9.28.2018

Answering some production questions. Shooting corporate events.

From the Samsung Smart Watch Introduction in Berlin, 2013.
The same event at which Samsung's CEO claimed his company 
invented the first tablet with handwriting recognition and a pen. 
Go back in your time machine and introduce yourself
to the Apple Newton. It would have ruled the tech world if only 
the right processors had been available at the time....

I've shot literally hundreds of corporate events and they are all different but the same. The same part is that someone is trying to sell something to their audience. It may be a product, a concept, a new corporate direction or even the need to downsize but they are all aimed at leading attendees to a desired conclusion. In some instances a show might be about teaching better ways to use a software or hardware product but the end desire is to create happier users which should lead to more sales or at least more referrals. What's different at every show is the "look and feel" of each company's culture, the size of their budget --- which determines the production quality and complexity of their show ---- and what exactly they want from their content creators. For our purposes: what do they want from their event photographers and videographers?

Many clients want a small collection of images documenting important moments from their events that can be shared online and used in publications. These might be images of famous keynote speakers, dramatic product demonstrations or flattering images of the CEO and other top company officers speaking on stage while looking smart and honest. 

If the client needs well polished images we shoot raw and convert. But these are generally situations in which the clients are not expecting heroic turnaround times; they'll be happy to get the images a few days to a week after the event. If I'm photographing a concentrated collection of images and the image quality is paramount then I shoot in raw format and generally use the highest resolution camera I have, assuming its image quality will be top tier. In any situation that I can't light (most corporate event presentations) I work really hard to get a good custom white balance. Sometimes a quick custom WB isn't enough and you have to dive into the color setting and also fine tune the hues on the blue/yellow and green/magenta axes. If you have time to take a good, portable monitor (Atomos?) or a properly calibrated laptop you can more accurately review color but it's important if you do that to take the monitor out into known lighting in order to properly evaluate a stage scene with lots of gelled or otherwise colored lights.

I shot an event like this recently and the workflow is arduous, especially if you tend to be a promiscuous  shooter like me. Since the client expected polished images and does not have an in-house creative team that wants to take the raw images and polish the ones they want to use in-house I have to assume that everything I give them is going to be used and needs to be fine-tuned or corrected in some way so I start the process by editing down the number of images much more tightly that I otherwise would. Then I try to group images that are most alike together so I can do as much batching as possible. 

In the past clients asked for Tiffs but now Jpegs are equally acceptable so I tend to deliver Jpegs at the full file size and with the absolute minimum compression. I've never had a client complain about the file type but if they do I'll be happy to convert all raw files to Tiffs provided they show up with an external hard drive to deposit them on. If a designer still requests Tiffs we generally have a discussion about the merits of PhotoShop .PSD files and they generally get the idea that the .PSDs are equally good but more flexible within their Adobe universe.  Tiffs can get mighty big for not enough benefit.

The client I worked for this week (three day engagement+post production) has a good, and large in-house media department who are young, smart and love to get their hands in the mix. It was more important to them to get an almost minute-by-minute documentation of their event, with a wide range of speaker expressions and compositions than it was to get ultimate image quality. We still aim for great images, technically, but we shoot them with the idea that they might be used within the hour and with no quarter given for any sort of enhancement. That's another reason to pay close attention to white balance. Much of my work over the last three days was used, literally, SOOC (straight out of camera).

The two cameras I used for the show were the Panasonic GH5 variants; the original and the lower resolution "S" model.  In Jpeg I like the standard profile setting in the largest image file size and the lowest compression (finest) for this kind of work.  But I find the preset sharpening to be too much and generally tone it down by three steps from the factory setting. I also drop the saturation by one or two clicks as well. With contrasty stage lighting I drop the contrast down by two clicks and also make a custom curve in the shadow/highlights setting menu. One up for shadows (lighter) and one down for highlights (darker). 

If I'm shooting Jpegs I am almost always going to be shooting them in an sRGB color profile because that's what works the best on the web and on most computer monitors --- and that's where the images are most likely to be seen. If a client decides to use the file for something else they always have the option of converting the file to their preferred setting.

When I shoot stage productions, speeches, demonstrations, etc. I use a manual exposure setting since stage light can create pools of light and dark that fool camera meters. I try to nail a good facial exposure by either eyeballing (with an assist from Mr. Histogram) or I set zebras and have them trigger at the %+5 I like for flesh tones, seasoning according to complexion.

The video I shot at this show was rudimentary b-roll to duplicate, with motion, the kinds of images I was already shooting of the people presenting. Most presenters love to roam around the stage and it's fine when shooting video. In this situation I'm not supplying any audio other than scratch audio coming off the internal microphones. B-roll is really meant to be used under an announcer bed, or music, and if the client wants beautiful audio there's generally a bigger camera (supplied with an operator by the staging/production company) who is recording the show for posterity ---- and that operator is generally taking sound right off a sound board. 

I have been hired from time to time to shoot the stage event in video with sound. Almost every time I get an XLR cable drop to my camera and run it into a mixer via line in/out to camera. With the Panasonics, using the audio adapter, you can set the input to mic or line level and then deliver to the camera exactly which levels it needs. 

Miking multiple speakers for stage presentations requires more staff. Someone needs to run a sound board and ride levels across multiple microphones. I hand those situations off to bigger production companies but occasionally I have to record sound for one event speaker. I use two Sennheiser wireless lavaliere microphones and pray the person doesn't thump on their chest like Tarzan or wear burlap shirts that rub against the mics of the cables.... I like to use two mics with two transmitters just in case one frequency has interference that destroys the sound in one mic.

If I have to play at being a news camera man and get video of a single speaker in an "on the street" video interview I have two methods I like to use. The easiest one and, to my mind, the best sounding, is to use a Rode Reporter microphone hardwired to my audio mixer/interface in the camera hot shoe. An omni or uni-direction microphone used close to the subject (think 12-18 inches, max) does a great job of isolating voice and rejecting sounds further away. If I have an assistant or someone actually conducting an interview and we don't want to deal with seeing a reporter microphone in the video frame we default to using a good shotgun microphone. I use an Aputure Diety or a Rode NTG-4+ and have the person holding the microphone get it in as close as possible without showing in the frame. I also have them point it toward the interviewee's mouth. Most fast moving situations aren't conducive to setting up lavaliere microphones. If we are in a dynamic and uncontrollable situations, accoustic-wise, then I buck tradition and take advantage of auto level control and a limiter.

In most event situations, especially when shooting b-roll, we shy away from 4K footage and other video settings that require massive storage. The GH5S has a nice codec in .Mov that gives you 1080p at 30fps with 10 bit, 4:2:2 color space at a modest 100 mbs. Bigger than the older ACVHD files but much, much nicer detail and color. It's footage you'd actually want to use. 

I leave all the hocus-pocus of V-Log for people who like to spend lots and lots of time color grading and dealing with LUTs and try to shoot everything for corporate events in Rec 709 which gives good color and fits into most applications well.  Even in Rec 709 I think the footage is too sharp and so I'm never squeamish about turning down the sharpening to taste.

If I'm shooting on cameras that take two identical memory cards, and I know I'll be able to get everything in each camera on one card per camera, I do a variation on traditional back-ups. I put in two identical cards (for the last three days each camera has had two 128 V90 SD cards in them) and set them to shoot everything identically on both cards. During the course of the event, since my client is looking for new images on a regular basis, I pull the "A" card, upload the images on it to my computer's hard drive and then upload from there to Smugmug.com and then, when the upload is complete I put the "A" card  back in the camera and re-format it for the next round of images. I do this at nearly every break and even sometimes during a long, long presentation.  Doing it this way and keeping the "A" card fresh makes uploading the next batch simpler and effectively gives me three levels of back-up: the card in the "B" slot, the hard drive in the laptop and the gallery full of full res images in the cloud. 

At the end of a job like this I pull all of the files and put them on a 64GB or larger memory stick and hand them off to the client. Once the client has the files in their hands they have two sources from which to archive; the memory stick or a gallery download from Smugmug.com. Once the client lets me know they are set I erase the files completely from the SSD drive in the laptop and, if it's a client who I know is prone to fumble files I'll make an extra backup on a memory stick to have in the drawer, just in case.

In total I generated about 4,000 photography files in three days and about 60 short (15-30 second) video files. With the lower resolution camera as the main part of the mix, and the use of Jpeg instead of raw files, the entire take fits (just) on a 64GB memory stick. The memory sticks I like to use are Sandisk USB3s and they are currently about $16 each. Not a bad delivery mechanism for bigger jobs. Not bad at all.

Someone asked me about which microphone I use at events and I wanted to reiterate that there are distinct needs and that not one single type is an "all weather" solution. One presenter on stage? Tie into the sound board or use lavaliere microphones. A quick interview in a noisy exhibition space? I'd use a reporter microphone close in to the speaker. A fast moving set of handheld camera interviews in a less noisy space? Maybe a shotgun microphone. But a shotgun is great for outdoor areas where you don't have to worry about sound anomalies caused by bounce wave interference effects. Kinda crazy but no crazier than having the exact lens for every scenario...

Second shooters? Assistants? This show had 400 attendees and was at a very nice hotel. The presentation ballroom was fifty steps from the team room where I did my downloads. Nice waiters in jackets brought coffee to me, sometimes to my shooting location. The pace was never so daunting that, even with so-so time management, I was ever overwhelmed or missed anything. 

If the show was bigger, or at a dicier venue (less security/less service), or had break out sessions concurrent with the main tent sessions, then I would definitely consider some help. But the best situation in those circumstances would be to find someone very adept at post processing and file management and to hand off the computer work to them. I know how to do it but it's boring and I'd rather be shooting or meeting with people. If the conference is so big that one needs a real (and talented) second shooter then what one really needs is a team. And then you have to decide if you are an individual artist or an administrator of subcontractors. With all the issues attached to handling people I'd rather keep it simple and turn down the jobs that require more than two of us doing the primary work. Your choices and needs may differ. If I was in poor physical shape I might need more assistance but I'm not slowing down enough to feel any different than I did in my 30's or 40's. 

I must say that, once again, I was surprised and pleased by the performance of the GH5 series cameras. Low (enough) noise and high sharpness, combined with very pleasing color, even under challenging circumstances. A nice camera system. I'm more interested still in adding a G9. We'll see what kinds of jobs are on tap for October....... my birthday is coming up....

Note from watching yesterday's Senate hearings: It's a good idea not to drink until you pass out...
hard to remember stuff clearly when one is minimally conscious/conscience.

I wanted to learn all about the new cameras coming out at Photokina but I was too busy taking photographs...


So much cool stuff has been announced lately that my brain is in acquisition overload. And yet there's a backlog of equipment I heard about last month... and last year that I found tantalizing and wished I could try out and now I'm finding it hard to change gears, abandon my enthusiasm for cameras that seemed so....just right on a few months ago, and switch my full attention to the latest shiny objects.

Here's a case in point: I've been using several Panasonic GH5 variants in my work over the past year. I love that camera line. I think both the GH5 and the GH5S are wonderful working tools, for a number of reasons, some clearly counterintuitive to many people. 

I was hired to photograph at a three day conference this week. The project was a high tech symposium that would take place mostly at one of Austin's cooler, downtown hotels. I have several camera system options available to me and I grappled for a bit between taking a couple of Nikon D800x cameras and their attendant lenses, or the two Panasonic GH5x cameras and three (or more) of the nice lenses I've put together for that system. 

It's an interesting show for an interesting, cutting edge, high technology/software company and one of the things they've always done differently than my other clients is to make immediate use of the images and video we generate, all day long. That means workflow efficiency is paramount and is a higher priority than ultimate image quality. The truth of the matter is that 99% of the imaging content I'm creating for them will be compressed and used (in some cases almost immediately) on the web in social media, or in websites. While the idea of very high resolution coupled with class leading dynamic range might seem like important qualifications and a good rationale for using the 36 megapixel Nikons those features are actually a bit of a negative for the job at hand. 

Let me lay out what we accomplished yesterday as a typical example of this kind of work and why I chose a smaller, lower resolution, not full frame system for what we needed to get done. 

Every corporate conference planner has a laundry list of images and video they'd like to get done, some locked into immutable schedules and some handled as pick up work when there are gaps in the primary agenda. We start by making lifestyle-ish photographs of attendees networking together at a sit down breakfast. Once I have a nice range of images there I move on to documenting interactive displays, signage and people engaged with demonstrations at various booths. 

The producer of the technical side of the show, a contractor for the same corporate media planner I server, approaches me and asks if I could also photograph his stage set and the interactive displays his company produced for the show. Since he is an old friend, and a constant source of (really good) referrals I am happy to try and work in as many documentation shots as I can...

I work on this kind of pre-show documentation until we are about half an hour from the start of the show. The benefit of working with a well funded corporate at a five star hotel is that one never goes hungry, you never have to eat poorly, and the coffee is ample and four or five notches above the swill that passes for coffee at lesser properties... I drink good coffee as I set up and shoot images of booths peppered with interactive screens and implementations of A.I. and machine learning. 

About half an hour before the kick off, all hands presentation in the main ball room, I head to the "team" room where I've laid claim to a tiny bit of real estate that comes complete with an electrical outlet. I pull out the new laptop, get connected to the symposium's super-fast wifi and pull the memory card out of the camera I've been using. I download the files to a sub-folder in a master folder for the event. I take a cursory look at the color and density of the files and then pull them all into their subfolder. The first sub-folder of the day is entitled: company name: day two 1st download.

I've tested downloading via a USB 3 cable from the camera, using a wifi connection or using a fast, Thunderbolt card reader and the card reader seems fastest. I probably shot 150 images on a GH5S in its ten megapixel, highest quality Jpeg mode so each image clocks in at about 5-7 megapixels.These get sucked onto the SSD drive so quickly that the transfer is done before I get a really good sip of coffee. 

I then upload them to Smugmug.com (my "cloud" supplier since 2005 or 2006) and they go into a client folder with the newest images up front and the older images constantly headed down the catalog. In this way my client has immediate access to everything we shoot and, since they are dipping into the collection and using them on all kinds of social media all day long it's most efficient for them to have the material in ascending order. The gallery is password protected but I've enabled full resolution downloading from the gallery for my clients' convenience. With a fast broadband connection I've uploaded 150 images in about as much time as it took me to write this paragraph. And I am a fast writer.

I ping the technical/marketing person who is interacting with the images to let him know there's a new batch to choose from. Then I reformat the SD card and head back out to catch the beginning of the "main tent" session. Note that the files are backed up on the second SD card in the camera (a running tally of images) as well as one the laptop and in the cloud.

I head to the main ballroom with two cameras (a GH5 and a GH5S), two lenses (12-100 and 40-150mm) and also a Benro monopod with a "chicken foot." And here's what I do throughout the day:

Each speaker on stage will present for anywhere from 25 minutes to 40 minutes. During the first part of the presentation I capture tight, medium, wide shots of the speaker engaged in the talk. I shoot a lot of frames because getting the perfect expression with the perfect composition is a gamble. I'm working the odds. And 10 megapixel files are cheap. The stage lighting is awkward because of the size and configuration of the room itself. I tried a custom white balance but even it need to be fine tuned via the cameras' hue controls.

I shoot the tight head and shoulders shots from the back of the room with the longer lens and use the shorter lens for wider shots and audience reaction shots. Once I'm pretty certain I've got nice photographs that represent the speaker well I put the GH5S on the monopod and reconfigure my settings for video. We're shooting 1080p video here because, again, it will be compressed and used on the web, mostly in social media. The GH5S is mainly talked about as a great 4K camera but I think it may be the best 1080p camera I've ever seen. The Olympus Pro 12-100 gives me good image stabilization and my technique using the monopod continues to improve; I can pull off twenty or thirty second clips that seems as though we're locked down on a good tripod. 

We do this kind of coverage for each speaker until we get to a coffee break. I hustle back to the team room and do the same download, transfer, upload to gallery routine that I outline above. I'll do this throughout the day. I check camera batteries, reformat the #1 SD card in each camera and then grab a coffee and get ready for the next volley of sessions. 

The GH5 cameras make it very easy to switch between video and stills and the EVF is helpful in isolating my eye to prevailing light so I have a fighting chance of evaluating the actual color balance I'm getting in the files. I also like the live histogram I'm getting in the bottom right hand corner. 

At the end of a long day we move on to a nightclub that the company has bought out for the evening. They're serving up delicious BBQ and there are open bars everywhere. A local band is blazing away on the first floor but there's a rooftop terrace for people who are looking for a quieter social gathering. I'm shooting basic event shots here until I feel like I'm becoming a nuisance instead of a benefit and then I pack it in and head home. Once there I'm putting batteries on the chargers, downloading the files from the last events of the evening and uploading them to the master collection on Smugmug. By the time I walk into the venue later this morning (7?) many of the images will already be circulating with their friends, the hashtags, coming along for a ride. 

So, in the midst of a month long work jag we've got Photokina spilling out new camera tech at a dizzying rate and all I can really think about is how I suddenly want to try the Panasonic G9 alongside the GH5s. I think about calling Precision Camera and having one delivered to the hotel and then I get ahold of myself and realize how beautiful the files are looking from the cameras I have in the bag with me today and I change my mind. 

I will have shot maybe 10,000 frames this month and had a camera in my hands for dozens of hours. It's actually a good remedy for gear acquisition syndrome because you really come to understand the camera you've got and you come to trust it; and by extension you come to trust that you know what you are doing when you use that cameras. I think the camera lust is at its worst when you are idle, have nothing fun to shoot and start imagining that somehow a new camera will kick start the whole process over again. It won't. You'll just have to pay for another camera. 

So, I was up at 4 am this morning to drive Ben to the airport. A business trip for my young public relations professional, to San Francisco. I'm packing up and headed back downtown. I'll get in early so I can photograph some of the exhibit displays without people in front of them. Then I'll get a great breakfast from the W Hotel and start the process I've described above all over again. 

Tomorrow is a totally different job. A different kind of project. I've already decided to use the Nikons for that for all the reasons I didn't use them today. 

Hope you had a good week. I'm heading out.