This graphic was about six feet from the wall behind me and stretched along for
20 or 30 feet. It was the first time I actually needed the 8-16mm to
get everything in the shot. I brought it along.
I've been working too much to blog. That's a weird sensation because in the past few months I seemed to be too busy blogging to work. But most of the blogs were written while waiting for unrelated stuff in San Antonio. The universe seems to have gotten the "green light" on my current schedule and it's dumping a stream of jobs onto my plate. And since I enjoy the work I'm happy about it. Last Friday was my opportunity to see how well the combination of the Fuji X-H1 + 56mm f1.2 APD + Godox SL60W LED light worked on location (very well) but Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week I got to do my favorite kind of assignments for one of my very favorite Austin clients, WP Engine. I used different gear for that.
The assignment is a three day conference that's tightly packed with very interesting speakers, lots of cutting edge marketing research, lots of "deep dive" breakout sessions and a nice mix of food and socializing. The conference was host to about 500 attendees and was held a one of the newer hotels in the downtown area, the Fairmont. The hotel sits across First St. from the Rainey St. neighborhood (which has been converted from a sleepy and poorer residential neighborhood to Austin's hottest bar and restaurant locale --- a complete business gentrification...) and it sits across Red River St. from the Austin Convention Center. It's basically ground central for business tourists.
WP Engine is the client who taught me the nuts and bolts of ultra-fast turnaround, which is actually not just challenging but a fun problem solving exercise. They love it when I can get really good images of main tent, stage speakers in the first fifteen or twenty minutes of a presentation and then bolt back to the communications suite and archive the images into a series of folders on an SSD and then put them straight up (no post processing, no resizing, no hestitation) onto a Smugmug.com gallery which eight or ten marketing people and social media experts have unfettered access to. They can scroll through the new work (all the newest work goes to the front of the gallery) pick images that work for the messaging they want, in the moment, and instantly download the file. In many cases images of speakers were up on Twitter and Instagram before the speakers even started to wrap up their presentations. For most of Tuesday, which was our most intense day, my client was the top Google trend in our market. The client likes that!
How do I set up and shoot this kind of stuff? I get into the comm room early on the first day and make sure the fast wi-fi is set up and humming and that I have the passwords I need. I have the Adobe password taped to the bottom of my laptop and have memorized the Smugmug.com passwords. You'd be surprised how sleepy even the best conference hotels can be when it comes to getting their show networks set up and running....
Once I get the wi-fi set I pop a portable SSD into the USB 3 port and start creating "daily folders;" a folder for each time I come in to upload a batch of images, and then a folder for fast breaking events or special events. The fast breaking folder may have smaller sub-folders but I label them as I go so I'm organized by the time the show is over and I need to get everything looking pretty and delivered, en mass, to the client. They have access to everything I shoot during the show via the galleries (which are high res, big Jpegs) but at the end they like to be presented with all the images + any b-roll video I might shoot all on a memory stick. During the show there is a fluid sharing of photos between all the corporate departments and the contemporaneous access leverages the news cycles nicely.
When I shoot in the main tent it's never, ever with flash. As HCB once was reported to have said, "Using flash is like taking a handgun to the opera." A reference that may be lost on some Americans who might actually think that taking their Glock to Aida is normal... Constant flash at a conference speech is as disconcerting to a crowd as a very loud fart. And about as welcome.
I've narrowed down the shooting gear this year to two cameras and two lenses. I use two Fuji X-H1 cameras which are set identically. Since we need to upload large groups of images, all of which are used for social media and web marketing, I've settled on the Jpeg > Medium (12 megapixels) > Normal settings. This gives me a very nice file that sizes out to about 5 to 6 megabytes. Just right for uploading, big enough to print, fast enough to sprint to Twitter. Sure, I'd love to shoot raw but there is literally no time for that. This means that I have to get the color balance and exposure just right. Since the stage wash was consistent I went in early with white and gray targets and asked the AV people to show me the actual show stage wash. I measured it, set the K value in the menu and then fine tuned to color in the WB fine tune box (K = 3300, Plus two steps of blue). I've worked under stage lighting enough to be able to translate what I see in the X-H1 EVF to make very accurate exposure assessments. Accurate enough that none of the material that was posted during the conference required any adjustments.
You have to pay attention and really work hard not to underexpose but it is entirely possible to do this kind of work exactly as we did in the days of transparency film; if you are willing to be rigorous in your testing and camera setting. Never judge color on the rear screen while sitting in the giant presentation space unless the entire space is illuminated with daylight balanced light, the ambient light, especially colored light, will contaminate your perception of correct color! Put your eye in the EVF and wait for some adjustment.
The stage lighting was provided by my friends at MEC (Media Event Concepts) and it was very well done. I was using a basic exposure of 1/200th of a second, lens wide open at f2.8, and an ISO of 1600. That's an easy enough use case for the X-H1 and the files were detailed, largely noise free and well balanced. Another important aspect of shoot prep is to figure out the best color profile to use in conjunction with Jpegs. I shy away from Standard and Velvia because the shadows block up way too quickly and the flesh tones are way too saturated. By the same token I shy away from Eterna with a well lit stage because that setting is too flat. I've had good luck shoot with the Pro Neg Hi which emulates the portrait film (C-41) reference but with just a bit more contrast. I keep most fine tuning settings at zero but tend to go to minus one with noise reduction because I'm sensitive to skin tones getting to "plastic."
CEO, Heather Brunner, wraps up the third day
When the conference main tent sessions start I find a seat that gives me a close enough proximity to do a tight, half body shot with the long end of my 50-140 f2.8 zoom (on camera "A") and a full stage (including rear screen) shot with my 16-55mm f2.8 on the "B" camera. My client loves a trio for each speaker: a set of wides which show the person and the enormity of the stage, a set of mediums which show the speaker and, if possible, the company or show logo, and a series of tighter shots, which seem to work best on small screens. I shoot a lot of frames, not because I am unsure of the technical settings but because I am always, always looking for better and better expressions. We can toss stuff we're not excited about but it's hard to be excited about something you didn't bother to shoot....
During a smooth session with several speakers I'll upload somewhere between two hundred and three hundred images for the marketing team to wade through. Smugmug.com makes it pretty easy since you can see pages of thumbnails on the left of the screen and the big "selected" image on the right. Downloads are one icon click away. I use two cards in the shooting cameras for these shows. The "A" card gets pulled out of the camera every thirty to forty minutes and since I'm pushing it in and out of a card reader, etc. I'm always a bit nervous about glitches caused by handling and different interfaces. If I were shooting straight through the show during the show and never touching the card during a shooting day I wouldn't concern myself with having a back-up card, but in such a high physical use scenario like this I think it's best to hedge a bit and have the second card backing up and never being physically removed.
Unlike many corporations that seem to be driven by fear, and an unholy belief in rigid hierarchies, WP Engine is one of the most egalitarian companies I work with. While the stage hands and AV people are acculurated to staying separate from the attendees my client knows that my ability to get great images is partly a function of access. Both physical and social access. Because of this I'm not an adjunct to the process, I am embedded into the mix. When people gather for bacon and eggs and coffee at an early breakfast I'm at the table with them, meeting them and fitting in. At the end of the show, after the guests have headed to the airports or back to their offices, I am in the communications room with the marketing teams sharing a birthday cake and a glass of Champagne with the crew. This means I can work fluidly because everyone knows who I am and why I am there. When they make me feel like part of the team I'm always willing to go above and beyond to answer quick requests, tight deadlines, etc.
When we wrap we talk in terms of what we're going to do to make the show better next year. The implication being that I'm already on the program.
As far as fitting in goes I'd like to speak about computers. In the comm room there is a long, long conference work table that can seat about 24 people. There are folks sending e-mails, tweaking web pages, uploading to social media, checking and updating schedules and all the other stuff that happens at a technology centric conference. In looking through the entire room there was only one difference between computers and it had nothing to do with brands. There were two kinds of computers. Both were laptops. One type had 15 inch screens while the other had 13 inch screens but other than that every single machine in the room was an Apple MacBook Pro. All very recent models. No homemade PCs. No Windows laptops of any kind. My 13 inch (current model, space gray) was a perfect fit. Bitch all you want about the price or the performance, or whatever metric you want to devise to rationalize your dislike for Apple products, but having a PC in that room instead would have been the equivalent of being in a room full of people in business attire while you are decked out in sweat pants, combat boots and a T-shirt with a beer logo on the front.....
Now that we've riled up the 42% of my readers who use PC's I'll switch topics and speak to how well or how poorly the Fuji cameras worked.
the editor in chief of Wired Magazine.
In addition to the main tent speaker sessions and technical breakout sessions I also cover the social events and special guest speaker stuff. Our first portion of the job was to provide candid coverage of the welcoming reception, a cocktail party around the 7th story outdoor pool area. It was pretty cool. We had rain earlier in the day but the event planner was brave and decided to take a chance on benevolent weather. She won. It was in the upper 60's when our event started and we ended up with clearing skies and temps in the 70's when we wrapped. I shot everything with a Fuji X-H1 and the 16-55mm lens, which is a natural for social events. I used the Pro Neg High setting and it did a good job of keeping the files from being too contrasty as the sun broke through.
While the Fuji cameras have a reputation for weak battery life I was able to get through each day with just the first battery, or one and a half batteries, as indicated by the LCD icons. I'd come home each evening and plug in the grip and the camera via the USB port and the port on the grip and charge them back up again for the next day's shooting.
By my count I've shot more than 25,000 frames across the three X-H1s I've had now for better than five months. That's given me enough time to understand the menus, to memorize were important settings are located and to also get use to handling the exterior buttons and knobs without having to consciously think about their positions. The camera with the battery grip is perfectly suited to my hands. While the whole assembly gets a bit heavy with the 50-140mm added to the mix it's rock solid and feels well balanced. The most important aspect, for my work, is that I've come to trust the integrity of the files and I've also been able to translate what I'm seeing in the EVF almost perfectly to what I'll finally see on a calibrated computer monitor. It's nice when you can full confidence in your camera system.
From time to time through each day I'd find a scene on stage or in the technical demo areas of the show that would make a perfect selection for video b-roll. By changing the shutter speed to emulate a 180 degree shutter, and then turning the frame rate dial to the dedicated video setting I could switch over from photographs to video in about 10 seconds. When using an OIS lens like the 50-140mm on the image stabilized X-H1 body I was able to get good, handheld video clips that my client could weave into their social media content without breaking a sweat.
One of my favorite parts of the show this year was walking through the public areas during the coffee breaks between speakers, looking for shots that say, "networking." People engaged in serious looking conversations or just making business connections. To make it more fun this year I pretty much glued the 56mm f1.2 to the camera and used the lens wide open for a large number of images showcasing interaction. Being able to drop backgrounds totally out was fun and something I'm sure my clients will enjoy. The lens is pretty sharp at the point of focus which is a nice change. I've played with far too many fast lenses that just trade light gathering capabilities for sharpness when used wide open. The Fuji 56mm f1.2 APD lens is the real deal. If you've focused correctly then whatever is covered by adequate depth of field is sharp in the way that primes are supposed to be. I'm rarely interested in my lenses being "flat field" lenses so I rarely care about sharp corners and blisteringly sharp edges but I do want the inner 50% of the frame to be sharp and contrasty even if I'm shooting wide open. I get that with the 56mm. I liked the look and the effect of the 56mm f1.2 so much that when the show was over I went out and bought the 35mm f1.4 and the 23mm f1.2 on the presumption that the design goals would be very similar to those of the 56mm. I'm testing them now but so far I'm loving what I'm seeing.
The final segment of the event was an inspirational speech by (American) football legend, Emmett Smith, a three time NFL Super Bowl champ and all around great guy. After his speech I accompanied him to a large and well appointed meeting room where we did about 50 grip and grin portraits with clients and WP Engine staff. I used an X-H1 with the 16-55mm f2.8 zoom. I wanted the zoom for quick compositional fine-tuning. It was also the one occasion on which I used flash. I set the ambient exposure to be about 2/3rds of stop under the correct setting and then bounced my shoe mount flash off the white ceiling, set to provide the missing 2/3rds stop. I generally took two frames per person with Emmett Smith and since I had time to post process I was happy to shoot raw and give the files some extra attention in Lightroom before converting them to Jpegs.
I never knew that Emmett Smith has his own brand of Tequila. We tasted it as we waited for the guests I'd be photographing and I had to agree with Mr. Smith that it's one of the best Tequilas I've tasted. I sipped a small amount straight while he had the bartender in our room mix his with a Bloody Mary mix. I didn't taste that but my client did and she seemed to approve.
I loved using the Fujis but, frankly, I could have used just about any camera and come away with sellable and enjoyable images. How do I know this? Am I just spouting some sort of internet truism? Naw, you know me better than that. The logical answer is that since this was my third annual Summit conference with this client you know that I've used totally different cameras for every single year. All of them did well, from full frame to a brace of Panasonic G9s to this years APS-C Fujis. I must admit though that I am charmed by the physical user interface on the Fujis. It always makes me smile. That, and the lenses, which also make me smile.
So, the conference wrapped on Wednesday and I spent most of Thursday doing post production, processing and then archiving everything I'd shot. The whole family had projects that challenged us this week. Ben with the demands of his company's P.R. client, Belinda doing graphic design at Dell's agency, and me with my happy and fun conference.
When we all met at home today we knew it was a good evening to forget cooking and cleaning and to instead head over to a restaurant called, The Blue Dahlia, and to relax and let people wait on us. Now I'm getting excited that we're heading into the weekend. The weather is supposed to be good and the pool beckons. It's been a wonderful treat to be able to go to swim practice both weekend days. I love it.
Today was partly consumed by estate paperwork. When I hit my saturation point I took a break to head up to Precision Camera to shop. I knew immediately that I really deserved both a ________ and a ____________ so I had my sale guy bag them up and I headed back to my zip code to play with both. More in the next post...