9.11.2011

What I learned in my DSLR video workshop yesterday.

When you teach you always learn or re-learn new stuff.  Yesterday I taught a workshop about using DSLR cameras to do production video.  The class was a basics class so I had to make sure I got everyone up to speed on things like FPS, different file sizes, how ISO, f-stop and shutter speed work in concert and some straightforward stuff like that.  After we were all conversant on the day to day knowledge we moved into why you might want to use manual focus lenses on your shooting camera.

I showed them how camera operators sometimes use white tape on their lens barrels and mark various focus settings with china markers in order to do quick changes of focus between subjects at known distances.  But when we started this demo I wanted to show how the Canon AF lenses with USM have no hard stop at infinity and it makes them harder to do this method even though you can use them in manual focus mode.  We went back and forth between a Canon 24-105L zoom at f4 and a Carl Zeiss 85mm 1.4 ZE manual focus lens.  The camera (a D60) was tethered to a 50 inch HD TV screen with an HDMI cable.  While the class was interested to see the differences in operation between the two lenses I was just amazed at how much cleaner, sharper and more transparent the Zeiss lens was than the Canon.  It was night and day.  I understand that one is a zoom and one is a fixed focal length but once you've seen the difference I doubt you would ever want to go backwards.

We did a lot of work that involved moving the camera.  Looking at a handheld image on a big TV is a great way to show just how much shake even the steadiest person in the room has while trying to handhold.  And, or course, this translates to your still photo technique as well.  If you think not using a tripod isn't hurting your images you might want to put a middle focal length lens (50mm or 85mm) on your camera, line up a subject and trying handholding for even ten seconds.  When you review the footage you will become a tripod adherent almost immediately.  Even adjusting for my two cups of coffee that morning and the anxiety of getting ready for nine hours of teaching I was still the worst in the class.

In the segment about camera moving we dived into fluid head tripods and took turns trying to do a simple, jitter-free pan.  Even with a good quality head like a Manfrotto 501 or 504 HDV it takes practice to master even the basic moves.  And that was the point of the demo:  Gear won't help you become the master of good technique.  Every move takes practice.  We get spoiled shooting stills because nothing is supposed to move at the decisive moment, except maybe the subject.

We used the Cinevate 48 inch slider to do some parallel-to-subject camera moves and then mixed it up by putting the slider perpendicular to the subject.  Lots of interesting effects could be had by doing a "push" in toward the subject while simultaneously zooming in or zooming out.  We also used an Ikan shoulder mount and played with a Zacuto rig with focus follow rings and shiny counterweights.

After lunch we dived into sound.  If you think good clean photography is tough sound is exponentially harder to pull off.  We recorded with five different microphones so students could hear for themselves the different personalities of microphones and then we spent much good time experimenting with placement, and booming mics on poles.  After we mastered miking techniques we talked about treating rooms to compensate for areas that are too live or too "bright."  The bottom line?  Bring lots of blankets to absorb bright reflections off hardwood floors, saltillo tile floors and hard furniture.  Be ready to change the room to make the sound work.  Surprise of the day?  How well the little Olympus lav microphone for the Pen cameras does when compared to mics that are 6 times pricier.

The winners of the microphone contests?  The Rode Stereo VideoMic for all around sound and cost to price performance.  The ultimate in sound quality?  The Sennheiser  wireless ommi-directional lavalier mic.   We had discusssions about auto level controls versus manual level control for one and two person crews, how to monitor your mikes with today's cameras and how to use external digital audio recorders to do double sound.

Near the end of the day we went over basic lighting techniques.  On one hand we showed how to use the existing light and use small fixtures to improve and shape it.  On the other hand we turned out the room lights and lit from scratch to show how we go, step by step, in creating a lighting design that makes cameras look their best.  And subjects too.

I checked in with each student and they all were very happy and heading home to process what we'd spent the day teaching and learning.

What did I personally learn?

I like smaller classes where people can huddle around a big, very high def screen and watch and produce demos in real time.

I hate using video projectors for anything other than presenting to large crowds in big, dark rooms.

There will always be someone in the room who is compelled to bring up in discussion the biggest, priciest and most complicated piece of gear.  It's like:  How to drive a formula one car for someone who's still going with his learning permit.  We always have to acknowledge the commenter and then bring the discussion back around to our agenda.

That fixed focal length Zeiss lenses blow Canon zooms right out of the water, no matter what DXO might tell you......

That the D60 is a great video camera with a clean ISO 6400, an easy to use menu, a straightforward manual audio level control and a menu full of customization options.  Easily better that the 7D by dint of having manual audio level controls.  Don't get me started on the Canon 5Dmk2.  The video menu in that camera is a nightmare.

The D60 is my current recommended camera for either film makers or still shooters.  It's pretty darn good.  And, even though we used the camera as our demo machine (meaning it was on almost all day long) when I checked the battery this morning it still had a 30% charge left.  Amazing to anyone who remembers the early days of digital cameras with their notoriously weak batteries......

I learned that I love a class with a mix of students.  I had one ad executive, aged 61, that was out to master video to offer clients better work on YouTube and Vimeo.  He knew he needed to change and was being smart and proactive.  Our youngest attendee was a woman who's taking a year off from college to work with a bunch of friends on a documentary.  She took lots of notes and was happy to find some fixes for both audio and focusing problems that arise in the field.  Others were sales people from the camera store who wanted to better understand the products they sell and how they would be used in the field.  One was a photo assistant who has come to know that more and more of her clients also require an assistant who is conversant with video as well as still.  And one attendee is a dedicated photographer who is starting to get more and more requests for video as an adjunct to his traditional business.

I learned that I like doing workshops were someone else arranges for the space, brings most of the gear and does the "behind the scenes" production work.  Thank you Precision Camera.

Video is an interesting field and one in which most photographers have barely stuck a toe into.  We know have the tools of production.  We could make our own movies if we had the time and enough friends who want to help.  Now we just need to get the fundamentals down pat and find stories we really want to tell.  That's where the magic happens......

Having a plan and a script keeps you out of the #1 tank.

9.08.2011

The untold story of photo torture. Your poor family.....


Subject:  Ben.  Our in-house teenager.  Camera: Hasselblad 501 C/M.  Lens:  80mm Zeiss Planar.  Film: Kodak Tri-X, ISO 400.  Light:  Indirect daylight coming in through a set of double glass doors.  Tripod?  Yes.

I'm one of those people whose parents had very little interest in photography.  They started, with due diligence, on a baby book but you could see that the late 1950's was a bit overwhelming and production quickly fell off.  My collection of my own visual history contains a flurry of blurry baby shots, a mix of yearly professional portraits of me with my siblings,  some "cute kid in cowboy hat with six shooters" photos as little, grainy 3 by 3 inch, deckled edged prints, a few shots from high school and random other stuff.

By contrast, Ben has been photographed at nearly every step of the way.  Swim meets, track meets, band concerts, Halloween costumes, first day of school, last day of school,  linear yards of prints albums, lots and lots of workboxes full of all manner of negatives and chromes.  Disk after disk of digital images and so much more.  He's used to it.  Blase' about the process and probably, as a result of his total immersion in photography (as a subject) he has absolutely no interest in taking up a camera and learning the craft.

I promise not to show future girlfriends embarrassing shots from an earlier age.  I know being followed around by a parent with a camera can be..........annoying but.....It's more fun for me to try new techniques on Ben than on the dog.  And he doesn't move as fast as the dog.   


9.07.2011

Got yer 80mm's of Bokeh right here......

Subject:  Will at Trianon Coffee House.  Camera: 500 C/M.  Lens: 80mm CB Planar.  Film: Kodak Tri-X @ ISO 400. Shooting near wide open at f4 and handholding at 1/60th.  Not too much coffee.  Scanned on an Epson V500.  Lighting:  Indirect daylight thru windows.


I really don't have much to say about this portrait (which I really, really like) other than to point out how nicely the stuff in the background goes out of focus.  A really nice side benefit of shooting with larger format cameras and longer lenses.  I'm loving the whole process.  Since I only have waist level finders I get to stand up and say, "Hold that!"

It's all so much fun!

150mm does portraits well.

Subject:  Ben.  Camera: Hasselblad 501C/M.  Lens:  150mm Zeiss Sonnar. (Older CT).  Film: Kodak Tri-X, ISO 400.  Tripod.  Light:  Open shade in the late afternoon.


I want to call out a good, long term supplier:  Holland Photo in Austin, Texas.  They've been souping my film for the last decade and they do a great job.  My Tri-X is always the right density.  And the price is bearable.  If you are interested in getting back to shooting film, or trying it for the first time, I have a little bit of advice:  Go slow.  Don't shoot a bunch of film, drop it at the lab and only start evaluating your technique when you get the film back.  Even though I've been shooting film on and off for decades I started my newest flirtation by shooting one test roll (training wheels) and having the lab run it.  Then I scanned it five or six different ways and messed with the files for contrast and what not in PhotoShop until I got just what I wanted.  Only then did I start shooting a bit more.  Now I feel comfortable shooting a couple rolls at a time.......

9.06.2011

You can make nice photographs with anything but your keyboard and your mouth.

If you are any good at this hobby/profession you should be able to take this little camera with it's "tiny" sensor and slow focus and long black out time with each shutter release, and make some really nice photos.  If you can't then all the good gear in the world won't help you one bit.  You might just be too incurious to be a photographer....

Some people recently have been asking me about what camera they should buy.  I am mystified.  Don't these people know I switch camera systems and evaluative parameters more often than most people switch underwear?  From one week to the next I might suggest a Leica S2 or a Holga.  And when I ask for their preferences they basically give me a laundry list that covers the gamut from close ups of gnats (you know, "fill the frame...") to following their child across a soccer field at a full gallop.  But they want the machine to be easy to use and small enough to fit in a purse.  The dads usually have a recent copy of Sports Illustrated which they open to page 27 to show me the kind of stuff they'd like to shoot of little Johnny.  It's usually a 1200mm shot of a world surfing champion riding a sick curl or a tight shot of a quarterback being sacked in a night time game at the end of a 400mm 2.8 optic on a camera that does 10 fps at 16 megapixels at a clean 12,000 ISO.  If it's a mom she pulls out her iPhone and suggests that if it were, "just a little bigger than this that would be great."

They'd like to be able to make poster sized prints of Johnny and Sally but they want the files to be small enough to send out to everyone on Facebook from their phones, and.....oh.....they don't "Do" Photoshop so the files should be great right out of the camera.  "The less work I have to do the better." And my favorite:  "I just want something good enough to do the kind of work you do..."

I'm generally at a loss.  But even more so because I know that they will never read the manual, never read a book about basic photographic technique and, I'm probably the fifth photographer they know that they've asked this same question of, and I'm sure they've already heard, "Canon Rebel, Nikon 3100" over and over again.  Why torment me?  What did I do to deserve this?

This shot was taken with that camera (above) and it seems to be pretty nice to me.  It's in focus.  It's reasonably sharp and the colors are pretty.  But I can't recommend it to most people because they won't take the time to learn how to use it. And they sure won't spring for the EVF.  Now I only recommend cameras that: a. Can be purchased at Wolf Camera or Walmart.  b.  Have a "green" zone that means "no other thinking required."  c.  Have a Canon or Nikon logo on them because I'm tired of them coming back and telling me that the guy at Walgreens who makes their prints has never heard of Pentax or Olympus before....and he's been "running the lab" for at least a year.  And d.  Require no small accessories or parts....

But then I get to look at the photographs they generally produce and I wonder why they bother at all.  Most of my affluent friends don't take my advice to buy entry level cameras.  They can afford "the best" and most of them are walking around with Canon 5dmk2s and Nikon D700s.  To which they've attached a really cheap 18-400mm 5.6 to f11 ultra zoom.  But it really doesn't matter because the only photographs I've ever seen from them are on their iPhones.  And I rarely have my reading glasses handy when they want to show me a photograph of Sally that's so backlit it's nearly a silhouette and so cropped that we're looking at a couple hundred pixels at best.

I've changed tactics.  Now, if I'm personally really excited about a film Hasselblad camera system, then that's what I recommend to everyone.  To grade schoolers and grandmothers.  How about a 201f with a 40mm Zeiss, an 80 and a 180?  Maybe some 220 backs?  Then I shoo them over to the computer so we can go to the B&H site and start researching larger Gitzo carbon fiber tripods.  And compendium lens hoods.  If I'm into compact cameras I might goad them into hunting down an older Olympus 8080 that I always found intriguing.  And lights.  Lots and lots of lights.  Pretty soon word gets around and the "give it to me all in a pretty wrapper"  people stop calling and asking about cameras.  And that's okay with me.  Because I have my hands full of people who are ready to make that "big move" into "professional photography" and they're calling to ask me....."which camera bag should I buy?"......and we start all over again.  And then the big question....."which billing software?"  I show them my abacus and my double entry paper ledger and they back out the door slowly and watch me carefully for other signs of......instability.

All of which is to say: if you don't want to do the work and learn the craft, or the techniques or the business,  it really doesn't matter what camera you buy.  Because, whatever you shoot there you are.

(Apologies to Buckaroo Bonzai).


Shooting against white in the studio.


Shooting white in the studio:  Camera: Hasselblad 500 C/M.  Lens: 180mm f4 Zeiss.  Film:  Agfapan APX 25.  Developed in Rodinal 1:50.  Four lights in umbrellas on the white background and one gi-normous softbox as a main light.  Keep your exposure on the background right on the edge of having detail and keep the model far enough forward and you won't have problems with the background light wrapping around from behind and sabotaging your highlights.  You'll need lots of flash power to go toe to toe with ISO 25.  Especially at f8 with your main light in a big box.  Not "speedlight" territory......

9.05.2011

Jen in August in a Swamp with her bike. Me with a Mamiya 6.

Subject:  Jen G.  The plot:  Beautiful triathlete takes photographer along on a run, with a bike, thru a swamp.  Camera:  Mamiya Six rangefinder with 150mm lens.  Film:  Kodak Tri-X.  Developed in D-76,  diluted 1:1.  No lights.  Scanned on an  Epson V500 Photo Scanner.


Belinda and I have know Jen for years and years.  She helped us teach Ben to swim when he was about six months old.  She babysat for years.  She modeled for me even longer.  She's a hydro-geologist by training and now consults in the old and gas industry.  She's gorgeous, rock solid and never met a sport she couldn't master. We thought it would be cool to grab her bike, some clothes and some props and go out and do some gritty, back country triathlete shots.

I grabbed a couple of cameras and a small bag of film and we drove off to find fun.  I was reminded of this shoot today because Austin was hosting a triathlon with sprint and olympic distances today.  Ben and I had to check the race maps to make sure that our long, Sunday run didn't intersect with the course.

When we got back home mom had home made oat muffins ready for us.  I gobbled a couple down, jumped on my bike and headed to a late swim practice this morning.  Coach Isaac put us thru the grinder today.  An hour and a half of hard sets interspersed with sprint sets.  I hobbled home on the bike and took a nap.

9.04.2011

A quiet portrait from a studio session.

Model:  Renee.  Camera:  Pentax 67.  Lens:  200mm.  ftop = 8.  Shutter Speed 1/30th.  Film: E-6 transparency film.  ISO=100.  Lighting: Profoto box and head.  4x6 foot softbox used in close with several layers of extra diffusion.

Sometimes the only goal is to translate beauty onto film.

Hollywood on the Brazos. Elle Magazine Assignment.

Subject:  Richard Linklater, movie director.  Camera:  Pentax 67.  Lens: 150mm 2.8.  fstop 8.  shutter speed 1/60th.  Film:  Fuji Velvia. (ISO 50).  Assignment:  Elle Magazine Profile.


Richard Linklater had just become famous in film circles for "Slacker" which both changed the face of independent film making and introduced a new and highly descriptive word to our lexicon.  He was about to embark on his second big project, "Dazed and Confused" and the editors at Elle were doing a profile piece on him.  They called and asked if I could provide photos.

I looked him up in the phone book, called and set up a shoot time.  We did some images here on his front porch,  some in front of an old theater with a wonderful mural, and even some reclining in a trash heap.  We had no make up artist, no publicist, no art director and no shot list.  We used no lights.  We never contemplated the inverse square law or any of its new derivatives.  We just went out and shot stuff and had fun with it.  My assistant carried one of my two camera bags and kept one of the two Pentax 67 cameras we were shooting with loaded.  The Pentax shot 10 frames on a 120mm rolls so we didn't do a lot of "machine gunning."  I did have along a third body that was permanently fitted with a Polaroid back so we took one Polaroid at each location just to make sure we believed the meter.

The Polaroid back was made by NPC and used fiber optics bundles to get the image from the film plane to the Polaroid film.  At a buck a pop we tended not to chimp much Polaroid.  We could pretty much see the effect we were getting with our one old piece of foamcore, used as a fill card......

We shot about 10 rolls (120 shots) and then retired to Quackenbushes Intergalactic Bakery and Coffee Bar for some coffee and some giant cinnamon rolls.  Elle magazine liked the photos and ran them a month and a half later.  Then they sent me a check.

I liked the Pentax cameras and, if you locked the mirror up before each shot they made very sharp and contrasty images.  But the loading was finicky and I never liked the 6x7cm aspect ratio so I sold them to someone else and continued on with the square format cameras.

I find that there's a tendency to complicate shoots now.  Back when we shot this we were just doing our work.

9.03.2011

First Roll. New Camera and Lens.

Camera:  Hasselblad 501 C/M.  Lens:  150mm Zeiss Sonnar f4.  F-stop 5.6,  Shutter Speed 1/60th.  Film: Tri-X 400.  Lighting:  Sunlight thru 12 by 6 feet of white diffusion.  Location: My living room.   Model: Ben.