3.09.2011

A quick review of three new tools I love.


I love to mix it up around here.  I write copy,  I write blogs and I write scripts.  I shoot film, I shoot digital and I shoot video.  If I did the same thing every day, all day long, I might be damn good at it but I might be damn bored and damn boring.  We're humans.  We were made to roam.  To hunt and gather.  To invent and to constantly change gears.  Not to sit in front of the same electronic fire pit for eight or nine hours a day, watching the same lights flicker over and over again.

So, lately I've been more and more fascinated by video (or, for you elitists out there, "Motion").  And when you tumble into a new media you go thru the process of learning which tools work for you.  My current favorite video shooting DSLR is, without a doubt, the Canon 60D.  It's set up for video.  The audio set up is good, the noise performance is good and it's stingy with energy use.  The camera above is a Canon 5Dmk2 and it's the best portrait camera I've used.  And if you want out of focus backgrounds it rocks for that, too.  But when you need more than one thing to be in focus (90% of the time for me...) the extra DOF of the smaller sensor in the 60D actually works in your favor.  But this isn't a camera review.

The three things I want to quasi-review today are the Rode Stereo Mic, the 50mm Carl Zeiss lens and the Manfrotto 501 HDV video fluid head.

I'll start with the Rode Stereo MicRode SVM Stereo Condenser Microphone.  It works great for natural sound when you put it on top of the camera.  I used it, with the supplied windscreen, all afternoon in 20 to 30 mph wind gusts on Saturday on the end of a pole, close to our subjects, and we were able to get damn good sound.  Better than I would have thought possible.  When we used it in the quiet studio it's final output (what we heard in FCP) was very detailed and neutral.  The secret I've learned is to always be very close to the subject you're miking.  Like 12 inches away if you can swing it.  A boom pole is a necessity for any sort of real sound in your production.  That means that your video crew will usually have two people, minimum.  I'd buy another Rode Stereo Mic in a heartbeat.  I never worry about its performance and that leaves me mindspace to worry about other stuff.

I use the 50mm Carl Zeiss ZEZeiss 50mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZE Series Lens for Canon EOS Cameras lens when I want to be fairly close in to an interview subject but without any distortion of the subject's features.  I use the lens right at f2.8 which is the extreme sweet spot for this lens.  When I'm working inside of five feet the background goes mellow and out of focus but the sharpness on the subject is great.  I also love that it's not to crunchy but very detailed.  If I stop down to f4 the lens is almost too sharp for some subjects......  I bought mine to use on the 5Dmk2 but if I'm in the video mode it rarely comes off the 60D.... I liked this lens so much I went back and bought the 35mm f2 and the 85mm 1.4.  They are that good.  Not good in the hands of a beginner acculturated solely to AF, but great if you are comfortable hitting manual focus.  S screens for everyone!

Finally, the latest arrival, the Manfrotto 501 HDVManfrotto 501HDV Video Head - Replaces 501 fluid head for my video tripod.  This thing is big, heavy and works well.  I've used heads that are three and four times the price and they were great.  About 5 to 10% better than the Manfrotto.  But the Manfrotto is all I need right now.  When my hand skills and technique hit a wall with the 501 I'll look for something better but that might take a few years.  It's got a spring counterforce setting that compensates for the mass of a 5 pound camera set up (just about right for DSLR and lens....)  lots of adjustments and, most importantly, it stops and starts smoothly.  Every movement is adjustable.  For $189 it's an incredible value.

Ben used the head this weekend for a class project and he was amazed at what a difference the right tools made.  None of these are "break the bank" accessories and I bought them after struggling with other, less expensive options.  I have a project that starts next week that requires good techniques and good tools.  The cost of the three products = a day's fee.  If they make my work easier and better they're worth their weight in my camera bag.

Next week is SXSW.  I have to stay in town to work on a video project but I can guarantee that I'll be downtown a lot shooting the madness.  If you're coming to Austin shoot me an e-mail and we'll see about setting up a happy hour.

3.08.2011

It's Spring Break. Go somewhere fun. Do something fun. Really.



Man.  These are the biggest files I've loaded to the blog.  Click on em and see how big they get.  And that's the output from an Olympus EP-2.  Amazing to me.  But that's not what this is all about.

These are images I took last April when I did a fun roadtrip to west Texas.  These were done in Marathon at a funky, fun hotel in the middle of town in the middle of nowhere.

I didn't know what I expected to find but as usual I didn't find it I found something else.  And that's fine. That's the experience of trying something new.  You really don't know what you're going to end up finding.  So a  whole year has passed and it's time to go somewhere again.

When you are in a precarious job like photography there's always a temptation to make your vacation into something that can be monetized.  I started thinking up workshops so I could make the big bucks like Joe and David, without having to go thru the process of selling anything tangible to the ad agencies or the companies I work for.

I thought about a week long workshop for 10 people in Marfa, Texas.  We'd stay at the Paisano Hotel, have all kinds of desolate adventures and share war stories over great bottles of wine and rare steaks.  But then I remembered that the two deficits Marfa seemed to have last time I was there were good wine and supermodels.  And what's a workshop without good wine?

I've been doing a lot of video and I have something like twenty five years of experience doing TV commercials and stuff so I thought maybe I could throw together some sort of cool multi-media workshop teaching people how to make movies with their DSLR's.  But God, that's so time consuming and I'd come back from vacation with no finished work for me.

Then I decided to bag all the monetizing possibilities and challenge myself to shoot fun stuff for a week and plaster it all over this blog.  To do something for me.  To shoot stuff I liked instead of stuff I thought someone else might like and it all made sense to me.  I should just have fun.

Then I thought about all you guys out there and what I wanted to say to you.  Well, here it is:  "Life is short.  If you love to do art then get out of the office and out of the house and do some damn art that you like.  Don't follow a leader.  Don't take a workshop.  Fill the tank and ride.  Find your muse and squeeze it for every last drop.  Fall in love.  Take a different road.  Meet strangers and photograph them.  Share secrets with someone.  Sleep under the stars.  Eat something you've grilled over a campfire.  Stay one night in a five star hotel.  Drag your camera everywhere.  Write a poem.  Write a love letter.  Be silly.  Dive into Balmorhea Springs.  Listen to new music.  Stay up all night.  Kiss someone with passion.  Eat great food.  See the ocean.  But do something fun and new for Spring Break.  Life is random.  Take the prize while you are still alive."

And those are my thoughts about a good Spring Break vacation.  Do I have a metric to measure the success for any of this?  You gotta be kidding.

3.07.2011

The process of reinvention. Starbucks gets it.....

50mm Carl Zeiss 1.4 shot at 1.4 on Canon 1dmk2n.
50mm Carl Zeiss 1.4 shot at f8 on a Canon 1dmk2n.

Consumers and B to B clients are moving targets.  That's why it makes sense to focus on updating your "public face", your offerings and even the way you personally engage clients and potential clients.  Many people debated the intelligence of removing the type from the Starbuck's logo but it makes perfect sense if your plan is to move beyond coffee.  They've made the foray into ice cream and music, now watch them start serving wine in the afternoons and evening.  Their core market is adults and they own the morning for the middle to upscale part of the market (Sorry McDonald's....) but the problem with adults, even the most caffeine addicted adults, is that few of them can drink much coffee in the evenings and still sleep.

That means that Starbuck's sales  probably look like downhill skiing when you chart hour by hour sales.

If you can get adults back in by changing your product mix to match hour by hour sensibilities then you maximize your investment in rent and wages.  Wine and cheese makes perfect sense.  Happy Hour at Starbucks.  Please note that this is just my opinion about how they might go forward.......

As photographers we've got some psychological and process hurdles to get over too.  The days of print sales are wrapping up.  If you sell directly to consumers (weddings and portraits) you've got to re-invent your business so that pricing and fulfillment aren't 100% dependent on the physical print being your final product.  As demographics shift the draw of the print declines in lock step with the acceleration of electronic display.  You should probably be working to a sales model that delivers final images on an iPad.  With a slide show.  With video.  With other extensions.

In commercial (advertising and corporate) photography the print is as rare as a dodo.  We deliver high res tiff files to clients who are aiming toward magazine or direct mail or brochure print production.  We deliver profiled and optimized Jpegs to web designers and web marketers.  If you gave a print to our direct clients (such as medical practices and retailers) the first thing they would do is scan it into their system and the second thing they'd do is find another photographer.  

My graphic designer spouse reminds me that color preferences change in two to three years cycles and popular typestyles change quickly too.  Refreshing the look of our logos becomes a priority when daily presentation of a website is the lifeblood of commerce.  

Website design is now fashion.  And fashions change with the seasons (warning:  this is not a suggestion to use pumpkin graphics in the fall and beach balls in summer.....)  What's your Fall line look like?

Just like Starbucks we have seasonal shifts of demand and by broadening our offerings and pushing into new markets we can smooth out the curves so that the slow times are less........slow.  Think of the addition of video services as the introduction of Frappacinos.  That was a brilliant move on SB's part to build Summer traffic.  The coffee of our business is the photo assignment.  The copywriting is the hot chocolate.  

Now, along with refreshing my brand, I guess I need to come up with names for our different products.
Anyone up for a Venti Executive Portraitiano?