I forgot to use the "ultimate" camera on my job....
I got up early, drank coffee and drove north yesterday morning. I left the house way too early for an appointment at 9 a.m. but you'll have to give me a little slack since the never-ending road construction on Loop One/Mopac can be a mercurial bitch. One day you breeze on to your destination and the next you sit motionless in the fast lane, staring at the tail lights and listening to someone droning away, cheerfully, on NPR. Yesterday was a miraculous day for me on Hwy. Loop One. From 7:45 a.m. on the traffic never slowed down between Westlake Hills and Round Rock. I made the trip in 25 minutes. Which left me about an hour to cool my heels at a local Starbucks before walking into the lobby of a long time client. Thank goodness I brought a book!
My assignment was to photograph the CEO of this local/national/global tech company, together with a giant prop. We needed him pictured alone, and surrounded by a group of about 25 happy, enthusiastic employees. The shoot took place in the lobby and while I shot stills the in-house video team (supplemented by a freelance sound person and a second camera operator) captured video and then, after the CEO exited, went in for some interviews with a few of the employees. I needed to provide a bit of direction for the group photos but after getting the individual CEO shot and the group shots I chilled out and just grabbed some candid shots of the event.
I brought the Panasonic cameras for the event. I was a little concerned (but not much) that the client would not be happy to see me shooting with a smaller sensor, lower resolution camera since everything I read on the web about professional photography would have one believe that clients routinely demand particular cameras or camera types; that those cameras reflect the current state of the art, and that clients understand the difference --- and I read way too much on the web.
I have worked with the head of this particular company's video department for well over 20 years. We run into each other at major events and shows and sometimes, just at the office. He asked me what I was shooting with and I told him. "Those are really cool!" he said. "But don't send us big files. This is all going to end up on social media." So much for any trepidation I may have been fomenting...
We were on location early. The video guys were setting up two different cameras; one getting a wide shot and one with a shoulder-hefted rig with which he would roam around. The sound guy had his "belly bag" full of Sound Devices goodies and a nice shotgun microphone on a pole. After we figured out our angles and our working choreography I decided to add a light to the mix. I put that new Neewer 300 w/s flash on a stand and bounced it off a wall directly behind the camera position to create a nice, broad fill. The light I used is the one with lithium ion battery pack so no extension cords/power cables were needed. I didn't have to spend time taping down the cords. Progress! The flash also has its own dedicated trigger so that's nice too.
Once we got set we had time to kill and, as normally happens, we stood around and talked shop. Since the video department head has nice equipment budgets and works all over the world I assumed that they were producing everything at the very highest technical levels imaginable. I presumed 4K capture for all video and buckets of SSD drives with which to record everything in 12 bit 4:4:4:4. I asked about their equipment expecting to feel like a rank amateur with a toy camera.
In fact, neither of their video cameras were necessarily anything to write home about. One was an inexpensive Black Magic Cine camera and the other an older Sony ENG camera. No Arri Alexa, no Sony F55, no Red camera, etc. A wide cinema prime (Sigma) on one camera and an EOS zoom lens on the other. No external monitors, no gingerbread. And, not a light anywhere.
I asked if they were shooting in 4K and they looked at me funny. Turns out the only time they venture into 4K is when they are working with green screen and need high definition for masking. They shoot mostly in 1080p. Why? Because nearly everything they shoot is destined to go straight to the web via their own website or one of the social media sites. Everything seems to end up over at YouTube which mostly just crunches the hell out of everything via compression.
After the event I went home to post process the photo files and get them sent off quickly. Usually I shoot raw and then work on the files a bit. The client emphasized the need for speedy delivery so I shot raw+big Jpegs. I pulled the Jpegs into Lightroom and they looked really good. I selected about three dozen shots and uploaded them to Smugmug, making enhancements only to the files containing the CEO (I knew they'd get the most use....). I had the files uploaded within 20 minutes of hitting the front door of the studio. The clients gave me thumbs up on everything.
But this all seems antithetical to what we learn on the web. What I read always leads me to believe that everyone else out there is getting demands from their clients to use and deliver files from the biggest and most expensive state of the art cameras around. As though the clients are tapping their feet and thinking, "OMG! Are we still using those ancient Nikon D810s? When is my photographer going to get his hands on the D850?!!!. We might believe that clients are demanding that everything be sent to them as 16 bit Tiff files and that each file be retouched in Byzantine detail before they see them. But this rarely seems to be the case --- in the real world.
In the video markets we photographers/aspiring videographers seem to believe that the way forward is to offer the highest performance codecs we can afford to create. Take the biggest files we can hammer through a GH5 and send them to an external recorder so we can upgrade them to huge Pro Res files before delivering terabytes of programming to clients who may have only wanted a nice little piece to put up on Instagram. The community of new arrivals to video presume that every shot is done with V-Log (S-Log, C-Log) and that every frame will be color graded to the nth degree. (That's the way I've been thinking about it...).
There may be some parts to the overall equation of corporate production to which we are not always privy. The client's need for speed being one of them. Everything we shot yesterday will be edited and presented as a very small part of an "all hands" meeting presentation that will be broadcast to 100,000+ employees via the web. The video will be a minuscule part of the overall presentation. But it will need to be slim and right sized to work on monitors and connections all over the place. Not big and bloated and hypothetically perfect. Some employees will no doubt need to watch the presentation on phones...
At the end of the session yesterday the video operators pulled out their memory cards and quickly transferred the files to a thumb drive which they handed off to the client's video director. No big fuss.
Were all eyes on me? Hardly. Were the clients or the videographers carefully inspecting and passing judgement on my choice of gear? Not for a second. Did we all deliver right sized media for our client's needs? You bet.
The world of our work is changing quickly and the days of producing work for giant print graphics are fading away. If we keep focusing on the wrong targets we'll probably miss the right ones by a long distance. Much as we'd mostly like to concentrate on getting our work printed on double-truck spreads in magazines or seeing our video work on huge movie screens the reality is that the work we do for clients is very much headed in different directions. They're aiming at UHD monitors or projectors as being the high end use of video currently but, honestly, the vast majority of uses are still 1080p and smaller. The work we're mostly doing is much more transient than ever before so storage is less anxiety provoking. The "sell by" dates are quicker and few of the projects will be re-visited a year from now. And, across the board, the production time frames we're being handed are continually shrinking. (edit:) I had a phone conference with an ad agency creative director this afternoon about a series of videos for one of their clients. Their research showed that in their client's audience 80% of video views were on mobile phones. 80% !!!!!
If we look in the rear view mirror we can be made to feel that we MUST have the biggest and the best gear available for all engagements. In fact, the biggest and the best might be an impediment to delivery speed, flexibility and fluid action. If we look at where media and content are headed we can see that everything is changing and most of it is moving in a direction that's vastly different than the print orientation currently shared by many established photographers. Clients may be way ahead of us here.
The final thing I was thinking about as I sat in front of the monitor watching the progress of my images uploading was about how we business people allocate our assets and how it affects our bottom line. I have friends who firmly believe that they must have the world's best gear in order to compete. They routinely seek out the "best" cameras and the "ultimate" lenses to shoot with. This made sense when everyone's aim point was the lushly printed page and the state of "best" wasn't all that great (think about the first two or three generations of digital camera bodies...) but does it still make sense when the limitations of the targets (screens of various sizes) for most of our work will blind and obfuscate any differences in image quality between any of the modern cameras, across formats?
In a time when fees and budgets are under constant attack and are, in fact, lower when adjusted for inflation than any time in our careers, can we continue to justify the brutal expenses of "the best" when good, solid gear will get the job done just as well or better?
My client's video producer could probably requisition just about any cool video gear he feels he needs. He might be able to outfit his crews with $50,000 Arri Alexas. He might be able to pony up for sets of Leica cinema lenses (@$125,000 per set). But he doesn't. Why not? Perhaps he knows that good enough works great and that saving the corporation cash means more value added to his 401K. Maybe we freelancers would be smart to follow those instincts. After all, isn't it really our talent we're selling?