Those Damn menus. And what's with all the people who say, "Once you have them set up you never have to use your brain again....."

This is a small rant engendered by a series of comments on one of Michael Johnston's posts today. He was querying his readers about the virtues and detractions of various small sensor cameras with great image stabilization. The Olympus cameras came up repeatedly. The first verse from everyone was: (paraphrasing here): "Oh, they are great cameras except for the horrible, horrible, painful, brain searing menus..." Which would be reflexively followed by: "but once you take the hours, days, weeks, to get the cameras set up exactly the way you will always use them you rarely need to even enter the menu (hell) again!" As though that was a good and proper way of tackling a photographic tool.

What the hell?  I am sure there may be some who can dip into their camera menu and set all the dozens (hundreds?) of variable items, methodically, and then never have to touch the menu button again but I'm absolutely baffled about who those shooters might be and why they feel that it's rationale, sane, practical, etc. to use exactly the same camera settings over and over again.

I've owned several Olympus EM-5s and several EM-5II cameras and I readily admit that they are capable of taking great photographs, stabilize lenses better than anyone in the universe, and, in the case of the EM-5ii, make really, really good video. But I have to ask what professional or advanced amateur shoots exactly the same thing over and over again? And at exactly the same settings? If you shoot different kinds of images, or go back and forth between video and stills, you'll need to be diving into that swamp creature of a menu every day. Deep dives.

Going from theatrical work to video work to portraiture requires changing imaging profiles, metering modes, shadow and highlight distribution, focusing modes and so much more. Even after owning both sets of cameras and using them for months at time a few days off and the need to find a very specific menu driven control could be downright paralytic. Not to mention that some of the symbols Olympus uses for their menu items are not standard camera icons or abbreviations. And NO! I can't load everything I need onto a Super Control Panel.

I hate hearing that nonsense about setting the camera up once and never touching the "hidden" controls again. It's entirely disingenuous. The people who make this statement might be a rare breed of single subject shooters but the rest of us depend on the same system being able to handle all kinds of jobs and projects.

The ability to justify the Olympus menu system is becoming almost cultish. But the reality is that Olympus has some sort of misguided corporate death wish. Why else make using the product so damn hard? So frustrating.

I thought I might have been over reacting until I started shooting with the Panasonic cameras. The GH5 in particular. Its menus are well laid out. Logical. Easy to navigate.

When I picked up a Nikon D800e it took me about ten minutes to get back up to speed with their menus and they are not nearly as coherent as the Panasonic menus. And I had not handled a Nikon for two or three years before picking it back up.

If you like horsing around with complex spreadsheets, sudoku and the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle then I can respect your ..... affectations, but trying to normalize such a faulty disfunction in camera making is over the top.

Just imagine how great those cameras could be. Great color. Great I.S. Lovely finder. Good, multishot high res modes, better and better video....now imagine the camera was also easy to set up, change menu items, re-set parameters and understand. It would be amazing.

Just don't tell me I can preset a tiny handful of parameters and use them for everything I'll ever do with a camera ever again. That's nonsense.

Battle of the formats. Which one handles live theater photography better? Which is more fun to shoot?

Jill Blackwood at "Dot" in "Sundays in the Park with George".

Oh, we've been busy taking photographs again. I was doing a little informal test on Sunday and Tuesday. I photographed two different rehearsals of the Steven Sondheim play, "Sundays in the Park with George" with two different camera systems. On Sunday I shot with the Nikon D800 and several different lenses, last night I shot with the Panasonic GH5 and two different lenses. The results were interesting and the contrast between the working methodologies was even more interesting. 

It was an illuminating comparison because the lighting, costumes, actors and sets were identical and I could go back and compare results in the same scenes; one set shot with a full frame camera, set to raw, and the other shot with a micro four thirds camera set to fine Jpeg. While there are certainly aesthetic differences between the sets of files there were bigger differences in the way I took the photographs and the difference in efficiency between the mirror free camera and the mirror burdened camera....

This is in no way an exacting test of the two cameras because I was using an odd collection of mid-tier Nikon zooms (as well as a bonafide "antique" lens = the 70-210mm af-D) while I was taking advantage of my investment in great glass for the Panasonic cameras (Olympus Pro 40-150mm f2.8 and the amazing 12-100mm f4.0 zoom lenses), but there is more to imaging than format and glass.

I was restricted to using the Nikons to Sunday evening because of their loud shutter noise. The positive trade off was that since we didn't have an audience in the theatre for the technical rehearsal I could move around anywhere I wanted and get as close to the stage as I wanted. That helped give me a more dynamic set of images and I never had to worry about disturbing "clients." (audience).

That's a huge restriction! If I get serious about shooting theater again with the Nikon cameras I'm certain I'll quickly replace the two D800 variants with at least one D850 just because it has a much, much quieter shutter. I had toyed with buying a product called "The Camera Muzzle" but by the time it came onto my radar I'd missed the shipping window to be able to use it on Tues. Having it Sunday wasn't important (no audience to piss off) but spending $150 on something I may or may not use in the future is irrational, even for me. 

(The Camera Muzzle is a soft camera cover with lots of insulation. It fits over the camera body and lens but has enough room to get your hands inside in order to operate the shutter button and camera controls. Its whole reason for existence is to muffle the noise of mirrored cameras and make them acceptable (acoustically) when you are shooting in certain environments. As I understand, it's not nearly as good a dedicated hard blimp (starting at $1,000) but for $150 does a good job. Your sensitivity and tolerance may vary. Here's a link: CAMERA MUZZLE-FOR PEOPLE WHOSE CAMERAS MAKE TOO MUCH NOISE!!!  It might be perfect for some event spaces where noise can be an issue. But given the bulk, the tendency for your hands to get hot and sweaty, and the not 100% noise abatement, I'm thinking we'd all be better served to use cameras with silent shutters.....

UNLESS---- But "hold that thought." 

From a user point of view (and the owner and purchaser of both systems) I can say that the Nikons operated just as expected and, beyond the noise and the need to constantly chimp exposures, they did a good job making images under fast changing lighting and color temperatures. Had I used the latest and greatest lenses (and a D850) I would have to say that the system has the potential to make superior images for theater work. If I continue to use the big Nikons for live theater shooting I'd certainly want a fast 70-200mm zoom and an equally fast 24-70mm zoom. My current "theater photography wish list" if I want to shoot with the Nikon cameras reads something like this: 2 X Nikon D850's @$3300 each = $6600. 1 X Nikon 70-200mm VR e f2.8 zoom = $2,800. 1 X Nikon 24-70mm VR f2.8 = $2400. The revised system would set me back nearly $11,800. That's a tidy sum. 

And the major downside would be that after spending all that money I would not have an EVF, which I think is an amazing benefit for theater work, or work on any project where exposure and color temperature are constantly changing... Add to that the enormous weight of those fast lenses and even a buff young thing like me cringes at handholding the two cameras and their attendant lenses for hours on end. 

Are you still "holding the thought" I asked you to hold a two paragraphs before? Cool. So let's take a "brand break" and talk in general terms about camera noise. A worst case scenario for me is having to shoot images of a dress rehearsal in a theater just packed with people. Even worse, to have to shoot a performance with a packed house of paying customers in a scheduled show run. Many Fuji, Olympus, Sony and Panasonic mirrorless users will, no doubt, puff their collective chests out and stridently (and usually with a patronizing tone) let me know that THEIR SUPER DELUXE CAMERAS HAVE TOTALLY SILENT ELECTRONIC SHUTTERS as an option. 

Well, good for you. Going forward, in all but the oldest and least well equipped theaters (those still using tungsten lights), you will NOT want to use your "silent shutter" to shoot the action on the stage. Not going to work. Not going to make your client happy. Not going to create problems that can be easily solved in post production. Your silent shutter has just been shut down by LED theatrical fixtures!!! You'll read this, doubt me and then find out the hard and expensive way all on your own...

But here's the deal: While current, high quality LEDs designed for video and still photography use various electrical designs to keep them from flickering during short exposures (1/60th and shorter) the makers of light fixtures for live theater are much more concerned with output power, beam throw and automatic motion control than they are with quelling all the flicker that your cameras might see but which audiences will almost certainly NOT see. More power, more flicker and more cost savings on "un-needed" things like highly regulated power supplies. 

I used to rejoice that my new cameras (almost every mirrorless model and many new DSLRs) had silent shutters but now I ignore them unless I am shooting in a courtroom or need ultra fast (electronic) shutter speeds. The LED lights in Zach Theatre (and in many other venues in which I've worked) create flicker which manifests itself in each frame as a series of light and dark bands which are very, very visible....to everyone. 

Yes, some cameras have features that promise flicker reduction but it rarely works out perfectly in the flawed, artifact-y, real world. 

Hmmm. Last night I was sitting away about six feet away from the closest audience members. No one was behind me or beside me, it was the row six feet in front of me that I was concerned about. Last night was the dress rehearsal and we had an invited audience (family and friends)  so it wasn't a "life or death" but we still want our fans to have a great time so I wanted to be as audibly discreet as possible...

When it got quiet I switched over to the electronic "silent shutter" and immediately saw banding everywhere. The trade-off wasn't worth it. We needed the photos for marketing. I switched back to the mechanical version.

The GH5 has a fairly quiet and well damped shutter. Much, much quieter than the full frame Nikons. But they still make noise. In a raucous show like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or Tommy, the Rock Opera, or Priscilla Queen of the Desert the sound of a small camera shutter is well hidden by the music and bombast of the performances. But there are quite a few moments in a more cerebral play, like one about George Seurat, that are very quiet, just dialog with lots of dramatic pauses, and, yes, sometimes you can hear the proverbial pin drop. Or at least the shutter of modern camera. 

For most of the performance I tried to time my shots to the sound design on the stage. In all but the quietest moments the shutter was inaudible to the people in front of me. In truth, I could barely hear it in most parts of the play. If everything is equal and you are trying to decide on a good camera for this kind of work it certainly would behoove you to check out the mechanical shutter noise, and noise profile (sharp and tinny or low and mellow) before you toss down dollars...

So, what's my assessment in the battle of cameras in front of the stage? Here's where the Panasonic GH5 wins: 1. The EVF offers the most elegant way to constantly check color and exposure without missing shots because you had to chimp and then check what you have already shot. Pre-chimping through the finder is much more efficient and fluid. In this situation even the very best optical finder is a burden to fast and effective shooting. That big, clear window isn't going to buy you any better focusing or composition but will add a number of steps to your ability to constantly adapt to changing lighting and scene conditions --- second by second.  2. The Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 lens is bitingly sharp and can be used all day long at its widest aperture with no compromise to optical performance. None. The image stabilization in the lens is perfect for the lens. And the 12-100mm lens is in exactly the same rarified strata of lenses. A big win. Yes, I know that Nikon lenses are great as well but at more than twice the weight (not counting the weight of the cameras) they quickly become a burden for long periods of handheld shooting. Oh, and you lose two stops of depth of field with the bigger lens when used wide open. Not important in one person scenes but this can be critical if you are trying to spread focus deeper into the stage for group shots. 3. The sonic profile of the shutter in the GH5 is much lower and more pleasant than the sound of the older Nikon shutters. I do like the new D850 shutter but I haven't done a side by side comparison yet. The acoustic jury is still out.

When I tested the GH5 files against the Nikon D800e files in lower light situations I found that using the GH5 at ISO 1250 got me into the same noise ballpark as files from the Nikon taken at 3200. The noise in the GH5 files is more uniform and grain like and, at 100%, the Nikon starts to show tiny white specks which are not visible when downsampled to the same size as the Panasonic files. 

The pluses for the Nikon cameras are all about format size. The bigger sensor is better overall with noise at higher ISOs. The bigger sensor does give you a two stop advantage when you want to throw clutter in the backgrounds out of focus. The bigger sensor will give you more detail (if you nail focus and exposure correctly) in your images when you blow them up. 

After shooting about 1500 images in each system on the same set I'll give the nod to the Panasonic jpeg files which handled noise well, were every bit as good as the Nikon files at the sizes we'll use the images, and gave me a good, quiet shooting system that I could handhold for hours longer.

If you are currently shooting with one system or the other there is only one compelling reason to switch to or stay with m4:3 and that would be the utility of the EVF. The Nikon stuff really comes into its own for other kinds of shoots we do for the theatre. The bigger cameras are at their best when we do set up shots with big flashes for marketing and posters, with rehearsed moves and total control. In those situations the superior imaging quality of the sensors can be fully leveraged. 

No winners. No big losers. Just different ways of working in a specific kind of location. 

 Matthew Treviso as the boatman.
Paul Sanchez at Louis the baker. Jill Blackwood at Dot.

Amber Quick as "Nurse",  Brian Coughlin as Randolph and B. Mahstedt as Louise