Weekend Notes. Galas. Cameras. Clipping Path Hangovers. Counterintuitive Event Cameras, and a bit of Swimming.

This here flash is a Godox TT685O. 
It's a right good unit. 
Sure enough.

It's the weekend. We're in the first week of November and temperatures in the mid-to-high 80's mean we're still fighting swirling flocks of mosquitos. The Texas sized mosquitos; as big as dragonflies. Best bring along some insect repellant with DEET if you're planning to join the nationwide trend of moving to Austin to enjoy the view from the center of the universe, there have been cases of West Nile virus reported in surrounding cities...

Let's talk gala's. Big ass, fundraising galas. One of my clients asked me to come to a gala last night to take photos for three hours. She's been a client at various tech companies for years and years so, of course, I said yes. 

Sadly, I think I've matured away from galas. Or I've been to so many I'm having banquet ennui deja vu. When I got to the massive and imposing downtown hotel and waded through the throng of people at the bars which encircle the actual property, like a tipsy human moat, I headed upstairs to the 4th floor ballroom. The big one. I had on my dark blue suit and a shirt with a tiny black check pattern that I bought on a lark at Nordstroms. When I hit the fourth floor the ballroom foyer was filling up with woman in that odd age group of 30s and 40s who all seemed to be wearing variations of prom dresses ---- or those vengeful bridesmaids dresses that people remember with shame years later.

Most galas have all the standard features of fundraising. There's the "silent auction" with products and services donated by friends, associates and vendors. Mostly vendors and artists. There's the perfunctory 45 minute "happy hour" at the beginning where the women in odd dresses and men in an assortment of crisply tailored suits, or ill-fitting, off the rack suits mill about in little groups with a drink in one hand and a smartphone in the other. 

Uncharacteristically, I had little contact with the person requesting my service. I knew where and when but had no idea of "what." It was an "agenda on the run..."

My first duty/position was near the entry area where the client had set up a background with a logo in the middle of it. I guess no one really thought it through but really? The big logo right in the middle? Five feet wide? On an eight foot wide background? We might be able to break up a couple and put one person on either side of the logo for a photograph but I think that would be very awkward. The problem was more or less immediately solved when people started coming over to be photographed in groups of four, six, eight; even twelve. The logo stayed behind them. We couldn't figure what else to do...

But let's talk about a new understanding of "event photography" for a minute. In the past people would dress up (gentlemen, at least buy a shirt on which you can button the top button and wear your necktie correctly....) and part of the gala process would be for each couple to have a commemorative photograph made. Now it seems that the "step-and-repeat" background serves two masters. The traditional photography paradigm and then (a bigger priority) the iPhone selfie hordes. 

I stood at the ready with my camera and a flash but the majority of the attendees were happy to group themselves into small clusters on the background, do the little bended knee posture and then make "duck face" for their own cameras, which were being wielded by their friends. At one point a number of small groups of prom dress women did ask me to make their group photos but most only wanted me to do so with their phones. This year, and perhaps the next few, will be remembered by photo historians as the period of time in which every young woman was photographed with a phone in one hand and a drink in the other. But no photos will actually exist since our government (or what's left of it) will outlaw Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in an attempt to limit election fraud and, as the services go bankrupt the first things to go will be people's photo albums....No one ever said social media was benevolent...

Moving on, the guests are summoned to dinner by hotel food and beverage people who walk through the happy hour space in the foyer striking little melodic chimes on tiny, handheld xylophones. The seating process is arduous because the entry into an new room reminds everyone of something they forgot to mention to their friends during the happy hour and fifteen minutes later people are still standing next to their tables yakking as the emcee for the event heads to the podium. 

Our emcee is a real celebrity. He's the local weather man on one of the network channels. He's been calling out the weather (or flipping a coin and faking it) for decades here in Austin and, of course, his first comment of the evening is about the weather. Ouch. 

Dinner gets served as people speak about the merits of the charity being bolstered. Cute kids are sent to the microphone to testify about how much their lives have changed since joining this program. 

Now the guests have had drinks at happy hour and decent wine at dinner. They've been softened up by videos and testimonials from all the people the charity has helped and now the big guns come out; the auction, with a crew of five auctioneers all sporting gray cowboy hats. The things being auctioned off are more or less events or experiences. You can bid on a trip to taste vintage retsina wine on a Greek Island for you and your closest seven friends. Go hunting for Pandas at the world's greatest hunting lodge is some vague area of China (kidding). And, the recurring auction item of the decade (as witnessed at five different galas...) VIP tickets for six to see "Hamilton." 

This gala was bigger than most in Austin and easily raised over a million dollars. It was so big that the organizers had cascading shifts of photographers. Mercifully, I was slotted from 6 to 9 pm. I was out the door with my take at 9:05...

But let's talk about the gear. Since I was working strictly in the role of publicist/documentarian I packed lighter than I ever have before in my career. The choice of camera was made for me by my recently reduced inventory of cameras. It was either going to be a Panasonic GH5 or a Panasonic GH5. The lens was even more of a "no brainer." What better lens could I want than the Olympus 12-100mm Pro? A nice, wide angle for those big groups festooned across the logo'd backdrop and a tight, 200mm equivalent for shots of the keynote speaker up on the stage. All bundled with exceptional image stabilization. In fact, the stabilization is so good that, at times, I can take both hands off the camera and it floats in place, in midair, on its own! (hyperbole alert. do not try this with your camera....).

The only real question I had was "which flash to take?"  I have a shipping crate full of manual flashes from Godox, Cactus and Yongnuo but I decided I would like a dedicated TTL flash for the Panasonic system. I've had good luck with Godox lately so I splashed out $125 on the model, TT685O, which is the same form factor as several others I own and useable with the same remote triggers. It features full automation and can also be used as a master or slave flash in a multi-flash system.

With Eneloop NiMH batteries the flash worked like a charm.  My first use of the flash was in taking shots of couples in front of the above mentioned logo'd background. I tried a bunch of flash modifiers but shooting directly into a shiny vinyl background was always going to create a hot spot so I defaulted to bouncing the flash off the high, white ceiling. It looked much better. I started with the system on TTL but sometimes large expansive of white prom dress caused underexposure while couples draped entirely in black caused some overexposure. I realized that I could just set the flash to manual power at about 1/2 and, since our positions rarely changed, the exposure on my subjects would be absolutely perfect from shot to shot.

I started off shooting in AWB hoping to mix the ambient lighting with the flash but didn't like the way the flesh tones inevitable went to warm. I put a full orange filter on the flash to match it to the basic ambient light color and then set the camera at tungsten. Again, bypassing the automatic setting made for very repeatable results and much more pleasing color on the faces of my subjects.

Let's talk about that lens for a second. You know how everyone talks about how you can tell a great camera sensor because you can shoot it at the base ISO or ISO 1600 and by lifting the base ISO exposure to match the 1600 ISO exposure there's no difference in noise? I can't remember what the wags at DPReview call this but I'm renaming it "sensor indifference." What it basically means is that up to a certain level it really doesn't matter where you have the ISO set, the files will look the same.

So what does this have to do with the Olympus Pro lenses? Well, I very much believe that they are truly aperture indifferent. They look as sharp and contrasty wide open as they do stopped down to f8.0. I used my 12-100mm at f4.0 all evening and when I got back to the studio and magnified the files to 100% I was re-surprised at how sharp and detail rich the files were. Even at ISO 800. It's exciting not to worry to much about focus. The contrast detect AF is nuts on accurate and even though the focusing speed slows down in dim light (hello grand ballroom) when the AF confirmation signal locks you know you've got it nailed down.  It's fun to shoot with an aperture indifferent set of lenses because you never have to worry about trading lighting gathering for sharpness.

The camera (GH5) was a counter-intuitive choice for event work mostly because nobody seems to work with it that way. In our rush to mark this tool as a video centric imaging solution most reviewers have overlooked its very competitive still photography performance. The files, when created with discipline, are absolutely beautiful. The flesh tones make me happier than what I've been getting from most other systems and the size of the package for the performance is ridiculously good. I finished out my three hour shift with nearly 700 images on the V60 SD card (no wait for a buffer, ever) and I still had two of the three bars on the camera's battery indicator. Very pleasant, no struggles.

I think I've found one of the sweet spots between the one inch sensor cameras and the full framers.

Clipping path hangover.... What an ordeal. For a number of days last week I'd wake up at six in the morning fretting about getting all the clipping paths for 91 files knocked out in time. Each file needed to have two different clipping paths and we needed to work at a level of precision that would allow the images to be used in just about any medium. I'd lumber into the kitchen and make coffee and then, cup in hand, I'd head out the front door of the house and into the studio.

I had operational amnesia about one aspect of path making that I could not solve but was so happy to have the braintrust at our VSL blog rush into action and save me from my own ignorance. Another big "THANK YOU!!!!" to a brilliant advertising agency owner in Toronto, Canada for getting me the information I needed just when I needed it.

I preach against sitting in front of a computer screen doing fine work all the time but it's exactly what Belinda and I did last week. I've spent the better part of the weekend walking around in a daze, staring off into the middle and far distances and occasionally trying to extend my vision to infinity. And this just a week after getting new eyeglasses....

Every time I finish a project like this I say, "Never Again." But a few months later, when accounts receivable dip like a well drying up, I succumb to the weakness of commerce and, smiling, agree to another bout. When will I learn?

And now for the real reason most read the blog: swimming news!!!!

As you may recall, the water at our newest swim destination, Deep Eddy Pool, took a decided turn toward frigid last weekend. Apparently the city was using water from a back-up well while they fixed the pumps to the main well. The pool is refilled every other day so when they switched from the primary well to the secondary well the temperature dropped from a barely acceptable 72-73 degrees right down to 67 degrees. After a mile swim in that water, last Saturday, I rushed to buy a short wetsuit to preserve core temperatures for future swims. It came in very handy on Sunday when the water was also like the Antarctic ocean.

But this last week the repairs to the pumps were made and the pool has cleaner and more temperate water than I've seen since I started swimming here again a month ago. the temperature is back into the 72-73 zone and the wetsuit stayed in the car all week long. I have been warned, however, that the well water temperature will start dropping as soon as (if ever) we get some winter weather. I'm keeping the wetsuit handy....

Yesterday I met up with my friends, Anand, Emmett and Julie  and we self-coached a 3200 yard workout, from noon to one pm. We did 33.3 yard sprint sets, sets of 66.6 yards, sets of 100 yards and we interspersed these with 200 yard kicks and 400 yard distance swims. Swimming in colder water than I have been used to for the past 20 years is different. Muscles get tighter which causes more resistance. But the water seems to keep core temperatures in a good range for best recovery/performance. We're swimming harder and better but man! am I tired and sore later in the day.

Thinking about getting an inexpensive underwater camera to shoot some video with, if anyone has any suggestions.

Coming up. I deliver the clipping path job tomorrow afternoon and then, for the rest of the week I'll be on pins and needles waiting to see what new camera Panasonic will be releasing. There are plenty of rumors and a rumored date of Nov. 6 for the announcement. If it's a cool still camera and less pricy than the GH5 I'm pretty much in.

Also awaiting the release of the Olympus 45mm f1.2 Pro lens. I'm arranging to borrow one from my local vendor to test and see if it's really so much better than the Panasonic 42.5 I currently use. If it is then it may be irresistible.... I'm finding it increasingly difficult not to be assimilated by the Olympus Pro series lenses. So far, they are a brilliant differentiator between existing formats.


  1. Read good things about this: http://www.getolympus.com/us/en/tg-5.html. GoPro is always a good choice.

  2. Hi Kirk,

    Sounds like another very productive week for you including swimming. Sore muscles are a good thing right, it means you've extended yourself beyond your normal point. I've got to get that 12-100 Pro lens with it's stabilizer working with IBS to create a system whereby you can completely release your grip on the camera! I'd be able to sit down, have a adult beverage and trip the shutter with a remote. Wow, ain't technology great!

    Doug O.

  3. Ah. back in fine fettle...even if mildly cross-eyed from time to time. Tell me, are you the last living photographer to still carry a set of color lens filters? There's lots written in the blogosphere about using gels on lights to mix with or overpower ambient light, but I'd swear this is the first time I've encountered using a filter and matched in-camera white balance setting to obliterate the problem entirely. There's a show-and-tell blog post in there, when you run up against a shortage of material.

  4. "In fact, the stabilization is so good that, at times, I can take both hands off the camera and it floats in place, in midair, on its own!"
    Sounded to me like you had the neck strap on your neck.

    Grabing a Go pro like camera for those under water action shots sounds interesting, until you actually do it. All the same, or not much real excitement.
    Glad to hear your recovering from the photoshop bender.
    All the best,

  5. Could the wetsuit be the start of a slide down a slippery slope asks one who swims in an indoor pool :-)?

  6. Regarding that Olympus 45mm 1.2 PRO - I shot a few test jpegs with one in NYC last weekend, and honestly, it might be TOO sharp. Interested to see what you think of it.

  7. Rick, As long as it is too sharp wide open....

  8. Fred, it may be a step too far for someone living further north.... at least in the winter. I'm betting Lake George gets plenty cold in the winter months. I heard it's getting cold in your neck of the woods. Stay warm when dog walking or looking for good coffee!

  9. Emcee - it took a while to get it. ;)
    Is the GH5 suitable for one-hand-operation? To be able to grip that phone in the other hand? Just kidding, I never understood why its necessary to carry it that way 24/7.

  10. Hi Kirk,
    Well, finally all your writing about swimming has encouraged me to do a few things. Firstly, get me six year old into the pool about once a week, after a week long swimming course. He's not quite there yet - i.e., he needs some flotation assistance, but he's dead set on getting it right. Secondly, and this from your wetsuit post, I bought a new bike (replacing a stolen one). It cost as much as two good Fuji x lenses, so I'd better use it. Finally, it's on my bucket list to learn to swim properly myself, if my dodgy ears will let me. Thanks for all the 'leading by example'.

  11. Seconding Michael Matthews... what's the idea behind a colored filter on a digital camera? B&W film, sure, but ... please say more.

  12. I too am waiting eagerly for the 45mm 1.2 PRO. Having seen what the 40-150 2.8 PRO can do, and seeing what the 25mm 1.2 PRO can do (a truly outstanding and well balanced lens), and even what the humble Oly 45mm 1.8 can achieve, I am anticipating a lens for the ages. Sometimes this leads to disappointment. We shall see soon enough!

    On a different topic I have been adding to my Godox system: now it's an X1 O Trigger, AD200 and a V860ii O, (with some modifiers) and I see another AD200 in my near future. The cost and capability of these units really allows amateurs like me to experiment with ambitious lighting set ups. That was a good tip! I've been re-reading my Minimalist Lighting book and the others to brush up on my technique.
    Peter Wright

  13. Hi Kirk, here's my 2 cents regarding TTL flash on MFT cameras. I have used Canon flashes on Canon cameras and they expose accurately. I have the same Godox TT685 for Sony (with the amazing wireless TTL X1T trigger) and it exposes correctly. I also have the Olympus FL600R that works in TTL mode on my Olympus MFT cameras and my Panasonic LX100. For some reason it always under exposes my pictures by around half a stop. Always. So, I now have a fixed +2/3 FEC dialed in my Panasonic and Olympus cameras. Problem solved.

    As an interesting note, my Olympus FL600R decided to stop working all together. The bulb refuses to flash. Everything else works. I went shopping for a dedicated TTL flash and stumbled upon the Godox versions just released two months ago for Olympus and Fuji. But instead of buying a new one, I found by chance that all Godox X1T triggers can work in TTL mode with all Godox flashes that support wireless triggering and TTL (even their studio flashes). After checking with some people who confirmed it, I ordered an X1T trigger instead of a full flash for my Olympus camera, and I found a software update for my flash that enables it to support the newly released X1T Fuji and Olympus triggers, and just like that, I am able to use both my X1T triggers for either Sony or Olympus to trigger my Godox TT685s. How brilliant is that?

  14. Clipping paths seem like something that could be outsourced - it is not creative work, and I assume you could make more money shooting than clipping. Does it make sense for you to do all the mechanical retouching, if you have enough clients to keep busy shooting? While I know there is a pride in craftsmanship about it, I suspect that an expert who does it all the time could do it faster and at least as well.

  15. E.R., You'd think that, right? But the reality is that we've tried a number of different services, here and abroad, and none have done a passable job on complex paths. Easy stuff gets a lot of play on YouTube. A few swishes with a brush tool and, Bingo, you've got a perfect clipping path. It's easy if it's a black product with hard lines against a pure white background but ...... photography and life is rarely so simple.

    I would love to have someone on staff that could do clipping paths but we don't have product photography as a routine staple of the business.

    I did only 1/2 of the paths, my partner, who is a graphic designer did the other half. I also gave her all the hardest ones because she's better at it than I am.

    Photography as a business has changed. In the film days we had the budgets to outsource anything...... now? We're happy to keep $XXX per hour services in house. Fills in the financial gaps between shooting projects.

  16. Your description of the gala and the attendees is simply delightful and insightful. "Vengeful bridesmaids dresses". Just perfect. I've reread your post twice. I would read your blog just for your observations on people and life. Wonderful stuff.

  17. Thanks Don. I love watching people. It's better than TV.


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