3.27.2015

more notes on the Olympus EM5-2. Spring day in Austin.


I've been shooting with the EM5-2 for a little bit more than a week but it's been a week dense with projects and so far few of the projects have included the new camera. I have an advantage with the EM5-2 in that it's an upgrade of a camera (the original OMD EM5) that I have four of and have used extensively in corporate event shoots and personal work. That means that most of my learning curve with the new model includes learning where in the menu the controls for new features are. I also have to get used to the new button placement. 

Since I bought the camera with the intention of pressing it into service as a handheld video camera, thinking to take advantage of both the five axis image stabilization and the focus peaking I have outfitted it for that. I bought both halves of the battery grip, partly because I will welcome double the shooting time before battery changes but mostly because I want the headphone jack that allows me to monitor audio. That headphone jack is on the part of the battery grip that attaches directly to the camera. While the add-ons grow the package it's still relatively small and very easy to work with.

I hit my first learning glitch over the new feature; focus peaking. I went into the menu, set it up the way I wanted it, turned it on and then exited the menu. To my consternation, with a manual lens mounted I could not get the focus peaking to appear. Thankfully, my friend, Frank, showed up to help me out. A lifeguard in the camera set-up pool. He let me know that I needed to assign the focus peaking to one of the dozens of function buttons that festoon the exterior of the camera (there are really only three or so but I'm finding on re-reading the owner's manual that almost any button can be reconfigured...

I replaced the "magnify" feature I'd set at function 2 with focus peaking. I figure it's all part of the same intention----getting sharp focus from manual lenses. That worked perfectly and for a while I was very happy. 

It would seem like a more balanced report if I could list out other things that interfere with my enjoyment of the camera but so far I haven't stumbled over any. Focus peaking works a little bit differently on this camera than it does on my Panasonic GH4. When the focus peaking is engaged the camera actually darkens the view screen a bit so there's more contrast between the peaking artifacts and the scene. It works well and helps make the feature even more fine tunable. I do find it a bit jarring to have the focus peaking indications vanish when the shutter button is pushed half way down, but at the same time that push on the button also restores the preview to its normal state which assures me that we got the exposure nailed down correctly. 

I spent an hour this morning out shooting with the camera and one of my all time favorite lenses from the original, film, half frame Pen. It's the 40mm f1.4 and it's a great optic once you are two stops down from wide open. Everything is sharp pretty much across the frame.  It's not terrible at f2.0 but everything except the middle third of the frame goes a bit low contrast, low sharpness to me when I use the lens wide open. Solution? Don't use the lens wide open.

Let's talk for a second about the improvements. The camera feels as though it is better made than its predecessor. More solid and weighty. The EVF is wonderful. Sharp and detailed and imbued with a fast refresh rate. It's one step closer to the holy grail of looking through a window. The shutter has a wonderful and very quiet action. I use cameras in many interior spaces and on many jobs. The ones in the theater or the ones where I shoot in conferences or in small meeting rooms are the ones that both make me cognizant and also appreciative of a low decibel, sonically well behaved shutter mechanism. That's something I like in the new camera. 

I am enthusiastic about the banishing of the accessory port just above the finder window. Olympus accomplished this by giving me a dedicated microphone port and a real sync terminal. What it really means for me is that when I shoot video as I wanted to with this camera I am able to put the microphone into the hotshoe and connect it to the dedicated port. The older accessory took up the hot shot and required that I do something else with the microphone. Like parking it on a "cage" of adding a bracket to the camera. 

Video. Let's talk about the new elephant in the room; video. Or more precisely the image quality of the video. I can already tell you that my test with the image stabilization have shown me that we're on the right track in using this camera for handheld video content creation. It's rock solid. I use the "mode 2" of I.S. because I don't really trust the digital IS in conjunction with the mechanical I.S. I think it can create artifacts in the video with more extreme camera moves. 

But let's cut to the heart of the matter, we all wanted this camera to be as good with the image quality of video that the GH3 is. (We really want GH4 quality but most of us are more than happy to settle for GH3 1080p quality if you dig right down). Is it? Andrew Reid at EOShd.com says No Way! And the discussion about it rages on over twenty or so pages at his well read site. I'll have to say that even at the All-I setting which gets us 77 megabits of data per second the codec isn't as sharp as the one from the Panasonic at its 50mbs setting. But the All-I setting does a good job of preventing motion issues and files that get blocky with a combination of low light and fast movement. 

I'll say that the video at the best levels, using good lenses is right up with the Canon 5D mk3 (un-hacked) or the Nikon D750--810 at their in camera settings. The big issue with all of these cameras versus the GH4 or the Sony A7 is that the files don't appear as crisp and detailed. Is it a deal breaker? Not for me. I'll use a GH4 to do locked down interview shots but when motion is involved everything is a trade off and I'm firmly of the belief that the Olympus gets the best part of the deal with a hand-held camera. Good video focus with the right lenses, great stabilization, good color and adequate sharpness. 

If you are relatively new to video you'll find that lots of things that critics bitch about are either as a result of comparisons between $1,000 do everything cameras and $25,000 dedicated video cameras or they are the result of trying to shoot distant objects and landscapes with an absolutely limited number of overall pixels. The 2K frame comes in right around 2,000,000 pixels which isn't a lot to spread around a wide frame with lots of small details. All of these cameras are much better at the kind of stuff I also like to shoot much better. In short, closer shots of people, waist up interviews and tight detail shots almost always look great. Big, chunky graphic frames are the forté of low resolution cameras and this is no different with video cameras. 

I have several projects coming up on which shooting video with the Olympus camera will be easy to do alongside whatever other camera I choose to use. At that point I should have a lot more to say about how the camera handles day to day video shooting but, for right now, I am guardedly optimistic. 

Shooting the graffiti wall with this camera is a piece of cake. Easy as can be. The focus indication through peaking was right on the money and the color and integrity of the Jpeg files was as peerless as I always remember it. It's an amazingly good camera in a nice system at a nice size and a decently low price point. Will it replace my Nikon D810? Nope, it will complement my big, heavy but amazingly detailed Nikon. They both work pretty darned well. Pictures follow. Click to see them big.












3.26.2015

Vintage LEDs. Already.

In the LED heyday of 2011. With Jana.

Back in 2011 I wrote a book about LED lighting for photographers. Even though LEDs were more expensive and less efficient (and well color balanced) back then I was pretty sure they'd catch on. Four years down the road I'm on my third or fourth generation of LED lights. I am finding them more and more useful all the time. 

I recently photographed 20 people during a day of making images for a law firm. We were shooting on a rainy and overcast day and the building in which the law firm was housed sits right in the middle of Austin's downtown district. 

I was making portraits of people in offices with the shapes and textures of the city softly rendered outside the windows. A cityscape background made soft and somewhat surreal by the combination of aerial mist and quickly diminishing focus from the f2.8 setting on my 85mm lens.

The light in the offices (with the regular office lighting extinguished needed to be supplemented. I brought along three flashes but I also brought along five LED panels. Four of the 312AS lights and one of the 504AS lights. All of these units are marketed by Fotodiox and all feature the ability to adjust color temperature and output levels. I used the big light diffused through a 1/2 stop scrim for my main light and used the smaller lights for fill and accents. 

None of this would have worked on a sunny day. It it had been a brighter day I would have defaulted to the flashes and some umbrellas. But luck was on my side. The constant light source was a blessing since a lot of the people being photographed were nervous in front of the camera and a fair number told me that they were habitual camera blinkers. Not having the flash going off and cueing them to blink was great. The subjects were amazed when I would tell them that we got twenty or thirty great shots without a single blink.

In the same week I used some of the small LEDs for a video interview and I used the large LED to supplement ambient lighting for a video slider shot in a lab. One evening we had a power failure  here in our neighborhood, which is an extremely rare occurrence, and I brought in a case of the LEDs from the office and placed them all over the house. They ran for hours on their batteries and were still going strong when the power came back on. Later in the week I agreed to photograph a doctor here in the studio that had a tough schedule and needed to make his appointment with me after 9pm. 

We're in a residential area that doesn't believe in street lights so I wanted to make it easy for the doctor to find me in the dark. I put one LED on a small stand to light up the house number on the mail box out near the curb. I used another two lights to sweep the drive way with light and I used one light facing the studio to light up the small building's exterior. 

The doctor honed in on the location like an airplane following landing lights. 

I don't know if you've started to experiment with LEDs yet but now is a good time to start. Especially if you are interested in video production. The panels are cheaper and more consistent than ever before and the color just keeps getting better and better. With a good low light camera like the Nikon D610 it's almost as if there is no downside to their use. You won't freeze fast action with them but you can light up a portrait really well. 

When I look back at how big and primitive my first set of LEDs was I am pretty amazed at the progress the lighting industry has made. I just checked out the latest from Fiilex and I am convinced that if I have the budget I'll be making some additional investments in their products. Especially now that the big 500 series light is available. It's very clean and pure and kicks out the equivalent of a 750 watt tungsten spotlight. So very cool.

3.23.2015

Thoughts While Finishing up a Project and Getting Ready for the Next One.

From: A series of interviews about LBJ.

When I read about an epiphany of one photographer or another in regard to their newly found love of video it always seems as though the protagonists need to disavow traditional photography in order to sally forth on their new moving pictures quest. It's almost like everyone needs to mythologize a mystical transition in which they are moved to discover a higher power of communication. A creative growth spurt. These new Jedi Masters of video talk in terms of framing things beautifully; of capturing the beautiful light; of using the images to tell the story. Yawn...

The presumption that clings to these epiphanal transformations is that everyone who makes the journey has started out as a still photographer and have only just made the jump to video since the days of digital made everything possible in a camera of which one already had possession. The shorthand conceptualization seems to be that the new practitioner has made the jump from one liners to, at least, fully fleshed out essays. And that's where I have a problem. 

I have never really considered myself to be a visual person. My early impulses to pick up a camera were not because I felt something artistic that needed to be examined and shared but because I had a series of beautiful girlfriends whom I needed to photograph as a way of making notes for future story ideas, a cataloging of virtues. It was a way of remembering details that less lazy writers may have accomplished just as well with a stack of notecards. 

When I worked in advertising I wrote advertising copy. Our agency was fairly small, only 25 people or so. That meant that I was pressed into service writing not only magazine and newspaper ads but also television commercial scripts and radio commercial scripts. My early training with motion was in the service of advertising. In those days (and maybe to this day) the writer went along on the production of TV commercials in case a quick script change was needed. Or in case a clarification was required concerning the creative idea.

Writing commercials and then supervising them became a circular learning opportunity. You learned what dialogue rang true and you learned how well, or poorly, your creative ideas translated into visual plays. In the 1980's we felt the need to get stuff just right either in pre-production or during rehearsal for a number of reasons. The primary reason being that 35mm or 16mm film stock,  along with development, cost real money. Every minute of shooting required crew, and investment in spoilable, one time use, resources. We would actually mould and re-mould the stories we were trying to tell as actors read the lines. It was the language that mostly drove the commercials. The concepts bolstered by the words...

Sometime in the last two years I made a somewhat conscious decision to circle back into motion productions. Video. But I have to confess I don't see things in terms of great shots or wonderful transitions or beautiful light. I see faces and emotions and expressions and I free associate about each person's backstory or the story of the character they are playing in the moment. For me it's about the relationships, the nuance of personality and the interplay. Not the beautiful frame or "the story." 

It's both a handicap and a blessing. I think I have to work harder than my peers to cobble together a pleasing frame. In the same way I am constantly trying to learn how to better compose stills when my natural intention is just to center everything up and spend every moment watching the eyes and the expressions of my subjects. I envy (to a limited degree) the people who seem to be able to relegate their subjects to the status of visual elements. But I seem incapable of doing that, just as I am incapable of the invisible mental tactic of composing in thin air for a square or specific crop and then duplicating the same thought during the post production.

I've circled into video and yet I find myself captivated by the experience of the spoken word and the script, and the actors' interpretations of their scripts, to a far greater degree than I am drawn into the look or the costumes, or the styling, or framing up the shot. Lighting to me is an accessory to story telling. It sets the mood and is part of the creation of the mix of expressions and intellectual or emotional intensity that moves a visual play forward. My eye doesn't linger on the great shot. 

 There is one reason I like to shoot video at least as much as I like to shoot still images. That's because the video gives my mind action to follow while a still image allows me to stop, linger and then move on. The video moves through time. The still resides in memory. 

Both skills have their value. The photo makes a direct tattoo on the memory (if it's any good) while the video entertains the mind (and the more basic emotional responses) but the story trumps the imagery. Even if the imagery is beautiful. 

Today I tried to edit a video that had no narration or on camera speech. No words. No sounds. The client will use it at a huge, noisy trade show and the sound was deemed to be un-useful. The client requested that we just cut the whole project as a silent, stand alone piece. A series of interlinked images moving through time; selling a product or a combination of products. I don't know why but the silence paralyzed me and left me a bit bewildered. I grabbed a lively bit of music and put it under the video time line. Once I had a rhythmic beat in place I could figure out the way the video should be cut. I figure I can always throw away the music bed when I deliver the final, approved video. 

But my paralysis made me realize that the brain has to be satisfied over time, in a different way, to create images that move. Being a writer makes video more alluring because it makes use of narrative and the passage of time; same mindset as writing. Being an (admittedly) unstructured artist makes video less alluring because it requires a structure and an attention to detail that I seem to be better suited marshaling in distinct spurts. Like the making of individual photographs. And all at once I feel like I am stuck somewhere on the middle of the continuum. Not in one camp or the other. Not I ever have to make a choice. It's the burden of being enamored of expressions and the promise of back stories in a world that values the perfect construction and lots of sparkle. Darn.


There's nothing wrong with a tripod addiction as long as it serves the work. At least that's my rationalization...


Last week I got rid of four tripods. One got donated to a younger photographer and the other three sacrificed themselves in a trade deal. But that certainly didn't impoverish the inventory at the Visual Science Lab. Don't worry, we still have one set of sticks for nearly every day of the year. And we use them. When we only shot still images life was easy and breezy. Using a big, fat camera and a huge lens? Grab the huge Gitzo with the five pound, dual axis head on it. 

Shooting a pixie camera? Grab one of the smaller tripods with some sort of sexy ball head on the top and get after it. Shooting with an Olympus OMD EM5/2? Just leave the tripod in the cage. (Had to get that in...). But what tripod do you take with you when your lovely clients hires you to shoot some great video (smooth panning, smooth tilting) along with some great stills? What if a fair number of those stills are verticals? It's an important question because nearly every video fluid head on the market works only in the horizontal configuration. Not vertical. 

Two things came up recently in the business. One was a client who wanted to shoot video in a vertical format to present on 50 inch, vertical screens. The second was a shoot the required a mix of still images (including vertical portraits) along with conventional video. I did my research about shooting vertical video and was about to buy an L-bracket when (fortunately) my client changed their mind about the virtues of verticality. But the second shoot continued on in it's bi-directional reality. I brought along two tripods. One with a ball adjustable, conventional video fluid head and one with a conventional, still photography ball head. What a pain in the butt. The mix of verticals and horizontals was throwing a monkey wrench into the whole idea of "hybrid" content creation, or what K5600 Lighting refers to as: "Light once, shoot twice."

Once I had the post production from that shoot out of the way I went out looking for a convertible head solution to the two tripod tragedy. I found one that I think will work well in the form of the Manfrotto MH055M8-Q5 head. It's a fully functional fluid head with very smooth, variable pan drag and lovely tilt controls along with firm one handed locks and even a spring balancing option. There is switch that allows you to go from the video/conventional horizontal setting to a photo setting that lets you move the bullhead in all directions, just like any other bullhead. The cost of the head is around $365 and can be used with a conventional tripod connection (flat platform) or with a ball attachment on a video tripod. The way I bought it is with the flat bottom. I already have a ball rig for a different head that fits just right. But for now I am using it on a big, Berlebach, wooden tripod that has a built-ion leveling ball as part of its design.

I've practiced with the video movements using a Nikon D810 and a 80-200mm f2.8 lens and have found it to be very well behaved over the range of all its controls. A full evaluation takes time but I thought I'd let you know that this is out there in case you are in the same boat and trying to juggle two sets of requirements for camera stabilization on one location shoot. This is one that works well.  So far nothing negative to report. 

The head has three tripod levels and the tripod has one of its own. Talk about 
"level headed." 

The pan arm is removable and can be switched to the opposite side for all of those right handed people out in the world. 

The KPSI (knobs per square inch) on this head is high and should appeal to people who like a wider range of control and the visual appeal of....knobs. 

3.21.2015

Observations on the Olympus EM5-2 during a rainy day at #SXSW in Austin, Texas.



checklist: Read manual. Set function buttons. Go through the menu and customize. Attach battery grip. Attach Panasonic 12-35mm f2.8 X lens. Go downtown and check out the street life at #SXSW.

A light mist was falling when I left my car over near the Treaty Oak just a block from the Whole Foods store at Sixth and Lamar. There was a Ziploc bag stuffed into my back pocket. I figured I'd use it if there was a downpour. The Olympus EM5/2 felt familiar. Hanging by your side it's easy to forget that you're not just towing around one of your older EM-5s. I was wearing a baggy, old sweatshirt and my left arm rested over my camera and lens, keeping them dry; for the most part.

Sixth Street was the place to be in Austin today. There were thousands of people walking up and down the closed off street. I concentrated on evaluating the focusing speed in S-AF along with the accuracy. Yeah. It's perfect. Don't worry about it. An hour into the walk and the light mist turned into a steady rain. Nobody ran for cover. It was 60+ degrees out. Nobody was going to freeze. The EM5/2 didn't stop working.

Pull the EM5/2 up to your eye with your finger already on the shutter button and the camera is ready for action. Let go of the button and then touch it again and you are in focus. Every shot gets pre-chimped so I can't really say that the camera is incredibly accurate or inaccurate when it comes to exposure but I sure didn't feel the need to ride the exposure comp button much. The camera was set to SF Jpeg and that's fine with me on this camera. No big changes needed in post to get where we need to go.

The street today was all about hip-hop. People were passing out CDs and posters. One young person tried to hand me a CD and I demurred. He looked me in the eye and said, "Hey man, take a chance. It's really good stuff. If you don't like it you can just throw it away. Give a listen." That worked for me and I took it gratefully. Played it one the way home and liked it. Getting too far into your comfort rut can rob you of stuff you might never even have known about.

I'd write a bunch of stuff about the camera but it would be boring. The camera just flat out worked exactly as an expensive, mature product should. It nailed focus and exposure and made files that I liked without much effort on my part. And yes, the Image Stabilization is everything Olympus says. It's epic. If you make a lot of money you should buy one of these cameras even if you have one of everything else. Fuck the attitude that you only do full frame or you only do Fuji or whatever. This is all about easy shooting and nailing it every time. Everyone needs at least one camera like that. Right?

Back to Sixth Street. All the bands come from all over the place and they are frantic to be in front someone; anyone. They've got signs and CDs and posters and push cards and all the stuff. They seem like photographers on the web, always so anxious to sell a workshop or an action or something. I guess it's the same in every field.

At one point I did a quick survey of cameras in the crowd. What are the young kids using? What's the egalitarian camera of choice? Yeah. It's a Canon Rebel. Not a Nikon. Not an M4:3 system and definitely not a Fuji. In two hours I saw hundreds of Canon Rebels and Canon 5D-somethings. The next most popular camera represented (not kidding!!!) was Leica digital rangefinders. M9s and M8.2s. Then me and my Olympus. Oh my God it's a Canon Rebel world....

This year there were no photographers hanging around the edges. The participants were also the photographers. Everyone carried. Everyone shot. And guess what? They mostly shot video. No old men with long zooms. Not even me. No guys with fishing vests. No guys with three cameras swinging around their necks. That's over. That's gone.

The crazy people? Not the musicians or the fans or the photographers? No, it was the Texans who came to protest the black helicopter alien crazy communist new world order socialist obama secret plan to take away all of "our" weapons. There was a small contingent of people, rallying around a flag that had an image of an AR-15 assault rifle on it and the legend, "Come and Take it!" emblazoned in white on a field of black. If you are a Glock carrying gun nut you have my sympathy because you might be crazy but don't post any gun-toter drivel on the blog. I guarantee I'll just moderate the crap out of it.

So here are ten boys, girls and grizzled old guys who look like they've been eating their stockpiled MREs for months, wearing the latest fashion rifles, in some cases complete with scopes, in a crowd of thousands in order to prove some insane political point.

I shot a few debates between sane people and the gun people. Then the rain really picked up and I walked the mile and a half back to my car and headed home. Whatever you need to know about how the Olympus OMD em-5/2 shoots normal images on the street is right here in the photographs. Coming up next will be a bunch of stuff about video. If you are a video hater you might want to read something else for a while... we're going to pound on the video here with this camera.

Hey! We re-instituted the full feed. RSS-iness Too many people complained. But I figured out another issue with the feeder readers, I now have no idea how many people actually read the blog on any given day because if they aren't coming to blogger to read it their numbers don't get counted. That makes me think my readership has done a hard plateau. Hope that's not true and I don't know how to work around that so I just give up. Read it here or read it there. Just read it. And remember to post a fricking comment from time to time. That way I'll at least know that there are some warm bodies clicking away at the keyboard. Sorry for all the display ads and links. We'll try to do something about that.... Many more images below....














3.19.2015

Recent Acquisition of Olympus EM-5 type 2 Driven by Desire for More Beautiful Handheld Video. Tests Begin.

A new player in the house.

Hot on the heels of my Nikon D810 review I must let you know that I find it impossible (for me) to be a "one system" guy.  It seems like there is always some feature or some combination of features on a different type of camera that are just the perfect complement to the other camera. 

After much consideration I headed over to Precision Camera yesterday. The trip was slow and plodding as the brain trust that is the city of Austin is doing major construction to one of our two major, north/south highways in conjunction with the arrival of an extra 2 million or so people for the SXSW music festival. Observational evidence would suggest that many of the arrivals for the festival are experiencing driving in cars for the first time in their lives....but that would still make them better drivers than many native Texans.

At any rate, I made it to the optical candy store and traded in a bunch of accumulated studio bric-a-brac and duplications and walked out the door with a brand new, black, OMD EM-5 type 2. I also sprung for the HLD-8 battery grip. I made it back to the Starbucks in my neighborhood and sat down, with a cup of coffee, and started piecing the camera together while reading the manual.

As a veteran camera buyer I knew to bring along a charged battery, one of my favorite straps and a nice lens, as well as an SD card. Having the camera outfitted the way you like it makes configuring it much easier. 

It is immediately obvious that the new version of the EM-5 is better built than it's predecessor. It's nice and tight. The dials make sense and I'll probably use the function buttons if I can figure out where to post the sticky notes reminding me what each one is configured for....

This morning I posted a review that called the Nikon D810 the best all around camera in the world so why in the world did I go out and buy a totally different concept of a camera if that's true? 

Here's the best reason I can give you: The Image Stabilization in the new camera is so good and so useful that I would be shortchanging myself as a videographer NOT to have one of these amazing cameras as a premium tool for handheld video. 

I've shot plenty of test with the original OMD EM-5 to know that the I.S. was useful. Even vital for handheld video work. But the thing that kept me from embracing the last version for production work was the video codec. The quality of the files with movement and low light. It's almost as if the in camera processing of the video files cancelled out the benefits of the I.S.

While the new, type two, codec isn't without fault and detractors it's laps ahead of its predecessor and that makes it more than useful for handheld shots. The addition of a dedicated microphone port and a headphone jack, along with manual control for both of these features provided the final tipping point to purchase. 

I am currently producing a video that calls for clean, handheld movements and I'm getting up to speed as quickly as the Basque language Olympus menus allow. Already I am finding that this little package is like getting a video with its own free SteadiCan attached. 

I will be working on a full review to post near the end of next week. Not just video but anything that stands out about the photographic side of the camera as well. 

I am excited about having the fluidity of this camera at my fingertips for real productions. The next step is to see how well the files from the Nikon D810 cut together with the files from the EM5/2. 

I still can't believe the performance of the I.S. in video. Amazing.



Past Due Reviews. The second in a series. The Nikon D810. Executive Summary? The best all around camera in the world today.

Ben, hard at work in the studio. Fourteen years ago. 

Nikon D810 Camera.

Two days ago I wrote a review about the Nikon D610. It's a really great, full frame camera that provides a higher image quality than most photographers will ever need. The design, overall, is mature, easy to use and familiar to those who grew up with conventional film cameras. At the current, widespread pricing of $1495 it's a camera that many of us working professionally would have paid three or four times that amount if we could have gotten that camera in our hands six or eight years ago. So why in the world would anyone want or need the Nikon D810? I've spent the last few months finding out.

The Sensor: While everyone seems riveted on high ISO performance capabilities in new cameras I personally am thrilled with the low, native ISO of 64 on the D810. At 64 ISO the dynamic range is as wide as it gets. There is a (somewhat) linear relationship between escalating ISO and diminishing dynamic range. While people talk about ISO-less sensor performance they are mostly referring to noise, not dynamic range or color accuracy. There are plenty of Sony sensor infused cameras that do high ISO well (the D610 is one of the absolute best in that regard) but what some of us are looking for is how to achieve the very best image quality you can wring out of a camera. If you want to maximize the impression of quality in your photographs the place to start is at the bottom (native) of the ISO scale.

This is really what the D810 does best. Shooting at lower ISOs has some operational advantages in exterior shooting as well. ISO 64 means when we go outdoors to shoot portraits with flash we can use wider apertures at the maximum sync speed to drop more stuff out of focus. 1/250th at f5.6 if pretty nice. Add a bit of neutral density and you could be shooting that premium optic at it's pricy aperture in full sun. With maximum DR. Nice.

But this ignores the Brontosaurus in the dining room, the sheer resolution. In the past I scoffed at the idea that we needed much more than 16 megapixels in our cameras to do the vast majority of our work. I still feel that way for lots of applications like portraiture and just about anything destined to be used only on the web. But there are shoots that professionals who shoot for corporate clients and advertising agencies are commissioned to do that really do require just as many pixels in the mix as you can reasonably bring to bear. As the economy in the U.S. recovers trade shows are flourishing again. New printer technologies mean that it's more cost effective for more companies to use bigger and bigger posters and wraps in their marketing and the designers who put the work together are constantly looking for more information/ more resolution. We've been asked for samples from our cameras by more agencies in the past four months than we ever did in the past five years. The files from the D810 are appreciated by this audience!

I've also come to appreciate the increased resolution when using the D810 for still life photography. Yesterday I was shooting small computer servers on a white background. If you try to fill the frame with the whole server and you are shooting down at the server in order to shot it in the deep dimension there's no way to cover the entire product with uniformly sharp focus. At f16 and using every idea about distribution of depth of field I could either keep the front panel and the bulk of the server (but not the back end) in focus or the opposite. Yes, if I was working with one product instead of five or six with three views each I might try to do some focus stacking but we have realistic deadlines to meet. Instead I back up instead of trying to fill the frame as we did with lower res cameras. I tried to find the right distance at which I could distribute sharpness over the entire image in one shot.

When I brought the files back into the studio I was able to crop and still have a larger image area than I would have had with a 16-20 megapixel file. The higher resolution also helped when using lens correction tools to correct perspective. The image files start as 14 bit, uncompressed RAWs and even when cropped the sharpness and dynamic range, along with the color accuracy, remains.

When I do this kind of work I am always trying to shoot at ISO 64-100 or 200 (at the max). I am using the camera on a stout tripod and I use the mirror-up along with an electronic release. Used in this fashion I believe I am getting work from this camera that matches the 4x5 view camera systems I used in the days of film.

But....don't think that this camera is a specialized tool that can only be used like a view camera. The camera can be used in exactly the same way as any other high quality DSLR camera. And that includes shooting up to 3200 ISO with little regard for noise. When you use the files in the same way that you would when using a 24 megapixel camera with a better high ISO performance you'll probably find that when used at the same sizes the reduction in the D810 file size reduces noise to pretty much the same levels.

Overall performance: While there is a push in marketing to talk about super high frame rates most of us are happy to shoot at five frames per second for just about anything except sporting events that are over in a flash. Stuff like 10 meter diving, pole vaulting, broad jumping, etc. For my use as a generalist professional photographer with a leaning toward portraits the 5 fps of the camera is just fine and, even with the huge 36 megapixel files, the buffer is quite adequate---even when shooting with raw files.

The D810 uses Nikon's best auto focusing system. It locks on quickly with both AFS and screw-driver motivated lenses (old D series). I don't do a lot of tracking shots but the times I've tried C-AF with moving subjects the camera performed well.  What most of use find is that certain lenses focus quickly and others less quickly, regardless of which camera model is used. But the real benefit (at least to me) is focusing accuracy as opposed to overall speed of focus.

The camera is robust and feels very solid in one's hands. The marketing material implies that the camera is water resistant and I'm happy with that idea but mostly because I think that also makes the camera more resistant to dust as well.

If you've shot with Nikon digital cameras over the years all of the controls and menu items will seem familiar and comfortable. It had been a while since I used Nikon cameras. The last time I was using them was in the heyday of the D700. I reacquainted myself with the system last year via the DX model D7100 and was happy to find how quickly I adapted to the interface. As far as menus go moving from the Olympus system to the Nikon system is like going from some sort of highly encrypted document to reading a Dan Brown novel--- the later being easy to read and highly predictable. (To all the seething Olympus fans: yesterday afternoon I bought an OMD EM-5 type 2 with an HLD grip.....I am correct about the menu but the camera's value far exceeds the menus opacity...).




The Nikon D810 side view.

Image Quality. Whether I shoot in uncompressed 14 bit raw or in medium sized (20 megapixel) fine Jpeg I am happy to report that the camera turns in great performances without caveat. One attribute that surprised me the first few times I used the camera to take portraits was the way it absolutely nailed color on flesh tones. Even in mixed lighting like a recent project that was mostly lit with LED panels but also had bleed light from a cloudy outdoors and some fluorescent light sneaking in around the edges the camera seemed to nail the general color for skin with ease. This is a wonderful thing and cuts a lot of time out of the post processing phase of a job.

Having spent most of last year shooting with a Panasonic GH4 and a bucket full of Olympus EM5's the leap in dynamic range was.....exciting. I noticed this most in two types of shooting. The first "Aha!" moment was in shooting a dress rehearsal of "Peter and the Starcatcher" for Zach Theatre. The camera held highlight detail like my dog holds onto her squeaky toy. And the camera did so while looking deeper into the shadows than I am used to. As a result I spent very little time in post sliding the highlight and recovery sliders as I had done in the past. 

The second shooting situation was shooting portraits in a high sun environment. I was blocking sunlight from my subjects with flags and then adding the light I wanted with a strobe in a softball but I was also shooting at ISO 64 which is the dynamic range sweet spot for the camera.  Instead of blocked up shadow areas in deep shade in the background everything in the image was recoverable. In effect, the camera helps you to be better than you are by acting as an exposure lifeguard via its wide range of exposure latitude. This is also seen in the ability of the files to be recovered gracefully from underexposures and overexposures. 

Assuming you are shooting at the lower ISOs you can recover up to two stops with no worries and up to three stops with a little work from underexposed images. In raw I can easily recover files that are up to a stop overexposed. When I compare this with previous generation cameras like my older Canon 5D mk2 I am pretty amazed.

It's not the fastest shooting camera in terms of frame to frame fps and there are cameras that can beat the D810 in terms of lower noise at high ISOs but in every other regard, including focusing speed and accuracy, color accuracy, dynamic range, usable resolution and general handling I stand by my executive summary and happily call this camera the best in the world (for the price).  From an image quality point of view I am completely satisfied and have warm and fuzzy new feelings about being able to offer my clients the best quality work I have ever created. Ever. 

But these days I want even more out of my cameras------ I want them to be good video shooters as well.

Video Performance. Before I dropped $3,000 on this camera I spent a lot of time looking all over the web for information and samples of this camera's video performance. Nikon is pushing hard on the video capabilities of this camera and its lower resolution counterpart, the D750. I wanted to be able to press this camera into service in both disciplines. That meant, at a minimum, that the camera had to give me manual control over sound levels, exposure and focus, had to have both a headphone and microphone inputs, needed to have a clean HDMI output and be usable with an Atomos digital video recorder, and most important, had to have sharp, detailed and clean video files. 

What gave me pause was the lower bit rate of the camera's native codec. The "in camera" files are 24 and 42 mbs in 30p and 60p, respectively. No most meat on the files than what I had in the Sony a99 over even the Olympus OMD cameras. But "the proof of the pudding is in the eating" and I went looking for samples. What I saw was good. Not as detailed and wickedly sharp as the high mbs bit rate files of the GH4 (but what is?) but better than the Olympus, Sony and previous generations of Nikons. From every set of samples I could find the D810 was demonstrably better than the video coming out of Canon's (un-hacked) 5Dk3 as well. 

Once I acquired the camera I pressed it into commercial use by doing two video projects--- end to end --- with the camera. One was a controlled interior project which required exposing at ISO 1250 and the other was a series of location interviews with minimal added light. The interior project showed me that the camera could create usable, good video at lower light levels. It also showed me that I need lots of practice panning and maybe an investment in a better fluid head... One thing that I'm starting to understand are the strengths and weaknesses of 1080p video. Wide, highly detailed scenes never look great with video that's just 2,000 x 1.000 pixel because ===== wait for it==== there just aren't enough pixels to make everything convincingly detailed. Doesn't matter which camera. You just aren't going to make great, detailed landscape videos with a camera and format that's limited to this pixel count. 

The strength of 1080p video is that it looks great in close ups. It's great for interviews with big talking heads. It's great for tight telephoto shots. And it's convincing when you let the backgrounds fall out of focus. Then your eyes don't go looking for detail they're never going to find. 

So the giant wide shots we did on the interior job worked as well as 1080p video was ever going to work and the low noise at this mid-ISO setting was very acceptable. Where the camera did shine though was in its FLAT profile. The new profile isn't dramatic like an S-Log profile but it provides a nice, flat, lower saturation file that sharpens well in post and can be graded with more saturation and contrast and look really good. I leaned on that in this project.

The other project was series of interviews on uncontrollable locations all over the place. But, being interviews in my style meant that the frames were comped like portraits. Nice and tight but not too tight. These looked uniformly beautiful with lots of detail and no artifacts whatsoever. This camera is eminently usable for interview work and close up work. And if you have enough light to head up to 60p the files are drop dead sharp. 

Some downsides. The on camera microphone preamps seem noisy. Not weird noise but mostly just high frequency hiss. They also require a lot of gain if you use balanced microphones straight in. I was working with a Rode NTG-2 that was good on the GH4 but needed way too much amplification on the Nikon. Part of the problem might have been an impedance mismatch so I used a passive BeachTek DX2A as a mixer and impedance transformer between the NTG-2 and the camera inputs and that helped a lot. But even better was sticking a digital audio recorder, like a Zoom H-5, in the middle and using the output of the digital recorder to drive the microphone inputs on the camera. In that configuration the camera audio was much better. Very usable. This adds a layer of complexity that's not always wanted but good sound can be so vital in most instances it is worth it. 

The most glaring downside in video on the D810 is that the camera does not feature focus peaking on the rear screen. When working in video, up close with long lenses, in conjunction with a full frame sensor, focusing accuracy is critical and, while photographing subjects in motion an aid like focus peaking can be critical. I very much hope that this is something that camera be added in firmware. 

The camera is also a bit of a battery hog in video. You'll get about 40 minutes of shoot time out of each battery. It almost makes sense, if you are a heavy video user, to get the battery grip that allows the use of the D4s battery inside. That should give you hours of shooting without issues. Except that there is one last issue: 

The camera only shoots 20 minutes files at it's highest quality settings. The camera doesn't over heat (in my winter time experiences) but it does count down to zero and stop every twenty minutes of shooting. I used to shrug this off because most narrative work never calls for long takes but as luck would have it I did a 2 hour interview a few weeks ago and that had me watching the elapsed time on the camera like a hawk. When we we're in the last thirty seconds I'd try to time the shut down and restart of the camera with someone's cough or long pause. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes we lost a few seconds. Something to consider. 

Nothing against the D810 but I will say that there are times when other formats are better overall for shooting video or even fast action in still images. A much smaller sensor gives you more depth of field which means less drama and trauma over focus issues when going for the close ups. Or shooting stills "on the wing." I am also spoiled by Olympus's incredible image stabilization, both in video and still photography. But these aren't issues specific to the Nikon D810. 

Overall assessment: This is a wonderful camera. As a portrait photographer the only way I think this camera could be improved with current technology would be to shoot squares easily (yes, I know, you are mentally magical and can crop in your mind and apply later---but that's not the way everyone else's brains work...). The files are great and the handling, as a still camera could only be improved in one way---the removal of the optical finder and its replacement with a nice EVF. A really nice EVF. The EVF would make the addition of focus peaking a no brainer and would make it a perfect tool for shooting with many of the older cinema and Ais optics we really like to use. What a perfect complement that would be to my old Nikon 105mm f2.5 manual focus lens....

As a video camera it's pretty good but would benefit from a more robust codec. But there is always a trade-off. More mbs means much more file size. Which means much greater storage issues. I have seen really, really good quality 4:2:2 color from uncompressed files written to ProRes on an outboard recorder and am confident that the Nikon can do amazing video with these add-ons. If the client has the budget it's a somewhat logical thing. But in reality if the client has the budget to spool terabytes of uncompressed files it would make more sense to rent a dedicated video camera like the Arri Alexa or a Sony F65 or F55 and just get all the bells and whistles in one robust package. 

In a way I think Nikon is making a good compromise for the kind of video use this camera is going to see. That use is from photographers who also make video and do so for businesses and corporate clients aiming at showing their marketing videos on the web and in other non-broadcast venues. Like everything else it's production that exists in tiers based on the wants, needs and budgets of the project. 
By my nature I will pretty much always aim to use very small crews for video projects. I want to run camera and direct. The second person I would always hire (unless I was shooting solo) would be a sound person to wrangle microphones and move audio from mixers to camera inputs. After a sound person would be a second shooter for cutaway angles. That's about it. 

It's smaller, less complicated productions like these at which Nikon seems to be aiming their new generation of video enhanced cameras. Will this marketing niche work for them? Maybe. But if I were their product marketers I would be demanding that engineering give me cleaner audio and focus peaking so I would have some assurance of total parity with other products in the price range. For now the GH4 still trumps the Nikons in video for everything except the ability to limit depth of field. 

But all this video mumbo jumbo aside this is a still camera whose image files everyone will love. The only advantage to other formats is the size and weight. For commercial work this one hits the sweetest of the sweet spots. 

3.17.2015

Thoughts that occurred to me as I was loading up the car. Which stuff to take?

The Blanton Museum.

My friend, Chris, came over yesterday to borrow a microphone for a video he's making with a fashion designer. But you never just need one part and by the time Chris was out the door he was struggling with armfuls of gear. You need this to do that.

It all started innocently enough. He wanted to borrow a shotgun mic. But then we discussed who was going to run sound and it turns out he's going to go solo on the project. All of a sudden the subject of "where to put the microphone???" comes up. We both know better than to just stick it on a camera but if there's no one there to hold onto a pole what do you do? Well it just so happens that I have a microphone boom holder. It's a small device that lets you balance the pole on a light stand. But to use the holder you need a grip head. So I reached into a bag and grabbed a grip head. But the stands Chris has are kinda flimsy (am I a stand snob?) and we quickly decided he might need a medium sized C-stand to hold the grip head, the adapter, the fully extended microphone boom and the microphone. So we added that to the pile. Good to go, right?

Well, we might as well add a sandbag to the stack for safety. And as we were getting ready to haul this stuff to his car we started talking about the idea of using a lavaliere microphone in addition to the shotgun so Chris asked if I had a wireless lav set up. Well, I did and I didn't need it myself this week so we added that to the stack. At that point I remembered to ask Chris if he had XLR cables for the shotgun. No? We scrounged up a twenty footer and a back up. 

By this time a soft rain had started to fall. Little drops clung to the panes of glass on the studio door and that brought up the next line of inquiry. Chris had hoped to shoot outside in some sort of bucolic oasis but the rain might make him change plans. Nobody really wants to drag their Sony F55 video camera out in the rain and I'm not that thrilled about my mics getting soaked either. So we started talking about lighting. In short order we decided that Chris might want to use a small set of hot lights because the rooms he would be shooting in now weren't that big and, for the most part, the light in them is pretty controllable. We scrounged around and found three Lowell Tota-Lights with  500 watt bulbs in them and we added them to the stack. Almost done....

But this necessitated some sort of light modifiers because no one really wants to use a Lowell Tungsten light bare and head on. We decided on Westscott Fast Flags so I loaded my friend up with three frames and a bag full of diffusers. But the frames need to go on some sort of support so that meant at least a few more C-Stands and every C-Stand needed a grip head. And a sandbag.

We could have gone in a different direction but the fluorescent fixtures are heavier and bulkier and I had the LEDs marked for my use today. 

We loaded everything in Chris's Honda and off he went to create. "If you give a mouse a cookie..."
"He's going to want a glass of milk."

I guess my point is that there's always a way to do stuff on the cheap or without the right gear but when you really start thinking through a project you come to understand just how many interdependent pieces there can be. And in my opinion it's always better to cover yourself for probable changes with rational contingencies rather than to court disappointment. Especially if that disappointment is on the face of your client....

3.15.2015

Past Due Reviews. The first in a series. The Nikon D610. Executive Summary. At $1295 it's a cheap and wonderful entry to full frame photography.

#Austin  #SXSW Downtown.

 I'm writing a review here on the Nikon D610 camera. I'm writing it not because I think you should run out and buy one or because it happens to be the best in any one category (it's not) but because it's an affable camera, I enjoy shooting it and, so far, it's been generating images that look really good to me. It's already been superseded by the D750 camera which is largely the same but in some ways "better." But it remains in the Nikon product line up and the price of the camera seems to have stabilized around $1495 which I think is a good value for the quality of the sensor and the particular feel of the camera. 

I shoot with several different cameras and I have reasons for every choice. I have a Nikon D810 when I am after perfect images with unassailable resolution and dynamic range. Lately I've been shooting the Olympus EM-5 camera more often since I discovered both how much I like the black and white setting (with the green filtration) and how nice video can look in black and white when you use the image stabilization offered by that camera in the video mode. But these days I grab the D610 as my personal shooting camera for portraits and street shooting. More and more I've come to value a camera that's a nice balance rather than a tool with which to pursue "perfection." 

Let's jump into the D610 and see why I enjoy using one. 

3.12.2015

Old School Communications. All the work and none of the fun.

The radio telephone the secret service carried on the Johnson Ranch.
Where's the screen for reading e-mail?

I am now officially booked through the end of March. It's nice thing because it represents a bit of financial security but it does play havoc with the swim schedule. I will adjust. The thing that makes being booked up different for me this year is that so much of the current (and near future) work is video or a mix of photography and video. It seems obvious that corporations are profoundly changing the way they communicate with customers. 

You can see it in the new wave of websites. The ones from the tech community don't open with a banner photograph across the top of the front page anymore, they open with a video banner instead. The video banner is nearly always a lifestyle/brand presentation of the client. One company has a video of good looking professional people walking toward the camera in a light, airy and modern airport setting. They sell software that improves customer experiences and one of their big clients is the airline industry. The video is a quick, active encapsulation of what they promise: A quick and convenient airline experience; one made better by the company's phone centric software product. At least that's the premise and the promise.

Even my theater client which we've supplied photographs to for 24 years has lately discovered the power of video content to move shows into profitability and engage their base in more active conversations around certain plays. While I'm making conventional images for the marketing of the new LBJ drama, All the Way, I recently spent three days making a combination of reportorial style still images, video interviews, video programming on locations and audio interviews. They're building a strong YouTube channel and also inserting video, wherever possible, in social media. As channels of content distribution get more splintered it seems that having more tools is always better. It's rare now, for me, to get jobs that don't have some sort of online video component (whether the client chooses to have me produce it or not...). Video is a self-contained way to present a complete story across any number of devices. From old school televisions to phones.

I met this morning with a technology client who has commissioned me to do a new video for them for an upcoming trade show. Their booth will have a number of 50 inch monitors and the video needs to do three things: 1. Tell a shorthand version of the company's story. 2. Present an overview of their products and the benefits to customers. 3. Represent the company's partners. The video needs to come in under three minutes (harder to do than a longer program) and it needs to work well with, and without audio. To do the video we need some good still images of the products in prototype. We might also need a few more images that we can pan over of their existing products. We have good, existing video of the processes and the look of the headquarters.  We'll need copywriting and some motion graphics and a big dose of editing.

The videos will run over and over again across all the 50 inch monitors on a trade show booth. The monitors are the logical replacement for large, static trade show graphics in that the video is constantly moving, can handle multiple messages in one space and captures the audience's attention for a longer period of time that a still image would. The days of handing out a brochure and a business card under a gatorfoam mounted company logo sign are quickly coming to a close....