9.22.2017

Random Thoughts After a Long, Hard Week of Working in the Trenches of Video and Photography. Sept. 22. Phones, the "Cool" lens and general angst.


It's been a physical week. I had a very traditional photo assignment on Monday which required shooting portraits and environmental shots at three different, blue chip law firms and at a company that provides insurance to the legal industry. I say that it's been a physical week because that job had me packing and unpacking a lot. I was able to stuff everything into one heavy backpack but it was one heavy backpack. 

I used small lights, off camera with triggers, and tried to do justice to portrait subjects in a series of quick encounters. But really, it's the packing and moving that wears one down. Tuesday was one of those relentless post processing days when the jobs done on Saturday, Sunday and Monday finally get ingested, tweaked and sent on to web galleries for their brief moment in the sunlike glare of clients' attention. 

I was back to the location work on Weds. with portraits at yet another law firm. I was using the big LED panels (Aputure Lightstorm) and four of them are a heavy package. They shared space on my multi-cart with plenty of light stands and grip gear. But the portraits I did that day were some of the best I've ever done. A lot of the quality had to do with the particular subjects but I'll give some credit to the lighting. When you finally get the perfect mix of window light and panel light, and all the planets line up correctly, if you are lucky enough to get it all balanced and sprinkled with magic pixie dust you sometimes get a gift from the photo gods. But sometimes you just get photos that are more or less in focus. I had a smile on my face when I looked at the final files this time....

Thurs. was the back-to-back work, stills and video projects for Zach Theatre. Flashes and a seamless background for full length shots of two actors at a time followed (in a different building) by two interviews (lit with LED panels) and some really fun footage of a full rain effect (with tap dancing) on the main stage. The video, when mixed with stills from the tech rehearsal this coming Sunday will get smooshed up together to make an promotional piece for "Singing in the Rain." 

I have figured one thing out. A way to lighten my load would be to lose the sandbags we use to keep stuff from falling over. But then stuff would.....fall over. A few years back Calumet marketed plastic sandbags that were meant to be filled with water at the location and then drained after use, but before packing. They worked okay for the first four or five times I used them but on one shoot, in a nice setting, they started to leak and that was the end of that. Ah well.

It's also the week I started to add some additional weight training to augment my swimming. Nothing big but even adding 50 curls with 20 pounds is enough to make one sore if one has been avoiding their weight bearing exercise....

By today I was dog tired and, after noon swim workout, I could have used a nap but instead I started reading reviews about the photographic capabilities of the new iPhone 8s. And I started thinking in earnest about computational photography. I don't think I'm breaking any new intellectual ground here when I make the statement that I sure as hell would not want to own stock in a traditional camera company from here forward. 

The inclusion of portrait modes on the new iPhone 8s that emulate the traditional optical look of out-of-focus backgrounds is going to take a huge chomp (once again) out of the low and middle tiers of the market for professional photographers. Once those cameras transition from beta computational software to the full implementation they will be able to do the few things that kept larger formats alive in the eyes of the majority of the market. They'll provide big files with lots of detail, much less noise, and the ability to drop backgrounds nicely out of focus. 

Ah, but we'll still survive because we know how to light portraits! Right? Ummm. The beta software includes the ability to change the lighting on human faces. Game over for a lot of people who were able to make a living because they could put a TTL flash with an umbrella on a light stand, get close on exposure, drop the background out of focus and depend on the generous latitude of raw files to save butt in those times when the TTL didn't quite work the way the photographer wished. And yes, you can change the background in the iPhone software. Oh, and the screens are much higher quality than just about anything on current enthusiasts' cameras. 

If I were just starting out a career in photography I'd be running for the exits so fast.... With a few well thought out accessories you and your new iPhone could be competitive with a lot of newly minted pros. Imagine if these phones ever fell into the hands of really accomplished photographers and you'll understand why I think traditional cameras are not long for the world of general photography. 

In two years there will be three classes of cameras left: the smartphones (95% of the market), mirrorless cameras with killer specs and great video (for the few working pros who are left) and traditional Nikon and Canon DSLRs for the errant dentist or nostalgia buff.  It won't be pretty on the blogs...

But I am here now and still working so I'll write about a fun lens I used for a ton of stuff this week. I've written about it before but I'll recap: I bought an Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 Pro lens to keep my first Panasonic GH5 company. I found both its optical qualities and its image stabilization to be quite good. So I've started using it for more and more work. I used it for most of the work I did at law firms in the early days of the week. And I used it yesterday, with the GH5, for both the actor images against white and the director and choreographer interviews I did in 4K video in the afternoon. I love this lens and camera combination. Everything that comes out of the camera is sharp and sassy but not exaggerated. 

The one lens that I played with this week that's even better is the Olympus 40mm-150mm f2.8. I used it wide open to make one of the most beautiful portraits I've made in years. But you just can't beat the range of the 12-100mm f4.0. And the remarkable thing is that most of the time I've been using it wide open. Pretty stunning. Everyone should run out and buy one immediately. Or not.

So, how do I feel about my recent decision to bulk up on GH5's and attendant lenses? Pretty damn good. Nearly every estimate request and bid request I get these days calls for some part of the project to be video. I was negotiating a three day event for next week and the client was pushing back on price. I pushed back too but I wanted the job. I would have ended up reducing the price if I had to but in the process the client noticed that I was also offering video services on my website and asked if I could also provide some conference b-roll video. I said, "yes" and all of a sudden my original bid was fine and reasonable. 

How much video? Roll on a speaker for 20 seconds in the middle of a session. Get some quick footage of people networking during the breaks. Show a few angles of a panel discussion. Get some footage of the band on stage at the ACL/Moody Theater. It's all stuff that will fit well around the photography I'll already be shooting. This is what the whole hybrid concept was really meant to be. 

It also works in reverse. I've been hired to shoot video interviews and had the client's marketing team enjoy the process we use with their executives enough that they were willing to add a day just to shoot portraits and some interiors. And if you think about it every single day of commercial use just about pays for one individual GH5. But none of this would work if the footage out of the cameras wasn't great. It is. In both directions. Just thought I'd throw some love to my current favorite camera. Made my favorite camera partly because of the lens contributions from Olympus. They're a better fit for me that some of the similar Panasonic lenses. 
The GH5 is definitely a keeper. 


I'd like to say that I'm planning to chill out this next week but we're already gearing up. I shoot the tech rehearsal for "Singing in the Rain" on Sunday (mostly for video b-roll) and the dress rehearsal on Tues. (mostly for marketing photography). I use any downtime on those days to do post production on the content. Then, it's a Weds. - Fri. corporate event with two handfuls of GH5 cameras. Photos and video, followed by more days of post. I've learned it's good to make hay while the sun shines. The marketing mood and the national economy have a tricky habit of turning bad on a dime...

Shooting flash without cables and cords. Makes for a relaxed photo assignment.

An almost behind the scenes look at my lighting for the actors who 
will star in "A Tuna Christmas" at Zach Theatre. In between shots.

I've pretty much cut the cord when it comes to electronic flash. After a long career of dragging heavy strobe boxes, heads and mono-lights onto location after location I've had enough. And it's never just the box and head or the mono-lights that make the process of lighting things on location such a pain in the ass, it's also the cabling, connectors and extension cords that add sheer drudgery to every job outside the studio.

In the days of nickel-cadmium double A batteries and wimpy hot shoe flashes the bigger flashes were a necessary component when lighting large groups, big products or big rooms with power hungry medium format cameras and films. Now, not so much...

The worst part of location jobs seemed to be the lack of nearby or functioning electrical outlets in whatever area in which we needed to shoot. We'd get an assignment to photograph a group of executives at a company and when we got there we would find that the location the marketing team had reserved was in a major foot traffic area in a company headquarters and that the nearest A/C outlet was 75 feet away. And on the other side of a hallway. We'd set up out lights and start stringing out extension cords. Once the extension cords were laid down we'd need to spend time taping down any part that crossed a walk way. If we needed more than one outlet our budget for gaffer's tape could get out of hand...

When I switched to mono-lights it fixed on problem (all light heads being tethered on fairly short cables to one pack) and added another. Now all four or five lights used on a temporary set would need their own power cable and those power cables needed their own extension cords. Major pain, as each cable had to be taped down so inattentive executives and their legions of helpers didn't trip over the cables and injure themselves.

I tried to go with a total battery powered system back in 2007-2008 but I was stymied by the need for all day power (so of our shoots run 1200-1500 exposures) and the need for more power than most of the cost effective speed lights delivered. I like shooting at ISO 100 or 200 and I like to use big umbrellas and soft boxes and the venerable Vivitar 283 or the Nikon SB-800 just didn't deliver.

NiMh batteries were helpful but we found ourselves changing out the four batteries in four or five flashes four or five times a day. And much of the cost of big brand name portable strobes was based on their ability to be controlled from the camera position which was a feature set we didn't need for my style of photography. Now almost every generic brand offers the same kinds of controls. But we still don't really use the remote setting features.

No, the real split between my flashes and alternating current came this year when I became aware of bigger, lithium ion batteries coupled with fairly powerful generic flash products from companies like Neewer, Godox, and Fotodiox.

I dipped my toes into the bigger battery, better performance for less money market with a couple of Godox V850 flashes and I've never looked back. Two of them made for perfect tools when lighting up a standard white background. Even with ISO 200 I'm getting f8.0 on the background above while using the flashes on manual at 1/8th power.

My next step was to play with the Godox AD200 flash which provided a bigger battery and more power, along with an interchangeable flash head. It's a really nice flash and it bangs away at 1/2 power just about forever; especially if you are using the bare bulb head. But what I really wanted was just a bit more power and a day's worth of flashes. That's when I found the Neewer Vision 4, 300 watt second, battery powered monolight. It features a big lithium ion battery that's said to be capable of delivering 700 full power flashes. I use it at 1/2 power for quick recycling and I used it that way for about 500 flashes at a shoot yesterday and still had about 3/4ths power remaining when we wrapped up.

My set up for two people, full body, on a white seamless was to use the two smaller Godox flashes at 1/8th power directly on the backgrounds. I made little BlackWrap(tm) flags to cut the light spread to keep it off my subjects. At 1/8th power the flashes recycle almost instantly and will keep popping pretty much forever.

My fill light was the AD200 firing into a 72 inch, white umbrella at 1/2 power. I used it about 20 feet back from my subjects. It was the perfect fill light.

My main light was the Neewer Vision 4 firing into a 60 inch, white umbrella that was positioned about 15 feet from the subjects (looking for the inverse square law to help me even out the light across the two actors). The light was triggered by its included remote trigger which trigger the other three lights which were set to "S1" which makes use of their optical slave modules.

With no cords to manage and no extension cords to act as potential liability lawsuit triggers I was able to position my lights wherever I needed them and to work more quickly than ever before.

I might add a second Neewer Vision 400 but....then again I may just keep on working with the exact stuff I've outlined here. Seems to be working for me well right now.

Happy to say "goodbye" to extension cords, power cables and haphazardly functional wall outlets. I'm now back in the studio watching four battery chargers flashing away for the lights and another two flashing away with camera batteries. Relaxing.