Our wonderful vocalist, Paul Sanchez, with our youngest cast member, Illiana. .
I am usually mercenary and want to get paid for the photographs I shoot that aren't specifically my art. But I make exceptions... One client gets a good amount of shoots for free but there is an underlying and valuable return on my time since I get to use the free shoots I do for them as testing grounds for new camera bodies, new lenses and complete new systems.
On Friday and again on Sunday afternoon I went over to the Zach Theatre rehearsal stage to take candid photos of the rehearsals for the upcoming production of "Christmas Carol." On each day I took along the new camera and lens system (the Lumix stuff) and one of my other, more seasoned systems. On Friday it was a match up between the Fuji and the Lumix; and more specifically, between the S1 + the two Panasonic zoom lenses versus the Fuji X-T3 and the 56 f1.2 (APD) and the 90mm f2.0. I'm giving that first round to the Fuji stuff because the speed of the primes (and the optical bite and color) were a bit more competition that the Lumix could handle. Also, it was my first time really trying to use the (mostly new to me) Lumix under dire lighting conditions, with fast moving subjects, while trying to go for the shallowest depth of field I could achieve (because the aesthetics of the space are nothing to write home about).
While the 56mm f1.2 is no speed demon when it comes to auto focus my familiarity with the camera and lens saved my butt over and over again. The 90mm is pretty much perfectly behaved and was the standout favorite of the day.
I was photographing moving actors practicing choreography as well as actors blocking out stage moves while they sang and practiced lines. Unlike a well lit stage the space we worked in was a bit like a big warehouse; high ceilings, dim lighting only from the ceilings and bare white walls on three two sides with overhead doors on the third side and a wall of mirrors on the fourth.
I expected more out of the Lumix system but it's my fault for trying to toss two zoom lenses that each max out at f4.0 into the ring against two very, very good and fast primes. Wanting to see the real potential of the S1 I decided to slant the playing field in the other direction and supplement the pokey zooms with an advanced rocket ship of a fast lens in the form of the L-mount version of the Sigma Art series 85mm f1.4 lens. It's optically wonderful, incredibly sharp, but at 2.2 pounds the darn thing is a monster. It needs its own set of wheels if you intend to walk around with it.....
Any camera system that is new to you has it's own peccadillos when it comes to the autofocus systems and I'll confess that I have not done a deep dive in the details (and potential) of the Lumix S system. It's close enough to the G9s I owned that I thought I'd wing it with the default settings for now. That may be misguided.
So, on Sunday I showed up with three camera set ups, the Pentax K-1 with a 50mm f1.4 AF lens, the Fujifilm X-T3 with the 56mm f1.2, and the Lumix S1 with the above-mentioned 85mm. The slowest focusing of all three cameras was NOT one of the mirrorless models. The Pentax is just not a good tool (at least when combined with that old screwdriver AF lens) for fast moving subjects under perilously low light..... (How low was it? How about 1/125th of a second at f2.0 with ISO 800-1,600. And super-icky color balance courtesy the banks of ancient florescent lights high up in the tall ceilings....).
I shot as much as I could with the Pentax and then, during a break, tossed it in the back of the car. Then it was down to Lumix versus Fuji. And here I found an interesting weak point for camera face/eye detect focusing and people with darker skin. If I had a person with dark skin, who was in the middle of the frame, fairly close to camera, the Lumix camera would create boxes around all the faces it could find in the frame and then locked focus on the face with the most contrast -- light skin against dark eyes and eyebrows, etc. Since many in the cast are African-American I mostly gave up on face detect AF on the Lumix and switched to single spot AF. The Fuji wasn't fooled as often but the trade off there, which drove me away from their face AF is the slow, slow response and focusing of the 56mm f1.2. It's much faster with single point AF and even a bit more sure with full manual focus and focus peaking.
Another issue across all three cameras, and one that photographers and review sites rarely discuss, is the big variations from frame to frame that are caused by old florescent lighting banks. They run on a 60 cycle set up which means they tend to get brighter and dimmer as they go through a cycle. It mostly affects images taken at shutter speeds above 1/60th to 1/125th of a second. Below 1/60 you can shoot all day long and never see the effect. At a 1/60th you can usually do just fine, and 1/125th is generally usable unless the florescent systems are on their last legs and their ballasts are giving out. But!!! But!!! as you get to faster and faster shutter speeds you see whole frames that are a stop or two dark followed by one or two normal frames followed by a bright frame or two. Since the EVFs in most new cameras also refresh at 60hz or 120hz you rarely see the effect in live view. You only see it in the post review.
I would have loved to have shot all the dance movement at 1/500th of a second; especially with the Lumix camera, which does not seem to fear high ISO settings, but I was getting some banding and lots of dark frames as I shot through the day. My workaround was to settle in at 1/125th of a second with all the cameras and then work hard to anticipate the peak of action at which things seem to become more or less stationary for a piece of a second. Capture it and you can stop some action. For most of the shots I ignored potentially blurry hands and feet and worked to make sure faces were sharp. There's no real workaround for working under A/C driven florescent lights. In the film industry the good cameras have VFR (variable frame rates) which allow camera operators to fine tune shutter speeds to eliminate flicker from ambient light sources that are known to flicker. These would include CRTs, some A/C LED fixtures, most industrial fluorescents and neon.
Good LED lights tend to have power boxes that convert electricity from A/C to D/C to drive the LEDs without flicker. But even tungstens have flicker, it's just that it's usually fast enough so the temperature decay and glow from the filament doesn't have time to cool off enough in the cycle to change the light output... I only worry about A/C LED spotlights and bad, commercial florescent fixtures for the most part. But this is by way of explaining why, even with cameras that can shoot at 51,800 ISO you may be constrained to shoot at 1/125th of a second. And if you have to shoot at 1/125th of a second to prevent flicker you'll probably want to use a lower ISO so you can still have the advantage of shooting wide apertures with longer lenses in order to drop backgrounds out of focus.
Back to our main (commercial free) program:
I used the two camera systems interchangeably and mostly concentrated on getting shots in which one person was in focus and the rest of the people in the shot, in front or behind my main subject, go out of focus. Both lenses (Fuji and Sigma) are sharp wide open, and more so nearly wide open, but I have to give the nod to the Sigma Art 85mm. When it nails focus on eyes, for example, the amount of sharply rendered detail at the plane of focus is amazing. If I had never used the Sigma I'd be well pleased with the Fuji 56mm as its performance is close. Very close.
When it comes to how the photographs look on the screen both the X-T3 and the Lumix S1 are keepers. With the Fuji I can reliably go to 1600 ISO and get great files with low noise. In Jpegs or Raw files. With the Lumix I get the same kind of performance at ISO 4000. The Fuji cameras and lenses are easier to carry, easier to use and the lenses are a fraction of the size and weight of the Lumix system stuff.
Whatever will I do? Well, I went out today and bought a second Lumix S1 body because it's just a natural system for the theatrical documentation work I'm doing for several theaters now. While most photographic disciplines don't really require two cameras (other than for back-up) shooting a non-stop dress rehearsal requires me to use a wide range of focal lengths combined with a certain fast enough f-stop. I normally use two zoom lenses to cover the range I need. Something that starts at 24mm equivalent and goes to a full frame 85mm equivalent for wide shots that encompass the entire stage along with a traditional 70-200mm zoom that allows me to crop in on smaller groups, shots of two people together and even single person shots. There's no time to change back and forth between lenses so I go in with a different zoom on each camera, set them identically and go with the flow of the show. My choice now is to shoot with the Lumix S1 and the two zooms wide open at f4.0 (where they are plenty sharp enough) or to shoot with the Fuji X-T3's with the 16-55mm f2.8 at 4.0 (it needs one stop down to match sharpness...) and the 50-140mm f2.8 wide open.
On the dress and tech rehearsals we'll be doing in a couple of weeks I'll probably use one system for the tech and the other system for the dress and see which one yields the best results. I better practice with the Lumix S1 in the meantime. It's complicated. But at the same time it feels familiar. The Fuji is like a nicely worn flannel shirt on a chilly day. Comfortable.
An embarrassment of riches. A nice time in which to be a photographer.