good. We can eat early or late. We own our schedules. 

But free time is valuable not just for building friendships but conversely for spending time lost in thought. Meditating. Seeing the world from someone else's point of view by taking time to read.
I find that reading novels; anything from Tom Clancy to J.K. Rowling, makes me think differently and gives me a richer visual palette to work with than when I am too busy to read anything at all. 

Would I trade time with my dog for more time with my cameras? Hardly...

So, this afternoon at 1:30 we've arranged for another swim. We all agreed yesterday that today's swim would be a physical recovery swim. No heroics. No long sets. Just a joyous batch of yards in the bright clear, natural spring water of Deep Eddy Pool, under the warm and chromatically brilliant Texas Winter sun. 

After that maybe I'll get around to tossing out a few more trash cans of older photo work I never want to see again. 

If I prioritize my life for fun/engagement/curiosity all the necessary stuff seems to come along for the ride. It's when I prioritize for work/fear/routine that everything falls apart...


I have heard the mermaids singing; each to each.
......................
                                        .......................        
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

-T.S. Eliot