Ben assists at our Luminex shoot.
Upholding the tradition of "standing in."
I'm having a blast getting back to work. We've been shooting product at our client's H.Q. and we've basically got a building all to ourselves since so many people are currently working from home. I enlisted number one (and only) son, Ben to assist me since I knew there were many moving parts to the shoot and his experience and attention to detail would save my butt from my own complacent laziness. Here are some random observations from the first two days of a three day project:
Since I am now swimming earlier in the morning than any time since college I did not have to skip my masters swim workout to make the schedule work. I was in the pool at 5:58 a.m. and in the client's offices with my assistant in tow at 8:55. Nice to be wide awake when starting a new project...
The first day of shooting was all about making images of products on a white background. Every photo of every product we shot this way will have the background dropped out to white. We set up a white seamless paper sweep across a heavy duty, wheeled table and the put shiny white boards under the products. The shiny laminate surface reflects a lot of light and we can move things around without worrying about tearing the background paper.
All the machines we photographed are used in medical testing or chemical testing and are current state of the art. If I remember correctly the machine in the image just above costs something like $150,000. It's about the size of my microwave oven... Armed with this knowledge we used extra caution handling the products since one drop would be....expensive.
Ben and I arrived at the client's place around 9 a.m. and dragged a hefty cart full of gear down a long hall to a room normally used by the in-house media crew to shoot videos and grab content on the fly. They're all working remotely now so we made ourselves right at home. I had Ben set up a couple of 3x3 foot softboxes on Godox LED lights and then we hung a third fixture on a boom arm directly over the products, shining the light through a 4x4 foot Chimera diffusion panel. This was our basic set up but with every product there were tweaks, and minor re-lighting through the day.
The client requested that we shoot tethered, which I don't do often, but since we were so happy to have a project to do we readily complied. I downloaded the latest copy of Lumix Tether onto a very recent MacBook Pro. The camera tethers via a USB C 3.1 connection and we hooked the camera and laptop via a sturdy, ten foot long cable. I followed the recommended start-up procedure, Set the USB control for "tethering" on the camera and have had a solid connection for the last two eight hour days. A bonus, beyond nearly total control of the camera is that the laptop charges the battery when the camera isn't shooting. We ended the first day with the same battery we started with; still at 94% charge. I was very pleased to find the transfers from camera to computer were rock solid and speedy; even when moving 340 megabyte high res raw files.
Each product got photographed from three angles. One frame from about 20 degrees to the side, one frame straight on and on frame from 20 degrees on the opposite side. There are always two challenges when shooting products like the ones we encountered yesterday. The first challenge is in getting everything in focus. We had to make sure that the front logos were sharp and there was structural integrity to the back end of the device.
To do this I made good use of the manual focus clutch in the Panasonic 24-70mm f2.8 lens. I set it to manual and enabled focus peaking. My methodology was to start focusing from the front to the rear of the product and watch until the focus peaking indicators just started to thin out on the front. That meant I'd gone as far as I could in terms of distributing focus to the rear without losing focus on the front. The old rule of thumb that I learned years ago (and which may not be scientifically accurate...) is that focus extends one third in front and two thirds behind the actual plane of actual focus. It seems to work that way.
If I could not extend the focus enough to cover from the front to the rear adequately I would move the camera further away from the subject and try again. The reduction in magnification or increase in camera to subject distance meant I would end up with a more generous depth of field. And having the camera tethered to a laptop with a Retina screen I was able to punch in and double check that I'd gotten both front and rear parts in good focus.
If I felt that we were using too small a portion of the frame to get the resolution I wanted to deliver I would switch from the single, 47.5 megapixel size file to the 180 megapixel, high-res setting which worked flawlessly. In that mode, with really good lenses, I could compose with an object taking up only a third of the overall frame and still delivery at or close to a 45+ megapixel file. Checking the files later on a 27 inch 5K screen I was impressed by the sheer amount of detail in the files! It's a great way to work on subjects that don't move. Felt a little like the old days of using a view camera.
I tested my methods last week in anticipation of this week's jobs and one of the things I was (needlessly) concerned about was whether I would be able to use the f16 setting on the 24-70mm Lumix S-Pro lens or if the dreaded scourge of diffraction would mar the results. I'm happy to report that I spent the entirety of the first day shooting with the lens locked at f16 and didn't see any degradation of crispness or detail in the final files. The multi-shot, high res files were especially crispy and had good "bite."
The second challenge in photographing products on white is to ensure a good, three dimensional feel to the products. Stuff shot in white tents seems far too flat and it's impossible to deal with combinations of reflective and non-reflective surfaces. I like my product shots to have exposure differences between the three visible planes so that the really seem to have depth. It's difficult to do if you have to get a pure white background in the camera but we really don't have to worry as much about that as we used to. PhotoShop's selection tools have improved tremendously and we've had great luck starting with the quick selection tool, then making adjustments in the "mask and refine" menu which allows for meticulous masking of parts that don't select flawlessly on automatic. Once we've selected and masked as perfectly as we can hitting the return key gives us a file in layers with the background nicely masked out.
The trick is to make all your color corrections and transforms, or perspective corrections, before you get to the selection stage. Otherwise you'll kill your mask if you make post selection changes that change the image boundaries. Especially when you go to fix keystoning...
On the second day we worked in a large lab with a product manager and a scientist who agree to model the clinical use of the devices we were featuring. I thought we might use the existing light in the lab (fluorescent lights up at ceiling level) for general fill and then augment with some frontal light but when we started setting up I realized that then fluorescent tubes being used were impossible to match with exterior light from the windows and, even if we closed the blinds on the wall of windows, the flo fixtures had an odd and inconsistent combination of tubes. Some almost wildly green and others with heavy yellow spikes. Since color accuracy of logos and finishes on the products was critical, and my own desire to produce very pleasing flesh tones equally critical, I opted to kill all of the interior lights and relight the room with a collection of LED lights. We used three large, Aputure Lightstorm LS-1 panels bouncing off the ceiling for general fill and the supplemented with four Godox SL60Ws in either 3x3 foot soft boxes or pushed through round diffusers. I like the overall control of using diffuser panels but I hate having to use two light stands per light/diffuser combination and should probably just use all four of the SL60Ws in boxes.
The difference in shots required a change in approach from the day before. When shooting product we had the camera locked down and always used f16, along with low ISOs and very slow (1 second) shutter speeds. Triggering the camera with Lumix Tether, and using the electronic shutter in the S1R, meant that we never worried about camera shake, even with multi-shot, high res set-ups. But with the clinician going through the process of using each analytic machine it was more important to show accurate process. We were also matching a prior shoot on which the art director wanted to play with shallow depth of field.
While I kept my camera glued to the tripod I raised the ISO to 1,000 and started working at f2.8 or f3.5 along with shutter speeds in the 1/125th to 1/160th of a second range. It's exactly what the client was lookin for. And here I have to praise all of the lenses I ended up using for the "live action."
We shot most of the clinical shots three ways. Using a 20mm f1.4 Sigma Art lens we comped the shots for a dramatic effect. The camera was close enough to the products and clinician to render them large in the shots while making background details drop away. I think of these as "establishing" shots. The client loved the forced perspective that the wide angle yields. I was impressed by the clean look of the 20mm when used at 2.8 or 4.0.
Next we shifted to the 35mm f1.4 Sigma Art lens for a normally composed clinician and product shot that made the large room look "accurate" while putting some emphasis on the foreground. These are probably the shots that will get everyday use and we ended up stopping down the camera to around f4.5 - 5.6 just to make sure the clinician and machine were sharp where we needed them to be.
Finally, we put the Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art lens on the camera to capture tight, detail shots of the model loading capsules into the machine or interfacing with the software on the machines. I used apertures around f2.8 to f4.0 to get good detail on the core of the action but also to help the backgrounds blur into beautiful goo.
Upon inspection back in the office I observed that each lens delivered superb results. I am always impressed with the images I've been able to get from the 85mm f1.4 but in this instance it was the 20mm f1.4 that made me do a double-take. In concert with the in-camera corrections the 20mm at f2.8+ is sharp everywhere and even across the frame. It's actually the first wide angle that's pushed me to appreciate wider angles than I'm used to.
No question that I would happily buy all three of these Sigma lenses again. All three were easy to manually focus and worked very well with the camera's focus peaking feature. In fact, the combination of lenses that are super sharp near their widest aputures, along with accurate focus peaking is changing the way I approach this kind of slow and thoughtful advertising shooting.
I love the S1R as an advertising/studio/high res camera but like other brands of cameras, when working with raw files, the review display isn't as high res as I'd like. Once you get beyond 4X on the review there's no more real detail to see. I use the camera now in the Raw+Jpeg Standard/Medium Res because having generated an attendant Jpeg file means I can punch in to 16X and see real detail
One thing that surprised me when using the camera tethered is battery use! I brought five extra batteries along with the idea that with the camera always on and tethered I'd be going through batteries on an almost hourly basis. But that was based on using previous cameras on older USB connections. And cameras that were not designed to be charged via USB.
When I checked the battery on the tethered camera at the one hour mark I was surprised to see the battery gauge reading 96%. With a USB-C 3.1 Gen 2 cable the laptop provides continuous recharge of the battery at all times except during the actual exposure. Sweet. The connection with the laptop just obviated the need to carry around $500 worth of batteries and a charger....
I wasn't expecting that. And, at the end of the day I checked the battery again (same battery we started with about eight hours earlier) and it was hovering around 94% charged. Ripples of applause for everyone who's every had to juggle batteries and recharging during shoots.
The stand out performer among lenses for this project is the 24-70mm f2.8 Lumix S-Pro. The manual clutch is heaven to work with. The lens is critically sharp at both ends of the focal length range AND the aperture range. When I bought it I had a lot of second thoughts about its ultimate value for its $2,200 price tag. Especially so since I was aware that Sigma was going to have a similar spec'd lens out just a few weeks later.
I have to say that one could continue with a successful career as a videographer and/or a photographer with just this one lens combined with the equally amazing 70-200mm f4.0. They make a perfect pair. I can hardly wait to get back to shooting live theater again. These lenses will be front and center.
A few random notes about the rest of the shoot (non-camera related):
If you find a client that shows up on the first day bringing hot breakfast sandwiches and fresh coffee for you hold onto them. Our client delivered non-stop, premium craft service throughout the shoot and that's only typical on shoots where the CEO will be involved or the client's boss will be on set. We had neither a CEO nor a higher up and, nevertheless, Ben and I got the "royal" treatment.
When you have products to shoot for photographs that will be featured on large tradeshow graphics or high res presentation screens you need to be very careful not to handle them with your bare hands because the oils from your hands will require so much cleaning in order to not show up. I left product positioning and cleaning to Ben and he wore either latex or set gloves whenever he was moving or "posing" a product. He also wiped them down and carefully inspected them for dust, etc. Alcohol and towels at the ready.
Ben and the client also worked as a good team when it came to pulling heavy and expensive products out of their boxes or shipping containers and then staging them for me. I could spend the time I would have wasted if I had been working on my own to fine tune lighting and make sure I stayed on top of the photo process.
Make sure you and your client agree on the importance of taking breaks during the day. We generally work until lunch. We get another couple of hours of work done after lunch but everyone seems to hit a low energy point around 3 pm. That's when we send out to Starbucks (the only good game around in this industrial part of town...) for cold brew or blended drinks, loaded with caffeine. I stick with brewed, hot coffee out of habit. Ben switches to cold brew in the afternoons and our model favored a blended Frappacino. After a half hour break in the afternoon we can soldier on through the end of the work day.
A nice aspect of working in a highly secured facility is being able to leave all our lighting gear and grip gear on site each night instead of having to pack up and move it all out. I take the cameras, lenses and computer home out of habit but not having to cart other stuff in and out is a real time saver.
There's a bit more of the job to get done today and then we're out. Next week I start shooting our video content for Zach Theatre. It's a longer term project with lots and lots of big personalities and I can't wait.
It's nice to feel productive again. I have to be really honest here. I always think of myself as being in good shape, in terms of physical endurance and energy, but the last two days kicked my butt. Yes, I still got up and swam hard but it's been months since I followed up a hard swim with a long, tightly scheduled advertising shoot and I could tell that I was mentally out of practice. Having to focus on one task for the better part of nine hours is exhausting if you haven't been in "training."
After the first day I was in "evening zombie" mode. I barely had the energy to speak during dinner and hit the bed at 9 p.m., which is almost unheard of around our house full of night owls. I faired a little better yesterday and I'm getting used to it today.
More adventures to come.
Final note: A surprise gift.
When Belinda and I got engaged I didn't think it was "fair" for her to get a diamond engagement ring if I didn't get something in return (looking back that was way too transactional...but I might have been kidding at the time). She agreed and surprised me with a mint condition, black Pen FT camera and an assortment of near perfect lenses.
She bought a Pen FT and a lens for herself as well. She long since handed me the second Pen FT and switched to using conventional digital cameras for most things.
When I got home from the job yesterday I went to her office to check in. We talked about news of the day and fam business and then she said she had been cleaning out a closet and found something. It was a pristine 25mm f4.0 Pen FT lens; the one she'd gotten for her Pen FT. It had been hiding in the closet for nearly twenty years. She wondered if I'd like to have it...
And, yes. You will probably see some downtown building shots from that lens sooner than you think.
I have the weekend off. I think I'll sleep in. It's been a while since I tried that.
So, one big, one medium and two small jobs this week. Seems auspicious.