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 ona location with the same diligence as working in the studio; the need to pack a light stand for everything. Every light needs a stand. Every background needs a stand. Every net needs a stand. Every diffuser wants a stand. The heavy stuff is never the cameras or the lights; it's almost always the support stuff. The tripod, the stands, the cart, the long roll of seamless backdrop paper....
I headed downtown to my client's offices in yet another office tower. The code for the parking garage entry didn't work so I ended up sitting at the gate trying to figure out how to back up so as not to inconvenience the cars piling up behind me when the person in the car just behind me jumped out and waved her magic security card across the face of the gatekeeping machine. "Happens all the time." She said. I thanked her as the gate swung opened.
One of the routines you get used to when you have a large cart full of photo gear is that building security people are pretty adamant that you use the freight elevator to get up and down in nearly all the new buildings. I found the cardboard lined elevator and piloted it to the fifth floor. It's not the newest building and I think the freight elevator must have been imported from a small and ancient country. It was the size of a telephone booth. (If you don't know what a telephone booth is then I am very happy to have a new, younger reader today....).
We got lucky today on room assignments. I was given the training room which was amply large and had nice, high ceilings. All good for lighting and portrait making. An additional bonus was an automatic coffee machine just outside the room. Not as good as my home brewed coffee but a notch or two better than a Keurig.
I got into the room at 8:15 and started setting up. Up goes the gray seamless towards the front of the room. It doesn't escape my notice that the background stands (having celebrated their 30th anniversary of heavy use) are really starting to look battered and beaten. This makes me stop and consider whether my career will outlast the stands or whether I should aim to retire upon the death of this most loyal and effective tool set... A glance at my watch breaks me out of my gloomy thoughts; my first portrait subject of the day walks in at 9 am. And today's crew are all accountants, they will be on time. Or early.
Today is an exercise in channeling some of the methods of the 1950's. There's a light with spot grid casting a soft edged circle onto the background. There's another light with a 9 inch reflector on it, covered with a white diffuser, and it's going to backlight all the subjects except those who are bald. It's not nice or polite to use a high backlight on people with no hair... A third light is stuck into the 47 inch Phottix octabank that will be our main light, and (in a break with VSL tradition) instead of using a passive reflector as a fill light the random lighting strategy generator has mandated that I use a fourth flash and a 60 inch soft white umbrella (with a black backing) as my fill light. I'm even dialing in a 3:1 lighting ratio --- so old school today.
It is with great happiness that I can report all flashes fired without incident; both in my initial test firings and throughout the rest of the day.
I set the main light to give me f4.0 on my subject and then set all the other lights to complement it. The light on the background was set to 1/64th power. The main light was set to 1/8th power and all the rest fell in line.
An admin dropped by fifteen minutes before the shoot to show me how to work the newfangled coffee machine and to hand me a sheet of paper which had the names of the people to be photographed, and their scheduled times. We'd be photographing someone new about every twenty minutes. There were some longer gaps in a couple of places that were perfectly timed for quick trips to the restroom.
The first person was five minutes early. He got to be the test subject. He held up the Lastolite target for better white balancing and he was patient as the lights got fine-tuned and ratios got worked out. And then it was off to the races.
The pattern was pretty much the same even though each portrait subject was different. They would peek in the door to make sure they were not interrupting someone else's session and then come all the way in. We'd introduce each other and I'd ask them to sit while I take a couple of test shots. Then there is a period called, "get to know you!" during which I ask them innocuous questions like: "So, what kind of accounting do you specialize in?" "How long have you been in Austin?" "Any big plans for the holidays?" "Why is it so hard to find a good Tex-Mex restaurant in Austin?" "Do you have a favorite one I should know about?" "What do you do when you aren't doing accounting?" If they indicate that they have children we chat about kids and video games and sports.
While we're talking we start taking photos so both of us can get comfortable with the process. Once I feel that we're on the same side and we're both comfortably dialed in I start directing how I want them to pose but it's mostly little asides like, "Just turn a little bit more toward the light. Great!" During all this we keep the conversation going in fits and starts. I'll see them doing something that looks good and say, "Perfect! Just like that." and we'll bang through five or ten frames.
Once I know I have two or three different poses with five or ten great shots from each. I smile and let them know we're done shooting. But we still have the conversation going until it reaches a natural stopping point. I don't want anyone to feel that I am interested in talking to them only to get a good photograph. It's a good thing I've got a natural curiosity about nearly everyone I come across.
Today was easy. All the gear worked the way it was advertised to work. Eleven people came by between 9 and 12:30 and I shot 720 frames on a Panasonic GH5 and its friend, the Olympus 40-150mm Pro lens.
The commissioning client; the manager for the practice, was surprisingly hands off. She dropped by to meet me before the first sitter arrived and she came back as I was wrapping up. She was happy to hear through the intra-office grapevine that everyone had a great experience, had the opportunity to look at a few of their photographs on the rear screen of the camera, and were happy with what they saw. We're booking another session in early January to catch the next group of people. That means we're doing okay.
The odious part of every shoot is packing everything back up, putting it all on the cart, bungie cording the whole collection so it doesn't slide off into something expensive and breakable, and then getting the entire mess of gear back down to the car and out of the parking garage.
So, what worked? The Neewer (stop correcting me, spell check!!!) Vision Four battery powered mono-lights are wonderful. I wish they were controllable in third stop increments but there's always something to bitch about. They go in full stops from full power to 1/64th power. At anything less than full power they seem able to go on flashing endlessly. Just don't make my typical mistake and forget to turn them off after use; the battery will drain overnight as the light sits there waiting for you...
The camera worked well. I am delighted to report that the color out of the Panasonic GH5 is really great for portraits. If you take the time to set a custom white balance the files really require very little nudges in post production to get just right.
I am so happy with the 40-150mm f2.8 Pro Olympus lens when used for studio portraits. It just doesn't do anything I don't like. In conjunction with the camera's eye detection auto focus I'm kind of in portrait heaven. The camera+lens just nail perfect focus over and over and over again. Doesn't seem like such a big deal but you have to remember that I tried using Nikon's stuff for my portrait work a few years back and even though the technical qualities of the files were perfect, if you got the focus just right, the reality was that focusing was very much hit and miss. I had so many issues with back focusing.... The faster the lens the worse the problems. To have a camera that gets eyes sharp 100% of the time brings a big, silly grin to my face.
That's what worked for today but I also want to write a bit about stuff I've been using over the course of the year that's worked well.
I'll start with Aputure LED lights of all kinds. The Light Storm units; both the LS-1 and the LS-1/2 have the nicest light quality I've ever gotten from LEDs. Skin tones are great, color balance is great and they operate absolutely silently. They have been in daily use in the studio for over a year and I have no complaints about their handling or performance. I traveled with them out of the state three or four times and they were immune to the rigors of airline handling. Definitely a re-purchase-able item for me.
I also bought a pair of Aputure Amaran 672S LEDs which run off big Sony style batteries. They are completely plastic and I had my doubts about them but they've turned out to be very handy and nothing on them has broken, ruptured, quit or degraded. They are pretty perfect when you need just one more squirt of light somewhere in your process. I take em along for impromptu interview stuff as well.
Moving on to cameras. You've probably read all the stuff I've written about the GH5 and the G85 so I won't belabor that. I find them to be perfect for the "mixed grill" of work I'm doing. As photo only cameras they are just fine. As photo+video cameras they are sublime.
But the other camera I bought and pressed into much use this year is the "lowly" Panasonic bridge camera, the FZ2500. Originally acquired to shoot video with it's turned into a bit of an all-around workhorse. I've used it to shoot a number of live theater dress rehearsals (photographs) as well as three or four video interview situations and some work for ad agencies (mostly green screen stuff...) and in each case it's worked well. People rag on its autofocus but I've found it to be one of those things where you just have to understand the settings, and the limitations of touchscreens for cameras, and use your brain for a bit of override. Once I found the custom area setting and locked it all into place it's become a fast and sure focusing camera with high sharpness files. I kid a couple of my friends from time to time that I will soon dump all the rest of the cameras and continue with just a couple of super bridge cameras. I may be joking (for the most part) but with a few workarounds I'm pretty sure I could pull it off.
If you don't have one and you want to stick your toe into 4k video then rush out and get one now. The FZ2500 is a remarkable bargain, given all of its capabilities.
The last product I want to praise today is the Hoodman Steel V90 SD card product line. I now have four cards, use them in GH5s, (both slots take advantage of UHS-ii) and it makes the cameras so much more responsive. But beyond that, being able to shoot video at 400 mb/s in camera, All-I, is just amazing to me. Monstrous big files but sometimes just exactly what the doctor ordered. I wouldn't use the 400 mb/s for interviews or long form documentaries but for 30 and 60 second spots? Amazing!!!!!
The popcorn is all gone. I've pushed "upload" and I'm heading into the house. Tomorrow is a full day of swimming and photographing and then we're heading back to the theatre with friends to see "A Christmas Carol" one more time. It's been a great year to be in the creative content business. And, as always, fun to share it on the blog...