I started my week of photography in a coat and tie for the Zach Theatre, Terence McNally event and ended up on Thursday evening back in a coat and tie at the Texas Appleseed, Good Apple Awards at the Four Seasons Hotel. In between I was near Sacramento, California photographing experts in fire hazard remediation and wildfire prevention and then ankle deep in mud out in the middle of nowhere in North Texas photographing engineers and construction people at a project to build a new lake from scratch. From coat and tie to steel-toed boots, a hard hat and a weathered sweatshirt. Photography can be a multi-wardrobe adventure.
The Terence McNally event was a blast. The high point for me was when McNally (and, by extension the audience) was serenaded by the amazing Christy Altomare, who is currently starring in the role of Anastasia in the Broadway musical by the same name.
Also on stage were Richard Thomas (Waltons, The Humans, and Tell Me Your Secrets), Chita Rivera (anything that ever hit Broadway, including one of the original leads in West Side Story), Lauren Lane, Michael Learned, John Glover and many others. Recently I've been shooting the stage work with the Panasonic GH5 and G9 cameras but I thought I would give the Fuji camera a try so I brought along the X-T3, an 18-55mm and a 55-200mm thinking I'd toss them into the mix once in a while. I ended up shooting all evening with that system and ended up really enjoying both the process of shooting (although the G9's are better handling cameras) and the post production I did later that evening. The Fuji has a bit more dynamic range and holds onto highlights a bit better. I delivered 600+ files to the Zach marketing team about three hours after the show. I really didn't have a choice; they needed the files sometime on Tuesday and I would be traveling on my next assignment early in the morning. I shot entirely in Jpeg and depended on my prior knowledge of the theater's lighting system (and styles) to nail color balance and exposure. The EVF on the X-T3 is great and seems to match up with my studio monitor pretty accurately. I shoot a bit conservatively when it comes to exposure so I tend to always be under exposing by a third to a half a stop and then compensating in post production. I fear blowing out the highlights... It wasn't a problem on Monday night.
Here's how I used the Fuji system: I bought the 55-200mm f3.5 to 4.8 a few days earlier, anticipating that I might want to use it on one of the out of town assignments. I thought I'd switch between the normal zoom (18-55) which is a very good optic and the longer zoom but most of the presentation and the performers fell into the range of the longer lens. I used ISO 3200 as my base to compensate for the slower lens and I was happy to find that the X-T3 files are not very noisy. I'm presuming that the camera is kicking in a good amount of noise reduction but I didn't lose as much sharpness as I have when using that ISO with the Panasonic cameras, and most of the Nikon's I've shot with. I shot in Jpeg and took advantage of the 200% dynamic range boost.
As is my habit I used the single point AF in the "S" mode and was happy to find that the camera focused quickly and well under the stage lighting. While I know that lens is supposed to be at it's best under 150mm I didn't hesitate to use 200mm when I thought it was a compositional advantage. I'm not sure if the higher ISO or the lens is to blame for any lack of sharpness but all the images were usable and technically acceptable at the longest focal length. All in all it was a nice evening of photography and stellar evening of live theatre and well deserved tribute to a theater genius.
I headed to Sacramento on Tuesday morning. Delighted to find my favorite breakfast taco provider, TacoDeli, with a eatery at the airport. The taco was perfect and the coffee not too bad. It was a nice start to a long and stressful day. This is the same client that I traveled extensively for in October. Most of our work for them revolves around environmental portraits and I've been fine-tuning and narrowing down the kit with each flurry of assignments. I now have my gear down to two cases. One is a Manfrotto rolling light and grip case which I've shown before. It's a bit longer than 48 inches and can hold three traditional moonlights, three light stands, various modifiers and a bunch of grip equipment.
On the first few jobs I did for this company I was dragging around a couple of monolights, multiple diffusion frames, soft boxes and more. I also dragged around a separate rolling duffle for my clothes, extra shoes and toiletries. On the trip this week I replaced the bigger, heavier monolights with two Godox AD200 flash kits, I kept the same two, smaller Godox shoe mount flashes and I pared down to two light stands, one diffusion frame, one soft box and one small umbrella. This left me room in the case for my extra clothes, an extra pair of running shoes, my toiletries and a warm jacket.
I've honed a lighting style that consists of using available sunlight as a back light and then filling from the front with a main light in a small soft box. If the sun's position doesn't work for the backlight I bring out the diffusion frame and two layers of white silk diffusion and use it to tone down and soften the sun exposure while angling in my main light to create effective short lighting. Since we're working mostly outdoors in regular sunlight I've ditched the tripod entirely and depend on the image stabilization and my hand holding skills (such as they are) to compensate. This allows me to create a convincing portrait lighting set up with only one light and one additional modifier.
The second "case" is the Think Tank Airport Essentials back pack which I bought at the start of these projects. I have other cases but I knew I'd be flying some of the smaller regional jets into the (very) secondary markets and wanted to be absolutely sure that I'd be able to put the cameras and laptop under the seat in front of me in any imaginable scenario. It's worked out great. The case fits perfectly under the seat with no overflow. I keep my cameras, lenses, memory cards, batteries, computer and phone in this case and one pocket serves as my "filing cabinet" for receipts that will need reimbursement.
When we landed in Sacramento I grabbed a rental car and headed to the small town of Newcastle about 35 miles away. The smoke from the wildfires reduced visibility down to about half a mile; at the most. I got a Ford sedan and was miffed that I couldn't fit the light case into the trunk. I had to toss it across the back seat. Otherwise the car was great and the trip non-fiery and non-eventful.
When I get to a location the first thing I do, after talking with the client on the ground, is to scout for multiple, possible locations. We needed to photograph eight different people at this location and my client likes wide, establishing shots along with "waist up" shots and also tighter (head and shoulders) portraits. I always need to find a background that will accommodate each version for an individual subject. In Newcastle we had a good selection of backgrounds and I was able to "personalize" the scene for each subject.
Which brings me to a discussion of lens choice. I started with the 18-55mm because I knew I'd want wide and mid shots. But when I thought about changing lenses to the longer zoom I realized that I'd need to duck into the car over and over again to change between the two. There was just too much airborne particulate matter to take a chance on an out in the open lens change. I ended up zooming in with my feet and using the 55mm end of the lens for my tightest portrait cropping. That worked very well and I never had to expose my camera's sensor to the nasty elements of the moment.
The haze was amazing. It diffused the sun and probably dropped the overall exposure down by two or three stops. While it didn't affect the portrait the haze did subtly blur the close by background in an interesting way. But with the light so diffused and low I decided (rightly) that I just needed to use one of the smaller Godox V850 shoe mount flashes, firing into a soft silver umbrella, as my main light. I brought along two and had two triggers as well. The first one fired up perfectly and worked as planned with the associated trigger in the hot shoe. I don't use TTL but it's great to be able to change power levels on the fly with the trigger on the camera.
These days I'm always trying to build "short lighting" into the overall project. It works well with smaller flashes and is mostly flattering for my subjects. I always imaging a line that runs parallel to the sensor plane, at the subject location. If the subject's nose is perpendicular to that line I want to be on one side of the perpendicular line while keeping my main light about 45 degrees around the other side of that perpendicular line. I guess it's just geometry but it works.
I photographed each of my Newcastle people, chimping furiously as this is basically a week old camera system for me and I wanted to catch any mistakes before we got too far down the road. Everyone was great and cooperative and so, a couple hours later I was heading back down the road towards the airport.
I dumped off the car and went through TSA PreChek (Thank you, Global Entry!) and grabbed the best burrito I've ever had; airport or not, and then made it to my American Airlines flight which stopped in Phoenix for fifty minutes and then continued on to Dallas/Ft. Worth.
The second flight is when a totally unexpected catastrophe (almost) struck which would have made me scramble to get the job done. Talk about cold sweat.....
Have you ever lost your smartphone? It's karma. I know it. I've always teased people for their cellphone addictions and their compulsive use of them. It was bound to catch up with me. I made a connecting flight from Phoenix to Dallas on Tuesday night as I moved east from Sacramento. I generally choose window seats on airplanes and this flight was no different. I got to my seat and put my jacket and my iPhone on the still vacant seat next to me. I turned around to shove my camera backpack under the seat in front of me when I heard a thump on the floor. Lots of things go "thump" when airplanes are loading up so I didn't pay much attention. Then I turned back to the middle seat to find my jacket sliding off and my phone nowhere in sight.
I figured it just hit the floor. The plane wasn't moving so I was pretty sure the phone didn't slide far. The other people in my row hadn't arrived yet so I swung around like a monkey and looked under the seats. No phone. I asked the people in the row behind me to check. No phone. I asked the people in the row in front of me to look. Again, no phone. And then it dawned on me; the success of my business trip depended as much upon logistics as it did my skills with cameras and lights. If I couldn't get to the right place at the right time then everything would be for naught.
We started our departure and I sat nervously fretting for the next two hours and fifteen minutes about my paralysis by (lost) cellphone.
When we got to Dallas I waited impatiently for everyone to deplane so I could get down on my hands and knees and do a complete search of the airplane. One of the flight attendants jumping in to help me. By sheer luck (and experience) the flight attendant bumped the bottom of an under seat floatation device and the phone tumbled out, none the worse for the fall. Apparently the phone bounced and got trapped by something under the seat.
But the event made me realize how thoroughly dependent business travelers have become on their smartphones. Before we found the phone, as I sat on the plane, I tried to plan out what to do until I could replace the cellphone. I decided I would pick up my rental car and get to my hotel where I could then gather critical info using my laptop. But...how do I get to my hotel? Does anyone have a map of Dallas? Does anyone have a physical map of anywhere?
So I went to plan B. I'd grab an Uber or Lyft to the hotel and then wrestle with information on my laptop. Only...how do I get an Uber without my phone? And once I got to the hotel I would need to get up at the crack of dawn (and it was already midnight...) and head north into a sparsely populated part of Texas. Part of my path to the next project was on dirt roads. I would need turn by turn instructions for most of the trip and my notes for the last 15 miles. But the notes were on my phone.
I could get another phone from AT&T but the stores didn't open until 10 a.m. and nothing at AT&T gets done quickly. If I left at 11 a.m. to get to my project destination I'd be at least three hours late. And that would be critical since eight people were traveling to converge at the spot for photos.
My Hilton Honors account info? On the phone. My banking app? On the phone. My telephone? On the phone.
It was an overdue lesson in how dependent I've become on my phone. It can't be logical to have a back-up phone can it?
My rental car was a Nissan Pathfinder which turned out to be the perfect vehicle for my jaunt through the emptiness of north Texas. More so because the last dozen or so miles of the journey was on dirt roads. I got to my location outside of the unincorporated town of Honey Grove, Texas by mid-morning and hopped in a pickup truck with a construction supervisor to do a scout for photo locations. We found two different spots and I realized we had time to make portraits of the same 10 people in both locations. On that day wind was a problem. I like to use a 4x4 foot scim to kill direct sunlight but with 20 to 30 mile wind gusts there's not a lot of ways to sandbag a diffusion scrim effectively. But we needed the scrim for our angles and lighting to work (especially since were trying to be in the stylistic ballpark with the dozens and dozens of images we shot in other locations and the dozens yet to be shot elsewhere) and we needed something to block some of the breeze to keep peoples' hair from blowing around.
I convinced the assembled engineers, construction supervisors and regional managers to take turns holding the stand and scrim in place against the wind and made sure we rotated people to keep arms from getting tired. It actually worked. We got great photographs of construction pros both with big equipment behind them and on a cliff overlooking the project (which is the construction of a recreational lake and water source). I packed up and asked where a person might get lunch in the area and the crew laughed. Then someone mentioned Dallas. About 2 hours away. I'm happy I brought along the bottles of water from my Hilton Hotel check in gift bag along with the PowerBar that constantly gets restocked in my camera pack.....
When we started working outside of Honey Grove, Texas, the temperature was in the low 30's (f) and the wind was stiff and constant. I was happy to have on my favorite boots, with wool socks, and my Heat 32 long underwear. The gloves were also appreciated.
When I got ready to leave I calculated the total time to drive straight to Austin versus returning the car to the DFW airport at rush hour and then waiting for my 9 pm flight. Driving had a potential 2.5 hour benefit for arrival time so I opted to drive. But before I left the location I paused to back up all the raw and Jpeg files to my laptop and to a 256GB memory stick. You can't take too much for granted.
The drive home was non-eventful and I got a good night's sleep on Wednesday. On Thursday morning I decided to see just how good (or bad) the raw files might be from the Fuji XT-3 so I fired up Lightroom and attempted to import the files and build previews. I figured that the XT-3 had been out for a while and Adobe Camera Raw had to have been upgraded already. I came up a bit short when my version of Lightroom wagged it's metaphorical finger at me and let me know that these were an alien raw format. Not accessible by my version. Gulp. Would I actually have to use a less efficient processor? Would I be able to batch process the files at all? But, of course, the internet is your friend and since I've been traveling I missed seeing the last update to the app. The update that added Fuji XT-3 raw files to the mix. Big calming breath and sigh of relief. A quick upgrade and everything worked like a champ.
I spent the better part of the day selecting images to import, batch color correcting, labeling and uploading the two sets of files (Sacramento and N. Texas) to individual galleries at Smugmug.com. My take? Lovely flesh tones, less noise and more forgiving files than I usually get from the G9s. I can just about duplicated the look and feel between the two sets but there's that niggling 3-5% difference that could vex an OCD photographer.
Flush with good feelings about the camera (and the first good night's sleep in the week) I headed downtown to the newly re-styled and refreshed Four Seasons Hotel to photograph the annual fundraising event for Texas Appleseed; a legal advocacy charity. I used a Godox 685 (f) on the XT-3 and shot mostly with the camera in the manual mode (1/60th at f5.6) and the flash set to TTL (-.3). I bounced the flash off the ceiling but also had a little two inch card rubber banded to the back of the flash for a bit of front fill. We shot bunches of posed shots; groups of two, three, four or more, during the hour long reception and then covered all of the speakers, awards and the presentation of the "Good Apple" award to the honoree. It's a great event and all the biggest law firms in Texas buy tables and attend.
The surprise musical guest, the capper to the evening, was blue's legend W.C. Clark. He did a great, short solo set and had the room full of attorneys, spouses and donors on their feet for a long standing ovation. It was wonderful. And, given my status as the only photographer in the room, I got to photograph Mr. Clark from any angle I wanted; as long as I didn't use a flash. I finally got to put that longer zoom to good use. Sure, I used it on the speakers but this was my favorite utilization since purchase. W.C. Clark is a legend for good reason. I'm glad I got to hear him in a such a great venue.
Once again, I was happy with the files. How happy? Well, I headed to Precision Camera the next morning and bought a Fuji XE-3 to use as a back up, along with one serious lens; the 50mm f2.0 XF, and one play lens: a used Kamlan 50mm f1.1. I can't wait to see the work near f1.0....
Now I'm back into the double system quagmire but at least neither system is ruinously expensive or precious. I'm keeping them both. They are both virtuous and effective. But maybe the Fuji is a bit more aimed at portraiture. We'll see as we go.
Friday is the day that all the serious post production gets done. I've got a week off over the Thanksgiving holiday and then it's off to Virginia, Indiana and other points east to continue my documentation of some of the people who make massive infrastructure projects happen. While I could give or take the actual travel I'm absolutely loving the problem solving each location needs and I'm always thrilled to have my expectations about the capabilities of people and companies exceeded on nearly every working day. I love photography. It's still the most fun I've ever had working.
Someone recently asked me what I'll do when I retire. It took less than a second to respond: "I'll start doing more photography."
W.C. Clark at the Four Seasons Hotel.
Other blog news: Our workshop/tour of England got scratched. Not enough people followed through. It's a blessing in disguise as I was starting to worry about juggling the onslaught of (well) paying work with my nine day absence... Maybe we'll do one next year.
But it does give me more bandwidth to write the blog. Please stay tuned.