Choosing between micro four thirds cameras and full frame, Nikon D800 cameras for tomorrow's portrait assignment.

A self portrait from 2013 with the failed Samsung Galaxy NX APS-C camera.

I have an unusual assignment tomorrow. I'm going to a hotel in the downtown area where I'll set up a temporary studio in a large meeting room. The studio will have a gray background at one end and a black background at the other end and a bunch of lights in between. I need to photograph about 25 people that work for a telecom company because each of them needs a new headshot for LinkedIn and other social media. 

I'll photograph each person against the black background and then move them over a few feet and photograph them against the gray background. I'm not sure why the need for two different backgrounds but that's what came in the bid request. I connected with this client through a telecom client in San Francisco and, in spite of needing two different backgrounds the shoot should be fun and lighthearted. 

I was down scouting the location today so I'd know what to bring tomorrow. I've packed four monolights to use on the shoot (main light and back light on each set) as well as two pop-up reflectors for fill. I'm also packing two speed lights to use as background lights for the gray background set. But the decision that made me pause was about the cameras. 

Should I bring the Nikon D800s or the Panasonic GH5 cameras?

In the end I decided to continue my successful run with the Panasonic cameras, packing the GH5S and the newer G9. But I paid attention to my thought processes and the way I came around to deciding on which system to use. I thought it might help instruct me in future engagements...

The first part of the equation is that we'll have to shoot the equivalent of 50 portraits over the course of the day. That's a lot to shoot but that's a hell of a lot to post process. I bid the job differently than I usually would because I'm trying to streamline the amount of work I need to dedicate to post production. What I told the client was this: I'll shoot between ten and twenty shots of each person against each background. At the least that's 500 images and at the most around 1,000 images. In the past I would have made a global color correction and exposure currection, put the edited (meaning "culled down") images in a gallery on Smugmug.com and had the client go there to pick out the best image of each person. Then I'd retouch that single image for each person. But that makes the process cumbersome and time consuming. A lot of people take their time getting back with selections and there are few things I hate more than projects that come back to me in dribbles and drabs. 

This time around I'll light and shoot them to the best of my abilities, do a very precise global color correction and apply (almost like a LUT in video) a look to the files, and put all of them up on Smugmug.com and make every image downloadable in full resolution by the client. I'll effectively take myself out of the selection and retouching process. Taking it one step further I'm shooting all the files as Jpegs (yes, I'll take a hand held meter, and yes, I'll do a careful custom white balance...) which will save me time and space in the backend of the process. To take it one step further I'll use the GH5S as my primary camera depending on the G9 only as my back up camera. Why? Well, the 10 megapixel files, of course. 

I did mention above that the aim point for delivery was files to use on social media...

I considered using the Nikon D800s because they do very nice files. But they are also bereft of things like eye and face detection autofocus, which I want to use in case my attention drifts away from the task at hand and I truly go into autopilot. 

The D800 is less agile about nailing focus; especially when compared to any of the recent Panasonic cameras that do face/eye AF. I also have to admit that I like the color straight out of the GH5S better than anything else I've played with. Better than any camera since the Kodak D760. 

The ten megapixel files have ample detail for any sort of social media use and the ability to use the 4:3 aspect ratio is also a bonus for this particular project. 3:2 vertical just never really looks good on LinkedIn. Using the GH5S allows me to use one of my favorite portrait lenses of the last two years, the Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 Pro. And by using it at ISO 200 and f5.6 I'll get ample depth of field while keeping the needed flash power low enough to ensure that the lithium batteries in the Neewer monolights lasts all day long. 

So I end up with files that absorb fewer archiving resources, are faster to upload to the final gallery and have the color and tonality I like. Seems like a win on every level.

The score would be much different if the parameters of the job were different. If the client was using the images for big, scalable banner ads or full screen graphic I might elect to use the G9 as my primary camera in order to get a larger file. If the client also needed images for print advertising and intended to use the images in advertising or in trade show graphics then I might step up once again and go to the raw files in the Nikon. At some point it's all contextual and the days of re-tasking images for all imaginable uses are long gone. Current clients understand that different images have different uses, different values and can be created with various tools. Part of my job is choosing the right job to both satisfy my clients and my need to continually streamline and drive costs out of my process in places where the requested quality won't be affected. 

We have no obligation to provide our clients with more than they pay for or more than they contract for. If clients want to sharpen their accounting pencils and make budgets smaller we're okay with complying as long as we are able to structure our offerings to reduce cost and complexity. 

But what if one of the participants wants to have his photograph retouched? Well, we have an ala carte price in this job for individual retouching. It's extra and it's billable. And that's how I think jobs should be going forward. 


ODL Designs said...

Great breakdown Kirk. Key to this is your point that clients get what they pay for.

The technology in current m43rds cameras makes working easier. One of my favorites for portraits is the quick review in the viewfinder. You get to see the blink or funny smile without chimping and breaking the flow of the shoot.

I would love to see a file comparison between the gh5 and the GH5s, any chance you could get a model into the studio :)

Roger Jones said...

For social media the m4/3 will do the job. For prints and retouching I 'd shoot the Nikon.