Acknowledging the vital role that the standard 70-200mm lens plays in my theater photography.

My theater work for main stage shows at Zach Theatre has me thinking in two opposite ways. On Sundays we generally have technical rehearsals which are the last chance to fix technical issues. Since we may stop and start the run-of-show for one of the technical crews to fix something we do not have any sort of audience or media at that run through. 

While everything is not as perfect and nailed down as it will be two day later for the dress rehearsal, for the purposes of still photography it's more than finished enough. The benefit of being close to the launch of the show and not having an audience in attendance is that I can range all over the venue; from the front row to the rafters. So, for a show like "Janis" I can shoot it more like a concert than a seated auditorium show.

On Sunday I like to explore angles from both sides of the stage and I mostly work in the first three rows and within 45 degrees of the center of the stage. Obviously, wide angle shots are going to be more immersive and show a lot more of the stage context. But it's not always the case; sometimes it allows me to get in close with a lens like the 85mm and experiment with shooting wide open or, maybe at f1.6.

I get a lot of my best shots this way and, as long as I don't use a flash or wear a white jump suit (stick to bright colors so the tech people who are carefully watching this very important performance don't get visually distracted. If you hair turned white you might consider putting it under a black ball cap....) I can move through the rows without causing shifting the focus to me. With mirrorless cameras and loud, live audio, there's so little noise from the shutter that it's not noticeable by the actors. 

Usually, I've dropped by one or more rehearsals so the actors know who I am and aren't trying to figure out why some strange guy is roaming around, unleashed, with two big cameras in his hands. In any event an Actor's Equity notice goes out to cast and crew whenever we're going to be in the house making photographs....

So the Sunday rehearsals, shot close to the stage, are the times when the wide angle zooms come into their own. My current one is the Panasonic Lumix S 24-105mm which is a constant f4.0 aperture. The lens is more than sharp enough, even when I use it wide open ---- and so I usually do. While I always would love faster lenses, now that I have a brace of cameras that work really, really well all the way up to ISO 6400 those fast apertures have fallen down the priority scale for me. Besides, I don't know of any companies that make wide-to-short tele zoom lenses that are faster than f4.0. The f2.8 lenses all tend to be 24 to 70mms and that's just too short a range for my needs. 

I try to get as much great stuff as I can on Sundays but I never miss a Tuesday dress rehearsal because 95% percent of the time every bit of the production is finished, and perfect, and ready to be shot without caveats. 

The only consideration is that we always have an invited audience. Usually a broad, family and friends audience. It's a good thing for the actors because they get to see for the first time where the audiences will react and how to time deliveries and pauses. The audiences gets energy from the actors but the actors get even more energy by having that audience to play to. And, by extension, the actors are more "on" and more "dynamic" than at any other time leading up to that first attended show. And I think it's reflected in the expressions and gestures of the cast. Since it's the "big test" of the show they aren't holding anything back. They're there to give it everything they've got. 

The compromise for me is that I can't move through the rows of seats and I really don't feel at all comfortable moving around the edges of the house, distracting the audience and the cast. What we've worked out over the years is that I shoot the dress rehearsal from the cross through row in the middle of the house. The house blocks off that center row and aisle and I share the entire row with a guy named, Eric, who shoots two camera video for show documentation.

With the whole row reserved for me I can move across twenty or so seats to get a position 20 or 30 degrees to the left or right of center. What I can do is move closer to the stage or further away. It's a bit constricting but I rationalize that I'm seeing the show exactly as an audience member would see it. 

But since I can't get closer to the stage I need the longer reach of the 70-200mm to get tight and dramatic shots. Since this production has a catwalk on the stage, at the very back of the stage, I would have loved a lens that goes all the way out to 300mm. I could have gotten a bit closer on the shot at the top of this post. Most of the time the 70-200mm is fine. Just fine. With all the 24 megapixel, full frame cameras, it's easy to crop in a bit and tighten up a good frame. 

I've been using Panasonic's Lumix S Pro 70-200mm f4.0 and it's really great. But, over the years I've also used the Nikon, Canon and Sony 70-200mm f4.0s as well as a collection of f2.8s and they are all very sharp and very well designed lenses that all deliver the sizzling steak to the clients. I'll test the f2.8 from Panasonic but I probably won't replace the f4.0. It already does everything I want it to...
As you may have noticed, when I change systems (and I do change my underwear much more frequently than camera systems; thank you very much!!!) I always buy the two holy theater lenses first and foremost, the wide-to-tele zoom and the 70-200mm. Can't leave the store without them. The fun stuff, like 50mm f1.4s and 20mm f1.4s all get added in as we go along. 

The nice thing about 70-200mm zooms of all varieties (non-entry consumer....) is that you know what you've got in your hands and if you've been photographing theater for long enough you know what your composition will look like at every focal length. You'll also know, the moment you see a great wide angle shot that you can't do it with the long zoom and you need to toss that camera into the maw of the open case sitting on the chair next to you, grab the camera body with the wide angle lens on it and blaze away. 
On dress rehearsal evenings I tend to get to the theater at 7:15 p.m. before an 8:00 p.m. show. This means I can always find a convenient parking place in one of the theater's lots (I have a staff hangtag on my rearview mirror that grants me free parking....). I get into the auditorium as quickly as I can get through the knot of staffers chatting each other up in the lobby. I want about 15 minutes of quiet time in my center seat so I can pull out the cameras, check for sensor dust, pop on lenses and then set all the menu items to the same settings. It takes the guess work out of everything when I need to quickly switch cameras. At most I end up making a quick shutter speed or ISO adjustment to match. 

Once I'm set and ready I head back out to the lobby for a quick bathroom break and then follow the audience back into the theater. I spend the last ten minutes in my seat, surrounded by seat with "reserved for photographer" signs on them because there are always people with excessive feelings of privilege who will actually take the signs off the seat back and plunk down. I move them out quickly, and I keep a small stack of reserved signs in the pocket of my roller case.....

I used to grab a glass of red wine at intermission, mostly because I could get one of the premium red wines at a discount if I'm wearing my name tag. But, since the beginning of the year I've been abstaining so I spend that fifteen minute gap catching up with the lighting designer or sound engineer. It's like we're all old school alumni. 

I used to worry about running out of space on my memory cards because I like to overshoot to make sure I've gotten just the right moment and expression. Now I buy bigger, faster cards; like 128 GB and up, and I find I simply can't run out of space. The downside of overshooting is the Herculean task of working through the next day's edit. 

I usually get home from a rehearsal shoot around 11 p.m. and drop by stuff by the office on the way into the house. In the last 11 years of shooting I've never experienced a single shoot evening that doesn't end with Studio Dog greeting me warmly at the front door and checking in to make sure everything smells good and that I'm okay. That's nice touch. 

So. The TLRIA (too long, read it anyway) is this: Two nice cameras. Two nice zoom lenses (with one being the 70-200mm) and you're ready to start shooting theater production photographs. Thanks for reading and leaving a pleasant comment...


Sad Times. Another magazine diminished and then lost. The victory of immediacy over depth and substance. R.I.P. Photo District News.

When I saw my first copy of Photo District News (1982?) I was young and hungry for real information about professional photography. Not the photography practiced by thousands of mom & pop portrait and wedding shops but the way commercial photography was practiced by the people whose images wowed me in the great magazine advertising of the day. The brilliant stuff that made young photographers aim to be better and more.....premium.

In its heyday Photo District News was an oversized, rough print, tabloid with hundreds of pages and articles that went into depth about....everything that seemed relevant to the stars working in NYC, London, Paris, LA, and Berlin (and the legion of us wannabes). The gear articles were almost non-existent while profiles of working pros and their methods were always on the menu. And we're not talking short bursts of chatty dreck made for the vast population of people with the attention spans a squirrel, we were able to sit down and dive into deep articles that really inspired. Also many articles about the business side that worked to elevate the profession and increase the incomes of real working stiffs. Premium content.

It's gone now. I read about the end over at the horrible website that helped to drive so many print magazines about photography out of business. Now we are left with two ends of the spectrum: Precious little fine art publications that believe "photography" really means "landscape," and at the other end of the spectrum are the few glossy magazines who interpret "photography" to mean very pedestrian "wedding and portrait" businesses. In the later magazines the ad to content ratio is now skewed to about 90:10. Especially so when you consider that nearly every article about yet another wedding lighting technique is a very, very thinly veiled advertorial for more junky, plastic stuff.

Makes me want to start a magazine for working professional photographers. Ah....If I only had an extra ten million dollars or so to burn as a sacrifice on the pyre of journalism.....

Sad times. One more pillar of rational information pulled down....


That awkward moment when you realize that ISO 6400 on your new cameras looks a lot like ISO 400 on your older cameras.....

With a camera that shoots clean 6400 ISO and an 85mm 1.4 lens that's actually razor sharp when used wide open I started trying for shots I never would have bothered to attempt before. I continue to be amazed...

Panasonic S1 + Sigma 85mm Art + dim rehearsal lighting. No processing. No noise reduction shenanigans.


Approaching an assignment with a new mindset. And some new tools.

All images from Zach Theatre's production rehearsal for "A Night with Janis Joplin." 

I find myself to be almost irrationally exuberant here at the end of January. Clients seem to be rushing back to work and circling me in on a bunch of nice assignments. I've pretty much completed the bonding process with my Lumix gear and I'm finding it easier and easier to do the kinds of images I've wanted to take.

But I'm also changing the ways in which I approach work in particular and photography in general. I've pared down from so many systems and so much stuff to the point where I have fewer cameras than at any time in my entire imaging career, and part of the process is to try to buy only the best quality stuff I can get my hands on. A pivotal decision I made last year was electing to buy the Lumix 50mm f1.4 S Pro lens instead of "settling" for the Sigma 50mm Art lens.  While I am sure the Sigma is a very good lens I find myself continually surprised (in a good way) every time I photograph something with the Lumix lens. While I spent more money on the 50mm lens than I ever imagined I would the pay back is something that has less to do with a financial return than it does a return measured in satisfaction and, to a certain degree, fascination that a lens can make such an overwhelming difference to me. 

After seeing the results I've gotten from better lenses I find myself considering lenses based on their reputation for superior results rather than slotting something into a needed focal length range, shopping by price, and then being moderately satisfied with median results. 

With the same sensibility I've moved toward photographing my theater work now in raw file formats instead of defaulting to Jpegs. When I started working in digital for live theater work two things worked against the idea of shooting raw files. First, storage was much more expensive at the time (cameras and computers) and shooting raw was just plain expensive. Second, the raw files were much bigger than the Jpegs (even the least compressed) and it took much more time to edit through an evening's take and then convert them into client usable Jpegs. Since we're working with a set turnaround time any glitch in the raw process conversion process could set me back and cause me to give up additional time better spent working on the next client's job.

I guess a side issue of big files and small, expensive storage was also just the slow speed of computers and processors, and their pipelines, a side roadblock which only really became a non-issue with the introduction of affordable SSD drives, USB-C, and cheap storage. 

With the prices of USB-C 10 Gigabytes hard drives dropping under $200, and with internal SSD system disks now rationally affordable, there is much less of a penalty for opting to use raw files in the workflow. Add to this the speed of my new-ish iMac Pro and I finally have a holistic system on which the workflow and processing speed of using raw versus Jpeg is largely without any noticeable penalty. But the benefits are plentiful. 

Just as an aside, I remember working with early digital cameras and buying PCMCIA cards for Kodak's DCS 660 and 760 cameras. We got camera storage measured in megabytes with price tags that were stratospheric. And the performances were not as nearly foolproof as today's storage. I did a job in Spain for IBM which required shooting all digital back in 1996. It was a freaking nightmare and when all things were considered we could have made a down payment on an Austin house for the $$$ outlay that eventually expanded to fill my tolerance for indebtedness to the breaking point. 

But yesterday I went on a job with a couple of C-Fast cards that can write science fiction fast. Each card holds 128 Gigabytes of images and with all the space and speed the images might as well start life as raw files. The benefit of super fast cards in cameras that can make use of the bandwidth is a magical process in which your camera's buffer seems to grow close to infinity. 

Today I plugged a camera into a USB-C port and edited the take. I used the camera as a card reader for the C-Fast cards because I haven't invested yet in a dedicated card reader. Given the speed of transfer I'm not sure I'll ever get around to buying yet another device that has only one function. The camera as card reader worked just fine. I edited down 2200 files from across three cameras (the Sigma uses SD cards so those went into the on-computer slot) to 700 files in about an hour (I know, I know, I spend too long looking at all the variations) and then did a series of post processing corrections that mostly consisted of tweaking the color and lifting shadows (I tend to shoot a little dark because in the early days I lived in fear of blown highlights ---this morning I found myself pulling DOWN a few exposures by up to a full stop with no impact on image quality. I may try shooting a bit more to the right next time. 

Last year I was used to going out for lunch when a large folder of raw files needed to be converted to Jpegs for clients. I'd get the process running and then have a leisurely lunch. Sometimes, when I came back to the office, the files would still be churning away. Today I started the process, packed some stuff to take with me to lunch, answered a couple of e-mails and then looked over at the computer on my desk to make sure the process was going smoothly. I thought something had gone wrong. 

The upload was complete and Smugmug.com was ready for me to publish the gallery for my client. 

The raw files gave me a bit more ability to really fine tune colors and to rescue shots that I did a less than stellar job on in the shooting process. Now when I make conversions I default to large, fine Jpegs and I upload everything at the largest size and highest image quality available. It's refreshing to be unencumbered by the processes. 

On the shooting side of things I'll readily admit that I've shied away from using ISOs like 3200 and 6400 in the past. If you remember early digital days you'll no doubt remember that flagship cameras from Nikon and Sony, until sometimes post-2010, were absolutely horribly noisy at just about any setting above ISO250 (thinking of cameras like the D2X and the Sony a900 and a850). Then there were the years spent with the smaller format cameras which required a very gentle hand at higher ISOs. Now, I've thoroughly tested the Lumix S1 and have found that I am quite happy with both ISO 3200 and 6400. Especially for theatrical photography. I photographed last night with two different cameras at ISO6400 for some of the dimmer shots, and both the S1 and Sigma FP had relatively clean flesh tone areas and no real issues with noise in the shadows. Gone are the days when a program like Noise Ninja was a mandatory part of post processing.

By embracing new technology and better lenses I'm continuing to make the whole adventure of photography that much more fun. Stayed tuned as we slow down my brain and take more time to play with considered attention. It's about damn time.

Something from the same assignment to compare with. This one is from a Lumix S1 raw file with the same Sigma 85mm Art lens I used on the Sigma FP.

From the Lumix S1 + 85mm

From the Sigma FP + 85mm

After declaring his intention to be "more eccentric in 2020" Kirk Tuck acquires the most eccentric "point and shoot" camera currently available...

I looked around at all the cameras that were introduced in the last year to find the one with the least amount of press coverage, given the least love on blogs and vlogs, with the fewest inches of hands-on, preview, now testing, first impressions, in-depth and field test written reviews, and, with the help of the VSL mainframe and our (not really!) sponsor, Palantir, we ended up with these results: the least loved and least explored, new, interchangeable lens, full frame camera in the world has to be the Sigma FP. 
So we bought one. 
Mary Bridget Davies as "Janis Joplin" for Zach Theatre.
Sigma FP + 85mm f1.4 Art Lens.
ISO 2500.

This is a camera will be universally overlooked by nearly every photographer, videographer, reviewer and retailer in the world in 2020, but everyone who actually buys one will probably love it and embrace it as one of the most fun cameras to work with ---- ever. (disclaimer: unless you shoot: sports, birds in flight, fast moving children, sports, skateboarding, things in motion, sports, or things that require fast, continuous autofocus. You will also be disqualified as a buyer if you need real, in body image stabilization, any sort of professional flash performance, or an EVF or other viewfinder). 

So, who is this camera for and why was I crazy enough to actually spend my scarce American dollars to buy one at the full retail price? Let's dig in and watch me rationalize...

I've shot enough commercial work with the Panasonic Lumix S1 series cameras to know that I made the right choice in selecting them for my work-work cameras. They are, in my opinion, the only truly professional caliber mirrorless, interchangeable lens, full frame cameras currently being made by any of the Japanese camera companies. A case could be made for Leica products but I'm almost certain that any improvement over the quality of the S Pro Lumix lenses would be firmly slotted in that category we call, extreme diminishing returns. The S Pro line is sturdy, robust and highly capable. The new Lumix S Pro lenses are astoundingly good. And, as an added bonus, the cameras don't overheat when shooting 4K video (which they do very, very well).

But what might be amazing for cameras that one uses for work might not fit the bill for photographers who enjoy walking miles and miles with a camera over one shoulder, looking for fun images to memorialize while reveling in the exercise, and soaking up the feel of the great outdoors. 

I looked through all the current "real" point and shoot cameras and didn't find one that fit perfectly with the perspective of the ultimately ambulatory, rambling photographer. I also wanted whatever camera I ultimately chose to have the imaging potential of the S1 cameras I've been shooting with. While I may use it in a less rigorous fashion I wanted to be able to put great lenses on the front of the camera, in a pinch, and walk away with files that were as good as those generated by my primary industrial strength imaging cameras. 

While I would love the Sigma FP even more if it used the same batteries as the Lumix S1 series, I am falling under the spell of this tiny, ungainly and slow, brick of a camera in a way I didn't expect. And right now I am writing about it in its incarnation as a still imaging camera (photography) and have not yet switched the magic switch to try out the video. That will be grist for another blog post somewhere. 

I took the Sigma FP out for it's maiden voyage this morning after swim practice. I'd tell you more about swim practice but I think the majority of my audience could care less about training for the USMS Masters National Short Course Nationals coming up in April...... 

I charged the battery last night and charged a generic back up battery as well. The camera does not come with an external charger so you have to use the USB-C port to charge batteries while they are in the camera. I am chafed by this and have purchased an aftermarket charger and more batteries to remedy this oddly vexing issue. I am a bit miffed that a $1900 camera doesn't come with an external charger but I guess I should have expected this since the camera doesn't come with a viewfinder/evf either. It's functionally a brick, just like the "brains" of a Red movie camera. You get to add the parts you think you'll need as you go along and, I suspect, that after you fit out the camera the way you'd really like it you'll have spent somewhere in the vicinity of $2500 instead. 

So, no battery charger, no evf, no dual pixel phase detect autofocus; not even DfD AF. But you do get a strap and detachable lugs for the strap. No dual card slots, just the one lowly SD card slot. But in an interesting side note, you can attach an SSD drive to the USB-C port and write files and video directly to a fast SSD. The SSD drive the few other owners of Sigma FPs seem to gravitate to is the Samsung T5, in the 1 terabyte flavor. You'll need it if you want to take advantage of the completely uncompressed video raw files which write at about 2500 megabytes per second, at their highest quality setting. 

Doesn't seem to be the sort of camera you take to a rock concert or a stage show, right? Well, in the spirit of counterintuitive eccentricity I decided to toss the tiny Sigma FP into my camera bag, along with a couple of Lumix S1s and my four favorite lenses of the moment (24-105mm, 70-200mm, 85mm and 45mm) for an evening of photography at Zach Theatre. 

I started out shooting mostly with the bigger cameras but when I felt I had a lot of good coverage I pulled out the little Sigma FP and started banging away with the 45mm lens. Emboldened by a vague feeling of success I decided to step into the forbidding land of stretching envelopes (landed up here courtesy Ming Thein) and slap the ultra fast, ultra heavy Sigma 85mm Art lens on the front. I'd been led to believe (by many non-reviews) that the focus ability would be slow-to-marginal-to-non-existent. My actual experience quickly proved over wise. But....click on the images below and see for yourself... Nobody stopped to pose for me; the stage was as kinetic as ever, but the camera and long lens seem to have nailed the focus (and color!!!) of everything at which I aimed.

So, what's my takeaway from this one day test?

Mostly that all cameras are good now. The Sigma FP has some really good color science along with a super sharp sensor (no AA filter on the sensor) which makes it a formidable competitor; at least as far as image quality is concerned...

There's a lot left for me to unpack and certainly, one day of shooting is hardly enough to nailed down a definitive assessment of a complex camera. We have some video that needs to be shot and some controlled portraits to be made but my first installment of hands-on with the Sigma FP went much better than I was led to believe possible.

People (reviewers and influencers) love to run with the herd and are most comfortable touting the status quo. It's hard for them to review or assess a different approach which I think accounts for the scarcity of Sigma FP reviews. Everyone here is on notice though...I'll be using it and writing about it extensively. At least for the next 30 days or so. 

I also learned that, with a current prescription for my bifocals I can use a rear monitor, if nothing else is available...

Buckle up. 

(Disclaimer: I have never been approached by Sigma for anything. Not to write about their cameras or lenses, nor to try or test or review their products. I paid for my Sigma FP and all the equipment I've written about in this post with my own funds, generated almost entirely from my small but happy commercial photography business. I am putting Sigma on notice that if they want me to come to Japan, tour their factory, and write about my experiences, I have my bags packed and my passport ready!).

And then, some photos from around town.

As a part of becoming more eccentric I am growing out the hair. I must remember to get more glamorous glasses frames.... Sorry, not going for tattoos.