1.28.2015

Photographing the Dress Rehearsal of Peter and the Starcatcher with a Nikon D610 and a D810. An evening at Zach Theatre.


One of my favorite parts of my job as a commercial photographer is to go to the dress rehearsals of live theater and make images that are used to market the plays. We do studio shoots far earlier in the season, the images from which are used in subscriber brochures and to announce the season's productions, but the photographs from the dress rehearsal shoots go out to a wide range of social media outlets, are sent to publications and are used extensively on the websites. 

I've shot dress rehearsals for about 23 years now and have used every sort of camera imaginable except for view cameras. I've shot them with everything from Hasselblads to a Sony R1. Over the last year I used a variety of micro four thirds cameras and lenses but for our first production of the new year I thought it might be fun to take a different tack and try using the two new cameras I bought from Nikon.  I loaded up the Nikon D810 and D610 along with an 80-200mm f2.8 and the newish 24-85mm f3.5-4.5. I brought along two extra batteries out of habit. 

Lately, on the bigger productions for Zach Theatre, I've been dropping by for the tech rehearsals that happen a few days earlier. There's no audience at these performances; not even family and friends. I try to attend so I can get a sense for the blocking and the flow of the show. I want to know if there's a cool finalĂ© that plays to one side or another. I want to know if the ensemble hits a pose for a few seconds before the lights drop out for scene change or at the end of an act. In short, I want to see what it's all about so I can be prepared and shoot wisely. 

I watched the tech rehearsal on Sunday evening and came back for the dress rehearsal (with audience) just yesterday. I won't review the play for you but it's astoundingly funny and moves along quickly. 

I set up both cameras the same way: Raw > Compressed > 12 bit > auto WB > Manual Exposure > ISO 3200. On the D810 I used group mode AF concentrated on the center while on the less complex D610 I used S-AF on the center sensor. Each camera wrote to a 64gb SDXC U3 card that writes at 60 mbs. I estimated exposures and looked for feedback from the camera.  The sweet spot was f4, 1/400th. I used the "quiet mode" on both cameras. Quick note: The quiet mode on the D810 is much more pleasant than the quiet mode on the D610. 

I started out thinking I'd go back and forth between the cameras as needed, as dictated by the angle of view needed. I quickly realized that most of the play; at least 95% of it, could be well shot just using the 80-200mm. So I shot with the D610 during the first act and then switched and shot with the D810 for the second half. 

I guess you can make some assumptions by looking at the rear screen of the cameras and reviewing the images but that seems kind of futile to me. I prefer to load everything into Lightroom and look at the images on the 27 inch monitor. That's the high speed litmus test. The real test would be a large print....

One interesting point I observed is that the finder of the D810 is brighter than the finder of the D610. For some reason I thought they would be identical. 

When I got back home I loaded both cards into Lightroom and left the computer rendering standard previews. I woke up early this morning and settled in with a cup of coffee and started looking and editing in earnest. I narrowed down the take from 1200 images to about 900 images. I did a couple passes of sync'd settings. I could tell that I wanted to tell Lightroom to use the neutral color profile instead of standard (which is too contrasty for this work) and I knew I wanted to add 30 positive clicks to shadow recovery and another 20 clicks to the clarity slider. I overlaid those settings over everything. If I found frames where this was overkill I could always hit "reset" for those frames. 

Then I went through and made as many batched corrections as I could. Since I was shooting in manual if I shot 12 frames of a scene I was pretty much assured that all 12 would correct in exactly the same way. That makes life easier.  I'm always nervous, when shooting, about blowing out highlights so I end up always needing to add about half a stop to the exposure when I get around to post processing. 

Some frames were underexposed by a bit more. Some needed as much as a stop and a half boost to be  just right and I was amazed at how well the tones recovered when pulling up so much exposure. But there was a real difference between the two cameras as far as noise is concerned. 

With the D610 I got the nice, small, regular black grain pattern (at 100%) that I am used to seeing on cameras like the Panasonic GH4. If I underexposed too much on the D810 and did the same amount of recovery I ended up getting a sea of tiny white speckles in the dark areas of the frame at 100%. If I reduce the file down to a usable size it's no problem but if I had to shoot in such an extreme way and then print large I would definitely reach for the D610 first.  Since I rarely miss by that much in terms of exposure I'm not going to consider it a flaw of the camera but it's instructive to know that its superpowers live at the other end of the ISO scale. ISO 64 is flawless and wonderful. ISO 3200 (underexposed), not so much. But even with the speckles the detail across the D810 frames stayed nice and sharp. 

I probably won't use the Nikon D810 for available light theater work again. Even though the vast majority of files were beautiful the size of the files is beyond crazy. When I finished making all the corrections to the files and went to convert them to Jpegs for normal, P.R. and marketing consumption it took well over an hour to process them all.  And that's with an i7 processor and 32 gigabytes of RAM with the files writing on and off a 7200 rpm hard drive. That's a lot of processing time.

There were a number of stars in the mix last night. Most were on stage but the ones I had with me were definitely the ultra well behaved D610 and the antiquated but very sharp and easy to handle 80-200mm f2.8. With the camera at ISO 3200 in Raw and the lens at f4.0 it was hard to miss. 

I pulled the D610 out of the bag right before lunch so I could bring it along for happenstance. I reflexively checked the battery and would have replaced it if needed. But after shooting nearly five hundred raw images with the camera the battery info told me we were still at 94%. 

My last shoot done with micro four thirds cameras is still fresh in my mind and while the absolute image quality of the Nikon full frame cameras is pretty unassailable they would not necessarily be my first choice for the next show. I missed the EVFs because I rely on them to cut down on my need to chimp. If I can pre-chimp I can correct in real time without filling up the memory cards with garbage frames. The two Nikons and the two lenses weighed considerably more that four of my EM-5s and a lens for each one of them. And none of my lenses for the smaller format is anywhere near as imposing and scary as the big, Nikon zoom. 

On the flip side the larger sensors, in conjunction with fast apertures, are really good at dropping out focus in the backgrounds which creates a better feeling of depth in those images. That being said I'm sure if I bought the faster glass for the smaller format system I could come close to matching that aspect of the overall look. 

Let's face it. There is one right camera. That's the camera you most enjoy shooting with. Everything else can have better specs and better laboratory behavior but if you don't like holding it and shooting it then who cares? 

This seems funny to me but I've attached a lot of samples from the show. It's funny because the files are 24 and 36 megapixel in their native size and here I'm showing them as 2000 pixel wide Jpegs that are compressed at 8 out of 10 possible. Now they're 8 bits instead of 12 and now were looking at them on computer screens. Does it really matter in the long run which camera you use? It all seems a bit silly to use a camera that generates 36 megapixel images that are invariably downsized for use on the web.... At any rate here's a selection of images to evaluate. My favorite tool of the evening? That rum and Coke with a slice of fresh lime I got at intermission...
















Tax refund? Buy the book.

1.26.2015

Gone photographing. Back in a few days.

Paris Metro.









Kirk Tuck and the Visual Science Lab finally enter 21st Century with a fast internet connection.

We had all these cables running into the VSL headquarters just for 1.5 meg DSL. (kinda kidding). 
(from a studio assignment for 3M featuring heat shrink cable protection).

I'm not an early adopter in so many areas. I got my first car with Bluetooth in 2013. I'm still using an iPhone 4S. I don't order restaurant take out online. I'm not really sure why Twitter has value or if I am using it correctly. We have one television set. It's never been hooked up to cable. I only know about Pandora as she relates to Greek mythology. I think wi-if on a camera is the devil's work. And, most disturbingly, I've been using old AT&T business class DSL for the last 15 years. It got marginally faster a few years ago but only via the expense of a couple weeks of downtime and frustrating phone calls to help desks that repeated the same mantra over and over and over again: "Restart your modem."

But when we moved from Austin proper into the hills just west of Austin getting high speed connections was either impossible or required a King Midas/Goldman Sachs budget. Once I had a workable solution in the office I was loathe to change it. I made due with 3 mbs per second down and 1.5 mps up and I paid about $55 a month for the privilege. But recently Google came to Austin and even though they are only really interested in the low hanging fruit it has pushed their cable and other broadband competitors to change. A nice person from AT&T came by and showed me how switching our sloooow, home DSL and our sloow office DSL to their newer services would increase the speeds of our connections by a factor of ten while cutting our monthly bills in half. That's a nice value proposition, even for a lazy non-switcher like myself. 

Of course, now I'm kicking myself for not switching earlier but I still remember the hassles I had to deal with the last time I changed just the speed of my connection which resulted in more down time than most submarines. I'd gladly give up speed and a bit of cash not to disrupt my routine. But this time I didn't resist. They made it too easy for me. 

The technician came out this morning. He marveled at the bullet proof, weather proof, comet proof junction box at the back of the house like a Russian with steel fillings looking at a free gold crowns. About three hours later we'd switched from two old DSL accounts to one fiber account on a shared modem that delivers good signal strength everywhere. Just to test it Belinda and I watched two different movies in two locations, simultaneously. Nosferatu and some Meryl Streep movie on Netflix and nothing slowed down, coughed or hiccuped. (Now I sound like someone emerging from a time machine and talking about being able to read the newspaper on line!). 

It's like the time I traded in my bigass BMW on a four cylinder Honda and rediscovered good gas mileage (and reliability, and low maintenance costs, and cheaper operating costs, and a better air conditioner, and........). It's always a little startling to change things. 

But I miss things about the slower connection. Yesterday uploading two one megabyte images took about 20 second and it gave me time to think of a catchy headline for the blog I was writing. Today? One second and no downtime for the ole brain. No catchy headline. 

The most exiting part of all this? Now I can watch Kai at DigitalRevTV and Chris Niccolls from The CameraStore TV in full on HD and I don't even have to wait for my machine to buffer the signal. No stuttering, no stopping and no more jaggies. 

I'm pretty happy about the change, after the fact. My iPad streams news quicker and my laptop downloads new software like a geek box. But the biggest change is how quickly I can now upload enormous videos to Vimeo.com. Push a button and look away. By the time I hammer back a slug of cold coffee from the recesses of my desk the web has mysteriously sucked up a 600 MB video file and cracked the whip on the hamsters that process it at Vimeo ( a very nice service = thank you!).

I still think wi-fi in cameras is for children and other geeks and don't get me started on the stupid trend of putting GPS in a camera. I don't care what your rationale is, you and I both know you are wrong. But I'll come around in a few years. Once they've got it all perfected I'll give it a test drive. I just can't think of what in world I'd do with the coordinates. Maybe I'll give them to my phone and the robots will track me for the digital overlords. Could be fun. 

This is a cool ad for a Japanese tech firm that I worked on with my art director friend, Greg Barton over at Dandy Idea. Wafers, meditation and sunrises. Nice.

Absolutely the best camera evaluation video I have ever, ever seen on the world wide web. Thanks to Philip Bloom for tweeting it.

Lighting, pose, gesture and content. The camera is the last thing on the list.


I like this photo because it shows off new technology for my client and the people in the shot look real and engaged. I was happy to have been able to light the entire scene with one overhead fluorescent fixture and four Fotodiox 312AS LED panels. I wanted the image to be "readable" and printable (no shadows blocking up, no highlights burned out) but I didn't want it to seem obviously lit.

In the shooting process my first consideration was to find the right angle to show off the machine and also be flattering for the models. The room we were shooting in is very small so the slim profile of the LED panels was a real plus. One panel that was behind me and to the left was used bounced against a wall and the space was so tight we couldn't get a stand in. I attached the light to a small table top tripod and balanced it on top of a small medical tray. Two lights, covered with diffusion material were used outside the door while the fourth was aimed at the equipment in the background so it didn't drop in tonal value. Everything was balanced in intensity to match the white curtained window at the back of the frame.

The use of a shorter than typical (for me) focal length helped to create a feeling of depth to the shot. My biggest challenge was to get enough light on the face of the technician on the left without blowing out too much highlight detail on the "patient's" white robe.

All of the above parameters were put into place first and then we stuck in the camera. I did a quick custom white balance from the robe and set a manual exposure on the camera. I was using the Sony a77 and the (nice) 16-50mm f2.8 kit lens. It's a bit noisier than my current cameras but light years better than earlier generations of cameras.

I am happy with the shot and in retrospect there are very few (if any) things that I would change.

There is the belief that the camera and lens are the vital parts of the process but by my reckoning they are a distant fourth place behind being able to visualize what you want to achieve, figuring out how to light it for depth and detail, getting the right poses, expressions and gestures from the talent and getting the shot styled the way you want. Once you've done those things just about any camera with the right focal length lens on the front will do the job.

The nicest thing for me about this job was having a client who understands the difference between a narrative style photo illustration and just another documentation of a machine. That's the best case scenario for working photographers.

1.25.2015

I shot with a new "old" lens yesterday and it was good.

Dog and friend at the Graffiti Wall. D610+Cheapo lens

Model at the Graffiti Wall. 70-210mm at 210mm, f5.6

Editorial Note: I wrote a post yesterday about a lens and an experience at the Austin Graffiti Wall. It was too negative and angry. I decided that's not a direction I wanted to go in this year so I took the post down. This is what the original post should have been...

It's not hard to be a lens-aholic when shooting with the Nikon system, after all, they haven't changed the lens mount in just about forever and any Nikon lens made from about 1977 onward will mount and work (some with limitations) on even the newest Nikon bodies. When I look at lenses for that system (one of two systems that I am currently using for work and play...) I find myself drawn to older classics rather than the newest formulations and models. I've shot, on and off, with Nikon equipment since the late 1980's and I have a lot of experience with the lenses (and the bodies) through the ages. I've always loved the look and feel of the manual focus lenses and now I even like the prices. 

Recently, I borrowed the newest 70-200mm VR type 2 to compare with an older AF 80-200mm f2.8 D lens that I recently bought for a song. I wanted to make sure I wasn't deluding myself and compromising the overall system performance by choosing an older lens. I shouldn't have worried as the older lens is as sharp and low maintenance as I remember it. What am I giving up by using an older lens? Mostly just the VR but in the ways that I plan to use the lens it's not much of an issue. I plan to use the fast zoom lens mostly for theatrical performance documentation sitting on the front of a Nikon 610. I've tested it onsite and it works exactly as I wanted. 

But there is one issue I have with the 80-200mm f2.8 and that is the bulk and the weight of the unit. Don't get me wrong, for the applications I have in mind it's not an issue and there's really now way around a certain size and heft if you want optical performance and speed on a full frame camera. It's a trade off. But in the back of my mind I started thinking about the times when I might want to tote around a nice focal length range like the one on the 80-200mm during one of my "spells" when I also want to use a big Nikon camera. So I started looking for a cheap, smaller, lighter lens with the same basic focal range to use when tooling around outdoors, without my team of equipment hauling Sherpas. 

The search led me to a number of choices but the one that seemed to have the most promise, when reading other people's reviews, was the D version of the Nikon 70-210mm f4-5.6, push-pull zoom lens from the 1990's. It focuses pretty quickly; on par with the consumer AFS lenses. It''s noisier when focusing but not too bad. It's less than half the size and weight of the 2.8 lenses but it's mostly built with metal and feels very solid. I bought one for right around $100. I generally test lenses just as soon as I buy them but last week we had nasty weather. It was cold, gray, rainy and windy for four days in a row and I just didn't have the motivation to go out and shoot with much of anything.

The weather broke yesterday (resulting in a glorious and very well attended morning swim practice) and in the late afternoon I finished up all my chores and decided to go out for a bit of shooting. I put the lens on the D610 and headed for the Graffiti Wall. It was absolutely packed with people, including a mass fashion photo workshop. I stayed for a while and snapped some fun shots which I then brought back to the office to look over. The lens is fairly sharp wide open and the appearance of sharpness improves with a bit of post processing. When sharpening is done right the lens delivers fine detail along with a contrast that seems to be a balance between the lower levels of the older, manual Nikon lenses and the exaggerated contrast (and saturation) of the newest generation. I found myself liking the push and pull to zoom control. 

All in all the lens was a bargain for $100 and reminded me that some of the older stuff is still primo. 

I bought this lens for my particular uses and I'm not suggesting that you rush out and change camera systems or rush out to buy this lens. I guess the point I'm trying to make is that there's a lot of good, older stuff out there that's selling at bargain prices and rewards buyers who are patient, willing to test their own gear, and who buy from vendors who will allow you to return stuff that you might find lacking in performance to your standards. I like my big, heavy fast lens for a number of shooting opportunities and I like the more compact lens for daytime travel and street shooting. I'm lucky enough to be able to have both. 

Another editorial note: My book giveaway came to an end on Saturday morning and in the two days it was active we gave away over 6,000 Kindle versions of, The Lisbon Portfolio. I hope that we'll start to see a rash of (nice) reviews in the next few weeks at Amazon. I hope everyone enjoys the story and doesn't get too annoyed with any editing issues. I'm working on the second book and want to have it done by October of 2015. I continue to rely on your motivational support and encouragement. 

Thanks, Kirk

curiosity. What long telephoto zooms do you reach for when you go out to shoot and you know you want/need some reach? I'd be curious to know what my readers think the best fast tele zooms are for your systems. Comments?

1.23.2015

I was putting together yet another presentation for yesterday afternoon and remembering how diverse a pitch might need to be.


Die on wafer.

Last week I got a call from an advertising agency here in central Texas. I'd been recommended to them by another advertising agency and that's always a nice introduction. The new agency and client are involved in creating a new high technology market around a breakthrough process, and the machinery and attendant software to do the process. I know a decent amount about this particular area of tech and while I'm not an expert I'm pretty certain this will be amazing stuff, and the client will make lots of money. But before I get invited to play I have to pitch. 

So today I'm going to talk about the pitching process as it relates to specialties. Most of the half million or so "professional" photographers working today are working with some variation of consumer cameras, using battery operated strobes or winging it with the convenient phrase: "I am an available light specialist." Most of the people who sell work in the general photography market came up through the ranks as wedding and family photographers. Almost zero percent have worked with film, cameras with movements, or specialty lenses and lights. Even fewer come from technical backgrounds and understand technology processes.  When I go to pitch commercial clients I try to leverage my strengths against those weaknesses.

The first thing one should do when pitching a potential client is head straight to their website and read up. The reading should include all the white papers and product information. The research should go on to include everything you can find on Google and LinkedIn about the people to whom you will be presenting. Go all the way back to their college stats if you can find them. See where they've been and what their credentials are. Then go and research their competitors, if you can find them. Once you've done that then figure out where you fit in. Define all the things you can offer them and figure out the areas where you clearly excel over your own competitors. Have these features and benefits clearly in mind when you walk through the client's door.

In this particular case the client's executive team all came from high technologies industries. Their company sells physical machines that create a new technology product. But the key staff are also pure researchers who are working with light, polymers, and lots and lots of stored electricity. I knew I should lead with some pure technology to show them what I've done for previous generations of innovators so I led with things like die photos, the cover of IEEE magazine for which I shot the very first multi-core wafer created by IBM, and the image of the historic, first PowerPC device, which I shot for Motorola. I led with a dozen pure technology shots including a few from inside a .25 micron cleanroom because I knew the images would lead into a conversation that would allow me to show off my early technical education, my grasp of underlying physics and chemistry concepts driving their innovation, and my efforts to stay topically current about key areas of technology over the ensuing years. 

We were also able to share in discussions about using oil bath techniques on chip dies to eliminate certain diffraction effects when focused under the oil layer. We discussed light piping and planar staging and a few other issues having to do with 1x-5x magnification, technical photography, and I think it cemented, in their minds, that I understood the imaging challenges we'd be facing with some of their process and products. 

The next step in the presentation was to show industrial products shot in various ways, from server racks to small details. I love the red front panels on the Salient Systems servers and showed them because we could discuss the fact that the server front panels are curved in several dimensions and this created various reflections that needed to be eliminated. Walking them through that lighting process will pay off when we produce bids because the client and agency will better understand why some things take time.

I included a handful of "ghosted" images like the receiver below so the client could see an application I thought would work well for them; the ability to show off the product as a whole while highlighting interior technology that is the point of their selling proposition. 

As we did a "walk through" of their facility I asked cogent questions about the process so I could get a handle on how we might handle organizing the photographic assignments as part of a narrative to tell their story. The walk through gave me a chance to see things that might make the story better for a lay person like a procurement officer or non-technical finance director of a potential customer company.

While I showed a good proportion of product and techie images I didn't neglect the fun portraits done for the arts, or the environmental portraits of executives in a range of companies, because I know that while the client generally loves to tell the "technical" story the agency understands that people work with people and that websites and collateral need to be a balance of tech and real people from the company. I'm selfish, I want both sides. 

Finally, I asked about their proposed use of video and asked if they were interested in seeing a video presentation we'd done for another local technology company. They did so we fired it up on a 15 inch MacBook Pro and, at the end, asked me all the right questions. "How did we shoot it?" "What is my process for video projects?" "How big (read: disruptive) was my crew?" And my favorite: "Who does your scriptwriting?'

I've pitched a lot of clients over the years and I have a good feeling about this one but the presentation is just the first step. The next step will be fleshing out budgets and time tables and making sure we get fairly compensated while the client gets exactly what they need and want. I have no idea who else they are talking to but I know the cohort of people still working in the field with deeper knowledge of technology imaging is small and shrinking. This is a smart client looking for a long term relationship. They are looking for experience and track record. They'll look to their agency for the creative overlay. 

On every pitch I've ever participated in I've learned new stuff. This time around I had to scramble to put together industrial work because it's not "sexy" like beautiful people shots and movie stars. It's not the kind of stuff we routinely share on the web or stuff into portfolios but if you are pursuing work with manufacturers and inventors it's pretty critical to have proof of performance in hand. 

The next time around I'll have a more locked down system for pulling up older work and consolidating the "heroes" from current work into centralized promotional catalogs that I can dip into quickly. The final point of photographic interest to me in this process was the wide variety of cameras and lenses that was represented within the material I showed. 

The video was shot with current GH4 cameras. The server racks with the same GH4's. The D2A receiver was shot in 2004 with a Kodak DCS 760. The PowerPC processor was shot with a bellows and 120 Makro Planar on a Hasselblad film camera, while the die image at the top of the article was done with a Canon 1DS mk2 with a 50mm Olympus macro lens on a bellows---camera and stage bolted to a custom modified copy stand. I showed a few main frame computers we'd shot with 4x5 inch view cameras and transparency film. And there were ample samples from DX frame Nikons and Canons as well as some full frame Sony stuff from the a99 and a850. Funny thing? They all look uniform in an on screen presentation.  Lighting and style trump gear?

The final steps in the presentation process are: follow up with "thank you" notes to the agency and client, and the delivery of a nice gift to the agency that (once again) recommended me. 

None of this has to do with the actual process of taking photographs but I thought I'd share my thinking about the process of actually getting the work. It's a bit tougher than just prancing in, showing a leather book filled with prints of various generic images and walking out with a purchase order. But really? It's always been this way.


Rack Mount Servers.

The very first PowerPC device from the Somerset Consortium. Hello RISC.

See through product shot. D2Audio.

1.21.2015

Kinetic Photography. Young love. Boston.

A mirror free camera with a 50mm f1.8 lens. Boston, Mass.

Off to meet one of my long tenured friends for happy hour. Maybe she will have the secret of the universe. I'm pretty sure it has little to do with photography.


Resume following me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/KirkTuck

Hanging out with the smart people.

The I.T. Center Lobby at the University of Texas at Austin.

 The reception area in the Student Services building at Brandeis University.

I like visiting colleges. I taught for a while at the University of Texas at Austin and I also hang out over at Austin Community College when I go see my buddy, Bill. He's the chair of the Photography Department there. Sometimes he invites me over to talk to the students.  The nicer colleges invest a lot of money for places to sit down and swill coffee. That appeals to me. Sitting, drinking coffee and reading. Nice work if you can get it...

If you work somewhere and the coffee is not good does it seem reasonable to talk to the people in H.R.? I'm thinking about starting a VSL H.R. department so I can complain to myself about my variable ability to make decent coffee. But I don't want to ruffle any feathers...


Resume following me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/KirkTuck

1.20.2015

Third in a series of Art Historians. Pose.


I hate what happens to black and white prints when I upload them to Blogger. They get grayed down. The surrounds go from 95% to about 74% and it makes me crazy. Oh well. This is the last image I'll show in the series of Art Historians and it is my personal favorite.

I'm not sure why other than that I like the tilt of the subject's head, the accessorizing of the scarf and neck chain as well as the tuft of hair right in the middle of this accomplished woman's forehead. No features, I am afraid, that would pass the test of modern portrait imaging as approved by the web at large. But then the audience for these images was an entirely different demographic...

It was 80 degrees in Austin today with bright sunshine. I bought a tank of gas today for $1.70 a gallon. The world has turned upside down.

I hope everyone who regularly reads VSL is happy, well and warm.


Resume following me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/KirkTuck