12.17.2012

A quick note on how we deliver jobs today. Now.

We used to come home from multi-day jobs, edited down the take and then start burning DVDs. A typical job documenting an enterprise conference for a Fortune 100 company might result in 1,000 to 1,500 edited images. We shoot them mostly in raw and deliver them always as high res Jpegs. No matter what they tell you in forums and workshops, event clients want/demand nice Jpegs. The only people who ask for Tiff files are ad agencies and even then they are more likely to ask for PSD files...  But it's so different because in an ad shoot you may only be delivering a handful of images. Ten variations? No big deal. 1500 distinct images? Big deal.

So, we usually had two rounds of DVD burning. The first would be a set of high res edited images that went to the client. With big sensor cameras now we'd  usually be looking at four DVD's. Which means dividing up folders and doing some sort of organization for the client. And while I'm at it I always make them a back up set and an additional back up set for me. Now we're at 12 DVDs. Once those are delivered I'd want to back up a set or two of DVDs with the raw files. Even with a tight edit we're still talking about something like, maybe 32 gigabytes of material. That's roughly eight DVDs per iteration. As you can imagine, babysitting the DVD burn added a lot of hours to our post processing...

Recently I decided to chuck all of that, and to deliver the edited Jpegs on a memory stick. I've been using 16 gigabyte Sandisk Ultra sticks because Costco had them on sale in three packs. The price per 16gb stick came out to less than $10 per. The burn takes about 15 minutes.  I back them up for my storage on a second stick which I dump into the job bag. We also have the images backed up on a quickly accessible hard drive. If I have no requests for additional images on that job (our delivery contract clearly states client's responsibility to make additional back ups and states, boldly, that we no longer are responsible for archiving client images...) after one year we clean out the job bags and return the sticks to ready inventory.

The same sticks are currently $14 a piece at Amazon.com.




The sale is still on at Costco (as of yesterday). Sorry no link for Costco....

But when I was researching yesterday evening I found this cheaper model of flash stick at Amazon:



I can't imagine that it's much slower than the more expensive one, especially for a job delivery, but it's 50% cheaper....


Look to art and you'll look at fun. Art and love is what makes the rest of this bearable.

concert pianist, Anton Nel.

I wrote a recent blog that was an observation of an event wherein the photography was partially crowdsourced by employees. I've re-read the article to see if I can detect a judgmental tone in my writing but I don't think it exists. Several commenters remarked that I seemed to be getting "depressed again" (sorry, never been clinically depressed) or inferred that I was upset or felt that the situation was unfair. Let's set the record straight---I think anyone who worked as a corporate photographer in the late 1990's and early 21st century is less than thrilled that the market has changed a great deal. Some of the value we presented for documentation work revolved around our mastery of the tools and our mastery of what was (with film) more difficult by a few orders of magnitude and has been rendered somewhat irrelevant by digital imaging and instant review. But if you had any brains at all you've seen this coming in a progressive and then accelerating way. While I wish that our golden age had lasted long after the time at which I want to retire I think I'm rational enough to take it for what it is: Inevitable change. 

There are parts of photography that are pretty straight ahead, pretty binary. Those parts will be like the service provided by typesetters at the beginning of the 1980's; critical at the time, ubiquitous now. And so imbued with less value to clients.  I'm not bitter or depressed. I've changed my targets and changed the kind of work I pursue. So far it's working and I'm happy. But to not write about it at honestly right now is a disservice to the people who are entering the field now. Much of what passes for good information on the web is based on paradigms that are five, ten or even twenty years old and their usefulness is suspect or absent. If I'm in the middle of a job with contemporary enterprise and I observe stuff it seems churlish or dishonest not to report it.

To recap: Things change. Some parts of being a professional photographer have changed and become less profitable or accessible. I've moved on. I am neither depressed nor bitter. 

Fun: what you can do with one big light, a lot of power and a lot of throw distance.

Starting on January 23rd, my friend, Anton Nel will perform in a play called, 33 Variations, at Zachary Scott Theatre. The narrative is based on Beethoven's commission to do a variation on an existing melody for a patron.  The whole scope of the commssioned music is called the  Diabelli Variations and from the few scenes I've seen the play will be a remarkable work. Several months ago we did a preliminary assignment to create images promoting the production. We worked in Zach's rehearsal stage against a large, white muslin background. My main light for the image above was an Elinchrom flash bounced into in a huge umbrella and back through a diffusion panel. The light we set about 26 feet from the subjects which accounts for the slower light fall off from the right to the left of the frame and also for the more contrasty shadows. Taken with a Sony a77.

Most usages of the image will have the background dropped out and a solid color dropped in. The white muslin gave us an easy line of separation and, of course, we all sing the praises of refine edge in PhotoShop...

Mad Beat Hip and Gone. A play Steven Dietz.

During the same shoot we photographed this actor (above) for the upcoming hipster-inspired play by America's most prolific and produced contemporary playwright, Steven Dietz. His play, Mad Beat Hip and Gone follows the guys who were in the car right behind Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady back in the early 1950's (On the Road reference).  I shot with the same basic lighting and added a little white, passive fill to the side of the subject opposite the main light.

Jill. From Xanadu. Stage lighting.

All in all it's been a fun year to be a photographer. My books sold well, my investments all did well, and I was able to pretty much meet my longtime goal of working on assignments for 10% less time (year over year) while maintaining the same income. Kind of a fun juggling act. But everyone has to have a goal. Right?

The goal for 2013? Photograph more and more stuff that I like. But that's the goal every year.

12.16.2012

Another interesting wrinkle in making a living as a photographer.

I kind of thought of myself as the "safety net" in a big experiment, this week. I was booked to shoot a conference but then so were about 100 other people. One of those people was my second shooter. We got paid. Another two photographers on site, who were tasked with specific assignments, were also paid professionals but the other 97 photographers were volunteer photographers who usually worked in some other capacity for that company. I know why each of the four of us got paid. We each brought something different to the table. I'd done lots of event work for the company before and in the scope of that work I'd photographed former presidents on two different occasions, as well as a number of other celebrities and political stars. Since I haven't screwed up yet the company wanted me to do that kind of photography for them again this year.  I had a list of people and events to photograph. My second photographer was there to cover the stuff I would normally cover, stuff that was tagged "public relations mission critical" but which I might not get to cover if my schedule got changed by a glitch in a celebrity or VIP's conjoined schedule.

One of the other two photographers was a former staffer for the company and he was tasked to go into the executive level meetings and document those. He has a day to day working relationship with many of the top people and there's no sense in taking a risk with a volunteer.

So, that left the other 97 photographers and videographers who were in attendance and shooting away. I'm sure some of them did very good work and, freed from the constraints of "having to deliver no matter what" I am sure they could stretch a bit and add more creative work to the overall mix. Their work got tweeted throughout the conference and they followed a series of guidelines that ensured no one stepped out of bounds. In a way it was pure crowd sourcing. But a crowd sourcing in which the corporation had nearly complete control.

In another sense it is perhaps an audition for future events. After all, a company that already has a legion of volunteer photographers on the roster and ready to shoot for free is a company that can afford to saturate social media and which has the luxury of picking and choosing from a large circle of styles and points of view. And, if they are doing the work on company time it's not hard to understand that the company would presume, legally, have the ultimate ownership of the images. It's a win/win/win for the company.


So what do the volunteer photographers get out of the experience? To start with many or most of them would not have been able to attend the show unless they had volunteered, and it was a really good show with lots of great keynote speeches and special events. Not the least of which was the draw of seeing former president Clinton speak on stage.  Secondly, they were able to show off another layer of their talents in front of people who mediate their existing careers as well as some people who will now come to see them as having real value in another part of the business. And to some extent the volunteers got an affirmation about the value of their hobbies.

What does this mean for the future of corporate event photography and documentation from the point of view of the paid professional? I think it's easy enough to speculate. For a while companies will still hire a seasoned professional for mission critical imaging but the foundational work that is part of the income pie will be eroded by another few slices. And, as the auditions continue, the companies will be able to comfortably source more and more in house volunteers for more and more work.

Tough times in which to provide photographs for money. The whole fabric of the business is changing. The tools are no longer a relevant measure of professional service. All that remains is the added value that comes from your brains, your social network and your resourcefulness.

Argue any point you'd like. I just saw the whole paradigm in radical shift and to me it's no longer anecdotal.  Yes, I was still working, as were four other suppliers, but there will come a time when only two are needed. And then only one. And finally another segment of the market will have disappeared. C'est la vie.








The recurring fantasy of starting over from scratch.


It's a mental game that I play and I'm sure many of you play as well. We're sitting there with our pile of XXX brand cameras and lenses and we've had them around for a few months. Long enough to find out what works well and long enough to find the little glitches that linger in our minds and color our enjoyment of the cameras. Then, even though the current technology in our hands is better than anything that came before (?) we start advancing along a dangerous line of thought. It goes something like this: "If all my gear was struck by a flaming meteoroid and totally destroyed; what would I replace it with?"

Did you like the stuff you had so much so that you would replace it exactly as you had it? Would you make changes here and there or would you take the opportunity to jump to a different camp and start all over again? The fresh start scenario.

I think there are two kinds of people in the world, the gamblers and the planners. The planners are meticulous and somewhat linear. When it comes to camera gear they seem to assess what kind of work they like to do, plot that against their rational budget and then narrow down with research the smaller subset of cameras and lenses that will fit for them. Oh to be a planner... The money and heartache we gamblers would save...

The gamblers fall in love with the ideas. The idea of a better camera.  The idea of the mythic lens that will change my imaging paradigm. The idea of there actually being an ultimate camera for us.
We are the ones dashed on the rocks of unwitting despair by the siren call of the German exotics (Leica and Zeiss) and more often then not were working with the same kind of budgets as the planners so we can only afford incremental changes rather than being able to have it all at once.

For professionals the whole abstraction and truth of the two approaches is further muddied by the fact that most of us have to make our cameras do many things well and that, in itself, means that our final choice of system is almost always some sort of muddled compromise. My overwhelming passion is to shoot portraits and if I were logical and rational as a portrait shooter I would be shooting with a medium format digital camera like a Phase One or a Mamiya or Pentax, and I would have just a couple of lenses. The workhorse 150mm portrait lens, a normal focal length for two people in a frame and a slight wide angle for group shots and environmental portraits.

But the reality of my business, in a second tier city, is that we shoot a lot of architecture, food, and (the biggest fly in the ointment) events. The events move fast and we shoot a lot of frames. Fast AF is nice to have as is automatic flash. We also need lenses that go pretty long and fast (NOT the provence of MF digital) as well as lenses that go very wide.  That means we can either have multiple systems (which is too expensive to entertain in this environment) or we compromise.  The usual compromise is a full frame camera and three or four fast zooms with overlapping ranges and some highly automated flashes. If you specialize in something you probably also have a lens that corresponds to that specialty. For me it's fast 85 or 100 mm lens for portraits. For architectural shooters it's probably the 24mm shift lens and for sports shooters it's probably a long, fast lens, like a 300mm 2.8 or even a 400.

But once we buy into a system and use it for a while I can pretty much guarantee that a certain percentage of users (the gamblers) will tire of the glitches and gotchas and start looking over the fence at the greener grass on the other side. The micro four thirds shooters crow about not having to carry around a ton of gear to get the same kinds of shots but some of them are already licking their chops imagining all those shallow depth of field shots they could get with an 85mm 1.4 on a full frame camera. Canon full frame users no doubt look at some of the amazing large prints being done by Nikon 800 shooter and wonder if they shouldn't jump ship to partake in some of the big megapixel magic.  And Nikon D800 users who've had to carry around a bag full of big lenses for days or weeks at a time probably look longingly at m4:3 and Nex cameras and wish they could go all light weight and sneaky and get nearly the same results for most of their day to day stuff.

I got a Sony a99 camera a couple of weeks ago and it's all pretty and works well and does all the professional stuff I need it for. It's full frame so the depth of field control is there. It's got the EVF I really like (regardless of camera brand).  And it shoots under a wide range of lighting conditions.  Oh sure, I was very happy with it in the studio and as I walked around shooting for fun with just a fast 50mm hanging off the front but......

.......then I spent three and a half days shooting a big show. Bag full of big, heavy zoom lenses, a back up body. Two flashes. Lots of extra batteries. And at the moment the show ended so did my unalloyed and untempered love for the whole idea of full frame work cameras. I slept in on satuday and went to the late swim practice (I felt so lazy....) and I was sore from carrying everything around. And as good as the images were technically there were nothing I couldn't have gotten years ago by being more careful, or using a tripod, or getting my timing just right, or some other permutation of those variables.  Sure, the dynamic range was great and the high ISO stuff was really cool but I remember shooting events five years ago, never going over ISO 400 and still being able to shoot equally nice images at shows.

And so this started me down the path of what camera system would I have if I could start over from scratch right now???

The sad truth? There's no one system that's clearly superior for the melange of work we do.  If I shot only for myself the choices would be simple, a rangefinder style full frame cameras with three lenses: Maybe a Leica Mx with the 35mm, 50mm and 90mm. But I've done that before in the film days and always found myself (for work) adding a Nikon or Canon body for long lenses or ultra wide lenses. And then we're right back into the mix mess.

Since the show I've only wanted to take my Nex 6, with an itty-bitty lens, out to play with. Today's fantasy is to pare down to just the two Nex cameras and the little lenses I have plus an adapter to use a small sampling of the lenses for the Sony "A" system.

In reality I know I'll always need to have a range of options at hand as long as I work as a generalist. But I played with the new Leica S MF camera a few days ago and that seemed like a wonderful toy/tool for a portrait guy.......is it worth the gamble?  I think I'll just keep that one as a dream.

Thus far the Sony a99 keeps me from looking into the camps of the two majors. Now my real focus is rationalizing the lens choices. I wish the 70-200 wasn't so heavy but I like the fast aperture. I'm looking at the 16-35mm as a wide angle addition to the system and, while I know logically that the 85mm 2.8 is a great lens at a bargain price, I am also getting sucked into the promotional gravity of the 85mm 1.4 Zeiss lens. But wait. Haven't I been here before? The names on the cameras and lenses were different but weren't they basically the same? Have I come any distance at all?  Probably not.  And that's a scathing indictment of the gambler mentality.

Round and round in circles while the planners smile smugly and we all end up with the same kind of gear.

There's a sea change though. The little cameras are taking over. Once the get bigger chips (Sony RX1) in smaller and smaller bodies there will be no turning back. Why would there be?

So today, flaming meteor hits the tool chest. All cameras are disintegrated. What do I buy? For me, right now?  Two a99 bodies. 16-35mm CZ, 24-70mm CZ, 85mm 1.4 CZ and replace the 70-200mm 2.8.

What's that? A smaller chunk of the meteor broke off and hit the Domke bag in my car with all the Nex stuff?  To replace:  Two Nex7's (yeah, I'd go with the 7's over the 6) the two Sigmas, the 50mm OSS 1.8 and the unannounced 60mm f2 OSS.  That, and a bunch of batteries....

But caveat! That's only what I would do today.








12.14.2012

Top Five Camera Purchases My Friends Made This Year And My Two Favorites.

The hottest camera of the year on the Visual Science Lab lust-o-graphic measuring instruments is, without a doubt, the drool inducing Nikon D800. Even Michael Johnston, reasonable and restrained reviewer that he is, couldn't withstand the lure of the magic number: 36 million pixels. And to all who know they seem to be really, really good pixels. But that should come as no surprise since there were crafted by Sony (yes, wink, wink, nod, nod....according to a Nikon design).

My friend, Chris, has one and he's shown me some files that are amazingly detailed. If you are a Nikon head and you've already got the lenses and the wherewithal chances are you already have one. This is the first of what I think will be a string of medium format digital camera killers. Just wait and see. If you want the most detailed camera in all of the 35mm sensor kingdom you have no other choice. And it really seems to deliver the goods.....if you have the lenses to resolve the detail...and a good tripod to keep the pixels all lined up


(and just in time for the holidays the price dropped a couple hundred dollars.)

Pocket Champion.

This is the camera that's always on the edge of my radar and always on the shopping list for me but I've never actually snapped and energized the transactional transporter that would ionize money from my bank about and leave me with the Pocket Champion. Why? It's kind of a religious thing. I can't stand the idea of a camera whose only mode of operation is the stinky baby diaper hold. The camera is called the Sony RX100 and nearly everyone of my professional photographer friends has one and gushes about it like a guy who just got air conditioning in his car for the first time. "Revolutionary." That's what they like to say. You won't see me with one (unless they drop under the magic < $500 price point because I need to wear reading glasses to see the screen properly and, as I've said, it's pretty much against my religion. But the one inch, 20 meg sensor is, according to Digital Rev: Better than the APS-C sensor in a current Canon Rebel.  It's actually pocketable (another religious stumbling block for me) and it's got a lot of the current, cool Sony operational features.  Couldn't they just get rid of that screen on the back and replace it with a cool EVF? You may like operating your camera in a novel new fashion. You may crave a well designed camera that fits in your drawers. If so, the consensus is that this one.....rocks. 

So many of my pro friends have one I might have to pass on it just so I can be different...

 2012 Compact Camera of the Year. Smell the Zeiss all over it.

M43 MYSTERIOSO. THE STEADIEST CAMERA IN THE WORLD.

Would my year have been different if the Olympus OMD EM-5 had come on to the market in time? Would I have stayed with the Olympus family instead of fickly turning to Sony for my working cameras? It's possible that my back wouldn't hurt as frequently but it's equally possible that, given all the cool lenses you can buy and implement into this system I would still be carrying too much. At any rate I think the OMD stunned the camera making world in two ways. First Olympus was able to pack in more performance (burst rate, file quality, high ISO performance, incredible image stabilization and great EVF) into one small and, for the most part, well designed package at a reasonable price. The second thing that stunned the world is just how quickly it was accepted. Not just by amateurs and "advanced" hobbyists but by working professionals who wanted all the performance they'd gotten used to but without all the unnecessary baggage that camera along with legacy based cameras.

And Olympus has followed through with some stunningly good lenses (as has Leica and Panasonic). The force is strong with this system. Probably because it combines great engineering with common sense. My friends love them. Frank loves his. And I can see why, the photographs are as nice as you'd want------and you end up hauling around half to a third of the weight and cubic space you would if you buy a commensurate system from some other makers (excepting, of course, the Sony Nex's).  This must be the fastest selling interchangeable lens mirror-less professional camera in history. Tiny. Potent. Fun.



I've played with a lot of cameras this year. I even bought a few. While the Sony a99 might be the highest quality file generator I have ever used it doesn't make the grade as my favorite. To do that camera must be more than proficient and durable and reliable. It must be affable and intriguing. That honor was going to go to the Sony Nex 7---- it was until I became acquainted with the younger sister, the Sony Nex 6. I can't say that many of my friends have rushed out and bought one. Most of my friends are far too practical and had already settled earlier in the year on this or that small camera as their second camera or their carry around camera. Some went with the Olympus and some went with little Leicas or even Sigma DP2 Merrills. But for me it was a slow warm up with the Nex 7 and then a quick romance with the Nex 6.  Look, it has almost everything I want. It's sleek and black and beautifully designed. If fits me like a glove. The 16 megapixel sensor is a perfect compromise between resolution, performance, high ISO chops and less processing time than the Nex 7. 

The more lenses I buy for it the better it serves me. Why you should get a Nex 6:  You know you want to stop carrying the "back crusher" cameras for your own orthopedic health. You know your photography will always be better with an view finder as a opposed to a matchbox screen hanging out in the ambient light, soaking up passing color casts like a loose tart. You know you want the best 16 megabyte sensor on the planet and you know you want to be able to use a huge selection of lenses from lots of different makers. I use Olympus Pen lenses on mine because it gives me magic focus peaking so I can really focus those rascals. It's also simple to double check focus with the quick magnification button. The color is great and the low noise is competitive with any APS-C chip camera on the market. Take the lens off and it'll fit in your pocket. (But I will judge you....).  Once I mastered the menu I fell in love. I won't live without one.


THE CAMERA EVERY STREET SHOOTER WHO IS OLD ENOUGH TO REMEMBER THE MYSTICAL FEEL OF AN M SERIES LEICA IN THEIR HANDS WANTS.  ULTI-RANGEFINDERESQUE-MAGICMETAL-NOSTALGIOTASTIC.

The final camera in my list is one that every single one of my friends has mentioned owning but none are brave enough to pull the trigger on until they see one in person, touch it and play with it. Even then they'll be tortured by its appeal and equally by its breathtaking cost.

The camera is the Sony RX1. A fixed lens, 35mm full frame camera that carries a price tag suggesting that the entire camera is made out unobtainium by a crew trained at NASA who also did their internships at the Bentley motor works. I am sure the lens will be scary good and very well matched to one of the best sensors in the world. I would only buy one if it was configured with the EVF,  which heaps ruinous amounts of money on top of its basic selling price. Altogether it is an almost infinite supply of Lattes, in my internaitonal currency coffee scheme. But if I had the budget and my child was already through college I'd have one in my hand right now.  But I would add one thing to the inventory to go along with it......many batteries. Because I wouldn't want to stop shooting. This is the camera for poets and the kinds of people who write with fountain pens in little Moleskine notebooks in cranky coffee shops. People who do art with a capital "A".  But I'd buy it anyway because the whole idea of it is so darn cool.  


LET THERE BE LIGHT.

I had intended to write only about the cameras that had gotten maximum buzz in my circle of friends this years and I tried to hold myself to those. My friends who upgraded from Canon 5D mk2's to mk3's didn't seem to do it with much passion or fanfare. It was more like, "Well, geez, I've got all these Canon shift lenses and L lenses and my current camera has over 100,000 actuations on it, maybe I should upgrade before it craters..." That's not the passion I was looking for.  You still have people trying to make the Pentax KR-5 into a cult camera but that's not really going to happen because there's not much there to differentiate it from everything else out there.
The Sony a99 makes me smile because it makes work easier and the files are great but it doesn't holistically take my breath away and spike my punch with adrenaline. But all of the above camera bust through the clutter in one way or another and do something cool.

So, I'm sitting here writing this and thinking about cameras when there's a knock on my studio door and my post man, Victor, delivers yet another brown, cardboard box to me. It's from Fotodiox. It's yet another 312AS LED panel.  And then it dawned on me that no matter how much money I spent on all the cameras and lenses nothing brought as big a smile to my face this year as my little Fotodiox 312AS LED panels. Pound for pound some of the best money I spent this year. Why? Because they cost around $150 and I've used them on most of the shoots I've done this year. Many time as exclusive lighting on sets and on location. They are fun, reliable and workable. At this point they are the little lighting fixtures I most want to keep in the bag. I wish I had access to them when I was putting together the first LED Lighting Book in the world. They would have made the perfect touch.

I'm thinking just one or two more and I'll have as many as I ever needed. For now. 


Fotodiox 312AS. Here's what they come with.


And here's what the back looks like...

I think it's stunning that Sony has three of the four products that get my friends juiced up this year. They are certainly innovating circles around Nikon and Canon. It's an amazing evolution from a once very stodgy camera maker into a new taste maker. And so quickly too.

Chime in and tell me what camera made you smile this year.










Sony a99 notes from the bleeding edge...

Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics. On stage at Dell World 2012

I love big, action packed, corporate showcases and no one does it better than Dell, Inc. I have been photographing the action at Dell for over 20 years and there's always something exciting going on. It was no different this year at their Dell World 2012 Conference. They brought together nearly 7,000 employees, vendors, partners, and customers for three days of concentrated concentration about what lies ahead for the world of IT. And I was the there to capture the high points of the conference with a bag full of Sony.

I didn't have a pedometer on my belt but I'll estimate that I walked at least 10 miles each day with a fully loaded, black canvas, Domke camera bag hanging over my shoulder. By the time I dropped into my office chair yesterday evening I was whipped. Bone tired. But kind of elated. The show was so much fun for a photographer.

What I'm going to write about today is how the gear worked out for me. While I'd broken in my new Sony a99 at a long dress rehearsal shoot for White Christmas at Zachary Scott Theatre the week before, and I'd taken the camera out for a few walks, this was really kind of an under pressure test of the whole system.  And any time you shoot a bunch of short deadline, available light under wildly varying circumstances, with world class celebrities who don't have time for "do overs" you really get to know what you like and what you don't like about your gear....quickly.

I used the a99 for most of my shooting. I brought along an a77 but about 80% of all images came from the a99.  Tuesday evening was my first test of flash with the a99. This has always been a weak point for the a77 and is one of the key reasons I went ahead and upgraded to the full frame body. I wanted more predictable/reliable flash performance.  I bought the new, HVLF 60 flash. It's big and hefty but it mates perfectly with the a99, provides weatherproofing in conjunction with that body and has a wonderful GUI on the rear screen. No mystique function numbers as in the HVL 58, just straightforward words that mostly make good sense. The flash is also equipped with LED lights and they can be turned up or down, seamlessly, with the center control on the back of the camera. Seemed gimmicky till I used it to shoot some quick video on a dark loading dock and then I got the whole hybrid concept and the fact that not only did Sony make a nice hybrid still/video camera but also a hybrid light source to go with it...

I shot a bunch of candid stuff at the Austin City Limits venue where Dell was hosting an opening reception for the attendees of the show. The flash had its first real test when I went backstage before the main show to photograph the lead band, Camp Freddy, with groups of VIPs. The flash was.....perfect. Bouncing off a concrete ceiling with the white (supplied) diffusion cap in place the camera and flash provided perfect white balance, a very even spread of light and enough power to give me fast recycle (while bouncing off a high, non-white ceiling) to get f8 at ISO 200.  Good performance in my book. With fifty shots in about five minutes I had no issues with overheat, misfires or bad exposures. The camera was set to M and the shutter speed locked in at 1/125th of a second.  I tried to buy the flash locally but it wasn't in stock yet. I had to order it quickly from Amazon and they had it to me overnight. I won't say it's the best $600 (including shipping) that I've ever spent but it's a damn good flash and easily on par with the Nikon flashes I've used. 

(Technical note: When you use the dedicated flash the camera switches from Setting Effect On to Setting Effect Off. This gives you a bright image in the finder all the time. If you want to see the real effect of the ambient light you'll need to toggle the flash off and the camera will go back to showing you what the scen will look like with your settings).

If you do hybrid imaging the LED light is pretty workable. It's got a good color balance and comes with a fitted filter for conversion to daylight. Nice. The flash feels sturdy and the menus are the easiest to navigate that I've seen on any speed light. Much more transparent than using a Canon flash. No one will require a Syl Arena book on the Sony to be able to use it quickly.

On to the camera. First caveat: Do not buy this camera if you mostly shoot fast moving sports. While I am a huge, huge fan of EVFs (and this is the best one on the market) the frame to frame response of the camera is too slow for fast moving tracking. I turned off the preview altogether and when I set the frame rate at 5 or 6 fps the finder image has just enough delay to make it a bit disconcerting. I would love to say otherwise but that's the truth. I would not want to use this camera to follow my kid whipping by in a cross country race.  While the focus locked on tight like a badger it's the finder image that makes the viewing process more difficult than shooting with an OVF. That's it. That's the only stumbling block I came across in my use of the camera this week.

A caution: If you shoot corporate events  you will probably be shooting, randomly and somewhat intermittently, for the better part of 12 hours a day. And you'll shoot lots of different subject matter; from decor to signage to people networking to people taking training in small dim rooms. But the thing that requires the most frames is capturing a great shot of speakers. You need to anticipate the action but you'll still want to hedge your bets by shooting a lot. And if you do that you'll want to bring at least one extra battery with you each day. I'd generally get to around 2:30 or 3:00 pm and look down at my battery meter only to see that we were dropping under 20% remaining. That's when I normally switch out batteries. This camera is a battery hog, even compared to the a77. It's the constant live view. There's always current running through the sensor and current running to one of the two viewing screens. And you can't judge by frame count. The real metric is how many minutes of fun time. I have three Sony SLT cameras and six batteries. When I packed for the show I packed two bodies and all six batteries.

The camera is smaller and lighter than its counterparts from Nikon and Canon but the image quality is highly competitive. I used to drop the contrast in the styles menu when shooting jpegs at stage shows and in big, top lighted venues but not with this camera. It's very high dynamic range is apparent even in the jpeg files it produces. At any ISO up to 3200 the balance of shadow and highlight performance is excellent. By that I mean that the highlights resist blowing out while the shadows resist blocking up or exhibiting noise. 

It feels perfect in my hands and in the space of the last two weeks the camera and my brain have colluded so that I can hit all the major buttons and controls without looking; almost without thinking about them. There's one control that I initially thought to be a little silly but now I love and use all the time. It's the dial on the front of the camera which can be configured to do many different things. And it's not click stopped so it's silent in the video modes.

In the still mode it can, with the push of its center button, bring up the focusing menu, the drive menu and a few others. Holding the button lets you toggle through the different configurations. I leave it set for one thing: Exposure Compensation. Since you control the dial with your left hand your right hand never has to leave the shutter button to make changes to exposure. With the EVF and the camera up to your eye you can go straight into the control dial and make minute corrections to the overall exposure while you watch the effect on the screen. Amazing. Incredible control when compared to traditional cameras and more so because it's all in real time.

So, I would be tightly focused on a speaker on stage and I'd notice that he might have walked into a slightly brighter pool of light. The EVF cues me, by showing me exactly what will be recorded, that the light has changed and I correct exposure on the fly without having to move my right index finger from the shutter button. I wish every camera I owned had this one control. It's hard to describe in words on a blog just how big an evolutionary handling step this is.  In the days of old our only cue for light changes was to keep one part of our conscious mind riveted on the meter read out and that might require going to spot metering and having to reframe over and over again for confirmation. Not anymore. Your under exposure or over exposure is immediately and accurately apparent in the finder.

What this really means is that your hit rate is much higher which in turn means less post production fewer images upon which to do post production.  If you have the 2 second review set for the finder you can review each image you shoot. See the one with the perfect expression and you can stop shooting that person and go on to the next thing on your check list. With an OVF camera you'll have to stop and chimp through the images (missing the ones in the present) in order to confirm that you did indeed get something workable. It's night and day for an event shooter.

The other control that I pooh-poohed when I first put my greedy paws on the camera is the Smart Teleconverter.  This is a button that gives you a 1.4X and a 2.0X magnification of the image in the finder. When you push the shutter button you get that frame. And its magnification. But the camera drops the pixel count down to 10 Megapixels.  I studiously ignored this and thought of it as a gimmick until I realized that 10 megapixels was more than enough for stage shots and.....getting this sizing baked into the Jpegs meant I'd have to touch fewer files to go in and crop, which would probably get me down to the same 10 megapixels.

Well...I was photographing Stephen Dubner from as close as I could get to him and I still couldn't get as tight a shot as I wanted. So I bit my ego and pushed the button. The framing got tighter and Stephen got bigger. Another push of the button and we got the image you see at top which is the equivalent of a 400mm lens shooting at f3.5.  Glad I don't have to carry one of those around in the bag. What makes this magic possible?  The EVF, of course. Can't do this kind of magic with the optical finders.  You could do it in live view but good luck focusing with contrast detection AF at this extreme focal length. And good luck handholding a 400mm steady with the "dirty baby diaper hold."

What features does the Sony lack that I wish it had?  Hmmmm. One this I miss that Canon and Kodak implemented well was variable sizes for raw files. When shooting events I think that a 24 megapixel raw files (somewhere north of 30 megabytes per file) is a real show stopper.  Especially when it comes to post production. While SD cards are incredibly cheap now and just about anyone can afford a pocketful, the backend is where everything goes to hell. 
One this show I hired a second photographer to cover things I couldn't since many of my assignments within the show were to provide imaging services in conjunction with VIPs and top execs.  I would be totally at the mercy of their schedules and never vice versa. Even so, over the course of three days I generated about 1500 images, all of which would have to be corrected in some form or another and then converted to Jpegs for deliver and then both the RAW files and Jpegs would have to be stored. When I added up the amount of space the RAW files would take up and the time required to work with them I made the decision to do a better job in camera and shoot Jpegs instead.

If I had been able to shoot compressed, 12 megapixel RAW files instead I probably would have considered that. At least for shots with high profile people. But early on my second photographer and I opted to go with Jpegs at the extra fine setting. For a lot of documentation we dropped to "half power" but when a Michael Dell, Bill Clinton or Mike Shinoda (of Linkin Park) was in the frame we bumped back up to full size, just in case.

What else about the camera? I have mixed feelings now about the differences between the a77 (24 megapixel cropped frame) and the a99.  The a99 is a slower camera. You can't argue with its class leading image quality but most cameras are really, really good performers today and there's a lot of "touch and use" issues that make one either happy to use a camera or indifferent... or even resistant to using the camera.  It may be that I'm just more used to the a77 but it seems to operate more quickly and decisively. The frame rate is much faster and the finder image more nimble when the review is switched off. In many situations I like shooting with digital APS-C lenses and I'm used to those focal lengths and the way they render images.

But then I look into the finder and I can see that Sony has tweaked the EVF. It's a generation better than the EVFs in the a77 and the Nex7 even if there is no change in specs. The finder image seems much more color neutral and much less contrasty. Not that the finder image if of low contrast, rather Sony have changed the tonal response to help prevent blocked up shadows and clipped highlights that don't appear the same in the final files. The EVF is almost exactly like looking at an optical finder under nearly all lighting conditions.

What do I want, lens-wise, for the a99?  I am perfectly happy with the 70-200mm so those focal lengths are off the table. But I'm not happy with the performance of the Sony 50mm 1.4 on the Sony at critical aperture points (2, 2.5, 2.8 and 3.5). The communication between the 50 and the camera seems off, somehow. Many of my exposures ending up being too bright and too blue-ish compared to the rest of the lenses I used. It could be that I just need more experience with the combination but time will tell. I may look at the Sigma 50mm 1.4 or I may just practice more and see if I can get a handle on what's going on in the 50mm's brain....

I'm happy with the Tamron 28-75mm 2.8 for the Sony. It looks sharp and crisp almost anywhere in the focal length range and, while there is a hefty amount of barrel distortion at the wide end it's a simple distortion instead of a complex multi mustache type and very easy to correction in Len Correction in either PhotoShop or Lightroom.

I do want to find the right ultra-wide angle for this camera. I'll look at the 16-35mm lens for the system but at nearly $2000 I think I'll wait till after the holidays. I don't have a pressing need at the moment...

The best combination of the week was the a99 body with the 28-75mm lens. They are both lighter than their competitors and a bit smaller. Both are major plusses for those times when you have to spend lots of quality time with your cameras. The combination rarely left my body for 12 hours a day. Even at lunch and dinner. You want to get to know your camera well? Nothing beats a total immersion. Nothing. No workshop, no DVD, no series of YouTube videos. Just pick the damn thing up and use the hell out of it from breakfast until you brush your teeth to go to bed. 

My biggest compliment to the a99? It never let me down.  Not on a single frame. Not in any setting. Not even with a brand new flash. It is, hands down, the best digital camera I have ever shot with for work.  That said, I think I'll give my back and my arms a rest and spend some quality time with my slinky, little Nex 6.  Delightful in so many ways....

Stay tuned. Tomorrow I think I'll write about my experiences photographing former president, Bill Clinton, and 60 very nice people. One at a time... 

It was a wonderful corporate show and Dell is to be congratulated and pulling off a perfect three days of knowledge sharing, paradigm shifting and fun. Thanks to all, included my other photographer, Matt Lankes.









12.13.2012

I wonder how the Sony a99 would do under dim stage lighting at Austin City Limits performance stage...at 6400 ISO


I was pretty sure that the Sony a99 would do low light pretty darn well. Here's stage shot at the Austin City Limits stage. I'm shooting from in front of the stage. The color balance was set to auto. Lots of colored lights and the front lights were tungsten. I was amazed at the dead on skin tones. Hand held. 1/160th of a second at f2.8 @ ISO 6400. Still pretty sharp at 4000 by 6000.

Tamron 28-75mm f2.8 lens. Shot as a Jpeg.

Busy, Busy Photographer.

originally written on Wednesday 12/12/2012


Lead. Camp Freddy. ACL. Sony a99.


Sorry to be absent for a couple of days but as you know I am actually a (hard) working commercial/assignment photographer.  And by that I mean that I earn the majority of my income from taking photographs on assignment. I am two days into a three and a half day job taking photographs at Dell World 2012. It's a conference in Austin for 7,000 Dell employees, partners and customers. I'm having a blast shooting. I spent most of today getting ready to photograph a speech given by former president, Bill Clinton, and then setting up for, and completing, sixty individual portraits in a make-shift studio with president Clinton and a bunch of VIPs. I rushed the  images to the lab and have 5x7 prints in hand. A very fast turn around.

On Tues. night my second photographer and I got to shoot some fun bands: Linkin Park, Camp Freddy, Vallejo and Bob Schneider. A bit of (popular) culture to take the edge off the blog......

All fun stuff for the blog. Tomorrow is the last full day of photography and I'm deep into the project. I spend my evenings ordering prints, sending files and getting gear ready for the next day.

The camera of choice so far? The Sony a99. Second place? The Sony a77.

After we wrap the show I'll start putting more stuff up on the blog. There are a lot of rich stories here. In the meantimes be sure to take a stroll through the archives (put your cursor on the right hand side of the blog to hit the "archive" menu) or go out and snap some images.

Tomorrow I get to photograph Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park and the two guys who wrote Freakonomics. Fun times for VSL senior editor.

Greetings from the W Hotel and Austin City Limits.

I'll be back blogging on Friday.



12.09.2012

How to drive yourself crazy as a professional photographer.

This is an old 4x5 inch photo (transparency)  of chips on a wafer.
We used to do hundreds of these kinds of shots, day in and day out.
Now most everything is a CAD rendering.
That's okay with me, it was boring work.
I came across the film this afternoon and wondered what would happen
if I laid it down in the light path of the Epson V500 Scanner and
Scanned it. The scanner only does up to medium format.
This is what happens. And then it dawned on me that I could make a 
template and do two scans and put them together in PhotoShop.
A new way to scan and stitch some older, bigger film.

I've got a job booked this coming week that is four days long, very taxing, lots of different image requirements and very, very high profile in terms of being front and center with a CEO and a world class celebrity. I even got to select and hire a second photographer to cover all the stuff I couldn't schedule. The job is a conference for large corporation. There will be thousands of people attending from all over the world. The client needs coverage from the first meet and greet through the keynote address and even down into the breakout sessions and cool product unveilings. Lots of segments require some fast turnaround times.

You can imagine that the pressure is on but what's making me nuts is the equipment end of the equation. As most of you know I just bought a Sony a99 and since I like the files very much, and the camera is the best high ISO camera I've ever used (It's kind like the high ISO quality of a Nikon D700 but with twice as many pixels...) I want to make sure it's front and center in my camera bag. But I'm in the process of backfilling the Sony systems in a transition from a focus on cropped APS-C cameras to a new focus on the full frame camera.

My first realization was the I'd need a mid-range zoom for a lot of grip and grin stuff as well as the fast breaking celebrity meet and greet. I have a 16-50mm 2.8 lens that's very good but it's made for the APS-C cameras so I started the search for the right lens for the bigger camera. I played extensively with the Carl Zeiss CZ 24-70mm for the Sony and I was going to buy one until I came across a set of lens reviews by a guy named, Kurt Munger, who is a long time Sony expert and tester. He put the older Tamron 28-75mm f2.8 for Sony  up against the CZ in a very detailed review/test. The Tamron was superior for the kind of work I do and a much better value.  Both are f2.8 all the way through the focal range but the CZ is $1895 while the Tamron is......$499.  I bought a Tamron and spent hours testing it this afternoon and it's really very, very good.  The center sharpness at f4 and smaller stops is outrageous.  Better than the Carl Zeiss. And I'll need the money I saved by getting the cheaper lens because the new Sony a99 uses a different flash hot shoe configuration than all previous Sony digital cameras (except the Nex 6).  That means I can go into multi-adapter mode or I can bite the bullet and buy the new HVL F60 Sony flash which comes with the correct dedicated shoe.

When I found out that the HVL F60 has a powerful set of built-in LEDs which provide an alternative light source my decision was made and I kiss goodbye to another sturdy packet of money.  Many lattes. Now it remains to be seen whether Amazon really can get it here to me in Austin by end of day tomorrow... And whether I can read and understand the manual tomorrow night. I called the local dealer but Sony hasn't shipped them the new flash yet....


The long end of the equation is covered. I have the 70-200mm Sony G lens and it's wonderfully sharp even if it does weigh a ton and happens to be a carpal tunnel incident waiting to happen... It also works well on the back up a77 body and gives another 100mm of reach with the same basic resolution on that camera.

If I need to go wider than 28mm with the a99 I have the Sony 20mm 2.8 lens in the bag. I can also default to the Sigma 10-20 on the a77.  Or I can throw any of the APS-C lenses on the a99 and it will use them at the appropriate focal lengths but will only deliver 10 megapixels of resolution.  With many of the images it might be a workable solution but I think I'll stick to doing the wides on the a77 and sticking with a higher resolution standard throughout the shoot.

Of course, this all needs to fit into one camera bag which I will carry around with me all day, each day, for about ten hours at a whack. Oh yes, I also have to add a laptop to the baggage for one of the days for a fast breaking turn on some timely images.

But the biggest source of anxiety as regards the shoot is my irrational desire to shoot most of the show (not any of the long shots) with the two Sony Nex cameras. They are so small and elegant and everything I shoot with them seems to turn out to be sweeter than candy. So what I really want to do is go back and forth between two systems.

But packing is already getting nuts. I have to bring two speed lights with me. Not just because no professional should commit to a big job without appropriate back up but because one speed light has a shoe for one series of cameras while the other speed light has a different shoe for the other cameras. I'll have adapters that allow the flashes to cross over in each direction but I like to work with made for this camera type flashes and not have to depend on workarounds.

So, the bag already looks like this: Sony a77, Sony a99, six extra camera batteries (Thank you! Sony for making them all interchangeable). 70-200mm for stage shots, 28-75 2.8 for most grip and grins with  flash. A 16-50mm for back up coverage for grip and grins on the a77. Two big, heavy Sony flashes that cover the situation in either camera direction. Plenty of extra Eneloop batteries for said flashes. The 20mm for wide on the a99. The Sigma 10-20mm for ultra wide to wide everywhere but dedicated to the a77. Gobs of SD cards.

I may have to compromise and just take along one Nex with one cool lens for those times when I want to be, well, cool. But I'd like to take both of the Nexi, the two Sigmas and the 50mm 1.8 lens. I already know it's a dumb idea but I'm kind of stubborn.

I'll need to take along a tripod since there is always someone who will want the stage look and signage all shot, along with special lighting effects. Those shots usually require deep depth of field.  But I'll make sure it's an older one that I can leave backstage and not cry over if it runs away from home.

If I were a risk taker I'd just schlep along the a99, the 28-75mm, the 20mm and the 70-200mm. Toss in the new flash and the batteries and be done with it. Easy as pie.  But when I play for high $takes I tend to be conservative and cover the bases so that's not going to happen.

But these are the pitfalls we go through when changing systems, and then changing systems within systems.

When you add the details of scheduling and people management to the mix, as well as arranging for a dog sitter for the duration of the show, you can see that things just pile up. Then there's the famous Austin downtown parking. And the infamous rush hour traffic, amplified by an additional three or four thousand new visitors all heading for the same locus.

Oh, and some parts of the agenda are good with business casual wardrobe while several little segments will require coat and tie. Do I need to shine my shoes tonight? Wouldn't hurt.

All of this means that today and tomorrow are the test and charge days. All the batteries get topped off. The new flash gets used over and over again with the manual open on my desk. The camera settings get double checked and, over the course of the day tomorrow I am certain we'll have more than one phone-in conference to go over new and ever expanding details. Ah well, handling the stress is what we really get paid for. I'm looking forward to a fun and challenging job. Now if only I can settle on some camera choices...