Last week I talked about photographing two actors on white for the upcoming production of "Singing in the Rain." Here's the first use. A printed post card...

I love to show finished projects. I worked with Rona Ebert who is the in-house design director at Zach Theatre on this assignment. We met before the shoot to brainstorm and plan and it paid off with dozens of photographs of this talented couple that the theater will be using leading up to, and throughout the run of the show.

I really like the way this ended up. In any professional photography job the client pretty much takes things like able camera operation and lighting competence as unspoken, required basics. You wouldn't be in their facility working with paid talent if they didn't assume you had those things managed. The things that keep you on their team are your ability to collaborate with the talent (and the creative team)  to get good expressions, gesture and presence.

Just as a technical reminder, I shot this job with a Panasonic GH5 and the Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 Pro lens. I used a couple of cheap speed lights on the white muslin background, a monolight to the right of the frame in a huge white umbrella as my main light, and a second mini-monolight, at half the relative power, over to the left of the frame, in an even bigger umbrella. I used one tiny speed light to light the talent from the back. That light was used directly and was dialed down to about 1/16th power. It's just the barest twinkle of backlight....


I just had to go out and do a quick test of a lens I'll probably use less than most of my other lenses. It's the Panasonic/Leica 8-18mm.

As most loyal readers probably know I think of wide angle and ultra wide angle lenses as an afterthought. But when shooting commercial work there are often requests to, "get the whole lab, from side to side, in the shot." Or, "Can you get this entire group in the shot from about 10 feet away?" Or, "Let's shoot this scene from inside the car/truck/plane/boat." And in those situations client retention does call for some focal length flexibility. In my full frame Canon days my widest lens was the 20mm f2.8 and I used it whenever I needed to do architecture. With the full frame Sonys I try to make everything fit into the 24mm wide end of the 24-70mm zoom but use the Rokinon 14mm when I know I'll have time to spend correcting its massive distortion...(a lens profile in Lightroom is a big help). 

So now that I've dived into the Panasonic cameras and am putting together what I think will be a video centric imaging system I've decided not to dance around the need for some wide angle coverage and to buy a lens that simplifies that kind of photography. There were really two choices: the Olympus 7-14mm Pro series lens and the Panasonic/Leica 8-18mm. I chose the Panasonic/Leica for three reasons (of which only two are cogent and only one is a deal maker....). First off I liked the industrial design of the lens. It looks cool. Don't discount cool looks entirely. Design is, by nature, somewhat sneaky in that it makes a certain statement. The Panasonic/Leica says, "Well integrated with the camera." 

My second reason for buying it is my theory that while Olympus and Panasonic cameras will read each other's lens firmware maybe Panasonic camera has some special sauce sprinkled in that allows it to optimize the wide performance of the lens just a little bit more. And finally, most importantly, I can stick a 67mm variable neutral density filter right on the front of the lens while the Olympus requires a whole new, fumbly apparatus with which to use filters at all. 

I didn't want to wait until the 30 day return privilege at Precision Camera passed me by to check out the lens performance so after a meeting about a video project with my favorite producer/director I headed downtown to shoot random wide shots of random stuff. I also stopped by Whole Foods to pick up a couple of Lemon Hazelnut Scones (LHS) for afternoon tea with my favorite art director/designer and to have some sushi for lunch. 

I came home and put four dozen files into Lightroom and looked as them dispassionately. The lens is sharp, the software correction works well. There's no discernible loss of sharpness in the corners at f5.6 (which is a good f-stop at which to shoot wide images) and the lens resolves nice detail even at the widest setting. In short, the lens is perfect for the limited use it will probably see on my cameras. But it's good to have it in the bag for those "just in case" moments. Not what I would consider a sexy lens but one which will round out the image capabilities of the Panasonic package. 

Conjoining a GH5 camera body with a Contax/Yashica Zeiss 50mm f1.7 lens and then throwing caution to the wind and shooting mostly at f2.0 and f2.8.

It's fun to mix and match. I've been playing around with the Panasonic GH5 cameras for a week or so and have found the Olympus Pro series lenses I bought to be amazingly sharp. Same with the Panasonic 8-18mm lens, but I felt the need to fill in with some speed in the portrait/short tele area of my lens kit for these cameras. Having already dropped kilo dollars on the basics for the system I was reticent to drop more cash on something stop gap (saving up for the Nocticron...) so I rummaged around in one of the equipment drawers and found my Zeiss 50. I just happened to have an adapter to mount it onto m4:3rds cameras and in moments we were all hooked up and on our way. 

Early on I decided that I'd like to try shooting the lens close to its maximum aperture because that's where I thought I'd get the most use out of it on real shoots --- as the lens to grab when I need an extra stop of light, or a little less depth of field, when shooting available light. I pretty much stuck to f2.0 and f2.8 and enabled the GH5's automatic shutter selection. This would allow the camera to switch to the high speed, electronic shutter when the light levels maxed out the mechanical shutter's 1/8,000th. 

Most of the sunlit shots sent the camera into electronic shutter territory. The one just below, shot at f2.0 required 1/32,000th of a second exposure. I hardly worried about subject movement with this shot.... But what I was interested to see was the lens performance on a sensor much smaller than the original 35mm frame for which this lens was originally designed. 

I was pleased....

The camera and lens handled each other beautifully. 


Lighting Mr. Hooper.

It's always all about the big, spot main light. For this portrait of a very accomplished theatrical talent I used a large softbox over to the right side of the frame. I realized though that getting the light in as close as I wanted it (approximately the same distance to subject as the diagonal measure of the light itself...) I would risk burning out his left shoulder. I used a Westcott FastFrame with a two stop net between the bottom, rear quarter of the softbox and his shoulder, feathering it so it would not cause an obvious drop in overall exposure. This allowed me to get the soft transition across his face and not worry about over lighting my subject on the main light side. I used a 50 inch, round, pop-up diffuser on the shadow side as passive fill and one light, dialed way down, on the background to bring it up just a hair.

The frame is cropped down from a 3:2 aspect ratio. I used a Sony A7Rii and an FE 85mm f1.8 to make the image. The camera was set to uncompressed Raw.

The main light is the Neewer Vision 4 battery powered monolight and the background light is the Godox AD200 using the standard reflector with its front diffuser.

If you don't like the expression on this image (I do...) then I have 519 others to choose from. Across four wardrobe changes.


The GH5. What does it really look like at ISO 3200. One quick example shot in murky conditions.

Leslie as the evil queen in a Zach Theatre production of 
"The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" for kids.

My friend, James, and I have views about camera noise performance that seem to sit on opposite sides of some spectrum of visual aesthetics. You have to beat me over the head with noise in a photograph before I protest. If I can't see noise in a file at the resolution at which I'll be using the file it just doesn't exist for me. In early days of digital the noise always consisted of color splotches and random color crap but now everyone's camera seems to deliver a nicer (to me) monochrome, film grain-like noise that effectively mimics film grain from black and white films overlaying a color file. James, on the other hand, seems to have a severe allergy nearly as strong as a deadly peanut allergy to the presence of moving noise in the shadow areas of video files; and by extension, still image files. He's usually on the search for a video camera (or still camera) that's more or less devoid of noise. 

I'm pretty happy with the general control of noise I get out of one inch sensor cameras and most micro four thirds cameras; as long as the detail and color are there. 

We've lately been having coffee and sharing resources about the GH5 camera since we are both interested in it. My interest bleeds over from video and into the photo realm. He would use the camera strictly for video production. I think the high ISO noise presented by my Sony RX10iii or Panasonic FZ2500 is quite acceptable for most productions. James considers cameras like the Sony FS-7 or A7Rii to be the more appropriate tools with which to create un-noisy video files. 

I wanted to see if I was in the self-delusion mode (happens from time to time) about the amount of noise in GH5 files at various settings so I did what I usually write about here at VSL. I took the camera out on an assignment and tested it in the kind of situation I find myself in from time to time.

I was at the Zach Theatre campus to shoot a children's play in their small, theater-in-the-round stage. It's a theater that seats about 140 people. The walls are painted black as is the high, high ceiling. Since all the productions in this auditorium are presented in the round there is no effective front fill for the lighting. It all comes from catwalks high above the stage. This means that every face has bright highlights and unfilled shadows. There is very little fill from any direction. This small auditorium will also be the last one updated to use new LED lights. The lights currently hanging from the rafters are ancient tungsten spots and floods. This means that when they are filtered heavily you can only get so much power down onto my subjects. 

While the lighting looks dramatic and fun for audiences it's not often optimal for camera work. In the film years we routinely dragged in huge amounts of flash and set up the scenes we wanted to capture and lit for them. We tried to match the "feel" of the theatrical lighting but with all the proper ratios, and an ample amount, to make slow film emulsions happy. We don't do that now. There's no time or budget to get too fancy now. 

With all this in mind I dragged a Panasonic GH5 and an Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 to shoot a dress rehearsal of the play ( without an audience; thankfully). When we got rolling I realized that my base exposure/working exposure was going to settle in at 1/125th of a second (needed to have even a chance of freezing motion) at f4.0 (my widest available f-stop) at ISO 3200. Several of the parameters are fixed. I couldn't drop below 1/125th without having too many images blurred by subject movement. I couldn't shooter at a faster aperture than f4.0 because the lens I brought doesn't have a wider aperture setting. I couldn't change the lighting. That left ISO. I started out at 1600, which I consider to be safe for the GH5 sensor. I migrated to 3200 to keep the shutter speed up.

I shot for an hour and tried a number of strategies but in the end it all boils down to the fact that sensors of various sizes and generations have various noise limits. The noise generated is also dependent on the subject matter and lighting. Even, well filled light situations seem to yield less noise while low key, unfilled lighting situations tend to pump up noise. Nailing exposure is a big help. If you have to push up the exposure in post you invariably push up the parts of the image that are most subject to noise generation. Over use of the shadow slider in Lightroom or PhotoShop will affect the noise in shadow pretty profoundly.

Here are my personal takeaways from my shoot/test yesterday: I am okay with most of the noise I saw in the files; given how the files will be used. I would not want to go above 3200 ISO in low key situations with the m4:3 sensors, even the latest 20 megapixel versions, if I could prevent it. The noise reduction controls in both programs can be very effective but take experience and trial and error to get right. The camera's implementation of noise reduction is better for generating large numbers of nicely less noisy files than trying to batch a "one size fits all" setting in post. There is a caveat to letting the Jpeg engine do your de-noising; the default NR setting in the standard profile at ISO 3200 is too aggressive and blurs too much fine detail. I back off one or two notches in the parameter settings now. 

Even in situations with ample light you can run into noise issues if you are basically underexposed. Camera meters tend to compulsively protect highlights and they do so by pulling overall exposures down by anywhere from 2/3rds stop to a full stop. Sometimes even more. Recovery costs noise. 

Finally, if you read the information about the GH5's "improvements" over previous models you'll find that the new types of noise reduction use formulas to decide whether an area in a frame is detailed or flat and the camera applies different kinds and amounts in each area. There isn't such a thing, in camera, as uniform noise reduction. Which means that sometimes the camera gets it just right and sometimes it leaves you with the question: "Dear God Camera! What were you thinking???"

My noise abatement solution for the next dark show in the all black theater? Bring fast primes! I probably could have done a good job covering the show with two lenses: the Panasonic 15mm f1.7 and the Panasonic 42.5 mm f1.2. Maybe I'd toss a 25mm f1.7 in as well. I think all of them could be used wide open which would get me either two stops more of shutter speed or the ability to shoot at ISO 800. 

It's all part of my continuing experiment with photography...


Testing out the Panasonic GH5 as a still photography camera. We headed to Zach Theatre for a photon phest.

Sasha will be co-starring in "Singing in the Rain."

It's best to break in new cameras a step at a time. Here's how we do it in VSL World: Upon taking possession of a new camera model I put the battery on the charger and then sit down in a comfortable chair and read the full, online manual to get up to speed on all the features I know I will use. After manual reading and battery charging I put a lens on the front and head downtown to my favorite stomping grounds and get used to physically handling the camera. I shoot stuff and review. I use all the buttons that control the stuff I use all the time. This might happen between two and ten times before I'm ready to commit using the new gear on a project. 

When I feel comfortable with the camera I tend to use it in the studio for simple headshots to start out. It's such a controllable atmosphere and there's well known gear waiting in the wings if I happen to hit a snag. It also give me an opportunity to work with controlled lighting and to see just how good the files can be when shot at their native ISO and lit well. Then I drag all the files into Lightroom and try to find out where the points of pain might be in the files themselves. Is there a consistent color cast? How does the camera file handle deep shadows? How much highlight recovery is there, actually? Is the lens correction playing with a full deck?

Once I go past this I'm ready to take the camera with me to paying shoots for commercial clients. 

As you may have read I've recently been acquiring some good lenses for my Panasonic GH5 cameras (yes, I bought a second one...) and today (and tomorrow) presented good opportunities to slam a lot of frames through one of the machines and to see just how well it works. 

Today's project was a marketing assignment to shoot two dancers on white to use in marketing and promotion for Zach Theatre's upcoming production of "Singing in the Rain." 

So much experimenting. First of all we lit the set with nothing but battery powered lights. Lights spanning three different brands. The main light was provided by the Neewer 300 w/s monolight powered by its big lithium ion battery, aimed into a 72 inch, white umbrella. The fill was the Godox AD200 with a bare tube head and a wide angle diffuser aimed into a 77 inch, white umbrella. I used a couple of Godox camera speedlights on the background and a small, manual flash as a kicker positioned on the opposite side of the talent from the main light. 

The two big flashes were set to one quarter power, the background flashes at 1/16th power and the kicker also at 1/16th. The exposure was f8.0 at 1/125th of a second, ISO 400. Action frozen, talent fully in focus even when moving. 

I shot 500+ images and the flashes were happy to come along for the ride. No shut downs, no heat warnings. I have great images of the couple leaping through the air that are crisply frozen. The raw files are very malleable in Lightroom and the resolution works. The cameras are a blast to shoot with and nailed focus in spite of the fact that I wasn't using modeling lights but was depending entirely on the high ceiling florescent fixtures for all my focusing and composing illumination. Modeling lights can be helpful but one would think that after shooting these kinds of assignments for 28 years (give or take a few months) I should pretty well know where to put the lights. 

While the camera is great to shoot with, focuses quickly and generates pleasing files some of the credit must go to the lens. The 12-100mm f4.0 Pro Olympus lens is the sharpest zoom lens I've ever used on micro 4:3rds and the wide focal length range means I needed only one lens for the entire afternoon. 


Putting the final touches on a hard working, 4K, video system for commercial work.

Panasonic GH5 with Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 lens.

There are some parameters I need in my selection of tools if I am to feel comfortable offering video services to clients now. Those would include: a range of great codecs, solid 4K performance, unlimited recording time, solid battery performance, an easy to use audio interface, a selection of really good lenses, and well implemented image stabilization. Even before the recently announced firmware upgrade (v2.0) the GH5 system checked all those things off the list. In fact, it's the only hybrid (stills and video) camera I've found at any price to have everything I want for video production and a complete complement of photographic abilities as well. The only feature the camera lacks is an extremely high resolution mode. 

My immersion into the system has been gradual. As one insightful wag wrote, when I bought the Panasonic FZ2500, (and I paraphrase) "this (the FZ2500) will be the gateway drug into the GH5 system." And, to a certain extent, that is true. In concert with the Atomos Ninja Flame the FZ2500 allowed the use of 10 bit, 4:2:2 performance in 4K video. My recent experiences using the system to shoot green screen were eye-opening for me. The FZ also helped me get used to the color science of the Panasonic system.

After several very successful still shoots and much video testing with my first GH5 (using the Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 Pro lens) I felt ready to flesh out a cohesive video system around the GH5 camera body. I am certain that its advanced video features make it a good choice for the next two years without worries of technical obsolescence.

With the system in place I am confident that I can provide clients with sharp, clean video and audio that is on par with the technical deliverables of all mainstream video platforms commonly used for corporate and other commercial video uses. With the update to firmware 2.0 in the Fall we'll also add the ability to create files at 400 MB/s that will rival top systems. 

Here's what I've put together in order to provide my clients with great content and superior technical quality: 

Two GH5 camera bodies. Having two identical allows me to set up and shoot interviews from two angles/magnifications, to provide more editing options in interviews. On a fast moving project it allows me to use a second camera operator who will provide matching footage so we can two different scenes concurrently. The second camera always buys peace of mind on client shoots. If one camera goes down we have an identical back up. 

Leica/Panasonic 8-18mm wide angle zoom lens. I've always shied away from extreme wide angles but I'm finding more and more uses for focal lengths wider than the 24mm equivalent when shooting architecture (interior and exterior) as well as in cramped labs and clean rooms. The 8-18mm is extremely sharp, and, in conjunction with the in-camera corrections, doesn't exhibit much geometric distortion. The front of the lens has a familiar, 67mm filter ring which makes it easy to use polarizers and variable neutral density filters. The longer end of the lens gets into my comfort zone for everyday shooting. It's a nice overlap with the 12-100mm f4.0 lens.

Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 Pro zoom lens. This lens is insanely sharp and perfect for those times when I have to travel light, work fast and move around with the camera off tripod. The 24-200mm equivalent focal range all falls into my compositional comfort zones. The manual focus feature, with hard stops for close focus and infinity, is a desirable addition for anyone shooting video production. The only thing lacking, which can be useful in some situations, would be a power zoom... This is the lens I keep on the camera most often for interviews and general work. In dark interiors I wish it was one stop faster but I've never wished for it to be sharper...

Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 Pro zoom lens. I added this lens almost exclusively for shooting live theater at Zach Theatre (and perhaps the Lyric Theater in OKC and the Alley Theater in Houston....). With its fast and perfectly usable f2.8 and a focal length range that is equivalent of 80-300mm on a 35mm camera I can sit mid-house and grab endless shots that range from tight, one person compositions to small groups and ensembles. Being able to do so with the lens wide open at all focal lengths is a great thing. It's something I've done extensively with the Sony RX10 iii and the Panasonic FZ2500. If I need to go longer I can pick up a 1.4X extender which would get me to the equivalent of 420mm with an f-stop of f4.0. 

25mm f1.7. It's a reflex. Get a system and add the basic "normal" lens. Useful when smaller camera profiles are appreciated and, used wide open, a decent way to get more light on the sensor. 

While these are the primary lenses I'll be using for most commercial engagements I do find that the lure of my collection of Olympus Pen FT prime lenses also sways me to look to m4:3 cameras for video production use. They are a nice adjunct to the modern lenses, provide wider apertures and have a distinctive look. 

For convenience (and because the price is so much more reasonable than Sony's) I am also adding the GH5 Microphone adapter, the DMW-XLR1, to make audio easier when I am shooting solo. It fits into the hot shoe and has gotten good marks from all the reviewers I've read.

Everything else I need for the video I want to do is already resident in the studio. We've got all manner of cool lights, lots of light stands and C-Stands, endless modifiers, digital video recorders, meters, and cases. 

My aim is to provide "no excuses" video to good clients who value my particular "small footprint" approach to producing their work. We'll see if it's a market that's profitable.