Saturday afternoon walk with an ancient (but interesting) lens on an Olympus EM5.2. Walking through downtown Austin, Texas

Is this bokeh or is the background just out of focus?

There's something about older lenses that I find appealing. I could describe various attributes but it would sound like I'm criticizing the lens instead of explaining why I actually like it. I have a very old Olympus Pen FT lens that's a 150mm f4.0. It was made either in the late 1960's or early 1970's. It was originally made for Olympus's line of half frame Pen cameras with their zany vertical format and the generous 72 exposures on a roll of normal 36 exposure film. But to my great joy all of these lenses will fit on (with an adapter) and cover the frame of the current micro four thirds cameras. 

While I go back and forth about lens sharpness and contrast there was something very different about lenses back in the days when black and white was the dominant film stock for a lot of pros and even more amateurs. I could conjecture that the lenses were made to be a bit less contrasty in order to capture more tonal range with the idea that you could compress the range to your liking in the development of the film and if not there then in the selection of your printing paper. The Pen lenses have a softer character to them but the detail is hidden within and can be coaxed out with a bit of post processing. 

I hadn't done a fun walk for a while so I grabbed this old lens and put it on the front of one of the EM5.2s languishing around the studio. I needed to drop by Zach Theatre and take five minutes of video for an upcoming event so I brought the second body with a modern, 12-35mm f2.8 lens for that purpose. The shoot was unguided by third parties and as a result was over in a flash...

Zach Theatre sits right on the south shore of the lake that runs through downtown so when I finished my job I walked across the street, over the bridge and into downtown proper. The modern lens went back into my bag and I pulled out the long, skinny optic from yesteryear. The EM5.2 is the best camera I've ever shot with when it comes to using manual focus lenses that have no electronic communication with the bodies whatsoever. The combination of image stabilization (yes, I manually set the focal length for 150mm....) and well designed focus peaking makes getting good images with longer, wackier lenses a breeze. 

Every image in this post was done with that camera and lens combination. The camera was set to aperture priority and ISO 200. Every once in a while I'd nudge the exposure compensation dial but the camera meter mostly agreed with me. 

Is this glorious bokeh or ---- is the background just out of focus? (intentionally).

With focus peaking engaged hitting sharp focus is quick and accurate. When you use focus peaking the peaking outlines show against a slightly darkened frame as you are focusing but the minute you touch the shutter button the screen goes back to normal brightness and the peaking indicators disappear. The only thing that could be better would be if I.S. remained on even without having to touch the button. A 150mm lens on the smaller format means a lot of magnification and that means a lot of bouncing around of the finder image as you focus. Not a big deal and I got used to it quickly. 

I think the lens is too soft to use wide open for general photography. It might be a really nice effect for backlit portraits or romantic shots but the lens sharpens up a bit at f5.6 and that's where I chose to park the aperture of the duration of my shooting extravaganza. I think it's just right. Not too much depth of field and just enough sharpness to make my brain believe that we're doing stuff just right. 

I'm not at all used to shooting with such a long lens. The dogs just above were shot from across three lanes of traffic! That means I had to scan much further ahead as I walked down the street looking for interesting things to photograph. 

There is a pedestrian bridge that spans the lake that runs thru downtown. On the way back to south Austin I crossed the bridge and found not one but two wedding parties who were celebrating and being photographed on the bridge. I stopped to watch the two photographers and two videographers tackle the bigger of the two wedding parties. I presumed that the group of people in tuxedos and magenta dresses had come from a hotel ballroom or other venue and were just getting the group images done. I conjecture that because there wasn't any family around, just the wedding party. 

The second wedding party was a smaller group and it appeared that I'd stumbled into their section of the bridge just as they were exchanging vows. The longer focal length gave me a discreet amount of distance in which to shoot.  I loved being out of their attention. The image below is so much more fun because of the compression that I think it would have been had I been closer with a wider lens. Funny how my brain starts looking for scenes that match the focal length on the camera....

Sometimes the things I love about certain photographs are really just fragments of the photograph. For example, in the image just above I love the out of focus bicyclist in the foreground. It's just so out of place and unintentional.

Wedding documentation crew. "We don't need no stinkin' suits or ties!!!"

From one bridge to another one hundreds of yards away.

At the moment I was shooting for the expression on the face of the girl in the middle of the frame but in retrospect what I really like is the look of all those glasses on the table, nicely but subtly backlit. 

A nice urban scene just waiting for something interesting to be dropped in...

There is one thing that I found to be very, very nice in both the original EM5 and the EM5.2 and that's the monotone setting in the camera. I use it a lot and usually I choose the green filter setting when I am shooting outdoors. It seems to render tonal values correctly. As of this moment these cameras are my choice (over the Nikons) for black and whites that start their lives as Jpegs. 


Work Note: The printed annual report is not dead. We are starting an annual report project in the middle of this coming week. Numerous locations in Texas and lots of expansive landscape style photos. There will be a mix of people shots but the wide, graphic shots dominate this one. 
I can hardly wait to drive around, maybe there will be BBQ. 


Interesting video re: street cinematography. What do you think?

MOMENTS // NEW YORK CITY from Tim Sessler on Vimeo.
This is a collaborative cinematography film by Tim Sessler and Cameron Michael, using the FREEFLY MIMIC.

Shot over the course of 3 days on the RED Epic Dragon with a 50mm KOWA Prominar and stabilized with the MōVI M15.

Check out our blog post to read more about our process and the Freefly Mimic: http://www.brooklynaerials.com/blog


Production: Brooklyn Aerials / http://brooklynaerials.com/

Cinematography and Edit: Cameron Michael / https://vimeo.com/cameronmichael and Tim Sessler / http://timsessler.com

Music: Michael Marantz / http://michaelmarantz.com/

Assistant Camera: Drew English / http://drewenglish.com and Joe Victorine / http://joevictorine.com/

Behind The Scenes: Ryan Emanuel, Drew English


Special thanks goes out to NYC for being such an awesome and inspirational city and to all the people featured in this video!

Also huge thanks to Already Alive, Michael Marantz, TCS Rentals, Zak Mulligan, Sean Donnelly, Michael Burke and Ryan Emanuel for supporting us with gear - without you guys this wouldn't have been possible.

This is very interesting to me... Kirk


The closer you get that big softbox the faster the shadows fall to black.... But what do we do next?

I think a lot of us in the profession are facing a quandary. The whole market is changing again and it seems that commercial photographers, as a group, are good at getting left behind. It's not that the need for talented lighting, good composition and effortless rapport has diminished but that the target market for the goods has shifted. And audiences have different expectations...

We lost a big segment of working stiffs who couldn't make the transition from traditional film work to digital. We saw a similar shift when the whole advertising market transitioned from print to web based advertising as the premium part of the overall ad buy. Now I'm watching people dig in their heels and resist the transition from doing all stills to embracing video+stills and I'm pretty sure the same thing will happen. Those who don't expand their knowledge and craft will exit the market and not on their own volition. But it goes beyond just mastering the gear, there's is a necessary shift in the thought processes that goes along with the shift to new offerings aimed at new audiences.

Photographers traditionally thought of video (motion?) and still photography as two mostly unrelated disciplines. Each requiring divergent skill sets. We could point to the dominance of stills in web advertising for the first decade of this century instead of video but the reality is that the slow adaptation of massive video story telling among brands was slowed down by technology. Bandwidth used to be expensive and limited. Consumers' connections were too slow to handle higher quality video in quantity but now that's all changed and sites like Facebook are seeing massive and accelerating uploads of video. It's growing much faster than stills in the same online environments.

At the same time clients are cognizant that they can now create and show high quality video programming right on their websites which can tell the story of their businesses, make sales insinuations, demonstrate their products and powerfully engage two senses (sight and sound) instead of just one. The final step was to make video truly portable across mobile devices. And that's done.

The big disconnection for traditionalists is that they want to overlay their past aesthetics on new or different technologies because they misunderstand that the targets and the ways of telling stories have also changed. Every day I meet videographers and photographers who profess to be engaged in learning how to create the highest possible production value in their new field. They covet the best cameras, the best lights, all the bling that they see attached to Hollywood production cameras along with a rack full of cylindrical Power Macs to buzz it all along. It's an expensive way to go and while it's great for making features with rich budgets it may be antithetical to the way their growing markets absorb information and marketing stories.

In previous generations getting the quality right was a big hurdle. The tools were difficult to learn and there were intertwined processes that had to be carefully handled. It's not that way now. Getting decent images and video is getting easier every new product cycle.

While I fight the same preferences all the time I try to be open to the idea that soaring opening sequences and establishing introductions in most video/TV programming are anathema to a generation truly raised in the digital age. They seem to resist the embellishment that was a style of TV shows and movies aimed at previous generations and want to go straight to the information. I might want to "follow the rules" but not if they rules only create projects that appeal to a market of viewers over 50 years old and actually cause cognitive dissonance in the rest of our markets.

What am I talking about? Newcomers to any field are always obsessed by the idea of technical mastery. Gentle, smooth slider shots, endless dynamic range, perfect color grading, soaring camera movements and almost robotically predictable editing. But showing off their chops with displays of mastery can get in the way of the immediacy of a program. And it's all just a copy of traditional movie making that has a different sort of relevance for us than creative video materials that are viewed on laptops, pads and phones.

I am not immune to the kneejerk and reflexive idea of mastering the technical at the expense of relevance. I recently wrote about the image quality of files I was getting from the Olympus EM5.2 in a less than flattering way and it's true that by the traditional metrics of high end video that a comparison of the output from the EM5.2 is less "perfect" than the output from a GH4 or even a Nikon D810. My last century, linear process brain immediately wanted to grade the cameras, almost numerically, from best to worst with the idea that a real pro would only use the best. 

But the reality is that the EM5.2 might be the "best" of all the cameras I own if you use it for hand held video which is much more in keeping with current cultural trends in video. You might also label it best if you constantly need a combination of stills and video and all of it needs to be handheld.

I started thinking about this as I was looking around the web at blogs and sites that are all about "new video." By new video I mean all the people who came to video via cameras like the Canon 5D2 and the Panasonic GH2 and have discovered more and better equipment and have moved on to things like the Sony A7s, the Sony FS-7 and the various Black Magic cameras and other machines that shoot big, uncompressed and even raw files. What I saw everywhere were long, lingering shots that showed off some aspect of the camera or the technique. Here's a long slider shot that shows off the dynamic range of the camera. Here's a long shot that shows how well the camera handles unlit street scenes in the middle of a moonless night. Here's shot that shows amazingly lush color and another shot that's so desaturated that you can only discern a whiff of color.  Here's a shot from 4K that's so sharp you can visually dive into a model's pores.

But here's the deal: None of these many, many sites have created interesting and compelling programming that is engaging and glues your eyes and ears to the screen. They are just collages of techniques meant to tout the superiority of the gear and the superiority of the taste of the acquirer of that gear. Lots of pretty pictures unrelated to a story and accompanied by this generation's version of New Age music with tinkly minor key pianos intermixed with electronic fluff.

But if you head over to YouTube or Vimeo it's possible to see fun stuff. Stuff with a message, a purpose a storyline and a big dose of humor. Even the sites that basically sell cameras like DigitalRevTV or the theCameraStoreTV are all about the basic narrative. "Why are we here today? Oh yes, to talk about this camera and how well it works!" But instead of standing still and lecturing to you they move and interact and intercut still examples and use humor and a fluid and comfortable casualness to get across their information to you.

The best storytelling I've seen lately (as far as video on the web goes) has been stuff from younger people using the most basic tools. I work with several schools and I meet kids who pick up iPads and make incredible stuff with them because the obsession with the knobs and specs of the gear never gets in the way of the project. If it looks good on the screen it's good. If the story works and the premise works it's good. When a piece is fun or sad or interesting no one ever stops to ask, "Hey! How many stops of dynamic range did that shot have???" Or, "Did you shoot that in raw?"

I'm not saying that good technique in and of itself is a bad thing. But when it becomes the sole determiner of quality in a medium that's about following a thought or an idea then it becomes the biggest roadblock you can imagine.

Photographers aren't the only ones who will have to change their perspectives to keep their audiences interested in their work. A whole generation of videographers seems to worship mastery as well. I think it's time to roll out the workshops in which each person is given a Fischer Price My First Video Camera and is shown how to use its most basic capabilities to make real visual tales that are something beyond codec obsession.

My idea of current visual education? Sit down and watch the 20 most popular videos on YouTube and see what the common thread is. It won't be production quality. It won't be about precision technique. I bet you'll find that the messages are powerful (or hilarious) and presented in an unadorned and straightforward way.

If I had to predict the future I'd say that companies will want more and shorter video programming. That everyday media consumers will want 15 minute shows and 30 minute movies. That personality and acting ability will trump getting all the gizmos set just right. That next year one of the Academy Award nominations will be a movie made on an iPad or Surface Tablet.

But it's the same thing in the photo world. There are guys who can tell you the blend of metals in the alloy that makes up the sub frames of their cameras but even though they have infinite pixels at their disposal and understand technique forward and backward they are ill prepared for making wonderful images because they don't understand the new culture in which they exist. Their vision is about perfection and not about emotional engagement. Or pure design. Or gesture. Just about getting it "right."

I'm afraid that the secret of success in the visual arts as it relates to video and still photography is to understand the power of both. When to use them, not just how to use them. But the most important thing of all is the need to create images that are really, truly interesting to the audiences. Story, story, story. Style, style, style. Gear? Not so much...


My Weekly Cultural Treasure Hunt Begins After Lunch on Thursday Afternoons at the Blanton Museum. Drop by.

Blanton Museum. Right on the edge of the University of Texas at Austin. A wonderful place to be on a Thursday afternoon. The admission fee is just right; free. It's never too crowded in the middle of the afternoon, and there's always something fun to see. It's nice just to hang out in a place where the whole point of its existence is to... value art. 

The big new show on the first floor is an exhibit that shows arts from the 1960's that reflects the civil rights movement. Lots of painting and photographs, some sculpture. One image I loved was a gorgeous Richard Avedon image, beautifully printed. of Julian Bond surrounded by young people in Mississippi. He's the only one in focus in the entire crowd. It's beautifully seen and the print is sublime. I stood transfixed in front of it for a long time. There's great photographs from Gordon Parks and there's an image I'd never seen before from Danny Lyons of a very young Bob Dylan. The show is powerful and, in the Austin community, a bit topical since the play, "All the Way" at Zach Theatre also revolves around President Johnson and the Civil Rights movement. Good stuff. 

I wandered through that gallery twice because I was pretty sure I'd seen all of the work in the upstairs gallery but I'd already paid for parking so I thought I'd hit the stairs and just make sure I wasn't missing anything. Thank God I'm not terminally lazy otherwise I would have missed a wonderful, quirky and interesting show of Ralph Eugene Meatyard's photographs. Wonderful, whimsical and somewhat surreal black and white prints that were so much fun to browse through. Meatyard's work is so not of this century in that he didn't need to print enormous prints to communicate and translate his vision. Most of the images were no larger than 8x8 inches but the tonalities and the content made for some rich visual consumption. I'll probably head back there to take another look at the show this week as well. If you don't live in Austin take a second to look up Meatyard's work here: http://www.mocp.org/detail.php?t=people&type=related&kv=7440

The rest of the time I just spent looking at old favorites and occasionally turning on the little black EM5.2 I had nestled in my hands along with a very quirky and imperfect lens---which I now really like, mostly because of its imperfections but also because of its conflicting high sharpness and low contrast. It's a lens I barely ever use. It's the 25mm f2.8 Olympus Pen FT lens. One of those enigmatic lenses that was designed and produced in the late 1960's and early 1970's for the company's half frame cameras. It was an age of lens design that combined optical intuition and computer aided design but it was mostly successful because of the rigorous, almost custom production and testing of better lenses at the time...

This lens has its faults. On the m4:3 sensors the outer third of the image gets pretty soft pretty quickly, especially when used wide open. It sharpens up okay at f5.6 to f8.0 but that's probably where the sharpness robbing effects of diffraction start to take their inevitable toll. It also has a fair amount of what appears to be barrel distortion even in the very center. That doesn't really change much as I stop down. 

Why do I like the lens? Maybe because it has a look that reminds me of my earlier days in photography. It combines a high central sharpness with a lower contrast. But it's almost like the modern thought process of video codecs; flatten everything out to capture more steps and more tones and then fix stuff in PhotoShop. You can't fix everything but the files from the EM5.2 sharpen up nicely and you can add back in a lot of saturation and contrast before things start to look --- unreal. 

I like shooting this lens (and many of the other Pen lenses) because the manual focus ring is silky smooth, the lens feels dense and precise and, when combined with focus peaking, it's fast to use and the focus stays "locked" where you leave it. I'm excited to see how this one works with black and white.

I've got to remind you not to take your art museums for granted. If they don't get used they might disappear just like cameras stores did and then we'd have to get all of our art culture on the web and that's not the same as seeing eight foot by ten foot paintings with bouncy impasto up close and in person. The reproductions of Avedon and Lyonn's and Park's photos on the web are never as rich and detailed as they are when you experience the real thing and the there's so much chatter on the web you'll get distracted and start drifting off to look at the celebrity news or the weather reports instead of soaking in the ideas of people who dedicated a lot of time and effort to show us new stuff in new ways. Use them or lose them!

The 25mm f2.8 Pen lens is looking pretty good in the shot of the colored pencils.
It's pretty much on par with my more modern lenses. And the quality of the 
out-of-focus-area-rendering is smooth and organic.

Ditto for the black pencils. 

you can really see the wonky distortion in the frame above but....

this image ^ shows the most egregious distortion but I like the sharpness and the 
way the camera is handling the noise at ISO 1600.

My feeling is that lenses like this one (and many of the early Leica lenses) were never made for flat targets or for accurate geometric rendering but to capture people in photographs where it was fine for the edges to go A.W.O.L.

There's more to photography than "sharp and straight."

Support your local museum and go to the local galleries. You'll nearly always find
something fun or surprising. And it's better than TV. 
Even "Breaking Bad" or "House of Cards."

Are there limits to the amount of sausage one should eat in one sitting? If so, are those limits clearly defined? Image from my last, large format, editorial assignment. Not that long ago...

Set up image at a BBQ restaurant in Elgin, Texas.

About ten years ago I got the assignment to do a profile on the city of Elgin, Texas by Texas Highways Magazine. I was fascinated at the time with 4x5 inch, large format photography and asked the art director if it would be okay (and within the budget) to shoot the project on 4x5" inch transparency film. He thought it would be a great idea. 

I headed to Elgin three or four times to get everything I wanted for the article. I was carrying a Linhof TechniKarden folding technical view camera with Zeiss and Schneider lenses. Because of color considerations and the slow, slow speed of the film we mostly worked with then I did a lot of lighting in interior locations. This image was lit with strobe, modified with a big softball, from the right of the camera. 

Shooting with the view camera was a much, much slower way to work. I averaged six or seven different scenes or set-ups per day. Most set-ups got eight to twelve shots, four to six were variations while the other four to six were in camera duplicates for safety. You know, in case the lab ruined one...

I look back fondly at that assignment. The images were fun and they were always a challenge to make. Nothing really beats making a photographer feel the work like diving under a black dark cloth to check focus and composition when one is standing in direct sun and the temperature is hovering around 105 degrees. 

Two coolers in the car: one for my drinking water and the other for the film. Good times. 

And yes, it is true. You really don't want to know how they make that sausage...

That's right. 4x5 inch reportage. Upside down and backwards.

Random news. Industry stuff. One little review.

We're celebrating our 30th Wedding Anniversary today. 
Of course, I give Belinda all the credit for our success.

I have some quick and easy advice for any of our younger readers who may be contemplating matrimony. This is advice that has worked very well for me...   Always marry someone who is smarter than you. You'll never regret it!  Now, on to photography and video. 

A real world hybrid story: This past Saturday I was shooting with two cameras that would easily fall into the hybrid category; the Nikon D810 and the Olympus EM5.2. I used them both, simultaneously, to record an interview with the very famous, original "DreamGirl", Jennifer Holliday. 
We set up a wonderful lighting design for the video interview and once the interviews were complete used the same lighting and cameras to make a series of photographs. (currently embargoed but coming soon...).  The ability to either grab the Olympus from its tripod, go to photo mode and enable I.S. then shoot, or to stand behind the big tripod and switch the Nikon into its photo mode and shoot, without making any changes to the lighting, pose or comp was very powerful. 

With custom white balances in place on both cameras the footage and the photographs are able to be used in one project; intercut in video or side by side in print and on the web, without calling attention to the different cameras or formats. In the space of five minutes we had 75 very good, still "keeper" to send to the client. And because of the difference in the cameras and the way they were handled there are different looks to the frames. One set more formal and the other set looser and more candid.

When you consider that in times past we would have done the still work and then packed up and walked away to allow the video crew their time with the talent you just have to be enthused about being able to switch back and forth in seconds. 

Even after the talent was through being interviewed and through posing for me I still kept the smaller camera in my hand with a microphone in the hot shoe for more shooting opportunities. The camera didn't go back in the bag until the talent left the building.

NAB Show announcements I'm waiting for: There are rumors that Panasonic has something big up their sleeves that will be announced at the NAB show (National Association of Broadcasters) that's happening this week. Here's what I'm waiting for:  Rumors suggest that Panasonic will be rolling out a disruptive new camera. I'm thinking it's a new model of the GH4 that will feature raw output to an external digital recorder but some people are thinking it's a new, interchangeable 4K video camera that will better the video performance of the GH4 and provide more usable interfaces for video work (XLR inputs, true S-Log, etc.) and still be under $5,000. A shot across the bow of the Sony FS-7.

I'm really hoping that Sony will show a revised RX10 that keeps all the good stuff (the lens, focus peaking, etc.) while adding in camera 4K video. If it does come out and it does hit the same initial price point as the original RX10 I'd stand in line like an Apple Fanboy to get my hands on one. 

It probably won't happen at this show but I would love to see Nikon wade in and rock the video boat by challenging Canon in the C100 space with a dedicated video camera that takes the Nikon lenses and incorporates their color science. But I think we'll really have to wait until they bring out a conventional DSLR with 4K before they move on toward a dedicated video version.

Taking the pulse of my friends who shoot with Canon: I have a close friend who is pragmatic and smarter than me by a long shot, especially when it comes to high end architectural photography. We've talked many times about his wish that he could easily put his four Canon tilt shift lenses on a Nikon D810 but he remains a Canon 5D mk3 shooter. For him the glass is more important than the sensor. When he really wants to pull out all the stops and needs more dynamic range he opens up the Pelican case and drags out the Leica S2 medium format kit and some incredible Leica glass. 

So I asked him, "what's next?" He gave me a sideways look and said, "The new Canon 50 megapixel camera, of course." His response to the dynamic range question is that so much control of dynamic range is in the lighting and careful placement of tones. In addition, since most of his subject's don't move it's easy for him to shoot bracketed frames and blend them in post production. His take on Nikon versus Canon for architectural shooters is that the performance of the 17mm and 24mm Canon T/S lenses is so superior that they trump just about any advantage of the higher res Nikon body. 

He also pointed out that the Canon 5D mk3 has been a rock solid performer for him for over three years. No focus issues, no "left side, right side issues, no weird shadow issues and no oily sensors." His final point was that early on the clients everywhere were blown away by the performance of the original 5D and the newer cameras basically doubled the performance of that camera. In the end the new cameras from Canon, unless they shoot themselves in their own feet, will keep the serious users of some specialty lenses loyal to the mark. And really, just about anything over 36 megapixels should be in the territory of highly diminishing advantages.  A switcher? I think not. 

A realization that, at least in video, the DX format cameras are the Goldilocks tools. While the color and sharpness of the video files from the Nikon D810 are satisfying the real reason that people are interested in shooting motion with full frame cameras is to get the narrow depth of field that's the visual hallmark of the bigger sensors. But many people (myself included?) are finding that the narrow depth of field is a double edged sword and it's easy to get burned by the narrow depth of field when a subject is moving around, close to camera and when shooting with longer lenses. 

The DX format offers a bit more depth of field and in many cases a more usable tool for "on the go" shooting. It's nice when stuff stays in the zone of good focus. It's bad when stuff goes soft. That's especially true on cameras that don't provide focusing tools that are usable when actually shooting. 

As the APS-C format cameras like the Nikon D7200 and the Canon 7D.2 get better and better video tools and codecs we'll probably see more and more cinematographers and videographers pick them up and start using them as everyday shooting tools more often than they choose the full frame cameras. Most already understand that the difference in imaging potential is less meaningful than delivering a watchable product. And being in focus is a large part of watchability. 

That's all I've got for right now. I've downloaded the 25+ gigabytes of video from this weekend onto a little HP hard drive and I'm off to deliver it to the editors. 

then I've got some down time in which to go out and shoot for myself. Now where did I put my Olympus EM5.2? 


Anybody miss this one the first time around? It's my favorite rant of all time. For photographers.


Seems like I am meeting more and more people waiting to do their project at some future time when all the stars line up....

All around good little camera. Why I keep grabbing the Olympus OMD EM5.2.

Kenny Williams. A quick photo between sets.

I have the belief that it takes more than one camera or one kind of camera to do a creative content business well. I've got a big, bruiser of a camera in the D810 that does well at making high resolution files with great color and dynamic range. The files are extraordinary. And yesterday I saw just how good the video from that camera could be as well as the sound. But I'm finding that the Olympus EM5.2 is just as important to have in the tool kit because it does many things well but isn't as ponderous.

Yesterday afternoon I was shooting a promotional video at Zach Theatre. We were doing interviews with the artistic director and with a talent who will be in one of the future shows. This celebrity hasn't been announced yet to the public so I can't show the video or name them but I can sure talk about how we did the shoot, what the results were and what role both the Nikon D810 and the Olympus OMD EM5.2 played in the production. 

I keep trying to  up the quality of my productions and each time I go out on location I learn new stuff. Yesterday I was using a cage or metal rig around my camera. I used it to attach things like my little mixer and the wireless microphone receiver to my camera. You can quickly run out of space with the little nest of attachments you might need to shoot video and also record good sound. But what I didn't realize at the time is that the whole rig was out of balance and a bit top heavy and whenever I made adjustments the touch of the knobs on the mixer translated into jiggly video. Live and learn. But I did have a safety net that kept the video from being ruined. More about that in a second. 

I've gotten tired of trying to determine the quality of video cameras from what I see on the web because everybody is hellbent on testing the high ISO limits on their stuff. I wondered how good all this could look if we did things old school. To that end, rather than depending just on available light or the little streams of photons from battery powered LEDs, I decided to really light the interviews. Optimally light them. Spend some time and energy lifting heavy lights up onto heavy stands and covering the lights with good diffusion materials and then really working them over with a light meter to be sure that we were getting what we pay for out of the cameras = great image quality.

We were shooting in the second floor bar at Zach Theatre and we were comping our frame so that we could include a lit sign that says, "Dream" across the lobby about a hundred feet away. I used a big, professional multi-tubed fluorescent fixture, covered with Rosco diffusion material on my left and up. I used a second light just to the left of the camera and about eight feet high. It was covered with the same diffusion.  A third fluorescent fixture, covered with two layers of diffusion, was position off the right side of the camera at almost 90 degrees.  Altogether it was a soft wash of light with a nice ratio between the key side and the fill side---very flattering for peoples' faces, which was my main intention. 

The quantity of light gave me some working room for exposure. The Nikon D810 was the primary camera and I was able to use it with an 85mm. The exposure was: 30 fps, 1/60th second shutter speed,  f4.0, ISO 250. Given that this is reputedly the best sensor in any full frame camera I thought that should result in some really good files. A much better test than shooting street lights at 12,000 ISO (unless that's what your projects routinely call for...). 

The files we got are lush and detailed and the skin tones are sooo right on the money. The benefits of careful incident light metering and properly executed custom white balance are apparent all the way through. No noise, not even in the black areas, no blow out of highlights and a luscious range of color correct tones throughout. This is what I really wanted to see. This is what I thought I was paying for when I bought the camera.  

The one glaring weak spot of the Nikon D810 as a video production camera is the lack of focus peaking. An aperture of f4.0 is great as long as your talent stays on their mark but ours moved during one part of the interview and the resolution of the screen and my old eyes just weren't up to the task of re-focusing accurately. The "fix" is to buy a good, external monitor to run off the HDMI port. Most of the ext. monitors include focus peaking in their feature sets... crikey. More expense to compensate for what Nikon could surely add in firmware...

Another issue I've grappled with lately was getting good sound into the D810. My Rode NTG-2 microphone doesn't match well when directly connected to the camera. There is an impedance mismatch that adds noise and reduces levels. I spent most of the afternoon on Friday playing with various audio stuff and found that the balanced pro microphones sound much better running through the Beachtek DXA-2T which has balancing transformers just for this purpose. But the best sound of all came from the Sennheiser wireless microphone kit I bought a few years back. While it doesn't need the transformers for good sound quality into the camera it helps to run any mic through the little "mixer" because it gives you the ability to turn down the levels heading into the camera with a physical knob instead of having to try and ride levels with an on screen menu (which I can't figure out how to make functional during recording....). 

I tested twelve microphone and mixer combinations along with running the sound through a Zoom H4n digital audio recorder and the best signal of all was with the Sennheiser/BeachTek combo. But having all of that hanging on the camera rig created my biggest problem. Every time I would use a knob to change levels the camera jiggled and vibrated a bit and ruined a few seconds of the visual content.  So, B-roll camera to the rescue!!!

While my early tests with the Olympus EM5.2 (as a video camera) were not stellar it is more than adequate to use as a b-roll camera to capture a different angle while filming. That second angle was critical yesterday because it gives me good footage to cut away to when my "A" camera goes all jiggly. Knowing we might need some cutaway stuff I brought along the EM5.2, outfitted with a 12-35mm f2.8 Panasonic lens and put them on a tripod over to the right of the primary camera and comped a wider frame. 

That camera rolled through the whole process with a fixed focus, and since the frame was wider and the depth of field greater (smaller sensor) there are no parts that can't be used because the talent stepped away from the original mark. Another observation I have to make is that I'm finding better ways to shoot video on the EM5.2. My original tests all used the neutral camera profile. Over time I experimented with modifying the profile by turning down the sharpening and the contrast in that profile. But I recently paid attention the choices and discovered the muted profile and have been using that for video, with the sharpening turned all the way down. It's much better. Still not as sharp and detailed as the big Nikon after post processing of both, but better than using the neutral or standard profiles on that camera. 

But I am here to testify that having just good video out of the EM5.2 was a lifesaver in this instance because of the need for cover-your-ass b-roll footage to compensate for my operating shortcomings with the main camera. Live and learn. Fortunately I had a nice little shotgun microphone in the hot shoe of the Oly camera and the sound is amply good for easy syncing up of the two sets of footage. 

By lighting everything well both cameras gave me better moving images than I'd gotten before. By using the BeachTek as a volume controller for the wireless microphones I also got better sound quality and more control than before. Learning can be a slow process of trial and error but sometimes the biggest obstacle for me is overcoming laziness and doing things the right way even though more steps are involved. 

Using the Olympus as a second movie camera was great but where it really came in hand was in quickly grabbing it off the tripod, flicking on the image stabilization and then shoot still shots of the talent and the artistic director for future marketing use. The Nikon was locked onto its cage and tethered to so many parts and pieces that it would have taken to much time to get it into the agile shooting mode. 

After I pulled down the lights, did my resistance workout with the sandbags and got all of the gear into my car the marketing director asked if I could shoot a few stills and a bit of video of Kenny Williams. Kenny is a wonderful actor, singer, dancer whom I have known for years. He was the featured, pre-show singer in the lounge that evening. Accompanied by a pianist Kenny was singing some really great jazz songs.

I grabbed the EM5.2, attached a little Azden microphone and headed back in to play around. Shooting handheld was fun and the quality of the image stabilization was perfect. Just like having a slider attached but one able to move in four dimensions... I was impressed with the footage at ISO 640 and with the changes I've made in terms of profiles and sharpening settings the footage actually looked quite good. I dropped the camera on a table and stood around to listen to one song unencumbered by my "production" mentality and then headed home. 

Now we have 26 gigabytes of content to sort through but I'm not the editor for this. I can't imagine trying to do production with uncompressed ProRes files. I'm not sure we could buy hard drives quickly enough. 

Final take? The still images from the Olympus were sharp and lovely. Really lovely. The video from the camera is working better for me, especially if I light the heck out of a scene and get all the other parameters perfect. The video images from the D810 are really, really good.  I just need to figure out the focus peaking issue. Either that or one needs to be able to "punch in" to the image (magnify) while shooting in order to make mid-course focus corrections. Once we get that sorted I'll be officially certified as a truly happy camper. 

And that's what we did for fun on Saturday afternoon.... Damn, those sandbags and extension cables are heavy. Time to find some strong, new assistants. 

The camera maker's lament: Is it reviewers who don't know what the F#$K they're doing or bloggers just deflating corporate hyperbole?

One of the reasons bloggers need to be careful and always be truthful about their affiliations with manufacturers of products about which they write is that those big companies are very, very good about trying to "bend" or delay a blogger's representation of their product. The marketing teams at major camera makers are good at identifying long term influencers in their niche. They understand the value of a great review and the costs of a "so-so" review. It's always in their best interest to control as much of the "presentation" about their product as they can. I get that.

But an honest opinion should not be for sale. If you are from "the company" and you think we've misunderstood how to best use the equipment it's up to you to tell me what the owner's manual doesn't. To clarify. To put me in touch with your technical staff in order to clear up any oversights I may have made in using the product. After all, we've generally had the cameras we test in our hands for a short amount of time compared to the engineers who actually designed the gear.....

I had a recent phone call in which the representative of a camera maker, unhappy with my observations about video files, asked me if I was using their brand of lenses in my tests.

A hint to everyone making a camera they want to aim at film makers, cinematographers, hybrid photographers, video bloggers, etc. :  People will put all kinds of lenses on the front of the camera. Some  lenses will have been made by Zeiss, some will have been made by Nikon and some will have been made by companies we've never heard from. That's part of the style, the business and the willful customization of video tools that goes along with this particular revolution. Telling people your product is only useful when using your lenses goes a long way to killing your own product from active consideration by a whole community of avid users.

When we buy product we are generally doing so because we hope that it will fill a need or offer a feature that we don't already have. Early adopters have no choice but to dive in and try the gear. To some degree we depend on the makers to be somewhat honest about their gear. For example, Olympus has introduced a "hi-res" mode to their new OMD EM-5.2 camera but they've been very, very good from the beginning about downplaying the feature for day-to-day, casual photography. They caution in their advertising and in the manual that it's a mode only to be used when on a tripod and shooting objects that don't move. They were good at managing expectations and I'm happy they did so.

Other makers tout focusing speeds that only really deliver in zero gravity environments or with non-moving targets that have optimum contrast profiles. Samsung touts their new 4K codec, h.265, as an advantage but anyone trying to transcode the codec to use with Final Cut ProX or Premier would beg to differ....

So, I offer my condolences in advance to the manufacturers but we'll keep calling them as we see them while trying to figure out work arounds to make the products work as they should out of the box. But redefining the parameters necessary for success after the product has left the showroom floor isn't helpful.


A small collage of Behind the Scenes images from photographic assignments.

I'm as guilty as anyone else when it comes to wanting to see "behind the curtain." How do other photographers set up their lights? What do their studios look like? How far away from the subject is the main light? How do they do their "jumping" shots? All the stuff that can be confusing when you are just looking at illustrations in books or hearing descriptions. 

When I started working on the LED book I really started to understand just how much detail people wanted to see when they sat down with a book in order to learn a new way to do something and at that point I started trying to make behind the scenes images of everything we set up. What I found out is that I am very much a creature of habit and love to "key" most images from the left (we read left to right--correct?), love to use soft lights and I could probably always use just one more C-stand or at least one more non-rickety light stand. 

note: I'm pretty tired today. I just transcoded the video I worked on for the past three weeks and I'm uploading the final to the client as I write this. Unlike still photography these video jobs have so many moving parts, the least of which seems to be actually shooting the footage. Motion graphics in particular can be daunting and are the components that are most detailed and engender most back and forth with clients. Finding the right typefaces to match client style books is always imperative and may mean buying and uploading different fonts than you currently have. Some changes in timing are also critical. We ended up experimenting with dissolves, etc. in tiny tenth of second increments.

So finally being finished means more than the fact that you've just delivered a good product. It means you worked with a team, built some consensus and collaborated well with your client. It can be a much more involved undertaking than turning in a well made photograph. But boy oh boy! is it ever a lot of time with your butt planted in a chair.

Makes the stuff in these behind the scenes shots seem like child's play...

Note the two lights on the floor to provide fill from the bottom...

Getting out from behind the camera to direct.

Sometimes all you need is a little "puff" of light to highlight your subject in a  bright environment.

 Black panels to the right provide "subtractive fill" for those times when you wish the shadows were more dramatic.
Small studio+long lenses= back against the wall (or filing cabinet). 
Note black reflector blocking sunlight from the windowns behind.

Ladders. Ladders everywhere.

Fill cards and diffusers abound.

Yes trampoline. Yes flash. No LED.