A quick post about a menacing problem for event photographers. Blogger shares trade secrets.

Hear ye.  Hear ye.  Proceed with caution.

I've photographed a lot of events.  Over twenty years worth of events.  And I always seem to over pack, over prepare and carry around a lot of pre-event anxiety that has to to do getting all the gear just right.  Yesterday evening I photographed a reception for two really great kids, James and Debra.  The come from well to do families and had gotten married in Napa Valley.  But they wanted to have a party for friends and family here in Austin who were unable to get out to California.  I'd been booked on this event for the better part of a year by one of my favorite meeting planners.

I spent hours trying to decide on just how to use flash in this instance.  We'd start out the evening with good natural light but the sun would be fully gone by 8:15 and I'd need to add flash.  I tested five or six modifiers before settling on a small, Speedlight ProKit soft box.  I went thru my collection of brackets and decided on the Alzo bracket that extends up.  After an hour of actual use I jettisoned the bracket and went hand held with the flash and the box.

I packed cameras three times.  Finally went with two Canon 5Dmk2's and mainly used the 24-105L lens.  Four extra batteries and 60 gigs of memory cards in the bags.  Extra cameras and lenses in the car.  All this for a four hour, low key reception.  But I wanted to look good.  The father of the groom is an old friend who is also the CEO of a bank chain.......

So what was the horrible menace?  What do I want to save other photographers from?  HEARING LOSS.  While the guests may go to a big party with an amplified band once or twice a year event photographers tend to go to these things about once a week.  And if you brought a decibel level meter with you to most venues you'd find that they all exceed the safe limits to prevent hearing loss.  All of them.

If you are a young photographer you've probably chalked this blog up to the philosophy of:  "If it's too loud you're too old."  But you'd be fooling yourself.  All hearing loss is cumulative.  Happens over time.
I used to not pay attention to this either.  We'd be doing a photo set-up next to the band or across the ballroom from a band and get pounded for hours.  One evening I went home with my ears ringing and I did some research.  I won't bore you with it but a few exposures like that and you'll have trouble hearing your kids talking when you hit your thirties and forties.  Really.  Just about everyone.  Few are immune.

So twenty years ago I started wearing in ear ear protectors anytime I was in an environment where people had to shout at each other to be heard.  I pass em out to my assistants too.

Well, back to last night.  The last three years have been more about book writing and advertising jobs for me and I'd done very few social event functions.  I meticulously packed up all my stuff and headed to the venue.  I got there early.  Just in time to hear the band warm  up.  They weren't over the top but you had to lean in and shout to have a conversation with anyone.  I started looking for earplugs.  The venue was a big golf resort and corporate meeting center west of downtown Austin.  I hit the gift shop in the lobby.  No dice.  I found the A/V department hidden away in some back hall.  No plugs.  I even went to the catering department.  Again, no luck.

Finally, over chicken sandwiches in the green room I asked the members of the band (sheepishly) if anyone had any earplugs.  Great Luck.  The lead singer had a set in his bag and he was happy for me to use them.  In my head I thanked him a dozen times as I angled myself between the speakers in front of the stage and the subjects I wanted to shoot.  Thank you, lead singer.

When the evening wound down I  pulled the plugs, so to speak, and instead of that dull wongy feeling you get when you've been listening to loud music, unprotected, I was able to hear accurately and crisply again.  I know I'm losing some hearing as I get older but that makes it even more important to keep what you have.

Every live music venue in the world should have ear plugs available.  But they don't.  Head to the drug store and buy in bulk.  Or find a supplier of safety ear plugs for industrial use.  Keep a stash in all of your camera bags.  Use them early.  Use them often.

But if you forget, and no one else remembered either some dampened Kleenex, rolled into a small cone will work better than nothing.  When you can hear your child's voice clearly you'll thank yourself for having JUST THE RIGHT GEAR.

And that's what I re-learned last night.

Lest anyone think I'm just a music hating grouch I must say I've been to more live concerts in my life than movies.  And I don't think anyone doubts that I love live theater but during dress rehearsals for big rocking musical shows I always try to remember to pack "foam".  I don't want to unfairly accuse Ben of mumbling........


Why I like the Canon 60D.

I bought my second Canon 60D last week.  I thought I would explain why.  This Spring I undertook a large (for me) video project and I ended up doing interviews with 14 oral surgeons in 7 different locations.  I kept the lighting as simple as I could.  Most of the venues had a mix of sunlight thru the windows and florescent lights from the ceiling.  In most cases I filtered small, battery powered LED's to daylight and mixed them in.  If I was careful enough to do a custom white balance before I started shooting then the color looked just fine.  If I depended on AWB I won sometimes and I lost sometimes.

When I started the project I assumed that the Canon 5dmk2 would be the preferred shooting camera for the best quality.  But it didn't work out that way.  I found the menus in the 60D to be easier for me to understand.  I found the deeper depth of field of the smaller sensor to be a godsend in most set ups.  But most of all I found the simple, manual control of audio to be easiest to use.

I have a 7D and it also shoots nice video but it doesn't have the option to control sound levels manually.  I use it to shoot "B-roll" when we don't need sound, or to shoot fast moving stuff when operating the camera in a "live" situation overrides overriding the automatic level controls.

The Canon 60D also has a big, bright LCD monitor on the back that flips out and is positionable.  It's a big plus for shooting a seated subject.  I always tend to use a Hoodman loupe when I shoot view.  It's easier to see the screen if you block out the ambient light.

I'm sure that you can tweak out a full stop better high ISO performance with the 5Dmk2 but for the kind of interviews I was doing it would have been inconsequential.

My working methodology was pretty simple.  I'd clip a Sennheiser lavalier microphone to the person's shirt button plaque or white coat lapel and put the microphone transceiver in their pocket. Then I'd put the microphone receiver in the hot shoe of the shooting camera and plug the cable into the camera's microphone socket.  I'd ask the doctor some questions for practice and check and set levels while we chatted.  Once I had good levels that didn't clip I would push the button at the top right of the camera (from camera operator's point of view).  That button gives two levels of magnification which makes fine focusing any optic a piece of cake.  On the third push of the button you're back to the live frame and ready to push the dedicated button to start recording.

Sometimes I would use a 50mm lens on my primary interview camera but I would want a second camera angle at the same time so I would have something different to cut away to.  It would keep the video from being so static.  I noticed that, when I used a 5Dmk2 the footage looked different.  Even if I did custom white balances in the same spot.  I decided I wanted two identical shooting cameras.  It would also be good for those times when I have a second video shooter and I want everything to cut together well.

I was looking on the used shelf at Precision Camera for bargains and I found a lightly used 60D with an extra Canon battery and a 16 gigabyte Delkin SD card for a whopping $675.  At a time when camera bodies seem hard to come by I thought it was a good deal.

I shot the two 60D's with different lenses on the front at a big Freescale Semiconductor event on Tues. this week.  I shot raw files and did lots of unnecessary pixel peeping as I post processed them in Lightroom yesterday.  What I saw was all good.

The camera can get noisy at 1600 ISO, especially so if you underexpose.  I'm not perfect.  Underexposure happens to me.  But the nice thing is that the grain is well behaved.  Very little color splotching occurs and there's just an increase in what looks like monotone noise.  It's handled very well by the noise reduction menu in LR.

When I shot on a tripod and used normal, reasonable ISO's like 200,  400, and 800 I got rich, saturated colors and high resolution.  In this case I was mostly limited by the cheap Tamron 11-18mm lens I was using for ultra wide angles.  I was pleasantly surprised with the high sharpness of the 24-120mm  L zoom.  And I was generally pleased by the performance of Canon's cheap, kit zoom, the 18-55mm version 2.  All of the lenses had various geometric distortions but the two Canon's were pretty well corrected by the profiles in the lens correction menus in LR.

The camera handles well, sips battery power conservatively (same battery as the 7d and 5d2), does nice live view and feels good in my hands.  Your hands may be bigger......

What I like a lot about the cheaper cameras  is that they use SD memory cards.  I can buy tons of 8 gigabyte cards at around $13 a whack from Amazon and the class 10's seem to handle all the video I throw at them very well.

To recap:  Good video.  Good audio.  Light and small but with a good finder.  Uses cheap SD cards without coughing or sneering.  Wonderful LCD monitor with swivel.  High megapixel count with very pretty files in raw.  Graceful handling of noise.  CHEAP (compared to the 7D and the 5Dmk2).

I'm glad I bought another one.  I'd like to do more personal video projects in the west Texas desert (once the Summer is over.....in November) and it's nice to have ten or twelve SD cards to play with so I don't have to spend valuable shooting or sleeping time downloading cards and backing up files.  With SD card prices so low it's just like buying rolls of film....

I like cropped frame cameras.

I also like shooting video with these cameras.  So much so that I've decided to write an ebook about how I do it.  I'm spending July with Ben going thru everything I ever wanted to learn about video and the way these cameras can be tweaked to do video as part of my research on the book.  It should be done, designed, edited and ready on the first of Sept.  I'll keep you posted.


Different formats. Different treatments. Same Vision?

I took this portrait of Michelle with a medium format camera and a long lens.  I used a Norman Beauty Dish and a large softbox for fill.  The background is lit by two small softboxes.  I love the long, soft tonalities.  And I love the quiet look of the whole thing.  

This portrait was shot many years ago on the outdoor patio of the old Sweetish Hill Restaurant.  Light filtered through the translucent skylight panels and bounced in from reflected sunlight in surrounding shop windows.  I used an Olympus Pen half frame camera with a 40mm 1.4 lens.  A relic of the early 1970's. Just like the photo above, I used Tri-X 400 film developed in D76.  This is NOT lit with a beauty dish.  Just natural light.

And, I guess my point is that the "feel" of the photograph, the quiet stare out to the camera :::: out to me, is similar in both.  The body position in both images has similar energy.  I think they are both contemplative images.  And what I am coming to find is that no matter what camera I use to do portraits with and however I light them, there are common threads.  There are little things that tie the emotion of the photographs together.  Beyond the tones and the postures and the look there is also the inclusion of a background that is both soft and present.

I never thought I had a style until I started looking back twenty years and then laying old prints next to new ones.  I have found one thing.  There is a difference between images shot to be printed and images shot to be looked at digitally.  The digital ones seem more sterile.  Quieter.  Less depth.  They seem flatter to me.  Just an observation.

Digital image.  EOS-1D mk2.  50 2.5 macro.

And yet, there are similarities.  The backgrounds feel similar to me.  And the  portrait of the coffee is quiet.  Funny to have a quiet style for such a boisterous and chatty blog writer.  

How do you create a style?  You don't.  It evolves over time.  When you AREN'T thinking about it.
I guess that makes the acquisition of style some sort of Zen thing.

Ten Top Tips For Getting People Say Nice Things About Your Portrait Photographs.


We all work in relative isolation and we crave the positive feedback from strangers (we wouldn't dare sit next to if we ever had to ride a bus)  even though we have no way of gauging it's value.  I've carefully looked thru many forae and online resources and I have a quick guide for generating good feedback.  Do these things and you'll have a fighting chance at having someone mark one of your photos as a "favorite".  You might even rise to stardom and be asked to shoot for free by a prestigious media outlet.

1.  Only shoot young, famous musicians and actors.  The higher up on the "A" list the better.  Put their names in the metadata and labels and descriptions.  When the blind name searches occur......instant stardom.  More points for unusual (read: stupid) poses and expressions.  Outrageous costuming is expected.

(Want to learn about access and how to photograph Justin Beiber, Brittany Spears, Lady Ga-Ga?  You'll want to take my upcoming $25,000 workshop, Shooting Stars.  We're limiting the class to the first 100 applicants....)

2.  Have a video crew shoot everything you do.  From nose wipes to model fluffing to spectacular farts.  Everyone wants to see how it's all done.  Bonus if you include footage of actual portrait shoots.  Extra bonus if you are shooting the portraits.  Be sure to grow trendy facial hair and own a collection of really stupid (proto bohemian) hats........

3.  Use a camera no one has ever heard of or that is largely unavailable.  Like the guy who puts banks of lights on either side of his subject and pounds away with an 8x10 view camera.  Extra points if you go bigger than 8x10 and super extra points if you use non-conventional film.  (See next point).  If the camera is too big to carry by yourself make sure you see point #2.  Get lots of footage of the crew positioning and setting up the camera for you.  "Quick Bob, a close up of that rare lens I'm using."

4.  Combine the big camera with super large format Polaroid and you can shoot the most boring portraits in the worst imaginable light and be lauded in magazines across the country.  But again,  don't try this without your Behind the Scenes video crew.  Proof that you went large and instant is usually more important that the actual portrait.  (see point #7).

5.  Shoot everything in black and white.  Talk about how important it is to shoot in black and white.  People don't really get black and white anymore but they know they're supposed to like it.  Kinda like Cadillac Escalades.  Or automatic watches.....  If someone mentions SilverFX fix them with a withering glare and denounce canned actions as "hobbyist affectations."  Let everyone know that if they aren't printing on fiber photographic paper they are pond scum.  Don't forget to mention that every print must be toned in toxic and radioactive toners.  By hand.

6.  Shoot naked people.  This is harder than it sounds because only thin, healthy people look good naked and in most of the U.S. and for that matter, north America, municipalities and society in general have outlawed "thin and healthy".  Much as you love your sweet partner the camera is a vicious bitch when confronted with an extra 50 pounds of love handles..... (When searching for good looking naked people try to pay attention to point #1)  The double chin is only adorable to your cat and your equally pudgy partner.  Believe me, all that physical egalitarianism doesn't translate.  Unless you are Joel Peter Witkin.......and he OWNs that niche.

7.  When asked about your intention, motivation, philosophy, relationship to art be sure to talk only about technique.  Extra points for cataloging which lens, camera, settings, lights and modifiers you used.  Want fans for life?  You'll want to supply "before and after" photographs as well as three dimensional lighting diagrams of your every move.  No one gives a panatomic X negative about why you shot something, they just want to know how they can reproduce exactly the same thing with their Canon Rebel.

8.  Hot Babes. If you can't ante up the money for my workshop about working with "A" list people you'll want to stick only to photographing young women.  Preferably in randy outfits, in suggestive poses and forget the "come hither" eyes.  You'll be looking to capture the "do me now before the commercials are over!!!" eyes.  At the Visual Science lab we measure the number of "likes" for super saturated, twilight-with-outrageous-fill-flash photos/portraits of recent post-teen women in skimpy outfits and compared it to similar photos of men in the same poses.  The difference in "likes?"  Female subjects= 253,017 versus 3 for male subjects. Don't ask.

9.  Use a radical new light source.  There's a hierarchy of lighting coolness.  Top of the heap are HMIs ala Victoria's Secret calendars.  Next is anything new = LED's.  Then outrageously expensive strobe systems warranted by the atomic energy commission to produce light that is slapped out in doses with less than .00001 % color or intensity shift.  Then florescent lights.  Then the screen  (yawn) of your iPad (yes Bob, I see you got and iPad.  I am very proud of you. ) or the (yawn, moan) screen of your iPhone 6.    I've noticed a new trend.  I saw this in a forum about using small flashes.  It's still kinda new but may catch on......People are using the light that exists, without augmentation.  They are calling this "natural light" but I don't know what could be more natural than 27 small, battery powered flashes, covered with filters, festooned with  radio triggers and plastic drinking straw modifiers, and hung like Christmas tree lights on a light stand........ But no one can tell from the images so that's where the "Behind the Scenes" crew comes in.

10.  When in doubt try to incorporate as many of these techniques as possible.  Naked, small flash, big camera, super sized polaroid, only of a future "A" list, barely legal, stars shot with a super wide lens.  Then torture the image in PhotoShop and HipsterTRAGIC and print it out on black and white paper.  If this still doesn't work then register a few more untraceable e-mail accounts and prime the pumps by "liking" your own "favorites".    Museum quality, baby.  Works for the big dogs.

Note/Warning for the "Hard of Humor":  This is intended to be cynical humor and does not really reflect my recipe for doing good portraiture or having that work widely appreciated.



My recent adventures in San Antonio.

I had fun today.  I had fun yesterday.  I blame photography.  I was heading to San Antonio to take photos today at the JW Marriott Hill Country Resort.  My favorite production company was producing a show for 2000 people.  I went down to SA last night so I could get an early start.

Packing for a shoot is always interesting.  Tomorrow I'm shooting a portrait of a political candidate for a high end production company and PR agency.  I'm packing a bunch of Elinchrom lights, spiffy triggers, breathtaking modifiers and, even a beauty dish.  I'll take a couple of Canon 5Dmk2's and the Zeiss 85mm 1.4 and 100 f2 Macro Planar.  Yummy glass.  And that's the way I like to walk in for a high profile job.

But today I was whipping thru a show, having fun and taking documentation photos of stuff.  Wall treatments, plasma displays and even an interaction display that sensed movement via IR sensors and made things happen on a twenty foot wide screen (see above).  I knew three things:  1.  I'd be moving fast and soaking up all kinds of details and shots.  2.  I wanted to use live view to line up walls and generally previsualize the final images.  3.  18 megabytes was more than enough to make my client happy-happy.

I grabbed two 60D's.  (Cameras are like rattlesnakes, they like to travel in pairs.  Matched pairs.)  I grabbed a motley assemblage of lenses.  No Zeiss glass.  Why not?  Because I'd have the luxury of putting the cameras on my tripod, stopping down to f8 and shooting at slow ISO's like 200 and 500 and occasionally 1250.  At f8 every lens is good.  And all the popular ones are easily and automatically corrected in Lightroom.

Big plus, if I dropped one from the top of a 16 foot ladder while grappling with my acrophobia, and it smashed to pieces on the floor I'd be much less devastated than if it had been a pricy German uber lens.

I shot a lot.  I had fun seeing them on the screen.  I got back to Austin in time for supper.  And then, for excitement, I took Ben out to practice driving.

Listen carefully:  Ben got his learner's permit.  This means he's operating a motor car.  With my lackadaisical supervision.  If you are in the our area watch out for a silver Honda Element with a small madman at the wheel......and a larger madman in the passenger seat.  We're learning together....


How to make your Canon 7D (or lesser camera) shut up and be stealthy. Cheap.

Here's a garden variety Canon 7D.  I like the camera because the shutter is already far quieter than the 5Dmk2 or the 1D series cameras and it's noise characteristic is less obnoxious than the 60D's.  But sometimes you'd like, or need, your camera to be a lot quieter,  more unobtrusive.

The camera as seen in the wild. Held by primo assistant, Ben.

I grabbed an old Zing camera cover I'd bought to protect camera bodies back in the days when we did a lot more travel.  I thought the neoprene would dampen vibrations on airplanes and keep splash and dust off the machines when not in use.  They worked pretty well.  But we started using one expensive digital camera instead of four comparatively cheap film cameras and I stopped using the Zings.  They sat in a box with other "one time use" stuff like Manfrotto tripod leg "shoes" designed so your tripod doesn't sink into sand at the beach.  For a while there was a raft of products designed to fit on your tripod legs to create a little cradle beneath the center column.  You were supposed to put things there you might need in a hurry.  A light meter, extra film, the polaroid back or even your loupe.  But as film dimmed so did the need for these accessories.

The box now provides a home for small flash accessories that people sent me to test.  Most were used once before I came to the conclusion that I could do this or that better with stuff that was already on the market.  I called the inventors or makers and they weren't interested in paying to have the units shipped back.

Here is the Zing Camera Case made from very thick Neoprene.  This case was made big enough to fit a full sized professional film camera with motor drive to it is more than roomy enough for an unadorned 7D. Notice how the top flap comes over from the back of the case and encircles the lens....

The case, as delivered, has a snout on the front that covers and protects a short zoom or normal focal length lens.  A flap comes over from the back and wraps around the lens snout to secure the packge.

Lately, the box has started to fill up with video camera stabilizer grips.  Cheap ones and expensive ones.  I've come to the conclusion that the cheap ones are most effective while the pricy ones look best.  But most of the time the tripod wins out.....  And, of course, the box is also home to many connecting cables.  I recently threw out all the SCSI cables when I realized that the last SCSI peripheral left the studio circa 2001.....

I took a pair of scissors and cut the snout right off.  Just did it.  No guilt.  Actor/Model/Patient Son is showing how a lens will stick right thru the newly created hole.

Anyway,  I cut a hole in the Zing camera cover so the lens could stick out and then I cut a hole in the back so I could look throw the finder while the whole package is bundled up and now I have a home made blimp.  It actually does a fairly good job of turning a noticeable noise into just background clutter.

Here's the raw case.  It's been modified before to work with a Nikon F5.  See the hole just about in the middle?  That was for the previous camera's finder.

Amazing what you can do with stuff from the box.....and a pair of scissors.

The lens is shoved thru the front opening and the rest of the case wrapped around the camera.

I've cut a new opening so I can see thru the 7D finder.  The case is open at the top because of my previous experiments but that works because you can look down through the top hole and see the screen for a quick preview.

Finally, the whole package in the hands of an expert.  There's enough play to get a shutter finger in under the top lid and enough play to reach in and make control adjustments.  The neoprene is dense and almost one quarter inch deep so it does a good job dampening noise.

It's not that much fun to shoot with but when in a stationary position it certainly serves it's purpose.

And that's the whole story of the sound deadening device (SDD) that I created to shoot during a live performance at Zachary Scott Theater.  You asked.

Ben's first babysitter writes a best seller.

If you've read the blog over the last two years you've probably seen this photo and other photographs of a young woman named, Lou Ann Lofton.  I met Lou Ann at a coffee shop called Quakenbush's Intergalactic Bakery and Coffee Shop on the main drag across from the University of Texas campus, here in Austin back in 1991 or 1992.  How did we meet?  I looked up when she walked into the coffee shop, her arms loaded with books, and I though to myself, "this is the most beautiful woman I've ever seen in my life."  I walked up, introduced my photographic self and handed her a card.  A few weeks later I made a portrait of her in my studio and we became friends.  In addition to being beautiful she was and is one of the smartest people I've ever known.

When we visited her house I was constantly amazed at shelf after shelf of books that surrounded a comfortable chair in her living room.  She read constantly and, even in her early 20's, was fascinated by financial markets, commodities markets and especially equities markets.  I cast her in one of the first commercial videos I produced and I used her in several ads and editorial projects.

And when Ben was born she volunteered to babysit for us and.....was Ben's very first babysitter.

She moved out of Austin over a decade ago and is one of the brains behind the Motley Fool financial website.  And, she's written a book.  And I am certain it will be a good book on at least two levels.

First, it will be a rare product.  A very well written book that will reward avid readers with elegant and addictive prose.  Second, it will teach people how to invest for the long term......from the view point of a successful investor.  The book is entitled, Warren Buffett Invests Like a Girl, And Why You Should Too.
I've pre-ordered it from Amazon.com because everything Lou Ann ever told me turned out to be right.

Hit the link and see what you think.

And yes,  she was a great babysitter.


What to do when the mercury hits 105. Get shooting.

Rollingwood swimmers go round and round in the baby pool at Barton Creek Country Club to stay cool while waiting for their events at the swim meet.

It was very, very hot yesterday.  There was no breeze.  The glare off the water was not helpful.  But the cameras kept working, the kids kept swimming, the parents kept timing and judging and the staff manned the full bars.  Ah, a Texas swim meet among the captains of industry in the citadel of privilege.

Two 60D's.  One with an 18-55 kit lens and the other with the 70-300 IS.  Nice and light.  Cheap enough to be splashed without panic.


Hairspray. Zachary Scott Theater. A stationary shoot during a preview performance. Praise for the Canon 7D.

The last play I shot at Zach was a very intense, three person performance called the The Book of Grace. I shot that with my Canon 5D2, my 1dmk2 and the holy trinity of Zeiss primes, the 35, 50 and 85.  All manual focus.  All super duper sharp.  That photoshoot was a workout.  Since the theater was "in the round"  I had to:  anticipate where the action would unfold,  get to the right spot to shoot, choose the camera with the focal length I wanted,  focus dynamically with the action and.....watch the exposure and shift it manually when the light changed.  We ended up with a bunch of good photos but I had to shoot a lot and work the ratio to get enough coverage to make me (and the marketing director ) comfortable.

Last night we shot the musical comedy, Hairspray,  and I approached it from a totally different technical point of view, largely driven by some tight constraints.  This is a big and complicated show with lots and lots of cast and lots of movement and lighting changes.  We've had a tough time scheduling a dress rehearsal shoot because I'm booked with lots of conflicting corporate work and, a show like this is always a work in progress.  Our one day to shoot without an audience would be next Tues. but as luck would have it I'll be in San Antonio shooting at a conference for a production company.  Last night was a "preview" show with a small audience.  The marketing director and I decided to try shooting during the show from a seat that's just off the center seating area, near the front.  It's a one seat row with no one in front or on either side.  From a line of sight aspect it worked well.  The big task would be shooting quietly so I didn't disturb the audience.  And for the first time in years of shooting performances I would not be able to move freely around the sides of the stage.  In fact, I spent the entire evening in my seat.  That called for different gear and a different approach.

Choosing the right camera.  I knew the minute we talked about shooting in a paid house that we'd need to do something to ameliorate the camera noise so I started by choosing the camera with the quietest shutter.  And the shutter whose frequency is least annoying.  In the Canon line up that's the 7D. When I shot Nikon that would have been the D300.  In Olympus it was the E1.  All of these cameras are far quieter than full frame cameras in their families because the mass of the shutters is much smaller and they are incredibly well damped.  But I thought I needed to take it a step further and I fashioned a homemade blimp.  Not a full on Jacobsen blimp, ala Hollywood, but a Kirk Tuck blimp ala Zing.  I grabbed a thick Zing brand neoprene camera cover, one that was made for a camera with an attached motor and I cut a hole in the front snoot so the lens could stick thru.  Then I cut out an oversized hole in the back so I could look through the finder at eye level.  The Zing was oversized for the 7D but that worked to my advantage because I could stick my fingers in and around the pouch to work the controls and quickly pull down the back to check images from time to time on the LCD screen.  The black KT blimp did a great job cutting down sound and it blocked out light from the LCD review so I wasn't guilty of "texting" the audience with a blast of light every time the camera reviewed.  The assemblage wasn't beautiful but it worked well and took only a few seconds to remove for lens and card changes.  I always wanted a blimp for my cameras and now, with an old Zing and a few deft moves with scissors I have it.

Choosing the right lenses.  Since I knew I wouldn't be able to compose with my Nikes I gave some hard thought to lenses that would cover the scenes, work well with the 7D and also give me image stabilization.  I knew I wanted to use the 24-105mm L lens but the long lens was giving me pause.  I have a 70-200 L f4 lens but it isn't image stabilized and I wanted a really long reach on the off chance that I'd want to reach out and pull in a tight head shot......from my seat.  I picked up a lens I've been researching for swim meet use recently.  It's the Canon 70-300mm USM IS f4-5.6.  Totally counterintuitive until you start thinking about big crowds on a well lit stage show.  While we all think we'd love to shoot all theater with an f1.4 or f2 lens all the time the reality is that some shows call for shots of multiple people in the frame and those multiple people are rarely in the same plane.  When I shoot at f4 with the 24-105 I get enough DOF to cover a couple of people and make sense of what's going on in the background.  So, if the light levels are high enough slower lenses don't really present that big a problem.  

The 70-300 gets great reviews, is much lighter than the L lens and has the most recent version of IS.  I found a nearly new, used copy at Precision Camera yesterday, at a good price and I decided to bring it along as the long end of my tool kit.  (See the second shot from the top for a quick assessment of how this lens worked, wide open at 300mm.  On the 7D this is the equivalent of using, handheld!!!!, a 450mm lens.  Two things about lenses:  1.  The Canon 24-105 is a miraculous lens.  It may have some geometric distortion but in the center of the frame it's quite sharp wide open.  2.  It is totally fun to have image stabilization for telephoto lenses.  If you can't put the lens on a tripod it's the way to go.  

Camera set up.  Once you've decided on a camera and lenses you need to take stock of the light levels in the theater and decide just where you'll be comfortable with the old ISO versus Noise versus Action Freezing equation.  Where do all the curved lines on our graph intersect?  If I'd been using the Canon 5D2 I would have been comfortable with 3200 ISO.  On the 7D I'm totally comfortable shooting at 1600 ISO.  In this production the light levels were generally high enough to get me between 1/125th of a second to 1/250th of a second, wide open.  When you add in the image stabilization you'll rarely miss a shot due to camera movement.  And if you shoot for the apogee of the action you'll find there's typically a spot where the action freezes before cascading down.  (See above shot.)

RAW or Jpeg?  I generally like shooting Jpegs because I can go for quantity and look like a hero based on statistics.  But last night, being chair bound, I wasn't sure I'd have light where I needed it and decided to shoot raw.  And I'm glad I did.  Most of the images have a bit of fill light added to them in Lightroom.  And I cooled the color temperature down a few hundred degrees.  They are slightly sharpened.  The one compromise I did feel comfortable making was to take advantage of the Canon's raw flexibility to set different pixel dimensions.  I set the camera to shoot medium raws which are around 11 megapixels.   More than adequate for direct mail printing and the typical use on the website.

Workflow.  I shot 800 images last night which took up nearly 12 gigabytes of card space.  I was using Sandisk Extreme cards (a 4 and an 8 gig).  I only brought the two cards with me so I kept an eye on the frame counter and shot more judiciously than I usually do.  I could tell that I wasn't losing images to subject or camera movement and since I wasn't moving around I could concentrate better on expressions and timing.  It seemed to make a difference.  The percentage of usuable frames was probably my highest yet.

As soon as I got home from the show I plugged in my UDMA CF card reader and started ingesting the images into Lightroom.  I used the import interface to re-name the files as "HRSPRA-original filename" so I would know what job they belong to and to prevent them having duplicate names (which is very likely since Canon won't let you personalize names for each camera.......idiots).  I also set Lightroom to save each file to two separate 3 terabyte hard drives.  That way I'd have back up.

This morning I opened Lightroom and got to work.  The first thing I did was to assess the overall color balance and make a universal correction for that.  I also enabled the automatic lens correction during this overall synchronization.  Then I got to work batch correcting for changes in density, slight color shifts and corrections in contrast.  During this process I'm sending to the garbage any images I don't like and any which are over represented.  Finally I select all the remaining files and export them as Jpegs using the 92% setting with the longest pixel length being 4000.  Of course they are profiled as srgb's.  I burn two DVD's for myself and one for Zach Scott Theatre.  The marketing director dropped by the house at noon to snag a disk.  The last thing I do before I finish with a job like this is to burn a set of DVD's as additional back-up.  Time consuming.  But that's why I blog.  It fills the time I spend waiting for disks to burn.  :-)

(loving the 70-300mm USM IS)

 But......how was the show?  I can't remember watching a musical play this funny since I watched "Das Barbeque."   It was uniformly good. This theatre has their technical chops down.  The music was great, the miking of the actors was perfect and the choreography and blocking was very well done.  I'm planning to go back several times and bring some groups of friends to see it.  It's happy, upbeat and witty.

I'm sure, as other photographers read this, they will think that the whole thing could have been done better with M series Leicas and fast German glass,  or "see in the dark" Nikon D3's and fast Nikon glass. And the hordes of Canon shooters will opine that I missed the mark and should have shot this with a brace of Canon 5Dmk2's and a tiara box full of L primes.  And I'm sure they are all correct.  For them.
The bottom line is that I shoot what I'm interested in.  If it works I'm happy.  And so far, whether I've shot plays with an Olympus e10,  a Sony R1 or an old, manual focus Hasselblad, even a Leica M3,  I've always been able to deliver what the marketing people want and need.  So I guess that begs the question:  Is there a single "right" answer when it comes to gear?

I'd say it's like hairspray.  Everyone has their own preference.  And sometimes you change brands.  You still have hair.  If you're lucky.


Paean to an ancient camera. Kodak, please come back to us.

This is Missy.  I swim with her.  I also cast her in a series of photographs of athletes for Austin Sports Medicine.  This was shot back in 2003 or 2004.  It's one of my favorite advertising images for a number of reasons (not the least of which was quick payment by the client).  We were shooting on one of those obnoxiously bright days and we were in the middle of a little league baseball field.  I used a 3/4 stop silk on a frame just over the top of Missy to cut the direct light of the Summer sun.  You can see one of her knuckles sticking out into the sunlight but miraculously still holding detail!!!!  I used a small white reflector near the camera to pop just a little front fill onto Missy.  The way the camera handled the giant range between the sun drenched clay field, the tree line and the sky is amazing.  And the other amazing thing is that this image (and other from the same shoot) was blown up and used on posters and looked sharp and rich.

It was shot on the Kodak DCS 760, a six megapixel camera.  I used the Nikon 80-200 2.8 zoom lens.  And, importantly, I used the camera with only the UV filter in place, not the optional anti-aliasing filter. And I think that had a lot to do with the detail the file yielded.

Would my Canon 5D Mk2 do as well?  From a resolution point of view?  Yes.  Probably much better.  But from a tonality and rich color point of view?  Maybe yes.  Maybe no.

For a while this was my favorite camera.  And then I got lured away by the Nikon D2x and the promise of high sharpness and higher resolution.  Silly me.

This image was shot at the Austin Kipp School and used in an annual report for the school.  It was lit by one large softbox (54 by 72 inches) using a one Profoto Monolight and placed just out of the frame.  There is no fill.  I used the light in such a way that it mimicked the light coming into the window and across the white board behind.  A month later I went to a luncheon honoring the school's donors.  They decided to take all of the images I'd shot for the annual report and blow them up into four foot by six foot posters.  Austin Photo Images took 16 bit raw files I made for them (unsharpened) and made LightJet prints.  I almost fell over when I saw them at the luncheon venue.  I hadn't tried printing many of the early digital images much larger than 12 by 18 inches and had no idea that, in the right hands, they could be blown up so large and retain so much detail.  And with so little noise!

The camera?  Once again it was the Kodak DCS 760.  And again, the 80-200mm Nikon zoom.

I had occasion in the same year to do big enlargements with the Nikon D2x and, to be honest, the results were not nearly as good.  There was more pixelation, less sharpness.

You would think I would have trusted this camera and continued using it but there was the almost universal drum beat consensus that all digital cameras should be able to handle high ISO settings without noise and with more grace.  The DCS 760 was beautiful at ISO 80 and 100 but beyond that it generated enough blue channel noise to make your eyes go crazy.  And it was impossible to really remediate with Noise Ninja or its competitors.  A succession of cameras followed.  All worked okay but none really made such a convincing and robust file.  To be fair,  I did shoot them at ISO like 200 (a must on Nikons) and even up to 1600 on a Fuji S5, and while the noise was better.......well.....maybe it was a nostalgia for the early days......

At any rate, as I collected more and more cameras whose files were easier to process, whose batteries lasted days or weeks longer than the Kodak batteries, whose LCD screens were actually usable, the Kodak(s) ended up in a drawer in the gear cabinet, unused.

I thought about getting rid of them lately and I pulled them out of the drawer and fired them up.  The ancient NiMh batteries spit out ten or fifteen frames before dying.  I couldn't sell them to anyone like that.  So I hit Amazon.com and started looking for replacement batteries.  What once cost $125 each was now replaceable for around $30.  I bought a couple batteries thinking they would help me find a willing buyer for the whole package.  Then I made the mistake of putting a CF card in the adapter that fit into the PCMCIA slots that were part of the camera's "early days" design.

And I went for a walk around town.  Actually, I started in our kitchen and shot the plates in a drying rack.  And then I moved to downtown.  I couldn't tell what I was getting during the day because of the dismal screen but when I came home and processed them I was amazed at how different the files look that those I get from my Canons or those I got from my Nikons.  The color was richer without being overly saturated.  And the tonality was amazing.  Very long tones.  Very smooth transitions.

A gracefulness that belies the ancient technology.

I'm putting the camera back into service in the studio.  I'm using it to shoot portraits.  Not with little battery powered units but with big Elinchrom monolights pumping photons through giant Octabanks and layers of diffusion.  I love the style and the look and I'll be showcasing some of the portraits here. 

While some technical factors work to obsolete some technologies I think we just didn't understand how advanced Kodak's grasp of imaging technology was and how well it was informed by over a century of making film.  I wish they would re-enter the market with their sensors and their electronic pathways.  It would give us more choices, and perhaps better ones than we have at hand right now.  Wouldn't it be cool if you could choose which sensors you wanted in the camera body you wanted?

I'd love a Kodak sensor (like the one in the Leica M9) planted right in the middle of a Canon 1dMk4 body.  That would rock.

Kodak DCS 760 with Nikon 50mm 1.1.2 Lens.

Luddite thinking?  Not hardly.  I've used and owned newer cameras.  At some point you need to acknowledge that for some steps forward there can always be a few steps back to accomodate the changing tastes of the market.  We've talked about wanting dynamic range and long tonal range for years.  Now if we could just wean ourselves off the megapixel buffet table........