2.12.2013

Another project where using LED lights was helpful for me. And, my favorite camera of the day.

I shot the image above on Friday morning and did the post production on it and eight other candidates and delivered them via FTP yesterday morning. The client makes IP, analog and hybrid video surveillance systems. I like that they chose a bright red for the front plate of their hardware product. I used two Fiilex lighting units to light up the front of the unit and spill across the back. One was the P360 (shown below) and the other unit was a P200 flexjet which is usually used with a fiber optics pipe. I used its beam a a direct light source. The two, small LED units took the place of larger flash systems or LED panels. I used them because open face lights with tighter beams are easier to use in sculpting light and they maintain a hard edge which works well for product.

After we shoot product images as raw files at low ISOs I take them back to the office and go through pretty much the same routine every time. We drop out the background in Photoshop and layer the image with a white background on the bottom and the image on a transparent layer on the top. I add a drop shadow as a convenience for the client. It's easy to turn the layer drop shadow off if it's not wanted. Every tiff images also gets a clipping path to make things easier for the graphic designer who will end up using the image. We also supply a range of images as smaller jpegs and web optimized jpegs.

I shot the images (the one above is just a sample) on the client's conference room table. I brought along a roll of white seamless paper on which we put the star of the shoot. I closed the blinds, turned off the conference room florescent lights and held the P200 Flexjet in my hand and moved it all around the front of the unit until I found a lighting angle I liked. I grabbed a stand and anchored the light. I did the same with the P360. Neither light really gets more than warm during regular use so hand holding them is comfortable and easy. Since the light is always on it's easy to see all the effects, including rogue shadows and unwanted highlights. Once I had the lights in place I did a custom WB using a known target and then experimented with depth of field.

I was shooting with a tripod mounted Sony a99 and a Sigma 70mm f2.8 macro (which has a bit of chromatic fringing when used near wide open. Easily correctible in post). The 70mm is wickedly sharp at f5.6, f8 and f11.  Once I liked a shot and reviewed it large I'd change the camera angle until the client and I liked something else and then I'd do the process over again.
P360

This is my current favorite light. It's pricy but it puts out beautiful light and, when I evaluate the files in PhotoShop I see that they needed very little green/magenta correction in the custom white balance which speaks to a good color spectrum. Until I started using this unit I had forgotten how much fun it is to work almost surgically with light. Most of the lighting I default to tends to be softer and have a less abrupt edge transfer. It's great for food and portraits but sometimes products really benefit from a small, sharp source.

I'd love to post a link to Amazon but they are currently only available at Samy's cameras. It's a brand new product. I'm sure they'll be picked up by high end lighting dealers in most major cities. I've been testing them for several weeks now and my take away (and my feedback to the manufacturer) is this:  "How soon can I get more?"

The P360 is the first conventional product for the company. It's not the most powerful LED system on the market but it's a good start. The LED is made in house and fine tuned for photo and video production. The construction is great and the addition of a cooling fan for the electronics means it should provide long and continuous service. The barn doors are sweet and since the light doesn't put out much heat it's easy to make snoots and stuff out of Blackwrap to hang on the front of the lights.  The P360 won't out punch daylight but I'd be happy to light just about anything I'm interested in with four of these little guys and I'd carry them around in a small Pelican case.

As I do more and more video I am progressively more interested in light sources that cross over and give me a lot of flexibility. As always, the most important components are the modifiers.  But these are a good start to the lighting chain.

KIRK'S CAMERA PICK OF THE DAY.

Before you gnash your teeth and label me as indecisive and wishy-washy I haven't decided to toss away my big and beautiful a99 camera and choose something totally different. I just chose to work with a delightful camera today and it did its job just right. The results were exactly what I wanted and there was no downside. That's worth writing about.

The folks at Zach Theatre asked me to come in this morning and film the production (with 200 small children in the audience...) of Goodnight Moon. It's a musical play based on the popular children's illustrated book by the same name. 

I'd been going back and forth about which video camera gives me the best (sharpest, nicest to edit) video, the expensive, full frame a99 or the cheap as dirt APS-C a57. Seems there's a running debate about the integrity of the files from the FF camera in situations where one is shooting wide. Once you start hearing stuff like this you start to worry. At least I do. Until I test it for myself. So I did. And the a57 is sharper. The a99 shares it's softness affliction with all of the other full frame cameras to some extent and that makes me think there's something about the way the cameras have to throw away 90% of their recorded information from the sensor in order to fit the HD files into the HD file size shoebox. But this was just a preliminary test...

I'm in the middle of my tests and I have a few brilliant ideas but that's neither here nor there. For the moment it was the a57's turn to be tested and, in turn, to shine.

I set up the camera on my big Manfrotto video tripod with the 501HDV fluid head and put a Tamron 28-75mm 2.8 zoom on the front. It was exactly the range of focal lengths I needed. Then I set it on program (odd for me) and set the ISO for Auto and spent the next 50 minutes trying to practice good, non-intrusive shooting techniques. Slow zooms, smooth follows, etc.

The play was well lit and the scenery was perfect. I watched the footage this afternoon and I actually enjoyed it. The Rode StereoMic I used to pick up sound was great. It captured tons and tons of good, clear kid reactions.

In its 50 minute workout the camera never faltered. At 28 minutes and 45 seconds, during a non-critical spot in the play, I stopped recording and then started again, effectively dealing with the 30 minute time limit on video recording. The camera never over heated and the battery showed 51% at the end of the show.

The LCD screen was sharp and clear and now everyone is happy. Fun to be able to shoot "B" roll that looks great with an under $600 camera. Reminds me of how far all the cameras have come these days.

Tomorrow we're shooting the two cameras side by side for a long interview. That's the real test. I'll post it. If you aren't interested in video you don't have to read it. I'm a nerd. I want to know.











2.11.2013

Looking forward to another Austin Summer.

Noellia at Barton Springs 2012. 

How inconspicuous can you make yourself when you are actively shooting?


We were shooting in a bar/restaurant last Friday and one of the things we wanted to get out of the shoot was casual, candid images of people at the bar. There's a thousand ways to do that starting with the most expensive: Have a casting call, book professional models, bring assistants and light the place up. Direct. The opposite strategy is to find good looking or interesting looking people as they come through the door and offer to buy all their drinks and appetizers in exchange for signing model releases that allow us to use the images. Since single location restaurants aren't always in possession of enormous and extravagant advertising budgets we chose the second option. 


Available light and available seeing.

Spa at the Lake.

We've all heard the hoary quote, "When all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail." And this is especially true in the field of commercial photography. We're always carting around lights of various kinds and we come to feel, over time, that every scene should be lit. That no photo is complete unless it's been kissed by the pop of a strobe or massaged by some continuous illumination.  But part of being a good photographer is being able to look at prevailing light and say no to extraneous light. 

The shot above was lit by a wall of windows. There was no direct sun coming into the windows, only the glow from the open sky, but when color corrected it was as beautiful as any light I would have concocted; probably much better.

Spa at the Lake detail.

My second example of unassisted available light is this pitcher of water with cucumbers, above. When I realized that I could circle around the pitcher and shoot it contre-jour the image just opened up to me in a fun way. I could have tried lighting this for hours and not come up with a better shot. And it's a shot that also reminds me that not all light has to be softened or modified to work well for my photographs. This was taken in direct sun with no modifiers.

While our inner sense of marketing sometimes jumps in and tells us we ought to light in order to impress the client or to somehow elevate what we do above what can be done without the trappings of the professional it is good to clear the filters of the mind, from time to time and just recognize how beautiful the prevailing light can sometimes be. And that it is part of our profession to recognize that beautiful light when we are gifted with it...

2.10.2013

Another food photograph from two weeks ago.

An Omelette with fresh vegetables from Garrido's Restaurant. Fresh fruit on the side.

Here's a quick way to kill a photography blog: Just show actual, commercial photographs and talk about how they were done. When I post some rambling article about my vague and contradictory feelings about being a photographer we get lots of pithy and even encouraging comments and feed back. When we talk about cameras, particularly mirror-less Olympus cameras, there's a crowd waiting to chip in with commentary, critiques and full blooded denial. Open up a can of EVF versus OVF and watch the sparks fly. But talk about the making of photographs seems to peel off the number of readers the way showing Alan Alda movies peels off male audiences.

Being the contrarian I am I'll just go ahead and post one more blog killing actual assignment photo post and see if I can save Google and Blogger some bandwidth.

Wednesday, a week and a half ago, my art director client, Lane, and I were making images of various entreés and appetitizers at David Garrido's restaurant on Third Street. I hauled in an assortment of older, first generation LED panels and set up a traditional beautiful food lighting design.


Here is the scene from the front. I'm using two big, pop-up reflectors to bounce light from the rear lights onto the food. In this image I haven't set up the main lighting yet. Most of the light will come from behind and above the food and the reflectors will fill in the front areas of the food. You could use foamcore panels, or just about anything else white or silver to reflect back in.  The beauty of using reflectors instead of actual light sources for the fill in is that they don't create secondary shadows and are easy to move in toward the food and back out again as needed. Some stuff needs less fill while some stuff needs more fill.


The image above shots two 1,000 LED bulb fixtures right up next to the back wall of tile you see in the first set up shot. The fixtures are both covered with 1/4 strength magenta gels to mitigate the green spike that dogged the first generation LED panels. The magenta filter gets the lights much closer to neutral and makes it an easy custom white balance for the current generation of professional digital cameras. The lights are both aimed through a 1.5 stop silk diffusion screen to soften the light and flatten out specular highlights. The screen is held in place with a grip head that allows me to rotate the panel into a more horizontal or vertical position, depending on the needs of a particular dish. This is something you do to taste by looking at the results in camera.


The image directly above shows a 500 bulb, first generation, LED panel pointed directly at the tiled wall that shows directly behind the food. This gives me a consistent color and value to the background. Note the 1/4 value magenta gel filter clamped onto the barn doors of the fixture with clothespins. It matches the color values of the main lights described above. I did not need to diffuse or modify the output of this panel. I judged the needed strength by observing the whole scene from the camera position. A back light can be critical to create lively separation between the front and back of the scene and also serves to add the appearance of depth to a photograph.


The image directly above shows the way the panel is configured on its own stand and placed in front of the main lights. I could have used flash, tungsten or florescent lights instead of LEDs but the most important part of the lighting set up is nearly always the modifier itself. It is the modifier more than the light source that determines the look of the light on a subject.  If the modifier is placed closer to the light source the light will be a bit "harder" or more focused. If the modifier is moved closer to the food and further from the light source the appearance of the lighting will be "softer" and less focused.  Regardless of the actual lighting instrument used.

Why use LEDs to do food photography like this? The constant WYSIWYG nature of the light makes the set up and positioning of food much, much easier than the relentless shoot/chimp/shoot/chimp method required by flash while the lack of heat on the food (and on the photographer and crew) trumps the potentially higher output of tungsten lighting.  I've stopped using florescents altogether because the tubes are too fragile for travel (at least the way I do it) and most florescents are harder to color match to daylight.

We worked quickly on this shoot and as soon as we saw what we liked with the stand in plate we had the chef make our hero plate. Careful attention is paid to making sure the food is fresh from the kitchen and plated so that juices from meats or vegetables or sauces doesn't run or pool before we shoot it.

It's important to note that most food photography like this is done to create a mood that subliminally describes both the atmosphere of the restaurant and the visceral pleasure of the food. It's never meant to be an exacting catalog image of the food. The only need for those kinds of images might be for kitchen staff to use in order to understand how each dish should look and how it should be plated. Our job is to make the food look delicious and appealing, not to make it clinically descriptive. If you can see the entire scene in sharp focus instead of having the eye guided by focus and color then you've missed the mark in today's style of food photography presentation.

For this restaurant we shot the food both on a wooden mat (as above) and also on white only. The graphic designer who works on the website will have two options for every dish. This also makes for easier re-use in ads and other applications.

When we photograph food we go in with the idea of pleasuring our visual senses. Everything else is secondary.

People always ask me if we get to eat the food after we shoot it. Answer: We're snacking all the way through. Usually we are just curious to taste the food and see what it's like. We're never really interested in sitting down and making a meal of it. That would interfere with the work. We honor our chef/customers by coming back without our cameras in hand and really experiencing their great food as attentive diners. That's more fun.

If you live in Austin you might want to try the happy hours at Garrido's. Selected appetizers and their amazing street tacos are available at great prices and it's a lovely introduction to their cuisine and atmosphere. It's on my "A" list for good food downtown.



2.09.2013

Blowing out backgrounds with the new lens.


I was photographing people at Garrido's Restaurant last nigh and I found myself using the new 85mm t1.5 Rokinon lens almost exclusively. Part of the reason was pragmatic. We didn't want to have to model release everyone in the restaurant and we didn't want to interrupt peoples' dining experiences so we left the lights in the case and depended on the fast lens to carve out the sharp main subjects from a soft and impressionistic background. In the late afternoon there was still some reflected daylight boosting the illumination in the restaurant, but we quickly lost that. I started shooting at ISO 800 and progressively made my way to ISO 3200. I was doing the work handheld, depending on nearly wide open apertures and the built-in Super Steady Shot IS built into the Sony a99 camera.


All of these images were shot around t 2.0 or, at the most, t 2.8. I tried to prop my elbows on bar tops and table tops to help stabilize the camera and I worked as diligently as I could with shutter speeds that ranged from 1/60th at the beginning of the shoot to 1/15th at the end of the evening.
The EVF in the a99 was a handy thing to have. I depended on seeing the color balance in the finder and making corrections more or less on the fly. It was also great to see how the frames would look at their shooting apertures as I worked, without having to "chimp."


In the last three days I've shot over 1,000 raw frames with the Rokinon 85mm Cine t 1.5 lens and I'm very happy with its performance. One of my projects involved shooting the front panels of exotic servers and I stopped down to f16 to make sure my images were sharp front to back. At f16 I saw no obvious sharpness reduction from diffraction and the files looked great. On this job I worked at the opposite end of the aperture ring and I found that whatever I focused on turned out to be sharp and contrasty even wide open or near wide opening. All in all it's very good performance for a high speed optic at a bargain basement price.

More to come soon.






Enchiladas at Garrido's in Downtown Austin.


I shot these enchiladas at Garrido's restaurant in Austin. David Garrido was the executive chef at Jeffrey's before striking out on his own and creating a really great place of his own in downtown. The menu is wonderful modern Latin with nods to fine French cuisine. The prices are suprisingly affordable and the food is incredible.

As you know I've been shooting there lately for Garrido's marketing. This plate of perfect enchiladas is one of the images we shot a week and a have ago.

I used a bank of LED panels, covered with diffusion, above and slightly behind the food. Two large reflectors, just outside the live area of the shot, in front of the entrée provided light to the front of the dish.

I shot with a Sony a99 coupled with the venerable Sony 70-200mm 2.8 G lens. Everything was locked onto the stable platform of my Berlebach wooden tripod.











2.08.2013

This post is for the pros and aspiring pros. If you don't need to show a portfolio then reading this is optional.

A shot from Esther's Follies. Funny, silly, essential Austin Entertainment.

Golly Jeepers! Photographers are from Uranus and Art Buyers are from Venus...

Belinda and I got invited to a nice dinner at Lambert's last night. An fun, upscale BBQ restaurant right next to city hall in downtown Austin. We were guests of the Austin Center for Photography and the local chapter of the ASMP. The occasion was the kick off of the Texas Photographic Round-up which will feature presentations by photo stars like Dan Winter, Andrew Hetherington, Adam Voorhees and others. 

For a lot of professional (advertising and commercial) photographers one of the big draws of the show is the opportunity to sit down with an art buyer, photographer's rep or magazine editor and show a portfolio of your work. The Photo Review.  The idea is to get a critique that will help move your career forward.  You sign up for the review, pay your money and take your lumps (or get well deserved strokes from a tough industry insider = you win).

I'm sure portfolio reviews have value but I feel like I learned a lot by having dinner and drinks with five of the women who flew in from places like New York and San Francisco to do the reviews. And I'd like to summarize what they told Belinda and me last night in an hour and half's worth of wine fueled honesty and good food.

These are not my local-yokel opinions. They are the nuanced opinions from the top facilitators and gate keepers of the industry we all work in or want to work in. I'm going to paraphrase but I'm trying to be very accurate about the content of what they said (and unanimously agreed upon).

1. "We do not care about what camera or brand of lights you used. We never ask. We never want to know. We don't care. All that matters on that front is how the image looks and how it's presented. (and I would infer from their collective body language that you supplying a running inventory pisses them off. Big time. And it makes them understand that you really don't get that the subject is more important than the toys...)."

2. "We do not want to know what technique you used; either when shooting or when post processing. If it works for us we'll like it without you having to give it a name. If we don't like it we also don't need to know what you call it or how you do it. Period. The discussion of how the sausage was made seems to always curb the appetite."

3.  We don't...... mind.....iPad presentations but they (iPads, physically) are so unpersonalized. Quote: "Flick, Flick....now who's book am I looking at again???" If you show work on an iPad there are two things they (the buyers and reps) want you to know: 1. The work better stand out. 2. They feel as though the image inventory on the average photographer's iPad presentation is.....endless. And not in a good way.  Many sighs around the table and unified nostalgia for big, beautiful, printed portfolios....

4. "The impression of the photographer's fun quotient and fun to be around quotient is at least as important as the work. One magazine art buyer said, "If they are wonderful, happy personalities and easy to work with I don't care what their book looks like." (interpretation: if you are a self-centered ass you probably will lose more jobs than you'll gain with a personal portfolio show)."

5. "We've all seen thousands of presentations that are copies of really good photographers and we've seen lots of commercial work. If we want a famous person's style we'll try to hire them. What we want to see in a book is what makes you, the photographer, excited to shoot. Personal work. Wonderful personal work."

So, by having dinner with the reviewers we were entertained and learned what the big fish are really thinking. It all boils down to this:

We don't care about cameras
We do care about personalities
We want the presentation and the work to be memorable
We don't want to hear how the sausage was made
The thing you are selling us is your style. That's it.

Sounds like good advice to me. And the brisket at Lambert's was really good. None of the guests did anything embarrassing and everyone seemed to be having a really good time.

Now, you'll have to excuse me, I'm frantically trying to narrow down the images I have on my iPad, print a new, sexy portfolio and review my dog eared copy of "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie.  Good luck out there.




2.07.2013

Crazy Photographer buys Wacky Off Brand 85mm Lens. Why? What was he thinking?



 I've been around the block long enough to know that there's no free ride. But I've also racked up enough lens purchases to know that there's also a lot of wiggle room between quality, branding, features and price. So you'll have to forgive me for going off the reservation and purchasing a wacky newcomer to the 35mm lens market, the 85mm 1.5 Cine Rokinon lens.

A couple of weeks ago I did a test with the 85mm 1.4 CZ for the Sony. While I'm a sucker for cool lenses and I would definitely toss one in the bag is the price was right I was also very underwhelmed by the center performance of the lens wide open. You may want a homogenous sharpness across the full frame but I'll trade some corner performance for center sharpness any time. Like it or not, the important and juicy stuff usually winds up in the middle of the frame. (Please don't be too literal, I'm talking about the inner 70% of the frame not the little 10% chunk right in the center...).

While I am deeply and irrevocably in love with the cool little Sony 85mm 2.8 lens I have found a few situations (mostly in video production) when I'd really like to use a decent 85mm 1.4 lens at its wide open aperture. So when I started having second thoughts about the venerable Zeiss offering I also started to look around at other options, like the Sigma. That's when I discovered this particular lens. The Rokinon 85mm t-1.5 Cine version of Samyang's well respected and inexpensive 85mm 1.4 still photography lens. I'm increasingly interested in the intersection of still photography and motion so this lens caught my attention for several reasons. First, the basic design is based on Samyang's latest permutation of their still lens and countless reviews have made it pretty clear that its optical performance is competitive. Secondly, the lack of click stops is a great thing for quiet interviews and other video situations where you might need to compensate for a light shift during a live take. Finally, the lens looked cool in the product advertising and it was dirt cheap compared to everything but my little 2.8. I figured I could compare it to what I saw with the CZ and if it wasn't as good I could send it back for a no hassle refund. A quick test with no harm done.

Short story: It's not going back. Long story? It toasts the Carl Zeiss lens for center sharpness wide open.  And to my eyes it's at least as good at the rest of the f-stop range as well.


The 85mm t 1.5 Cine mounted on a Sony a99.

As you can see in the image just above the lens has it's t-stops (actual light transmission stop as opposed to theoretical f-stops) running down the side of the lens when the camera is in a normal position. That's because filmmakers tend to prefer apertures on the side because there are so many attachments that loom over the top of their full configured cameras that getting to the ring and seeing the settings can be....challenging.  You'll notice that the focusing ring is rotated into this position as well. 

The focusing ring is deeply scalloped and it's done that way so it will mesh with most of the follow focus units that are on the market. Those are the units that use a geared attachment to the focusing ring so that accurate focusing can be done by rotating a knob. The focusing ring is also a long throw, linear ring so it's harder to overshoot your mark.

So, the lens is solid, the focusing ring is smooth as butter, the aperture ring is click-less but has enough resistance to stay put when you engage it and the whole package looks very professional. Optically, the lens is constructed with 9 elements and includes an aspheric element. I used the lens yesterday at a product shoot and stopped down to f16 without much perceptible diffraction effect on the Sony a99. Below are a couple of studio illustrations I did before I sat down to write this.

My favorite, older ball head. The Leitz Ballhead. This was shot at f4.

I wanted to see what the sharpness of the lens looked like in the center at f4. According to all the tests I've read this is where most 85mm's shape up and become bullet proof in their performance.

Here's what a 100% crop of the center looks like. 

But, if you are going to pay for a fast aperture you've got to be curious about what you're going to get as a result of your investement. With that in mind the next photo down is in my studio as well and is shot at the full 1.5 t-stop. First the full frame:


And then the 100 % crop (see below).


I'm happy with that kind of performance. But what are the downsides of a great performing but dirt cheap ($350) fast lens? Since Samyang/Rokinon didn't scrimp on image performance what got left out of the mix to hit this price point? Well, it's totally manual focus. The Nikon version has a focus confirmation chip but the Sony and Canon versions are bare-bones. That's okay for Sony users because we have focus peaking and it makes using this lens in most situations fast and accurate.

The lens also has no aperture automation. When you move the dial to a smaller aperture the lens stops down. Always. In a traditional OVF camera the finder gets darker and darker until (varies by camera) the finder gets too dark to be useful. For a number of situations it's useful to focus near wide open and then stop down and that can be a real pain in the butt. There's a reason people like automation.....

Their are two other glitches but neither of them shows up anywhere in my list of deal killers. I'll mention them anyway. First, the lens hood, while included ( take that, Olympus), is about as flimsy as it comes and most ham fisted American users will have theirs in small pieces in short order. The same sentiments for the lens cap. Look to the aftermarket market if these things bug you. I'm presuming most video users will be using a filter holder or compendium bellows shade on the front of the lens anyway and most of us still shooters have so many 72mm lens caps floating around from yesteryear's wonder lenses that it won't matter.

For studio shooters like me, and photographers who set up lights and work with maximum control, there are no real deal killers with this lens. It's a great value for us. If you do a lot of sports the long, linear focus ring will screw you up. So will the lack of automation in exposure.

My most anticipated use? Portraits. Wonderful portraits with vaporous backgrounds. I like the look of the files I'm getting enough so that the lens has not come off the front of my camera since I first got it. Your mileage will vary depending on what you'll be using the lens for but you won't be able to complain about image quality. This lens delivers that.

It is available in Sony Alpha, Sony NEX, Canon and Nikon mounts. 




2.05.2013

Healthy Lunch.


I've really enjoyed photographing food lately. The new cameras hold onto such incredible detail in the highlight areas when shooting raw. The LED lights provide a great light source for food. You can see what you are doing and you can work without the heat of tungsten or the one step removed from reality reality of flash. On the last several shoots I've found the longer zoom lens in my collection to be the most flexible.

I love the look of clean, white plates on white tablecloths.