11.11.2011

Nothing says, "You've made it!" better than a hair net.

deep in the secret basement of the Visual Science Lab world headquarters we're experimenting with some new gear that will replace conventional cameras.  If we are successful all you will have to do is strap in,  think of an image and the cyber-snap 2011 can create it, add beautiful pole dancers in stripper heels to the image, dip it in red hot HDR sauce and then incorporate cat whiskers for SE (sharpness evaluation), shove in some gratuitous backlighting and a gel or two and for only $96,000 you too can sport a masterpiece.  Without ever touching a camera or going outside.

But seriously,  I have a confession to make.  I'm supposed to do an hour long presentation at 10:00 am tomorrow morning at the Austin Photo Expo and I'm totally unprepared.  If you ever wanted to see "major fail" tomorrow might be your chance.  

Usually I'm the guy my friends and clients look to when then need stuff that's meticulously planned, double-checked and fault tolerant.  I make back-ups of everything and I have back up gear for every potential pitfall.  But not this time.  You see, I've been doing the real work of photography instead.  I won't bore you with the details but I went from a hoity-toity (but long and richly nuanced) conference assignment on Sunday-Monday-Tues to a recording studio gig and tons of post production on Weds. to a 4:15am wake up call and drive to San Antonio on Thurs. a.m.  And I've been there ever since.  

The photo of me, above, is from today's shoot.  I'm standing in front of a DaVinci robotic micro surgery machine and I'm wearing a tyvek lab coat and hairnet because I've just come from shooting a procedure in a nearby operating room.  I've documented "preemies" and helicopter rescues and giant machines that stare into your guts (or your brain) and I'm about 1,000 big fat raw files into this project.  

It's stacking up like jets over O'Hare in a blizzard.  Everyone needs their stuff yesterday.  And here I am, at 10:47pm on Friday night, downloading files and applying metadata and captions and wondering what the hell I'm going to say in fewer than 12 hours to a couple hundred people about LED lighting.

Bright spot.  My client, Bryan, reminded me that I am going to talk about Lighting Portraits with LED lights.  And he also pointed out that I'd just written the book on the subject and, given how much I talk, he'd be pretty surprised if I couldn't fill up an hour.  And I'm sure he didn't mean that in a snarky way......

But I have an ace up my sleeve.  Super assistant, Amy, will be there to help.  It should be a wild two days. We have two master classes a day to teach this weekend.  I can hardly wait to tell you what happens.  

Just wanted to check in and tell you that I haven't gone AWOL.  Just doing my other job as fast as I can.

If you are in Austin, check out the expo.  Fun stuff for us photo nerds. (comment about idiots who review cameras by long distance removed)  See you there...

11.09.2011

So, why do I keep a Canon EOS 5Dmk2 around if I think the Nikon V1 is so hot?

Mostly because it can do this at 6400 ISO with an 85mm Zeiss 1.4 lens, wide open.  That's why.

Oh, and it can do this too.  Under the nastiest, lowest mixed florescent and tungsten household lighting you can imagine.  I can't quite do this with a V1 and though I don't do this kind of stuff that often I do like to be able to pull it off when I have too......

Rosie and the Ramblers were in the studio today, cutting a new album.  Rosie asked me to drop by and take some images for their website and promo.  She likes "real life."  So I came equipped with some fast glass and a Canon 5D2 as well as a Nikon V1.  I looked at the difference between the Nikon at 3200 and the Canon at 6400 and I put the Nikon away and shot "digital old school."

I'll keep the old stuff around for a while longer.  Is it just me or does that Zeiss 85 look good to you too?

I'm in San Antonio for the next two days shooting a hospital.  I'll be back in Austin Friday night getting ready to do my 10:15 am demo at the Austin Photo Expo Saturday morning.  I'll be the guy trying to juggle two cups of coffee.....

11.08.2011

What a fascinating three days! High level conference imaging.

Frame of frames from the Nikon V1 at ISO 800.  In the glow of the stage lights....

I often allude to the idea that, if not for being a photographer I would never have seen so much of corporate America from the inside out and I would never have travelled as extensively as I have.  And I will say that I have been "inside the gate" at some very, very interesting meetings and events.  I've watched half drunk CEO's throw temper tantrums in Paris and I've been a "fly on the wall" for private meetings of former presidents and billionaires.  In almost every instance of "brushes with greatness" I've been dressed in a suit and tie, shoes shined and fingernails cleaned.  You gain proximity by appearing to belong.

I can't really write about the substance of the conference I've been photographing for the last three days as it was by invitation only and only one media person was allowed to attend.....and then only for a few hours.  But I will say that the conference was both interesting and, in certain regards, scary.  It dealt with issues of world finance and business.  I can say I wore a different suit each day.  And my shoes were shined.....

But what I can and will talk about are the cameras I used over the last 72 hours.  And why I'm amazed at one of my newest acquisitions.  I'm just going to fill in the rough plot here but I'll write a more comprehensive report once I get my client's "okay" to release some of the conference images so you can get a taste of the differences I saw.  Also,  I am photographing an audio session in a recording studio tomorrow so I'll supplement this piece with some photos from that project as soon as I get them processed.

On sunday I shot standard "grip and grin" images at a reception and dinner for 150 people at the conference center.  I used a Canon 1D mk2N with the 24-105mm zoom, in conjunction with a Canon 580ex2 firing into a Rogue flexible bounce modifier. (Which I highly recommend).  Even though I was using eTTL I was careful to use the camera in spot meter mode, lock in the focus and use FEL religiously.  I got a near 98% success rate from the combo.  The finder of the big Canon, along with a split screen makes the camera fun to shoot.

On monday I used the Canon 1ds2, and the Canon 1dmk2, the Canon 5Dmk2 and the Nikon V1.  The 1Ds2 got bagged after twenty frames.  The screen on the back isn't wonderful and you can only shoot raw in the full size format.  I didn't need files that big.  It's also clunkier to use with shoe mount flash.  It doesn't seem as responsive as its stablemate, the 1D mk2N.  Definitely a camera I like using tethered.

For most of the day monday I haunted a table near the main stage and shot images of speakers, presenters and panels, on the stage.  I ended up shooting the 70-200mm on the 1D mk2 and the 24-105 on the Canon 5D2.  I brought the three Zeiss primes but I only flirted with the 85mm.  The light was too low and the people too kinetic to make the 85mm much fun.  It was also too short.  I liked the longer zoom for individual shots and the other zoom for wide stage shots.  So, into the bag for storage went the three Zeiss primes, along with the Canon 1DS mk2.  

After I got into the rythme of the event and realized that each session would last anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half I started pulling out the little Nikon and putting it through its paces.  I had to shoot at ISO 800 or 1600 to get a fast enough shutter speed under the rather anemic stage lights.  (In defense of the guys in production, the room has low ceilings which means lighting truss is lower and that puts lights closer to presenter's eye lines.  That means you need to dial down the lumens to keep people on the stage from squinting...)

By the end of a nine hour shooting day I'd logged about 1300 images on the little Nikon.  Here's what I found out:  You can use the electronic shutter on this camera and it is SILENT.  Not just quiet.  Absolutely silent.  Needle drop silent.  Makes an old Leica rangefinder sound like a hammer on corrugated iron by comparison.

The camera will focus on anything in good light and hold onto it like a pitbull who's got ahold of a brisket.  Even though I am a card carrying luddite I found myself playing with modes like: Scene select and focus follow.  I even had good luck combining face recognition with focus follow.  It was amazing.  

The EVF equals or betters the VF2 on the Olympus (more about the slap down in just a few paragraphs).  Of course, I could change all the menu items in the EVF so I never had to take the camera away from my eye.  I'd done a few tests the week before to see how the EVF and the back LCD match up to my monitor in  the office and those tests gave me the courage to depend on the viewfinder for color and exposure.

The V1 focuses faster than my Canon 5Dmk2 but not as fast as my 1D.

The meter in the V1 is pretty amazing as well.  I left it in evaluative but I did my exposures in manual.  I was rarely disagreeing with the meter by more than a third of a stop in one direction or the other. 

I got tired of carrying all the big stuff with me so on Monday evening I reconfigured.  Out went the One series Canons and in came the 5D2 with a 60D as a back up.  (the difference in batteries alone was two pounds.)  I also added the Olympus Pen EP3 with VF2 finder, the kit zoom and my favorite old 60mm 1.5 Pen FT manual focus lens.  Now everything got interesting.  And now everything fit in one bag.

Between the two Canons the operation of the 60D was much smoother and, at ISO 2500 the files were pretty darn close.  I shot everything set to 3200K (WB)  after confirming with the show director that we were using naked tungsten lights on the stage.  The Canons both gave me smooth, detailed and low noise files.  No real contest here.  And no teasing:  Both were two stops better in noise handling that the two little cams.

By the end of the day I was shooting 40% of the shots with the Nikon V1 and probably 40% of the shots with the Olympus Pen EP3.  I ended up keeping both cameras at ISO 800 and tried to be careful to catch people at the peak of their actions to reduce blur.  Most exposures were between 1/80th and 1/160th of a second with the lenses used wide open.  The other 20% of the shots were done with the Canons.

Here's how it breaks down today:  Even though I shot the EP3 in raw and the Nikon in Jpeg (with high ISO filter set to low) the Nikon had at least a full stop advantage in observable noise over the Olympus. And believe me I worked the Noise Ninja as hard as I could....  It also consistently delivered a more pleasing overall color balance.  The image stabilization in the Nikon V1 (kit lens to kit lens comparison) is more tenacious and efficacious than the Olympus version.

I give the Olympus points for several things.  First, superior feel in the hand.  Second, built in flash that works without issues.  Third, the ability to use cool, old MF lenses.  Really cool lenses.  When I say one camera is less noisy than another that's not a condemnation of the noisy camera.  It's just a difference.

Both of the smaller cameras were quick and accurate in their focusing.  The Nikon V1 was more accurate in the metering.  The Olympus feels more luxurious.  The Nikon more utilitarian.  Which would I own? Both.

If you had to choose between them you'd have to get clear on what you want from a camera.  At ISO 400 there's nothing to complain about from either camera, where image quality is concerned.  If you shoot sports the little Nikon is hard to beat.  If you like to drop things out of focus in your portrait backgrounds the EP3 with the 60mm 1.5 is pretty tough to beat.  Or you could just go back and forth.

If Nikon ever starts shipping the little flash I'll do my next interior conference with the V1 system and take the EP3 as the back up.  Everything else can stay home and pal around with gravity.  These little cameras are high enough quality to do the job.  As long as the rider is up to the task.

More will be added  here after I shoot the recording session tomorrow.

Thanks to everyone who pre-ordered the LED book.  I think my publisher was shocked that your responses drove the book from obscurity to #3200 on all of Amazon in less than 48 hours.  I was amazed and happy.

Now, let's all get some sleep.


11.06.2011

Sunday a day off? Naw. It's a day to pack and organize.

Let's get the crazy stuff out of the way first.  Yes?  Since I picked up the little Nikon V1 I've developed a cup fetish.  I can't stop photographing various cups.  At first I thought it was only cups that contained the creative elixir of the gods: coffee.  The above was shot with the 10-30mm at 18.xmm in the late afternoon, at Trianon Coffee Shop, in west Austin.  The cup contains an extra foamy, double cappuccino.  I thought I'd gotten it all out of my system but we went to lunch the next day at P.Terry's Hamburger joint and the magnetic pull of the cups on V1 was undeniable.  Even on the Catsup Cup.  That little paper remnant of time past.

I meditated and prayed but nothing seems to have helped.  Even strong narcotics haven't lessened the grip of the cup/camera interface.  I thought healthy exercise would heal me but even after swimming thousands of yards on Saturday morning, there they were again.  The holiday cups at Starbucks.

But I think there's light at the end of the caffeine coated tunnel.  I had a coffee this morning and I didn't have the V1 with me, only a Canon 1ds mk2.  I reached for the withering bulk of my professional tool but the magic wasn't there.  The camera seemed to sneer at my weakness for cup-o-graphy.  To taunt me for glorifying mere containers.  And so I've moved on.  It seems that, if I keep the V1 away from cups, and restaurants in general, I can keep this strange attraction at bay.  But.......maybe you should look closer....maybe I'm really on to something here. 

I mean, the P.Terry's cup, loaded with Dublin Dr. Pepper seems like modern art to me....Could it just be a case of misplaced Warhol-ism?  

Leaving the cups behind let's get down to the real topic of the blog today: Organizing for a busy week ahead.  On paper, my week doesn't look very daunting but when I break it apart into discreet, granular chunks I wonder how I'll get it all done and still have time to swim and pursue my dalliance with coffee.  The short answer is:  I won't.  

Here's the deal.  I start a conference project this afternoon at 4pm at the Barton Creek Conference Center.  I shoot until around 9:30 this evening.  Tomorrow and Tues. the conference continues.  I'll be photographing speakers and dignitaries from around the world.  It's dark suits and ties for me for the next three days.  I've even shined two pairs of shoes....

But a bigger consideration is "what to bring?"

I think I've got it figured out so all the batteries are on the chargers and I'm packing up memory cards.
Here's what I'm taking:  Canon 5Dmk2, 1ds mk2,  1D mk2N, 35, 50 and 85mm Zeiss single focal lengths.  Canon 24-105 and 70-200.  I'm also packing the Nikon V1 and the 10, 10-30 and 30-110mm zooms.  I'll stash a Canon 580 ex2 in the bag as well as a 430 ex2 as a back up.  Since I'm shooting raw I'll take 8 - 16gb CF cards and 10 - 8gb SD cards just in case.  I'll spend most of the time shooting presenters under stage lighting but I'll also need to shoot small group shots from time to time.  We did the same event last year and shot around 1800 images, total.  I'm trying to compress that a bit this year and aim for 1500.

I'm also bringing a 13 inch MacBook Pro and a dozen or so flash drives to I can share photos with the production crew.  Every once in a while a speaker's head shot will go astray and we'll need to provide a quick replacement. 

The conference goes long on Monday and starts early on Tues.  We'll wrap around 5pm on Tues. evening and I'll come straight back to the studio to download cards and start processing in Lightroom.  I hate to get behind.

The next morning I'm headed into a recording studio to do a day of "behind-the-scenes" photos with an up-and-coming vocalist and her band.  From the recording studio I'll head directly to the Hilton Hotel on Fifth St. for the Boy Scouts of America, central Texas awards banquet.  It's a big fund raiser and my art director friend, Greg, always buys a table and invites me.  Also a suit and tie function.  The dry cleaners will be happy to see me the following Monday.......  Once the banquet wraps up I'll be in the Honda heading for San Antonio.  I'm booked there on Thurs. and Fri. shooting at a new Hospital.  People, property, professionals and whatever else is on the long shot list...  I'll need to pack three more flashes and some radio triggers for that......

I'll be back in Austin Friday evening putting the finishing touches on my LED Portrait presentations for Saturday and Sunday, the 12th and 13th.  I'm a speaker/presenter at the Austin Photo Expo and I'm planning on doing a live demo of my method of lighting a portrait with LED lights.  It would be good form to both figure out what I'm going to say and do, as well as finding the right model.  It's two presentations a day.

When I finish my last presentation at 5pm on Sunday I'll be rushing to pack up and get out because we're (the family) all going to an awards banquet at the High School for Ben's cross country team.  Starts at 6pm.  No suit or tie required.... 


Inventory of gear for the first two and a half days of the week.  Shot with the little Nikon V1 and the 10mm prime lens.  Handheld at 1/30th of a second.  ISO 400.  Is it sharp?  I think so.

 But once the demos are over and the equipment is cleaned up and packed away there will still be several days of post production for the three major projects of the previous week.  No one talks about the prep time or the post time but it's at least equal to the time spent on location and it's at least as important.  You get most of the stuff figured out while you're packing.  That leaves your shooting time mentally clear.  If it's not in the bag you're not going to use it.  A great incentive to pack smart.

So things will have to wait until the following week to get taken care of.  For instance, the semiconductor shoot from last week.  The images have all been delivered but the three LED lights need to be taken down and packed away.  The stands put back in their place and the copy stand disassembled.

And then there's the office in general.  It could use a new coat of paint, a thorough cleaning and some re-organization.  Maybe we'll get to that after Thanksgiving.   But only if nothing better comes along.
(In the foreground is my Bodhi Electric Bike.)

There's so much more than photography that needs to be planned.  Since Belinda is working on a big project downtown I've hired a dog sitter to come in and assuage the pack separation for Tulip the wonder dog, and Ben will have to walk home from school.  The delivery service will get the disks from last Thursday's shoot over to the client sometime monday morning.  We'll get billing done at night.  The transition between my different jobs means different packing and different lists of gear.  Any free time means more work on the presentations for the Austin Photo Expo.  And somewhere in all this I'd like to get in four long swims during the week.  Might have to head to UT for the 5:30 am swims, yikes!!....

I know what they say on the news about the economy but it's sure starting to feel "Pre-2006" around here.....and I love it.


11.05.2011

BOOK FIVE NOW LISTED ON AMAZON. YIPPEE.

I am very excited about this BOOK.  I didn't know my publisher had already submitted the cover and details to Amazon.com but I'm delighted to know that we're finally official.  This is my fifth book about photography and was easily the most fun to create.  (For those of you who are unfamiliar with my books I write and photograph and illustrate each one of them.  Takes twice as long as doing the writing alone but it makes more sense).  It took some arm twisting at first to convince the publisher at Amherst that LED lighting will be an increasingly important topic in the next few months and certainly in the next few years.

So, why do I think LEDs will become increasingly important and why did I want to be the first person to write a book about it for photographers?  The answer to the first part of the question is as simple as the shoot I did for a semiconductor manufacturer during the days on Thurs. and Fri. last week.  I was shooting small objects with a mix of shiny and matte surfaces and I needed complete control of the lights.  The combination of continuous lighting and live view on the screen of the Canon 5Dmk2 gave me a level of control and immediacy that I've never enjoyed in the "bad old days" of still life photography.

I've used "hot lights" in the past but having three, five hundred watt tungsten lights in close proximity to your camera and your subject quickly becomes an uncomfortable working situation.  With live view engaged there is no mirror slap.  With the LED panels I use there's lots of light and very little (if any) heat to deal with.  One simple custom white balance and we're all set.  Earlier in the week I photographed my friend, Natalie, and she ( a Brooks Institute graduate ) remarked about the wonderful light quality, the lack of flash (she'd always been a "blinker" before) and the fact that her pupils were not overly dilated which can happen with dark rooms and low powered modeling lights on flash.  The LED lights are energy efficient, bring relief from thermal torture, are totally WYSIWYG and can actually be cheaper to buy and use than flash.  Best of all, the meter in your camera is all you need for total control.
The final (and to many), most important consideration:  If you do video you NEED a good set of LED lights.

But why did I want to write the book?  Well,  I've been photographing for a long time and I'd become used to all the lighting rigs that dominated our market for so long.  The LEDs are a near total departure from everything I learned and grew up with.  They represented the new challenge to master.  And there's no better way to learn technique than to commit to new technology, dive in and test, test, test.

The book has in depth examples of interior and exterior portrait work done with the LEDs as well as an extended and well diagrammed food shoot at one of Austin's premier restaurants.  You'll be able to take advantage of my learning curve in selecting and using the most cost effective LED panels.

The cost of the book is less than some magazines.  If you like what I write here I think you're a natural for this book.  And buying copies of the book will help support my writing here.  I'm rarely so blunt or so marketing driven but I'd love it if you would pre-order a copy of the book.  I'd love to see this one do as well as the four previous ones.  The delivery date on the site says April 1st but I'm betting it will be here in early March.

It feels so good to see it as a finished piece of work on Amazon.  I lived with the information and practice for six months.  Count me as very happy today.






11.04.2011

Shooting "Old School." Ancient tricks of the trade....

An event at the Four Seasons Hotel, Austin.  November 3rd.

It all started with a film camera called the Nikon N-90S.  That camera, and Nikon's  top-of-the-line flash at the time, changed the way I shot events.  It was the first camera I owned that, in conjunction with the flash assist beam on the flash, could reliably lock focus in a dark, dark room (but not a darkroom) and return consistently well exposed images every time.  Nostalgic memory is a dangerous thing and now that I sit here and think about it so much of what we shot back then was on color negative film and that might have had a lot to do with my perception of the combination's lack of fallibility....but on with my story.

By the days of the Nikon F5 and the SB-25 and SB-26 we pretty much had the technique of event flash well dialed in.  We'd load the 160 or 400 ISO color negative film of our choice, set the camera and flash to TTL put the camera in program where it would generally default to f4 @ 1/60th of a second and we'd blast away.  A few days later we'd be looking through 4x6 inch proof prints that were remarkably uniform and, well, perfect.  I remember well shooting a show in Scottsdale, AZ. were we needed to shoot 250 people walking up on stage and being handed an award.  One by one.  We'd use a Quantum Turbo pack, an SB flash and a moderate zoom.  I took two images of each person (in case they blinked)  with the president or vice president of the company and our only limitation on throughput was how quickly we could unload and reload film.  Good days for flash.

Before that we'd use our flashes pretty much in the "guide number" mode.  You turn the flash down to 1/4 power, figure out what the exposure is at 7 feet and then at 5 feet and then at 10 feet.  For most event work, depending on your framing, you'd work around maybe three f-stops and you'd know the approximate distances and working numbers by heart at the end of a long evening.  If you added a bounce board to your portable flash you'd work out those numbers as well.  The name of the game was consistency and "no surprises."

Well, surprise!!!  Early digital from all the major companies supremely sucked at delivering automatic flash and in my opinion it still does.  I wrote an entire book about using small flashes in the digital age and if you read it carefully you'll notice that, most of the time, I'm using them in their manual modes.  I like repeatability.

Both Nikon iTTL and Canon eTTL have gotten better and better over the years but it's still easy to fool them or hard work to compensate for the times you know they'll mess up.  I'm learning to trust the big Canon flash these days but I still have reservations.  Especially when shooting people in very light or very dark clothes and trying to maintain a different exposure for the background.  I've read Syl Arena's book, Speedliter, and I've been working on it.  But.........

Bear with me because this is my introduction to my decision making process of yesterday....

The other flash nemesis I have, and I can't blame this on either the cameras or the flashes, is the difficulty of DSLR's to lock focus in most formal candid situations.  People wear black.  The lighting is subdued. The way the process is supposed to work is something like this:  I walk up to a couple or a small group and playfully coerce them into a tightly compacted grouping and then I pull the camera up to my eye and push halfway down on the shutter button and wait for the annoying, red patterned light to play over my victims while the camera desperately tries to find an edge to focus on.  Usually it finds a sea of black fabric or, worse, a sea of white fabric and the lens begins to hunt.  I move the lens to a different part of the scene until I find success and then I lock the reading, re-compose and take the image.  By the time the flash finally goes off one or two of the people in the group are checking their Phillipe Patek watches while someone else is looking back over their shoulder, trying to find someone hot in the crowd.

Very annoying for everyone. And yet, when each new system comes onto the market one of the selling points is the incredible performance of the flash.  Liars.

Yesterday, from 5pm until 9:30pm I shot an event for a non-profit that I've worked with for over ten years now.  There's a VIP reception at 5:30, a general reception at 6:15 and then dinner mixed with the program.  I enjoy shooting at the Four Seasons because the food is always good and the staff is superb. (Thanks again to the in-house AV team for last year's double A batteries....the one thing I forgot to pack...).

The event is a fund-raiser is attended mostly by well to do lawyers and judges, and their spouses, so I'm always assured that the wines served will be superb.  We started dinner last night with an interesting salad and a really nice, un-oaked chardonnay and moved on to a really nice Cabernet.  But I digress.

My job is to shoot couples and small groups of influential guests (meaning everyone) during all of the receptions and then cover the speakers and award winners during the presentations.  I rarely get to finish an entire course at dinner because our table is near the back and we tend to get served last..... 

I had the crazy idea that I wanted to go "all in" and shoot the whole event with the new Nikon V1 but the photographic and charity gods intervened and denied my access the the wildly proprietary flash for the system.  At this point there are no substitutes.  I figured that, if I couldn't go "state-of-the-moment" and take a huge risk that I would go ultimately "old school."

I decided to shoot all the candid reception shots with my ancient Canon 1Ds Mk2 camera and all of the podium/award shots with my Canon 1d mk2N camera.  I put a Zeiss 35mm f2 ZE on the big sensor camera and the loyal and resolute 70-200mm f4 on the sport cam.  I charged up four of the enormous and dense-as-plutonium batteries for the two cameras and then shoved three sets of rechargeable Eneloop batteries into the bag.  I packed a 580EX2 with a 430EX2 in the side pocket as a back up.  

The one nod to modern strobe therapy was my inclusion and use of the Rogue brand flash reflector.  It's a soft reflector that attaches to your flash and has bendable metal rods inside to allow you to curve or bend the modifier as you please.  Fully unfurled it's about 10 by 12 inches and does a nice job both staying put and modifying the light source to make it softer.  About $30.  

The camera and lens for ALL of the flash candids was the 1DS mk2 and the 35mm Zeiss.  Flash mounted directly on the camera.  Head pointing to the sky.

So here's the weird part.  I'm using a manual focus lens.  On a camera that's clearly not designed for razor blade sharp focus with manual lenses.  So I set the lens at f8 and figured out where the hyperfocal distance was for my working methodology.  I didn't care about close ups and I didn't care about infinity but I did care about five feet to ten or twelve feet.  I calculated, set the lens there and locked the rear wheel on the camera.  No changes.  I never touched the focusing ring or the aperture control for the rest of the evening.  Honest.  It was so nice.

Why was it so nice?  Well, I could swing the camera around, frame and shoot and never worry about locking in focus, in getting the "green dot."  There was never any hunting or kinetic racking from minimum to maximum focus and back again.  It was, for all intents and purposes, the "one use" aunt Ethel point and shoot.  Albeit an $9,000 version of one.  And do you know what?  It really worked!!!!

I set the camera at ISO 800 (which it handles with dignity and aplomb) and put the camera in manual exposure mode (figuring that it was good symmetry with the focus mode) and I would modulate shutter speeds depending on what showed up in the background.  If the peoples' backs were to the windows I would set the shutter to 1/250th, if the background was one of the walls of the room I would drop the shutter speed to 1/60th or 1/30th of a second.

I tried flash two ways.  First I tried eTTL and got pretty good results about 75% of the time.  Then I put the flash on manual, at 1/8th power and I got good exposures nearly 100% of the time.  If you use the guide number approach your flash/camera is never fooled by black velvet or white silk.  You never have to lock and recompose.  And the recycle time is ridiculously short.

As I worked through about 400 files today in Lightroom I paused from time to time to fix the exposure on a person who, at the edge of the frame, might have been closer to the flash than my main subject.  Amazingly, the 1DS 2 can pull detail out of raw files even if they've been over exposed by 1.75 stops.  Almost like color negative film of the old.

The rear, LCD screens on both the cameras are about as accurate as a weatherman or an economist so, at some point, you have to start trusting in the infallibility of camera physics.  

Now, I'm not saying that this is the only way to shoot event candids.  You probably have a great method that works for you and I'd be the last person to tell you to change it.  But if you haven't tried the patented, Kirk Tuck Hyperfocal/Guide Number Paradigm-Shifting-Lumen Launcher-Method, you have my permission to try it for thirty days for free.  There's something purging about shooting photographs and not having to think.  Maybe it's a faux Zen thing.  Maybe it just incorrigible laziness but the proof is in the deliverables.  To think that old fashioned common sense would be as useful as hundreds of million of dollars (billions of Yen?) worth of R&D that have gone into focus and flash automation....

Now,  I have another conference for another clients that starts Sunday and runs for three days.  Will it be the Nikon V1 or will I have to fall back to some other technology?  Candids with the Hasselblad?  I did it years ago but I'm not crazy enough to do it now.  Or am I?  (Please, Nikon, ship the damn flash!)

11.03.2011

Thoughts while sitting at the Honda dealership, waiting for the Element.

When I wax euphoric about the new generation of small cameras I have one little wince somewhere in my brain that wonders, "Why didn't they set the market on fire 40 years ago?"
I'm sure I'll be blind-sided by some glitchy "gotcha." 


Taking your car in for routine maintenance puts you in touch with the rest of humanity.  At least the part of humanity that can own cars and get them repaired.  And it brings me out of my little compound in west Austin to mix and mingle with the other fine citizens in the waiting "lounge."  Most are well over 40 years old and are doing exactly what I'm doing.....reading stuff on their laptops and iPads or typing stuff on same.  Several very plump women get intermittent cellphone calls and their ring tones are annoyingly cloying.  They talk in sing-songy voices to whoever has called and make little to no effort to moderate the volume of their voices.  I am now listening to an older woman talk about her upcoming surgery and radiation therapy.  In the next breath she's explaining that she's having her oil changed.  But I think she means the oil in her car.

In one corner of the waiting area the dealership has mercifully glassed in a play area for small children.  I can only guess that it's a lab for infectious diseases.  Inside the play zone today are four children under the age of four and they are currently having a contest to see who can scream the loudest while slamming plastic toys against one of the glass walls.  One mother has abdicated all responsibility and is staring, empty and resigned, at the screen of her smartphone as if it will provide the equivalent of a Star Trek transporter and deliver her from the maelstrom.  The other mother rocks back and forth and occasionally tries to intercede in whatever "Animal Farm" contest of hierarchical ranking the savage children have devised.  People outside the glass shake their heads and look back at their screens.  I keep writing.

Once in a while a "service advisor" named Craig or Chip or Steve or Armando comes up and calls out a name.  Then it becomes a "luck lottery" for the designated customer.  Will it be the "all clear", your car is ready?  Or will it be the dreaded pronouncement, usually delivered bent over to show the documentation to the seated customer, "....we found a few things that you really need to take care of...."?

The room goes quiet for a few minutes and all you can hear is the tapping of keyboards and the labored breathing of the larger customers.  The silence is broken by the person from the dealership who asks, "Does anyone need a shuttle ride this morning?"  And then all hell breaks loose as the four, three year olds resume a chaotic, tag team, death match in the almost-but-not-quite soundproof child and parent detention zone.

When I arrived today my young service writer noticed the camera hanging over my shoulder (really? would you go anywhere without your camera?) and asked me what I do for a living.  In retrospect I might have said that I spend most my time ensconced in very quiet neighborhood, with my wife and studious son, far away from the sturm und drang of fluxing humanity, but I admitted to being a "photographer."  He asked if I had a website. (Really, do I look that old?) I showed him some work.  We talked about my camera. He seemed pleasant.  Maybe he won't find the dreaded "few things you need to take care of..."

I write this with a sense of re-engaged wonder.  I spend far too much time sitting in my office on my little plot of land.  It's only 600 square feet of white space but it's comfortable and when I look out the window from my desk all I can see is trees and lantana and, occasionally deer.  Tulip (my dog) keeps track of the perimeter, between naps at my feet.  The only time I interface with people (other than swimmers and family)  is when I willingly seek out friends or when I make appointments and venture out from my hide to talk to people about work and projects.  I go to the same coffee shops because I've found the ones where the customers are the most civilized (unusually silent) and the employees most civil.  I have been accused by my assistants of never wanting to leave my zip code.  But that's not true.  I like to get out.  But there's something about mixing with a general cross section of society that makes me uneasy.  Almost as if I've dodged some sort of bullet (or more likely a barrage) and I should be thankful.  Instead I'm always looking for the next contingent of snipers.

But I share the same feelings for the idea of having a conventional job.  To be constrained to be in the same place for x hours every day and to have to interface with people chosen at random by someone else seems to be an odd trade for the non-secured promise of security.  I am probably an anomaly.  Most people probably enjoy getting out there and mixing it up.  Why then do they look so joyous when the service advisor calls their name and they shuffle off toward the payment counter, anxious to gain the isolating freedom of their cars?

Yesterday I got a package in the mail from someone I never met.  I'd exchanged two e-mails but never so much as talked on the phone.  The package contained three proprietary circuit boards.  A terse note about angles and technical parameters was enclosed.  I photographed them.  I retouched them and then uploaded huge files to their FTP server.  This morning my invoice was settled with a Paypal deposit.

No driving.  No parking.  No meetings.  What a wonderful way to do business.  And it reinforces the idea that we evolved to spend hours alone, tracking and hunting our food.  We spent tens of millions of preparatory years to run for hours after our prey and then to drag it home to share with a select few.  Even in sales meetings today I hear the phrase, "You only get to eat what you kill."  But it's a false admonition because what they really mean is, "Show up and plow and we'll share a tiny bit of the harvest with you...."

So, I got off light today.  I knew I needed to have the fluids and filters replaced and I knew that I needed to have a leaky strut replaced but I feared the words, "brakes" and "transmission."  When the service writer knelt next to the table where I was writing (and eating up their kolaches and swilling their coffee) he looked serious.  He told me the only thing they'd found was that my wiper blades all needed to be replaced.  Another fusillade of bullets dodged.  Now back to the isolating freedom of my car.  Who were all those people?

11.02.2011

Speaking of disruptive technologies and generational disconnections...



I just cringe when I read something from a photographer who's been working in a decent market for years and now they are reaching out, trying to understand why, when they are at the top of their game, surrounded with the best lights and camera equipment in the world, with a string of awards and successes, why are their billings and assignments consistently shrinking.  The rejoining comment, from many people who don't work in the field always seems to be:  "Stop whining and raise the level (meaning quality or creativity) of your photography!"  Oh, these "monday morning quarterbacks" have it all figured out.  If only we were shooting with $50,000 systems and doing everything just right we'd be able to rake in big dough.

And for about two minutes I bought into that sentiment.  But I'm rarely smart enough to take "crowd wisdom" at face value so I started going to our traditional sources of income (the ad and graphic design agencies and magazines) to do some real, shoe leather-telephone call-coffee meeting research.  And here's what I've found:

The newly ascendant art directors and designers, who are just hitting their stride in the field, were in their training periods or in school during the first collapse of the creative economy, in late 2001-2002.  The budgets evaporated just as they did again in 2007-2011.  Their bosses and their clients pushed them relentlessly to use much cheaper stock photography.  Which they did.  But what really started the ball rolling toward the gutter was when all the good schools began teaching all of these students to become highly proficient in PhotoShop.  The current "best/worst" practice in art direction, as it's practiced in nearly all but the most lofty agencies, is to have the staff search relentlessly through stock photography online to find "parts."  The parts are then assembled in layer after layer of Photoshop and then massaged and "post process designed"  to create a final image for whatever project is at hand.

Many shops have a Canon Rebel with the kit lens, or a point and shoot, or even a cellphone with a "nice" camera and they will pull in staff and friends to be "parts" for a big assemblage.  In my interviews I find that many shops think nothing of having their own people pose without paying model or talent fees.  The agencies also LIKE the idea that they can cobble together some internally generated shots and a handful of inexpensive stock shots and then have their in house PhotoShop savant put everything together because they can bill the time spent montaging and massaging, directly back to the client.  In some cases they are able to charge upwards of $150 an hour for eight or ten hours.  These are directly billable fees whereas external photography can only be marked up by a percentage.  The agency ends up owning the rights to the composited images which go into their internal library for possible recycling.  The  end cost to the final client is generally close to what the cost of custom created photography would have been but the agency wins because they are able to keep the entire revenue from the project (less the stock charges).

And make no mistake, given enough time and enough RAM and a fast enough processor, a gifted PhotoShopper can pull something really.....adequate... out of the mix most of the time.  Obviously, this doesn't work as well when the brief calls for a beautifully executed ad shot of a particular person, or an artistic shot of a unique new product but it's mainstream for ad images that are just looking to be symbolic archetypes.

The economy trained the art directors to create, essentially, a new creative product.  It's one based on nearly infinite stock photography choice and tons of post processing.  Both of which fall into the best interests of an agency since they accomplish three things:  1.  They keep the lion's share of revenue in-house.  2.  They keep an employee engaged in long periods of additional, billable work.  3.  They deliver generic concept ads under tight deadlines without taking any real risks.

It's interesting to see that a whole new style that doesn't depend on reality or believability is emerging.  And really, short of opening their own ad agencies, there's not a great deal photographers can do to combat the trend.  It's one of the reasons you see so many still shooters chasing after video projects (and conversely, the video market is so flooded with new, low cost recruits that many veteran video shooters are now starting to try their hands at still photography....).

The uninformed may exhort photographers to "raise their game!"  But it's utter nonsense.  What we're really seeing is the ongoing evolution of two giant industries, each following the same trajectory as most other businesses that have been touched by digital, the web and the relentless cost reductions implicit.

Services are delivered quicker, in higher quantity and for far less money that ever before.  And at the heart of the transition is the unabated, culture-wide acceptance of "good enough."  But that's not even fair considering that what's emerging is really not photography, per se, but a new commercial art form based on a different set of assumptions.  And that's where the schism is between generations....

I've written about these changes before and each time people outside my industry chip in that it could never happen in their industrial or service niche.  But in reality, for most businesses, it's just a matter of time.  The real secret is how well you deal with change.  And acceptance of new realities is always the first step in re-creation.

Does everything need to be shot at a zillion megapixels?  Does every delivered file have to be massaged longer than the Mona Lisa?  Are all clients worth keeping?  Has our generational idea of what constitutes a "deliverable" been passed by on the creative highway?  Are we even selling what clients want?  It's a fine beige puzzle of 10,000 squiggly pieces and we'll only know the real answers as we move forward.  If we even glean the answers at all.

I did "parts" last week.  110 clipped images that will be included in an illustrated design.  I added a CEO and a corporate President into backgrounds that I shot in another space and time.  I finished the final proofs for a book. I'm prepping for two speaking engagements and a workshop.  Nothing looks like the kind of stuff we made a living doing just ten years ago.  Or even five years ago.  But before you can change your business you have to know what is real and what is mythology.  And it's different in every section of the market.  Pick up the phone and call the next generation.  If you pay for the coffee they'll tell you what they think.

If you are a photographer all I can tell you is that everything you knew about the photography business (hyperbole caution...) is pretty much obsolete now.  Being a service provider is critical.  Finding the new markets is critical.  And, in keeping with my fascination about new technology, keeping up with new technical stuff is part of the whole equation.  Just don't use new stuff to shoot in the same old way.  To a certain extent you have to let the gear steer.


If you are shooting for your own pleasure you can ignore everything I've just written.  Until the wrecking ball comes to your house.

11.01.2011

Coffee break.

Just taking a coffee break.  This is my cappuccino at the sidewalk tables at Medici Cafe on Congress Ave. (in Austin).  The sun was on the other side of the building and the light was coming in from the overcast sky, around dusk.  I was checking messages on my phone and I liked the way everything looked when it was wonky and off balance.  It was one of those rare days when even my coffee looked good to me and I didn't want to waste it.  It was rich.

Just a quick post with a few more Nikon V1 observations.

Tulip the Wonder Dog.  Nemesis of cats.  Patroller of the "holy" fence.

Tulip was in the studio this morning while I was doing a portrait of Natalie with three different cameras. I shot with the Nikon V1, the Canon 1DS mk2 and the Hasselblad 501C/M.  We were shooting with two large LED panels projecting light through a six foot by six foot diffusion scrim.  We also had one LED panel at 1/4 power on the back wall.  This shot is from the Nikon.  I'd set it to manual exposure and metered for Natalie.  Tulip was sitting on the floor nodding her approval and she looked like she needed a new headshot so I tilted the camera down and shot a few frames.  We were using the electronic shutter so the camera was absolutely (hello court photographers!!!!) 100% silent.  She didn't blink because there was no noise and, bonus, no flash.  I made one mistake, though.  I'd metered Natalie and Tulip was way down on the floor.  She ended up being underexposed by 1.35 stops.  And this was no raw file, it was Jpeg all the way.  I tossed the file into PhotoShop and with much trepidation I slid the exposure slider to the right by 1.35 stops.  Since the image was shot at ISO 400 I expected to see big, bad noise in the shadows.  It doesn't look bad to me but I like the tonality of the image, the definition of Tulip's coat and the "just right" white balance.....all under my array of CRI 80 (not very color accurate) LEDs.  The camera is very easy to use in manual exposure.  Just be sure to take a test shot at your final settings and review it before you proceed.

Yes.  Austin is Headquarters to the Univers(e).  It says so right here.

I've modified my camera settings since I last wrote about the little V1.  I'm now using the continuous drive setting because it does away with the preview lag of the single exposure setting.  I set the power down setting for one minute instead of 30 seconds and that's all I can think of.

I spent all day Monday making "paper doll" clipping paths for about a hundred images, and these are images I did real clipping paths for last week.  That was enough torture for me to consider taking this afternoon off for some "away from screen" time.  Today I did a walk through downtown with just the camera and the 30-110mm lens.  That thing is sharp.  At least I think it is.  I'm not "captain DXO" so I can't talk about sharpness in nerd numbers but I can say that it keeps up with my best lenses for other small systems.  And, given my caffeine rattled hands I'm going to say that the VR (it is Nikon, after all, we can hardly call it "IS") seems to do an incredible job.  Here's a big difference between the Nikon and the Olympus m4:3rds gear:  The Nikon uses "in lens" stabilization while the Olympus Pens use "in body" stabilization. While I like being able to mount any lens on the Olympus cameras and still maintain the use of stabilization I also love the way the image in the Nikon V1 finder gets all steady and calm.  You can see the VR in use with "in body" systems.

This is the Littlefield Building.  I think it looks pretty cool and it sits on a premium piece of land in Downtown Austin:  It's on the northeast corner of Congress Ave. and Sixth St. (Old Pecan St.).  One of my clients had an office there for many years.

Whenever I'm out playing with new cameras and lenses I am always drawn to the corner face of this old building.  The combination of brick and stone work shows off good lenses and makes bad ones look worse.  The 30mm to 110 mm zoom lens is the angle of view equivalent of an 81mm to 297mm zoom lens, in full frame parlance.  I think it's doing a great job here.  I love standing on the sidewalk with the camera draped over my neck, staring up at cool buildings.  Makes me look like a tourist from the hinterlands.  Sometimes I'll even stop people and ask for directions.........

This is the 30-110 at its full extension.  I'll give it a big, "not bad!"

So, why do I care at all about these little cameras?  Why all the sudden excitement with the Nikon V1?  Well, I guess I could say that my generation has lived with continual change and I'm generally always trying to figure out how the whole system will change every time a new system arrives that disrupts the old systems and is "just good enough" to do most of the stuff we do right now with bigger and more expensive cameras.  

In a few years kids of Ben's generation will buy something like this camera because the price will be right, the lenses sharp and image quality more than good enough for most of the final applications the market has in mind.  At that point, from a business point of view, they'll shift the paradigm and we can talk until we're blue in the face about "sharpness at 100%" and pixel well size but they'll be out taking photographs that meet client expectations without ever contemplating going in to debt to buy their tools.  

My generation buys the best tools some times as a hedge or a delusional barrier to entry.  We (as a group) hope that our clients will notice our superior "fire power" and conclude that we're the ticket to imaging success.  I'm coming around to the idea that most clients wouldn't care if you shot your jobs with an iPhone, or on film or some other method, as long as it works for the use in front of them.

I remember a large group of photographers, eager to maintain their market position, who laid down big bucks to buy Canon 1DS Mk 3's for $8,000 only to see them supplanted by 5D Mk2's with superior image quality at $2,500 less than a year later.  And Nikon photographers who embraced the first D3's only to see the D700's come to market for several thousand less dollars.  I remember when wedding photographers were convinced that brides would never choose little Nikon D1X cameras over medium format film.  And the next generation came to market with D30's and D100's.   

Every new technology is disruptive and we always have the choice of sitting back and "waiting out" the storm of introduction or jumping in and figuring out what's really cool about the new stuff.  If the whole concept is a bust well, we'll move on to something else.  But if it hits we're in the vanguard.  We get to loot and pillage while everyone else plays catch up.

This store always gets really nice, late afternoon light.  I shoot it when I walk by to remind myself what a difference the quality of light makes.

So, what futuristic, Star Trek-like, disruptive paradigm gigging technologies does the Nikon V1 have?  I haven't played with all the buttons yet but I watched the tutorial for the 400 fps slow motion video mode and it was incredibly cool.  Like having a $100,000 Phantom camera for one one hundredth the price...(kinda...).  And I haven't wrapped my creative brain around a mode that lets you shot a frame while recording a second of video.  When you play it back you get a cool slow motion lead in to your final still frame.  I bet Ben's crew will think of something very cool to do with that....

I'm an inveterate tinkerer and experimenter.  I love to take stuff apart and see how it works.  I love to see if we can light shaving creme on fire.  I want to make giant mylar balloons and float stuff around.  Can you blame me for wanting to see what a whole new camera format is all about?

This doesn't mean I want to abandon my other cameras.  I don't want to give up shooting portraits with my Canon full frame cameras.  And certainly I love the look of my Hasselblad portraits whether clients do or not.  I'm just coming to grips with my need for variety.  Lunch yesterday was a sandwich, today some cool feta, buffalo and jalapeno pizza, and tomorrow macrobiotic vegan food at Casa de Luz.  Life without variety?  You might as well take away my coffee....