11.23.2010

My continuing love affair.......with the Canon 7D. Enhanced by the 60mm efs and a few LED lights

I'm taking a risk today.  I'm posting from my laptop and the screen isn't nearly as well calibrated as the monitor in my office.  I'll assume this looks like my model, Selena, and that the flesh tones are somewhere in the ballpark.  Apologies if it's bright purple.....

I don't have a scientific method of measuring the different ways in which various cameras handle color, I just know what colors I like to see and always how I like the contrast of the files rendered.  Now I'll head into heretical territory.  I recently did a big job for an ad agency.  24 portraits in two days.  On site.  I used two cameras.  My main camera was a Canon 5Dmk2 with a 100mm f2 lens tacked onto the front.  The other camera was my old Kodak DSLR/n with an even older Nikon 135mm f2.8 on the business end.  The exercise went like this:  Shoot the bulk of the frames with the Canon camera and, when I felt like I had what I wanted, pull up the Kodak and shoot an additional ten frames.  All the frames were shot under the same lights,  Profoto monolights in the 600 w/s and 300 w/s varieties.  I used a gray Lastolite target and did a custom white balance for each of the cameras.  I shot both of them in RAW.  I processed both sets of files in Lightroom 3.0

And what to my wondering eyes did appear?  Softer, smoother, more accurate tonalities and colors out of the Kodak camera.  Much easier to post process into pleasing files.  And whether it was a different "shoulder/toe" curve parameter or just more dynamic range, the Kodak beat the snot out of the Canon 5d2 in terms of holding juicy detail in slight overexposures.  Now, if I really dig in and spend the time I can get the two cameras to look a lot a like but when I show the files as 12 by 18 inch prints my art director friends choose the Kodak prints every time.  Every time.  The Kodak came onto the market in 2004.  In camera years that's like a decade ago.  The Canon is barely 18 months old.  Amazing.

In it's defense the Canon 5d2 has great detail and for most things, very decent color.  But it was enough to shake my nascent confidence in Canon's supposed supremacy as a portrait camera.  So I was expecting the 7D from Canon to be no great shakes.  But I was wrong.  When I go thru the same process and do the same white balances with the 7D it creates files that, while not quite as detailed as the 5d2, are much more pleasing in the eyes of this portrait photographer.  And I'm still trying to figure out why that is.  It's a newer sensor but not by much.  They have the same Digic 4 processors.  And the lenses are the same.  But I guess it's one of those things I'll never have a solid metric for because I'm pretty sure the guys at Canon don't want to get into a dissing war between their various cameras.

Suffice it to say that I started shooting with the 7D more and more.  That moved me to buy an interesting lens, against my better judgement.  It's the 60mm macro, EFS.  EFS means that it only covers the optical circle of the Canon cropped frame cameras.  Won't even fit on the front of a 5D2.  But it just seemed like the perfect portrait focal length for the 7D and other cropped sensor cameras.  It's nice and small and fits on the body well.  Not too front heavy.  And it opens up to 2.8.  Here's a photo sample from last week:
It's shot at 3.2 and some slow shutter speed but it looks good and handles well.  The combination works for a lot of the faster, candid portraits I sometimes do and it doubles as a macro rig when I need to get close.  The other two shots in this blog were done with the 70-200mm f2 (non-IS) which I mentioned recently.  It's an incredibly good lens and, if someone handed me $2400 and asked me to buy myself another long zoom I'd pass right by the new 2.8 type two, snap up another $600 f4 and stick the rest into something else.

In a previous review I wrote at length about the handling of the 7D and the responsiveness of the auto focus but my recent romance with LED panels has caused me to think more about the color handling characteristics of various camera models instead of the more common threads of discussion which tend to center around resolution and dynamic range.  I've found that both the 7D and the new 60D are much better in AWB than any other Canon camera I've had the chance to handle.  Much better.  And when I'm in the studio shooting under the non-continuous spectrum of my wacky LED lights I find that the cameras, when left to their own devices, hit the proper white balance right off the mark, unlike the 5d2.  If you throw the Kodak I mentioned into the ring you'd have the opposite of the AWB Bell Curve.  In the absence of a custom white balance shooting with the Kodak is like shooting thru a kaleidoscope.


So I did a little reading to see what I could find out.  Here's the factoid that I'm hanging on to:  Both the 7D and the 60D make use of Canon's Intelligent Focus Color Luminosity metering system.  It's part of the autofocus system but it uses color sensors to more effectively understand what's in the  frame.  It's only a suspicion on my part but I believe that this new measurement tool is also somehow tied into the overall camera white balance tools and this gives the newer cameras an edge over the other cameras in the system that don't share this technology.


Let's talk about flash for a moment.  I know a lot of wedding photographers swear by their 5dmk2's and I can understand why.  It's a good camera with a sensor that's capable of capturing a lot of detail.  But when it comes to flash and autofocus in dimly lit venues I can't see why these photographers don't rush to pull the 7D out of their bags.  The flash performance is a full generation ahead of the 5d2.  The autofocus lock on is two generations better and probably on par with the system in the 1Dmk4.  The flash makes use of the same IFCL metering system that I talked about above and in combination with the flash exposure lock button flash becomes as easy as shooting Nikon.


I put the camera and 580 ex2 flash thru their paces in the dimly lit ballroom at the Four Seasons Hotel last thurs. night.  Legendary attorney, Joe Jamail, took the podium in a crowded ballroom to give a speech about UT's president, Dr. Bill Powers.  Before he launched into his speech he squinted at the spotllights illuminating the small stage and asked, "Can you turn those darned things down?"  They did.  And it dropped the overall illumination a lot.  Even though Mr. Jamail was in a dark suit and the stage was backed with black curtains the camera/flash combination did a great job nailing the exposure using the FEL spot pre-metering and locking in the settings.  I try to take only a few flash shots because, no matter how discreet you try to be, it still gets annoying.  I switch over to a preset custom banks which changes my settings to 2800 K color temperature, ISO 3200, spot metering and "Camera Neutral" color setting.  And I will say that, with a little noise reduction edged in, the camera performs quite well at what would have been extreme nose bleed territory for a cropped frame camera only a year ago.......


So where does this new found appreciation put me in terms of grabbing cameras for assignment?  Well, if resolution, sharpness and final reproduction size are all critical my choice will be the 5D2, hands down.  If I have to get the tiniest slice of focus and put everything else out of focus I'll also grab for the same camera.  But if I can shoot under 1600 ISO, need fast AF, need good out of camera color balance and good white balance, and if handling is critical it's the 7D all the way.  With my 20,  my new 35 f2 and the 60mm macro EFS I've got a nice, small and light "classic" photojournalist's set up that doesn't break the bank.  Throw in a couple of wide ranging zooms like the 15-85 and the 70-200 f4 and a 60D as a back up body and I have system I'd feel comfortable with on a very large portion of my jobs.


Thank the photo dieties,  they all take the same batteries.  Just a few random observations from a week of daily shooting....


Lit with a single LED panel blasted (ha, ha) through a Chimera diffusion scrim.









the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions:

   















   















   















   

11.22.2010

Photographers tend to talk a lot about lighting and gadgets. We should also talk about just looking at the light that's already there.

©2010 Kirk Tuck
Photographers, as a demographic, love to play with the tools and the toys and I am no exception to that generalization.  We hit a new location and the first thing that comes to mind is generally, "Where should I put the lights?"  And, if you have watched many of the DVD's by photographer/instructors or you've taken workshops from lighting pros you can be forgiven for coming to believe that "it's not really professional photography unless there are lights involved."  

Another idea that you'll come away with once you've watched the workshop dynasty give the rosiest case scenario of the business of taking pictures is that no job can ever be done without an assistant.  And I guess if you buy into the first concept:  All lights all the time.... It seems logical that a big support network would make all work more efficient.  But I'm here to tell you that this is all somewhat counterintuitive.

Very few paying jobs are comprised of complicated sets at beaches involving giant scrims, big lights with generators and lots of thin young girls in swimwear.  In fact, if you live outside of South Beach Miami or Venice Beach you will probably starve to death in the search for this kind of work.  But it plays well at workshops because it's wildly the "best case scenario" most aspiring photographers can imagine.  

The reality is that maybe 90% of commercial (non-retail or direct to comsumer; like weddings) photography is done for small and large companies that have products and services to sell.  They also have marketing budgets that are predicated not upon your innate genius but by what value the photographs will ultimately bring to their table.

There are two ways to look at commercial work:  You can be a "whaler" and only go after the big jobs.  Jobs with lots of production and enough potential usage to generate big fees.  Or, you can fly fish.  Cast and land enough fish, week in and week out and you'll do okay.  Whaling sounds great.  A beefy advertising job might net an upper level photography $25,000 or more for a week's worth of shooting while the fly fishers are lucky these days to get $1,800 for a day.  But whaling is predicated on you being able to wait and wait and wait.

I've always taken the fly fishing approach.  Cast and reel in jobs.  And mostly they are one and two day experiences.  Sometimes a job with a bit of travel will take a week.  And many times I'm documenting placing and people in their environments.  Instead of creating a whole lighting design we're coming in like ninjas and leveraging existing light with a few little lights.  That was really the whole premise of my book, Minimalist Lighting.  It was less about how to travel light than it was about how to mix just enough of your light with the light already in a scene to make it work.

And much as I hate to admit it, right now clients are looking for photographers who can come into a facility and create the least disruption and still come away with the goods.  That's a strong incentive to travel light.  But traveling light is no substitute to actually taking time to look at the light and see if you really need to add anything at all. (A statement that makes lighting equipment manufacturers cringe....)

When I went to this printing facility in Ft. Worth I took a case of lights along with me in a Think Tank, Airport Securtity roller case.  I had five or six flashes, a bucket of radio triggers and lots of little diffusers and grid spots.  I had enough filter material to match just about every source.  But when I set up my camera and took a look at most of the things that we wanted to photograph I found that the available light worked really, really well.  

During the course of two days I took the flashes out only when I set up and shot formal portraits of the executive staff against a seamless background.  The rest of the time I kept my eyes open for the right angles and the right existing light.  I knew I'd be working in a 100 or 200 thousand square foot plant and there was no way (and no budget) for lighting up the whole place, or even a large corner of it.

We got the shots we needed with a camera and my most important accessory, my tripod.  I chose not to use an assistant because the budget for the project was tight (aren't they all these days?) but mostly because there wasn't much for an assistant to do.  The "seeing" part is what I'm supposed to do.  And the day I can't carry a wooden tripod and a camera bag by myself is probably the day I should hang it all up and go back to teaching.

I guess this long ramble is really just a reminder that so much of what we do can be done with the simplest gear and can be done unaided.  Rather than ever cutting your fee it's smarter to cut other line items in your budgets.  And if the scene is already perfectly lit you don't need to waste time re-inventing the wheel.  Just get out your gray target card, do a custom white balance and start shooting.  Perhaps the pendulum is swinging away from everything being (over)lit to an appreciation for natural light.  Even when it comes from a florescent fixture in the ceiling.....
©2010 Kirk Tuck




the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions:

   















   















   















   

11.21.2010

The tools are inevitably entwined around the art. Here are some observations about a few tools.

With the most primitive means the artist creates something which the most ingenious and efficient technology will never be able to create.

Kasimir Malevich, Cubo-Futurist, Suprematist

Somewhere in this collection of 400+ blog posts is an article testifying to my love of the 50mm focal length.  Even though I divested myself of most of my Nikon gear over a year ago there were several pieces that I just couldn't bear to part with.  Two immediately come to mind:  The 50mm 1.1.2 ais  lens and the 55mm f 2.8 Micro lens.  I have adapters that let me use either lens on my Canon bodies and on my Olympus Pen cameras, and I do so often.  I can't really tell you why I like them so much but I'm sure it has something to do with the nostalgia of manual focus and the fact that both of these lenses have proven themselves to be sharp and well corrected; no matter what body I put them on.  I have a 25mm 2.8 Olympus lens that I use on the regular 4:3rds bodies and, with an adapter, on the Pen cameras (which I still own, still shoot and still love).  And I have three Canon dedicated 50's in the drawer, as well.

But I've been working through the Canon system and I've discovered two things:  1.  I like the cropped frame cameras like the 60D and the 7D more than the 5D2 even though it has the bigger (and supposedly better) full frame sensor.  2.  I wanted a lens that was in the equivalent range of 50 to 60mm for that format.  I don't always use primes but when I do I want them to conform to the way I see and not the other way around.  I've come to understand that no matter how hard you try to make something work it's not going to work unless your brain is willing to accept it.  And my brain is really bossy.  When it wants to see things in a certain way it gets bitchy about substitutions.
I looked at everything on the market and finally settled on a Canon 35mm f2.  It corresponds to a 56mm lens on a full frame camera which puts it right into the middle of my sweet spot.  The price is good and it's usable on my full frame camera.  I hadn't had a chance to really break the lens in until today so, after doing some mandatory yard work,  I grabbed the 7D and the 35mm and went out for a Sunday walk around downtown Austin.

The lens is probably the lightest lens I own.  It has no special features.  No special glass.  No IS.  No big hood.  No bragging rights for the aperture.  And I fell in love with it the moment I looked through it.  It's sooooo neutral.  No wide angle affectations.  No "portrait-y" feel.  Just a solid, middle of the road focal length and no big anomalies to speak of.  It focuses quickly with the 60d and the 7D.  And, at 3.5 and 5.6 most test reports show it matching the performance of the 35mm 1.4 pretty handily.  Did I try the 30mm Sigma?  Yes.  I owned one back in the Nikon days and found it to be no great shakes.  I sure wasn't interested in doing it again.  It's sharp in the middle and by the time you hit 5.6 it's probably as sharp all over as this lens, but at twice the price.
So, what does this lens get me that's so special?  Absolutely nothing.  And that's it's charm.  By nature of it's middle of the road focal length and neutral imaging performance it becomes transparent on many levels.  I don't lean on an absurd focal length in order to "pull off" an image.  It's fast enough for just about anything I shoot and when I stop it down to the middle aperture range it's as sharp as I could want it to be.  Best of all, it was less than $300.
As a representative of the Visual Science Lab I'm officially declaring this lens to be the prime lens of choice for people who want a middle focal length for street shooting, general artistic stuff and for wise shoppers.  I'm thinking of hot gluing it to the front of my Canon 7D and shooting it until the next cropped frame successor hits the shelves......

I can guess why everyone loves exotic zoom lenses and exciting, extreme focal lengths but I'm finding a lot of good, cheap lenses in the Canon line up that I think are overlooked.  For example, when most people consider actual 50mm lenses the "wish" lens is the 50mm 1.1.2 L.  But why?  It's rare that you'll find subject matter that works well at the maximum aperture of that lens and it weighs a ton.  And costs even more.  The 50mm 1.4 is widely acknowledged to be soft at 1.4 and f2 but sharpens up nicely at f4. And that's a good thing?  So, people buy them only to stop them down?  I think a sloppy 1.4 made sense back in the manual focus days because the limited depth of field made it easier to see when a lens popped in and out of focus.  But with the dominant use of autofocus?  Doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense. Then there's the "nifty fifty", Canon's 50mm 1.8.  I have one.  I use it and I find that it too needs to be stopped down to at least 2.8 and really to f4 before it behaves and delivers good performance over most of the frame.

Hell, my $700 Carl Zeiss 50mm 1.4 falls into the same pit of performance as the above two lenses.  So why is it that, when we're out shopping for opinions on all the forae, no one ever gets around to mentioning the 50mm 2.5 macro lens?  I played with one, found it to be sharp at f2.8 (sharper than all the lenses mentioned above) even better at f4 and remarkably crisp at 5.6.  And it's cheaper than all but the nifty fifty.  What gives?  Is it really so declasse to use a non-USM lens?  And it too is well under $300.  I was so impressed I picked on up.  And guess what?  It's light enough to keep in the bag and take anywhere.
Here's my new, small kit for walking around the streets shooting:  The Canon 7D (the small professional, cropped frame version of the 1Dmk4, really) the 20mm f2.8, the 35mm f2.0, the 50mm 2.5 macro.  When I want something a little longer I pack my 100 f2.0 as well.  With these three or four focal lengths I feel like I can do just about anything photographic in my style.  And all four lenses run less than the new 70-200 2.8 or even a single 85mm 1.1.2 lens.  Guarantee you'll have more fun with these than any group of zooms that cover the same lengths and you'll be doing it with lenses that let you shoot at wider apertures than even the L zooms will with very, very good results.

I shot a function, an event, with the 7D last week.  It does a better job with flash than the 5D2.  The focus locks on quicker in subdued light and the finder is just as beautiful.  I've learned how to lock in a flash pre-flash spot reading and get the same kind of results with flash that I used to get with the Nikon gear.  I understand the general fascination with full frame equipment but I'll readily admit that you could do endless amounts of very professional work with the cropped frame cameras.  At least that's my recent experience.  I'm glad I have both.  I'll save the 5 for picky clients.  For myself?  The 60D and 7D are mostly interchangeable and great.  I'm happy to have them as tools.  The lack of inference makes them invisible to me when I shoot.  I like that.

The next thing up falls into the category of Best Lighting Thing I've Bought for Next to No Money.
It didn't seem like much of a risk when I ponied up $64 for the 160 LED panel I bought from Amazon recently.  I think one plant in China makes all of the 160 bulb panels and then five or ten distributors buy them up and brand them.  At least they all look identical.....  I call this.....my 160 LED panel.

And I've used it on a full day of corporate location photography with especially good results.  The light is pretty powerful, runs for an hour and a half on a rechargeable camcorder battery and has a dimmer control.  I'm working on a video right now and find that two of these panels take care of about 50% of my lighting needs on location.  When more light is called for I can lean on all the "plug in the wall" big panels I've accumulated.  I even stuck one in the camera bag when I went to shoot event stills the other night at the Four Seasons but I didn't have the experience with fast moving events to use continuous light on an important shoot for a client.  But I've been reading a blog from Neil van Niekirk and he's doing just that.  He's using the small panels for quick fill and accent lights on wedding shoots and so far the results look really great.

Once I've shot a few projects that way I'll post some more details.  Until then you might want to check out Neil's blog here.


   

11.17.2010

Stumbling around downtown I discovered one thing about portraits. I like to photograph people who look smart.


 s.
Hanging out downtown with Selena.  We shot on Second Street and Third street.  Love the glasses.  Love the serious/smart look.  We stuck with open shade and shot with the Canon 7D.  My lens of choice (for the whole day, it seems) was the 70-200 f4 L (the non IS version which actually uses cooler glass...).  I brought along my tripod and used it just like my seat belt.......all the time.

It was the perfect counterpoint to a day of meetings, photo shoots at law offices and medical practices.  No lights anywhere.  Not even LEDs.


Portrait of the day.


This is a classic one light portrait in a style I've done for a long time.  I was happy to be able to photography Selena.  She's a musician and an actor.  Very professional and patient.  I used a 4 foot by 4 foot Chimera Panel with a diffusion cloth as close to her as I could get it.  The light comes from a 1,000 bulb, ePhotoInc., LED panel used at full power.

I used a Canon 7D with the 70-200mm L f4.0 zoom lens.  ISO 200.  We went on to shoot other set ups but this was one of my favorites.  Hope everyone is happy and busy.  KT



  

11.16.2010

Getting the white balance right.

Several regular readers have taken me to task regarding the spectral inconsistencies of the LED lights I've been using in the studio for a few months now.  I've been working on getting the colors right.  I think the secret of getting the best color out of every situation is to do a custom white balance.  When I process stuff in Lightroom 3 there's enough control to get the color palette I like without big slider moves.

I'm happy with the image of Meredith, above.  I'm looking at a big file on a calibrated monitor but I'm sure when it hits the web and it's been filtered thru blogger's compression it will be different.  And I guess that's the unknown in this whole "evaluate color on the web" imbroglio.  While we all may be using tightly calibrated monitors it may be that the compression of the initial file and the re-compression of the jpeg file to store on web servers, makes changes that can't really be controlled by the initial creator.

I wish we could sit around and show each other prints.

11.15.2010

Stuff I've learned from goofing around. And practicing goofing around.

 One of the things I've learned in years of trial and error is that "short" light generally (always) looks better than broad light.  I also have come to understand that, while it might be a stylistic preference, nothing makes a beautiful face look quite so beautiful as a big, soft main light.  That's why I love blasting light into a 6x6 foot diffusion scrim and watching it come undulating sensually out of the other side.  Works best when your subject is already quite beautiful.  Above portrait from our Summer workshop on lighting at Zachary Scott Theatre.  I had fun.  I should do another one........
 One of the things I learned, after being disappointed by fate time and time again, is that having a camera with you is a much more certain way to come out of a situation with good photographs than traipsing around without.  And the camera really doesn't matter much at all.  I was in Marfa, Texas when I met this gentleman.  I had the Olympus EPL camera and kit lens with me.  Look how it handles the direct sun on the guy's jaw while looking omnisciently into the shadows.  Who needs HDR?  I've seen people paralyzed and overwhelmed by their gear and I know too many people who only take cameras along if they have something already in mind or have made "strategic" plans to photograph.  Screw that.  Take a camera with you all the time and whip it out when it seems like the right time.  Just like your credit cards, you don't have to use it all the time but when you see something you'd like to have it's nice to know your capable of reaching out and taking it.......
 Over the years I've learned that having a talented person in front of your camera is/ can be just as important (or more so) that having a talented person behind the camera.  This is my friend, Martin Burke.  He's the funniest man I know, after Mike Hicks.  And he has an incredibly expressive face.  If I point my camera at him and let him do his stuff I generally get much better photographs than I would if I tried to hammer down my point of view.  Even though I'm pretty much of a lone operator I am smart enough to understand that sometimes the other guy is right.  Martin was awarded "top actor" in Austin last year by the Austin Chronicle.  He deserves it, and just like those photographers whose fame rests on their celebrity subjects or the availability of a helicopter, a good harness and a pretty city, he makes me look like a better photographer.
 One thing I've learned the hard way is not to over think your toys in the pursuit of a photograph.  The image just above of Jana was taken with a Canon 5dmk2 and an 85mm 1.8 lens.  I could have lit the photo but it wouldn't have been as nice.  I could have waited until I could justify the price of an 85mm 1.2 and had a bit less DOF but I wouldn't have been there to take the photo.  I could have had an entourage of assistants standing behind and beside me but it would have messed up the rapport we both wanted to establish. And they would have drunk all the Gatorade while we worked. (They get thirsty texting on their iPhones.....)  We could have waited for cooler weather (it was 100+ in the shade) but would we have gotten the nice glow on Jana's skin?  I could have brought "one light" but then I'd have to carry it.  I could have been all "strobist" but then I would have made someone else's photo.  Not mine.  I've learned that sometimes less is less and it's better.
 I've learned over the years that there will always be someone doing an assignment that you might think is more fun than the job you're doing as a photographer but every job comes with its own set of compromises.  The grass on the other side of the fence might be greener but it may not taste any better than the grass at your feet.  Embrace the happiness that being in the job in front of you brings.  If you let go of the need to compare what you do with what everyone else is doing you'll be happier.  And you'll probably make better photos. (Can we stop calling them images?).  Fun is in the process.
 I've learned that the true value of the portfolio is its role as a reservoir for all the frames that editors and art directors were too dull or slow or locked in to use.  Many times an art director will go for an inferior image just because the client has already signed off on a comp that matches and they are afraid to go back and substitute something better because they already have "buy off" on something that will work.  I used to get upset if they passed over a photo like the one above to use a photo of a fruit tart.  But not any more.  Now I take the overlooked overachieving, under-appreciated photos and put them into my portfolio and show them off.  Sometimes they boomerang and get used for something much better than the job we originally shot them for.  And we got the pleasure of creating the light and the look and then sharing them.....happily.
Finally,  I've learned that even the projects that sound boring can be incredibly fun challenging when they involve craft and problem solving.  As most of you know I'd rather make portraits than just about anything else photographic.  But every once in a while one of my good clients (who assume I can do anything with a camera) will give me a project with a brief that says,  "we need a totally sharp shot of a home theater receiver with the front panel lit up, on white.  We also need to be able to "see" thru the top cover and "reveal our product, perfectly lit, inside.  Can you do this?  We need it tomorrow for a big pitch that will make or break the company...."  And then the clock starts ticking and your brain makes it into a game.

Nine times out of ten you'll dust off the brain cells that interlink with different techniques and be able to bring together a working strategy.  On the tenth time you'll wake up one of your friends in the middle of the night because she's a much better product shooter than you are and they'll give you the "magic formula" that saves the job and you deliver on time and the client thinks you're a hero.  Only they just expected that you'd deliver on time and on the money.  Because that's what you do.  Because you are a professional photographer.

And no matter how weird this industry gets it still beats the heck out of digging ditches or being president.  With ditch digging you'll always get mud on your shoes.  And when you are president at least half the people think you're always wrong.  Good night.

11.13.2010

On location with a box of lights and a few ideas.

If you've been following the blog for any amount of time now you know that I get bored using the same stuff to make photographs with.  The idea of doing the same thing over and over again is not very attractive to me.  I know that for everyone like me there are a bunch of people who want to master one set of tools and use them until the end of time.  I guess you could have done that in decades past but the pace of change seems to accelerate with every passing day.  The things we can do with the newest tools were unimaginable seven years ago.  The high ISO performance of the cameras.  The low "buy in" cost of lights.  Even the avenues to learning have exponentially increased.  You can embrace change and have fun with it or you can hope that "this will be the last camera and lens I will ever have to buy!!!!!"  and stick your head in the sand.  While the profession is rife with nostalgia I have only nostalgia for the fees, not for trying to make good, quick work with a recalcitrant Hasselblad 500 CM and a 2000 watt second Norman flash pack.....

I've been playing with LED lights with the same enthusiasm that I had when I started playing with Nikon SB800 flashes and I came to realize that I could replace my heavy duty (and just plain heavy) studio flashes with a Domke bag full of battery powered, hand holdable, computer controllable flashes.  I think I'm starting to get a handle on the color rendering and the difference in power output vis-a-vis flash and I've been impressed with what can be do with a very high tech/low tech product.  

Why do I say "high tech/low tech product"?  Well, the technology of LED lighting is pretty cool and all based on semiconductor processes.  These are really the first semiconductor lights to hit the market in a wide scale way.  And I say low tech because they offer all the real functionality of a light bulb.  You can turn them on and you can turn them off.  One some models of LED panels you can also dim them. And that's all they do.  They don't calculate fill, they don't auto expose and they don't do anything smart.  The panels just sit there and put out light.   That's a pretty low tech set of features to give to a generation raised on "smart flash" but there are some benefits too.  Since the light from the panels is continuous you can actually see what you are getting while you're shooting.  With continuous light you've instantly cut your "recycle" time to zero so you can really lean on that motor drive if you want to.  If your camera will do 10 fps so will these lights.

Anyway,  I love to take risks so when one of my favorite agencies asked me to help them with a project I told them I'd love to do it if they let me use my new toys to do the job.  Surprisingly, they agreed.

I packed some big LED panels and some small ones.  Here's my box full of the small ones:
I've been buying little panels since I first got interested in shooting video.  They come in handy and I like em.  The first generation I bought are the littler ones.  The come from Dot Line Corp.  I call them DLC 60's because they have 60 LED's on them.  I've done some fun stuff with them and I love the fact that I can click all four panels together to make a small soft bank or a thin or thick strip light.  They are the most primitive panels I own because they have nothing but an on and off switch.  (FTC statement:  All these panels were purchased from either Amazon.com or Precision Camera.  No manufacturer or merchant has given me any free lighting product.)

Just before I started working on this project I also bought two new panels from an Amazon vendor.  These are the slightly bigger units in the photo above.  These panels have 160 LED's each.  They put out about one full stop more illumination than the smaller units and have a number of features including:  A dimmer knob that seamlessly allows you to drop the power from full to next to nothing.  A battery check button with a four LED read out on the back.  The ability to take a ton of different batteries.  A filter slot and supplier diffusion, tungsten and slight green correction filters.  And an articulating mounting foot.  

In practice I find the 160 LED lights to be a wonderful compromise between the lower power of the smaller panels and the size and bulk of the larger A/C panels.  The only thing that would materially im prove this product would the be ability to link together multiple fixtures the way you can on the DLC 60's.  

Pricing on Amazon can be wildly kinetic.  When I first looked at these lights they were in the $90 price range.  The next time I looked the price plunged down to $64 each.  That's what prompted me to buy them.  The vendor I bought them from, Fancier, is now showing "out of stock" but several other companies sell an identical unit and their prices seem to have settled in around $79.  At $64 each they were an absolute "no brainer". 

The 160 LED light is sold on Amazon.com by Fancier, ePhotoInc., Cowboy Studios and several others. I've ordered product from each of them and it's all worked just the way it should.  Here is the way the filter slot works.  Nice.

A side view that shows the dimming switch (also, off and on) as well as the shoe mount.  It's articulated so you can put the LED on a still or video camera and tilt it back to bounce the light off the ceiling.
See how the Sony camcorder battery fits into the back area.  If you open the surrounding door you discover that you can also power the units with six double A batteries.  The unit gets warm during operation but not uncomfortably so.

So, I packed up a complement of large and small LED panels and we went to visit the Austin Technology Incubator.  We had a big shot list.  We needed to do portraits of the staff, some of the start up businesses that are currently resident there and even head shots of interns and advisors.  The location was the old MCC building in north Austin.  It originally housed the Micro Computer Consortium and is a great venue to shoot in.  There's a four story atrium that runs thru the center of the building.

We decided to do our first round of portraits on one of the bridges on the third floor just outside the client's front door.  The agency wanted to have images for a website and wanted very narrow depth of field in each shot.  In the past I would have used small flashes in small soft boxes for this kind of work.  Yesterday I just put a couple of small panels on a stand, covered them with diffusion material and brought them in toward the subject until the illumination on their faces matched the intensity and feel of the background.  I was trying to leverage existing light and added light together.

Here's a sample:
The light is a little harder than I would have lit five years ago but I'm working a bit hotter and a bit contrastier than I have in the past.  Yesterday we worked all day long at ISO 1600 on both the Canon 5Dmk2 and the Canon 60D.  The 60D shows a bit more noise at 100% on screen magnification but responds very well to noise reduction in Lightroom 3.0.

Before we started shooting in earnest I stepped back and made a few wide shots with my art director as a stand in.  You can see how simple the set up is for this shot.  If I wanted to go softer I would have added another two panels to the mix, interconnecting them on the same stand and then put a frame with diffusion about a foot in front of them.  You can see that we're working under the shade of the "bridge" from the next level up while the background is getting full light from the building long skylights.

That's the main reason for adding in the fill light from the panels in the first place.


Here are a few notes about using the LED panels:

1.  If you are expecting to use these to overpower the sunlight on a location you will be profoundly disappointed.  They aren't a replacement for big fill flash in sunlight.

2.  The auto white balance on the newest Canons (60D) is incredible.  It's better than the 5Dmk 2 by a good margin.

3.  You'll need to group LED panels or use them in closer than you might be used to with flash to get the right levels.

4.  It's great to have a continuous light source without being anchored to a power cord.

5.  It's great to shoot without having to worry about radio slaves and syncing.

6.  The goal is to become masterful at mixing ambient light with the light from your panels.

7.  You know how the Eskimo people supposedly have something like 50 words for different kinds of snow?  Well I'm starting to build up my vocabulary in the same way when it comes to the different diffusion options.  From very sheer white material to various thicknesses of ripstop nylon to products called "Luxe"  there is a whole world of diffusion out there that most still photographers don't know about.......and every variation has a slightly different look.

8.  Lithium Ion camcorder batteries are cheap, recharge pretty quickly and last a long time.  I've got them for most of my little LED panels.  We shot 700 frames from 10 am till 5 pm yesterday and all the panels made it thru the day without needing to be recharged or have the batteries switched out.  It was pretty amazing performance.

9.  People blink less with continuous light sources.

10.  Everyone I met was interested in LED technology.

In one of the shots we did in the late afternoon we set up nine different panels.  Some were just scattered on the floor.  Others beamed in from down the hall.  A few were set up in a fashion similar to the way I'd light with other light sources.  It was fun to experiment and really easy to see what I was getting.

I'll repeat it again for all the people who love to do things the same way over and over again.  This stuff looks different.  The shooting style changes.  The areas of focus change.  The shooting techniques change.  And none of this is really a bad thing.  In some ways it's just the continuing evolution of photography brought about by digital technology.

We're past the bleeding edge with this technology and we're joyously embracing the ever accelerating changes.  Hop on in.  The water's fine.

11.08.2010

Craft, vision and practice. Stories from the art world.


Some people have asked me why, "all of a sudden" I'm posting behind the scenes stuff from photo shoots when there are countless thousands of website and blog sites that are also doing "instructional" stuff.  I'll admit, when I find a challenging new niche to master I become a bit compulsive and start digging like a possessed badger until I feel like I've got a good grip on the subject matter.  Once I understand the technical issues I see how I can fold the knowledge into what I already practice.....just in case it's a catalyst for moving my real work (taking photographs of people) forward.

If you aren't interested in lighting with LEDs you probably should just be patient.  The novelty will wear off soon and they'll just become another set of lights I'll be able to use to do the things I've always done.  Once mastered they will be assimilated and find their niche in my primitive brain, leaving my conscious mind to collide with other projects.

But it does bring up a point that I like to make:  Practice is good.  Practice is learning.  Practice ensures that the eyes and fingers can keep up with the brain and the brain can keep up with your passion.  When I made the comparison of practicing photography to practicing swimming I got several (heated) responses telling me that they were nothing alike.  One person claimed that he could put his camera down for months at a time and, when the muses struck, he could pick it up on a whim and create a masterpiece.  I went to his website in search of masterpieces.  I found only pixels.  People with a paucity of passion, however gifted, want to believe that they can play with art in a detached way.  But anecdotal evidence about artists in general says,  "NO."

Like Edison's inventions successful art is built on the 1,000 or 10,000 failed trials that came before.  There's no real shortcut to the process of failing and challenging and changing.  No workshop will provide the same humiliating experience.  No handbook will provide the emotional context of despair with resolve that great artists endure.  But it's the need to keep moving toward the unknown that leads to the journey that can lead to the great works.

There's a great book about art called:  "Art and Fear: Observations On the Perils (and rewards) of Artmaking" by Ted Orland and David Bayles.  Nestled in among the other nuggets of knowledge is a story about a ceramics teacher who challenges the class like this:  He divides the class in two.  He tells half the students that their final grade will be solely determined by the sheer weight of the ceramic pieces that they each make.  He tells the other class that they need only make one piece but that the grade will be determined by their best piece.

The quantity half of the class gets to work in earnest, cranking out piece after piece.  The quality side of the class thinks and thinks and thinks, and then,  partially paralyzed by the nature of their task and their need to achieve perfection they finally produce.

In the end the students from the quantity half of the class produce far more good work and even far more great work than the other half of the class.  The constant experimentation led to making each piece better than the one before it.  Mistakes were resolved, their hand skills blossomed.  They understood the limits of their materials.  And then they challenged the limits of their imaginations.  It was a great blending that could only have taken place thru the process of experimentation and active exploration.


It was a revelation to me to read that particular chapter.  I stopped sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike and started experimenting and shooting more.  In this same vein I'm on a constant quest to see what different cameras, lenses and lights can do for my vision.  And I KNOW that when I shoot more quantity I get luckier.  There's a groove and I get down in it and produce.  And it all gets easier.  I can read the light.   Controls on the cameras fall right to hand.  It's easier and easier to direct the people in front of the camera.  Obversely, when I'm dormant for weeks I seem disconnected from the processes, timid about directing people.  Everything feels like stop and start.

I've tried to be transparent in the blog and what you are living thru as readers is my "infatuation" stage with a new technology.   And it is different than flash or hot lights.  The nature of the light is different and the way we use them is different.  It's dictated by their strengths and weaknesses.  Soon infatuation will give way to comfortable and we'll be back to looking at expressions and composition and what not.  But in a big view way this is all part of my personal creative process.  I shot for Zach Scott for hours on Saturday.  I shot all day with Jana on Sunday.  I learned stuff.  I rejected stuff.  I'm happy.

Vision is a great thing to have.  And so is style.  Unless it becomes a trap and keeps you producing the same stuff you've done for years.  It may be good for products to be consistent but I would argue that nothing kills art quicker.