It's fun to waaaay over deliver if you're shooting video; as long as you aren't the one who has to scrub through the footage and edit it...
Lenses and memory cards and all the stuff that makes images work. Oh. And cameras. But not as much...
It was pretty typical around the turn of the century, maybe a little later, to create images of a new real estate development and the almost mandatory, attached golf course, by going up in helicopters and making aerial images of the property. Of course, this part of the advertising process has been almost entirely replaced by drones and that's probably a good thing. Flying around in helicopters is dangerous and, if you have a weak stomach it can quickly get very uncomfortable pretty quickly.
We mostly flew around in two and four-seater Robinson helicopters which are piston engine machines. I guess they were "affordable" because there seemed to be a lot of them in service. BSD (big swinging dick) commercial real estate guys all seemed to think of the Bell Jet Ranger as being the ultimate aerial status symbol (kind of an airborne Range Rover...) so we occasionally got to use them to make images of big, industrial projects and of glamorous skylines.
One time when we were shooting golf courses out by the lake I got into a helicopter owned by what we "affectionately" referred to as a "Dell-ionaire." That's someone who started working in the early years at Dell, Inc. and made a fortune as the stock busted up through the ceiling. It was the first time I had any experience with turbine engine helicopters. If I recall correctly it was a German helicopter and the selling point of the turbine engine was more power...which meant it could climb at some amazing rate; which the owner was thrilled to show off. Don't really get the advantage of shooting aerials at 10,000 feet but what the hell...
The day I remember, with misgivings, was spent in one of the battered Robinsons, along with two Fuji S2 Pro cameras. And some fairly new memory cards...
We were supposed to "capture" the magnificence of yet another golf course community and showcase its proximity to the lake. All from the air. I stuck some peppermint chewing gum in my mouth, got in the flying machine and put on a headset so I could talk to the pilot. I was always careful to buckle up because we were usually flying without a passenger door so I could shoot without restriction. Careful photographers often taped their seatbelt buckles with gaffer tape just to make sure nothing clicked open while leaning out of the door frame. We had a brief pre-flight discussion about what I wanted to get the pilot revved up the engine and we got airborne.
I was shooting with the aforementioned Fuji cameras and a couple of Nikon zoom lenses and everything was going fine. Well, my equilibrium and digestive track were both unsettled and borderline rebellious from looking one way and flying another --- along with some chop and bounce --- but the photos were pretty much what the client wanted: endless green course next to bright blue water.
After ten minutes or so I got a "card error" message from the camera. I had learned early on with the Fuji S2s that there were several varieties of "gotchas." The cards frequently crashed or became corrupted and the two different battery clusters died quickly and at opposite times from each other. I knew I couldn't fix an errant card while in the air so I grabbed a second camera, changed lenses and got back to work. But I also tried to re-shoot some of the ground we'd already covered in case the card in the first camera was unrecoverable. After about 100 frames the second camera started giving me the same "card error" message, intermittently. I immediately stopped shooting, turned off the camera, took out the batteries (two different sets in a Fuji S2 - not at all compatible with each other) and dropped out the card. I replaced the ailing card with a new one, formatted it in the camera and started shooting again. It worked for about 120 exposures before sounding the alarm.
By that time we had pretty much finished our flight and, if the cards could be recovered we be okay. I would have had the pilot hit all the important locations again but by this time the bumpy ride, hot morning and sticky humidity were conspiring to prod me into a feeling of deep and accelerating air sickness. I figured that a quick landing might prevent untimely regurgitation so I called for an end to the adventure.
I was glum on the drive home. I thought about what I'd have to tell the client and I worried that unrecoverable cards would result in my paying for the next helicopter ride out of pocket in order to re-shoot. Three more pieces of gum and some time with my head between my kneess didn't solve the issue with the cards but a $150 piece of software and hours of sweating did the trick. I was able to save nearly all of the images. Only a few were horribly corrupted and unusable. After an hour or so I recovered as well. Mostly.
People ask me why I think I need so much back-up gear and I look at them as if they are insane. You can't sit in a flying helicopter that cost six or eight hundred dollars an hour and futz around with a broken camera. Or a corrupted memory card. Or a lens that's given up. You've got to grab for the next camera and get on with the business.
I haven't been in a helicopter in nearly eight years and I'm pretty happy about that. God bless drones. It's obviating the need to risk life and limb in a mobile death trap that makes the pervasive invasion of drones tolerable. I won't use them but I can hire someone who will.
So, that was early days in commercial digital photography. Things broke. Batteries ran dry in a hundred shots. Card's structural data integrity fell apart. Interfaces failed. Computers crashed and SCSI connections were frail. Where are we now?
Cameras, for the most part, are rock solid performers now. I can shoot with any number of cameras and not find anything too difficult to overcome. I've only had one camera failure (catastrophic) in the last five years and that one was replaced under warranty.
It's been ten years since I've had a card failure. I chalk some of that up to card discipline (always format in camera, keep cards stored in their plastic cases when not in use, and, don't buy cheap cards) and some of that record of success to the fact that bigger and bigger file sizes mandate bigger and bigger memory cards so we end up replacing them mostly before they even have a chance to act up. All the cards I use now are either 64 GB or 128 GB and are either V60 rated or (mostly) V90 rated. Two of my cameras take CF Express or XQD cards and I like them for their structural ruggedness. The 128 GB CF Express card I have is extremely fast and buffers 47.5 megapixel raw files like they are tiny Jpegs.
I hate to say it but I think the real explosion in photo quality (output) isn't necessarily higher and higher resolution or increased dynamic range. I think lenses have actually gotten much, much better than they've ever been before.
I'm convinced that if I could put a new Nikon 70-200mm or the new 85mm f1.8 on one of those old Fuji S2s I could make photos that blow away the ones we took 18 years ago. Just because the optical performance of the current lenses would be so demonstrably superior. I'm burned out on chasing legacy lenses because, inevitably, while they look good on lower resolution cameras they tend to fall apart on cameras with high pixel count sensors.
I recently did a job where we shot for a day and a half against a classic white background. The subject was also backlit. I used a Panasonic S-Pro 24-70mm f2.8 zoom, mostly between 35mm and 70mm and I never saw the kind of veiling flare we took for granted with the older lenses. Even with a light shining directly in the lens I didn't see a decrease in contrast or any sort of softening of the images.
While new, expensive and state of the art lenses would make the older cameras perform better there's nothing they can do to improve the memory card performance of the older cameras.
In almost every way the new cameras, lenses and memory cards are better, more reliable and easier to use.
If camera makers were benevolent and generous they might consider updating firmware on cameras that go all the way back to the dawn of professional digital. I guess that's a pipe dream since on-board memory and processor performance play such a big part on the data side of the process. And I guess that would make camera makers seem too much like socialist enterprises. But I sure would love to give those S2s and even the S5s another run for their money with killer lenses and current instruction sets.
Who knows? Those old sensors might deliver a retro look that all the cool kids adore.
I think I'll count myself lucky and keep filling out the lens bag with current, top of the line product. Then I'll be the only one in the chain to blame when the images don't meet (unrealistic) expectations.
Hope you are having a mellow and Covid-free weekend. Keep those masks on tight. We don't need to see your nostrils. It's never a political statement, it's just best practice.
One of the most interesting artists I've met in the last thirty years has got to be Jaston Williams. He's a writer, playwright and consummate actor. He's starred in so many productions, in Austin and on national stages, that I'd exceed my usual verbose writing limits just listing them. But the thing that makes him both hilarious and captivating is his ability to observe, distill and define the zany characters he finds all over Texas. And to display them with frightening authenticity.
Since it looks like no one in the USA is going to be producing plays inside theaters for big audiences through at least 2021 he's experimenting with new, hybrid constructs of theater.
I was enlisted to help him with his current production. The project is structured like a cross between a live, one man play, a television show and a movie. The play is about the inhabitants of a small, west Texas town who have seen mysterious lights dancing on the horizon. There are only a handful of people who claim to have seen the lights while everyone else in the town, the people who haven't seen the lights, think those folks are crazy.
Jaston worked with Austin's best theatrical make-up person to create a dozen characters. He plays every single one. While doing a dozen characters in a traditional play, with very complex make-up and costuming, would be nearly impossible (time, time, time...) doing it as a movie is manageable. And better.
Today he and his crew will be filming him live on the stage at the old State Theater here in Austin. He'll be the on camera narrator for the project. He'll do his one person script in front of a large green screen and during the post production editing process the images I made of him in his various characters will be unveiled in the background, on the green screen. Since we shot several hundred images in each character the editors and director will be able use multiple images of each character in what amounts almost to an animation.
Once the project is finished the producers intend to work with live theaters around the country to provide them with the "play" as content. The theaters will be able to sell streaming access to their own audiences and they will split the proceeds with the production company and Jaston. This gives theaters in many markets something to offer audiences during the time when live productions aren't possible. They share in the profits and there are no costs to the theaters beyond the split of profits. It's a nice model. I hope it works.
I've photographed Jaston in so many guises and characters over the years and I had no intention, really, of photographing him yesterday. But I do take a camera with me everywhere and when I went downtown to look at the preparations for today's multi-camera video shoot he answered the door and stepped, just by chance, into a nice looking pool of light. I shot off five or six frames and then we walked into the auditorium.
The camera I had with me yesterday was a Panasonic GH5S with a Sigma Contemporary 56mm f1.4. I used it at f1.4.
Interesting time for art in general. Tough times for theater in particular.