This has been a good month for portrait assignments. Last week I did portraits of five staff members from a legal defense non-profit, outside. I made portraits of three healthcare professionals in the studio. We had fun making portraits of three attorneys. The majority of the projects were environmental portraits where we're shooting with landscape in the background or, in the case of our attorney clients, with their very interesting office architecture in the background. The thing that interests me in these different projects is how untethered I am to using only one particular camera.
Three of the portraits were done in my studio, using electronic flash. For those I defaulted to the most obvious camera (for me, in the studio) the Panasonic S5 along with the Sigma 90mm f2.8 Contemporary lens. The menus are straightforward, the face and eye detection works well, the raw files are easy to work with and it's straightforwardness is just a way to simplify the process. Some of of the outdoor portraits were done with a Leica SL2 along with the Panasonic S-Pro 70-200mm lens.
I like using that camera (SL2) for outdoor work because it delivers a wide dynamic range in the raw photographs and the higher res files make retouching fly-away hair easier. The color is great and I can use dumb flash triggers with the camera all day long which makes lighting with a Godox AD200 Pro flash a piece of cake. My biggest worry on those shoots is bringing enough sandbags along so that the modifier I use on a light stand to block direct sun doesn't fall over in the wind and conk someone on the head.
On one engagement with lawyers in a conference room with a big, dappled glass wall I had the odd idea to use the GHii and the 40-150mm f4.0 Olympus Pro lens. But for the life of me I can't tell you what made me decide to use that combo as it ticks a lot of the wrong boxes for interior portrait shooting. I was using LED lights and needed ISO 800 for my preferred shutter speed/aperture combination so you've gotta figure that the files will have more noise in them and also, no matter how much progress has been made, you know that the dynamic range isn't going to match either of the full frame cameras I mentioned. It wasn't really an issue. The images turned out just fine. But it was one of those "tempting fate" or "tempting Murphy's law" episodes in my sporadic/erratic approach to matching cameras with assignments.
Yesterday afternoon we were back in the studio photographing a radiologist with the S5 and the flashes. Just trying to bring some continuity to the studio stuff we've already shot for that client... But after I finished and sent the doctor on his way with a bottle of water and my best wishes I started the process of deciding just what I really, really wanted to take to a portrait session at one of my favorite law offices the next morning (today).
Recently I've been shooting some of my own personal work with a camera that I've kept circling back to again and again over the past two or three years. That's the Sigma fp. A camera with a deck almost fully stacked against it for easy work but a camera that has one great trick up its proverbial sleeve.
What's the trick? Well, it just has better looking files than any other camera I own --- at any price. That's a pretty neat trick, right? It doesn't have a built in EVF. There's recently released, add-on EVF but it's kludgy and ergonomically a non-starter. The fp doesn't sync with flash at any speed faster than 1/30th of a second and, if you use the highest quality raw file setting (14 bit), the fastest flash sync speed sinks down to a miserable 1/15th of a second. The focusing mechanism is strictly the much maligned contrast detect AF only. And yet.....the files. In either Jpeg or Raw. The best I've ever gotten out of a digital camera. Ever.
I hate using it as a street camera in bright sunlight. The files are amazing but your operational choices are either to squint and hold your hand over the top of the rear screen to try (in vain, mostly) to see the edges of your frame or any details at all, or, to use the Sigma Loupe which is, by volume, bigger than the camera itself. I don't mind sporting the loupe for sunny day shots for clients but it's a major burden when pressed into use for street photography...and you are just out for the fun of it.
So...who would put up with all the knocks on this camera instead of buying a "safe" and somewhat reliable Sony or Canon or Nikon? Or Leica for that matter? I guess it would be someone who really likes the look of the files and is willing to forgo comfort, convenience and logical workflows to get the good stuff.
No. Not the "good stuff." The great stuff.
When I shoot environmental portraits for the law firm I visited this morning I always light the portraits with LED fixtures. I find it easier to match the quantity and quality of my light with the existing light. And it's the existing light in the backgrounds that really makes this happy work for me.
I've done nearly 100 portraits for the firm over the course of the last four years. Sometimes two portraits in a visit and sometimes just one. They don't wait for numbers to stack up before they call. When they hire a new associate or recruit a new partner they just call and schedule a session. If we can do two people on the same visit they save a little bit of money. But my feeling is that the savings is very secondary, in their calculus, compared to their opportunity to send out some P.R. about their new hires. Since I've photographed in their space so often there are few surprises when it comes to lighting and imaging so I feel free to bring along whatever camera catches my attention in the days leading up to an appointment.
For some reason, maybe because of recent images made with it, the Sigma fp just seemed so right.
I packed a lighting case with two big COB Godox LEDs, light stands, a 60 inch umbrella, a round diffuser to cut light pouring down from ceiling cans, and a tripod. I stuck that case in the car along with a collapsible cart the night before. Then I turned to the camera backpack.
I knew from experience that I'd want a fast, sharp lens to drop the backgrounds out of focus so I chose the Sigma 85mm Art lens as my pick for the photos. On this location there are no room constraints so I can move closer or further away from my subject to get the framing I want. I know the 85mm is going to be in the ballpark and I like to compose just a bit looser than usual so I can crop where necessary or have extra frame space if I need to use transforms to correct a slanting vertical in the background.
I put the lens on the Sigma fp, fired up the camera and set as many of the parameters as I could remember needing to set for the next day before formatting the SD card, attaching the ponderous rear screen loupe and then putting the whole assemblage into the backpack. I also packed a small set of white balance targets and a light meter. Even though the offices of the client are only five or six miles from my office I went ahead and packed a backup camera --- just in case. But I went off "script" again and instead of packing another full frame camera I ended up putting the 56mm Sigma Contemporary lens on the Leica CL and dropping that into the case. My logic? They are both L mount cameras. They both take the same tiny, nearly worthless batteries. The can, in a pinch, use each other's lenses. The CL is also light and takes up very little space in the case.
Since fate is fickle I tossed in four or five extra batteries.
That case I brought into the house last night for safe keeping. I grabbed it on the way out of the house this morning on my way to swim practice. All the gear sat safely in my car at the swim club while I cheerfully pounded out some nice yardage with swim friends I've swum with for well over 20 years. It's nice. I also used the new, "Don't try too hard" method of relaxing more in the water. It worked well.
After a quick shower I headed downtown to the office building H.Q. of my client. I pulled into the parking garage, set up my cart and dragged out the photo luggage.
Love the cart. It's added years to my photography by keeping my back happy. Everyone should have a cart. Airlines should check your carts for free. Every office building should have carts in their parking garages just for visiting photographers....
From the parking garage lobby one goes right into the building proper. I always forget which floor of the high rise I'm headed to but the security guy at the front desk knows about my brain's ability to block that particular number so he always prompts me when I get there.
When I get up to the floor I more or less take charge. I decide where I'd like to shoot and look for client agreement. I chat with the reception person as I set up in the corner of their nice, big lobby. She's sweet and always offers me coffee. The location is a corner where I can look down a long hallway that has floor to ceiling windows all the way down one side. But the windows are frosted and tinted and broken up by various horizontal and vertical lines, and doorways, and crown moulding. This is my favorite background at that location. And I use it as well as I can. And as often as I can.
Today I started by setting up the Sigma camera on a tripod. I dragged out a high-backed chair from a conference room and set it up as my "anchor"; my point of reference for the framing and the lighting. I also use a chair as an anchor for my photo subject. I place them behind the chair using the top of the back as a place for them to rest their hands. The seat of the chair faces me and they are behind the chair nestled up to the back. It works well psychologically because it creates a good barrier between us which adds to their feeling of safety, personal space and well being. I have to confess that with some subjects it provides comfort for me as well.
The chair as as "podium" give the subject a place certain in which to stand which makes my job of lighting much easier. They don't move around as much. The subject position in relation to the background and in relation to the camera are the keys things of importance to me. Too far from the subject and the background becomes too focused. Too close the subject and I don't get the human perspective I want for this client's brand "feel."
Once I've got the geometry worked out I set up a round diffusion disk directly over the top of where the subject will stand. This kills the wretched downlight from ceiling cans that is the hallmark of bad "available light" portraits in commercial settings. Now you control the main light. Which, for me, is a 60 inch, white satin umbrella used about four feet from my subject's face. I'm using a Godox SL150ii LED light bounced into the umbrella and it creates a sweet, soft but still directional light that's just right for people's faces.
Today, when I looked through the camera at the person I was there to photograph I could instantly tell that I would not need or want additional backlighting. I'd depend on the light coming through the walls of windows behind her. It was obvious.
Before the subject arrives and steps into the space I've created I take an incident light meter reading and transfer the reading to my camera. Then I hang a gray target on the top of the chair, in the same light that will illuminate my subject's face, and make a custom white balance reading. When I've set all the parameters I ask the reception person to alert our person that we're ready.
I've worked with so many cameras over the years so I was a little surprised when my subject stepped into our set and faced the camera. Looking through the giant loupe at the back screen showed me a frame that was well lit but more importantly the camera absolutely nailed the flesh tone, the white balance on my subject's skin, and the subject-to-background distance was just what I wanted.
I shot about seventy shots with the Sigma fp taking time to move the camera so the subject was in front of slightly different parts of the background scene. I would figure out in post what the best position was but these were little changes, not big, profound moves. After I was certain I had exactly what I needed I asked the sitter if she had time to indulge me in a little camera test. She did.
I pulled out the Leica CL and the 56mm Sigma lens. I'd set it up identically to the fp. We shot another 20 or 30 frames and then I called an end to the session and thanked by subject profusely. She seemed to have a good time and left smiling.
Then we came to the part of every shoot that I don't like. I had to pack everything back up, get it back on the cart and drag everything back to the parking garage for the ten minute trip back home.
My real excitement vis-a-vis this shoot was in the first stages of post processing where I do global corrections to the groups of frames. One correction for the Sigma and a second correction for the Leica. The fp files were so superior. It was just stunning. Perfectly sharp details with almost luxurious skin tones. And color I could write a whole blog about. The files from the fp just made those from the CL look...shabby.
After I pulled in the images and did preliminary corrections in Lightroom I output them as high res, full size Jpegs and uploaded them to safe keeping on the cloud. And into a gallery for the client's selection.
Only then did I pull the rest of the gear from the car and start putting everything back into the right spots in the studio.
The files from the Sigma fp have now printed the idea onto my brain that its color science and sensor are the best I've seen for this kind of work. No matter how silly or dysfunctional the rest of the camera might be it is vindicated by doing the one thing photographers say it most important to them = the image quality. The image quality divorced from all the clutter. No one should care how fast the frame rates are, how easily the camera locks onto an object, how it communicates with one's precious phone. Nope. Everyone pays lip service to the idea image quality is the goal. Well.....toss the rest of the stuff in the trash can because, at least for today, my Sigma fp rules the location.
Not by having the best battery life, or the best performance tracking pigeons but by having colors that make one think they are looking into the actual scene and not just looking at another picture on a screen.
And that's what I did for work today.