4.28.2015

Kirk buys a seven inch Marshall Electronics video monitor and uses it all day on a still photography shoot. What the hell?


There I was with my big Nikon D810 on top of the Manfrotto cinema ballhead ready to shoot some incredibly cool video content of super-superstar vocalist, Jennifer Holliday, for my friends at Zach Theatre. The four big florescent light fixtures were slamming around electro-luminescent craziness and I had a Sennheiser lavaliere microphone clamped to Ms. Holliday's collar ready to record every ounce of perfect conversation that got uttered.

I had carefully focused my 85mm lens, marked a spot on the floor for Ms. Holliday and then stopped down to f5.6 to give me enough depth of field (or so I thought) to cover small amounts of talent movement. It all started out in the just right category. The voice through my headphones was wonderful and the image playing across the 3.2 inch screen on my camera looked just like the footage I saw earlier this year on the Academy Awards.

And then Ms. Holliday became a bit more animated and my day started falling apart. She took a step forward and I knew she would be out of the sharp range of focus. I went to manually focus only to be thwarted by a combination of eyes that have long since lost their perfect performance coupled with a camera screen that's great for composition but sucks for trying to achieve sharp focus. At some point I switched out of video mode and refocused. Thanks goodness for the off camera interviewer's interjection... But for a few minutes I was praying for focus peaking.

While Nikon may, at some distant time in the future, add focus peaking to the D810 I'm sure not counting on it. But then I remembered that a lot of video field monitors have focus peaking as a feature. I started looking around. I wanted to be prepared for the next session. I wanted to re-master sharp focus.

I made pilgrimage to Precision Camera and looked at their monitor selection. The one that made sense was the Marshall Electronics M-CT710. The screen looked pretty good, the controls are pretty straightforward and it has focus peaking. It also came with two batteries, a charger, an A/C adapter, a sunshade and two different HDMI cables. The batteries are copies of the Nikon EN-EL 15 batteries I use in my two Nikon cameras and one of the HDMI cables, the HDMI standard to HDMI mini fit my two cameras. At that point I made a note of the price, $345, and decided I'd wait and buy the unit the very next time I got booked to shoot video for a client. The very next time....

Miraculously, I exited Precision Camera without making a single purchase. Not even a lens cleaning cloth or a battery!!!

I got into my car and, in accordance with Austin's new hands free cellphone ordinance, decided to check my e-mails and texts on my phone before firing up the automobile. There was a message from the client that I will be working with all week long. We're working on an annual report project and she wanted to know if I had a monitor or laptop we could bring along to really look at the shots as we went along.

Now I hate shooting tethered to a laptop outside of the studio. Just hate it. It's ponderous and plodding and the big screens are hard to shield from bright, ambient light, and if your battery runs out in the middle of a field there's really nothing you can do----Apple Macbook Pros now "feature" non-changeable batteries (really, it's a good thing?). But I don't mind being hooked up to an HDMI monitor.

After I read the message I returned to the store and pulled out my wallet. That part where I talk about being a good steward of the family's money? That's over. Again. But I do have a snazzy, new 7 inch field monitor.

I charged the two batteries last night and spent time going through every control until I knew how the new monitor worked with the D810. I packed extra batteries and an extra HDMI cable and tossed a little Pelican case full of video capability into the car.

This morning we were shooting in a huge water chiller facility in a medical center. The "heros" of the shot were a rep from the company I am shooting for and his customer/counterpart at the medical center. I set up the camera and comped in the shot. A nice, wide one that showed off big, industrial gear and featured the two guys right in the middle, talking shop and looking at an iPad.

I set up a couple of background lights to keep the back wall and area from going too dark. It's a nice way to add depth and make sure the image fits into a usable tonal range. I used a large light as a main key and a fourth light as a back lit to subtly rim my human subjects. All of the lights were battery powered electronic flashes being triggered by a brand new set of Cactus V6 transceiver/receiver units. I was also using a new Cactus flash as a master unit to trigger everything else.

When I got the lighting set up and dialed in I added a  super clamp to the leg of the tripod and a Magic Arm to the clamp. At the other end of the Magic Arm I attached the new monitor and fired it up. Then I put the sun shade on it to make it look even cooler. All at once my client and I could see the live view image up big and personal. The color was fine (we were shooting raw but still making custom white balances as we went) but the cool thing was being able to see the image so big.  The client was able to see the composition clearly and quickly let me know how to fine tune it. I could "punch in" on the image and see the level of detail.

When I switched from a wide angle zoom to a manual focusing 85mm f1.4 I was able to call up the focus peaking feature on the monitor and see, very clearly, exactly what was (and wasn't) in sharp focus.

I left the monitor attached for the entire shoot and it gave my client additional piece of mind while allowing me to dodge the burden of a bigger, heavier (and more flare prone) laptop and all the inefficiencies of actually shooting tethered. We're charging the batteries now for tomorrow's shoot and we'll be bringing it along.

While I bought the monitor ostensibly for video it seems to serve a useful purpose for still imaging as well.

One more addition to the gear list for those shoots where clients are adamant about assessing the images before, during and after we shoot. I've decided to like it.

Thanks for reading.

The Luminance Conundrum. Why some video might look off.


Engineers know that you can't optimize for everything. Something in the triangle or dodecahedron of choices has to give in order for something more important to spread its wings. The people who design cameras must be plagued with issues like this all the time. Questions like: Do I make the chassis big enough to conduct heat away from the circuitry or do I limit clock speed of processors in order to keep the components cool enough? How many screws do I need to put into the lens mount in order to make sure big lenses don't cause problems? How simple do I have to make the image processing in order to have the camera shoot fast enough for the marketing people? Do I vent for heat or give in to the mania for "weather proofing"? Should the lens be fast or sharp or small? --- I can't have all three.

I've written before about my misgivings concerning the Olympus EM5.2 video but I'm starting to mellow as I dig into the files and come up with some workarounds to the standard shooting set ups. I was frustrated that a camera with some of the prettiest files I've ever seen (as still images) seemed to have issues with detail and sharpness when shooting video. I used the neutral color profile and turned various settings like contrast and saturation down to keep the files from seeming too thick. What I was getting was files with bigger sharpening interfaces that I wanted. It was as if the camera was set to use bigger radius settings in sharpening for video rather than using small radius settings and a higher percentage of sharpening. I wanted the files to be more subtle and more detailed---or at least as detailed as 1080p video files could look. My reference standard is the GH4 but I would be satisfied if the EM5.2 came close. In its standard set-up the files looked as though they were not as well sharpened as they could be and then had a layer of noise reduction over-layed on to them.

I had a little epiphanal insight about the whole mess this week. I was playing around with the camera and switched the profile to monotone (green filter setting) to make some black and white images. The camera went from sharp (in color) to ultrasharp (in monotone). I sat down along a babbling brook to meditate on what might be the deal when it dawned on me that Olympus's engineers must be doing most of their image sharpening in the luminance channel so they could prevent excess noise in the chrominance (color) channels. This would give them good sharpness with low chroma noise when people make images in color and in Jpeg (although I am sure somewhat the same choices are being made in raw).

While they have mastered this technique for still images where there is ample processor time to make everything match up video works in a different way. In the long GOP files noise in color is probably being handled as a median, homogenous setting that requires less speed from the processing engines. And, in fact, when I shoot black and white video, which throws away the chrominance channels I find the video to be sharply detailed and nearly immune from aliasing. Something is happening when the color is applied.

I went back into the menus and made a few changes that helped me produce video files that I am happier with. To wit, I have started using the muted color profile, leaving the saturation and contrast sub controls zero'ed and then bringing down the sharpening to its minimum level. Of course I am using the image stabilization without digital manipulation (mode 2) and I have tried to be very careful not to under or over expose. The final step is to go to the custom curves setting and flatten out the profile just a little bit more; raising the dark part of the curve and lowering the higher tones.

When used this way the camera delivers a flat file that can be messed with in post processing to bring back the contrast and saturation I am looking for. Minimizing the sharpness in the shooting portion of our program is helpful but there is still some sharpening going on. I can live with it.

With the help of these settings the Olympus EM5.2 is quickly becoming my "go-to" camera for any situation that requires me to go "off tripod" and follow something or someone around. It's a great little ENG (electronic news gathering) camera and the constant movement largely masks some of the shortcomings I was seeing earlier in my ownership.

When using the camera in this way I have also found that the best files come from my slower FPS settings. I am happiest with the files (color and sharpening) that I am getting at 24 fps. I would also say that lens selection is helpful. While someone from Olympus suggested that I would get the best quality from their branded lenses it's not really the case. I'm getting my best files (not over sharpened...) with older, legacy Nikon lenses as well as manual focus lenses made for the ancient Olympus half frame series of cameras. These lenses don't seem to have the clinical sharpness of the newest glass but their "rounded" quality and lower contrast seems to help when the camera translates stuff into video. Yes, the newest Olympus glass, like the 75mm f1.8 and the 45mm f1.8 are nifty sharp in still imaging but they are a bit too sharp for video rendering that I prefer.

Every time I get better results I get closer to thinking that the EM5.2 could be the best all around camera on the market today. It's clearly the most fun to shoot with, if it fits in your hands.....

Perhaps the engineers at Olympus decided not to have a separate sharpening protocol for video and depend on the sharpening for full, 16 megapixel files, the result being the over bearing sharpening characteristic when the frames are down sampled to a bit less than 2K for video. I don't know. I've never been a software/firmware guy. But I do know that they understand the issue. Whether or not it's cost effective to fix it is another matter. At this point I am very comfortable shooting good video with these work arounds. I'm glad I spent the time to "zero in" the cameras for the way I want them to look because I think the image stabilization is a big evolutionary step in shooting video.

My favorite rigging is to use the uber-sharp Panasonic 12-35mm f2.8 on the camera, a set of Apple earbuds plugged into the headphone jack on the HLD-8G grip and a small, Azden shotgun mic secured to a tripod socket mounted accessory bar. The camera focuses quickly, the lens renders things in a nice way and the Azden mic is a surprisingly good little shotgun microphone for under $100.

Yes, I have better headphones. Yes, I have better microphones. Yes, I have a fluid head tripod. But the whole idea is to come up with something that is small, light, agile and capable. I think of my rig as the video counterpart to Henri Cartier-Bresson's little screw mount Leicas with collapsable lenses---ready and infinitely available. It's a new age for videographers and these smaller cameras are a bridge between accessibility and ultimate quality. For me it's an engineering compromise I am now ready to say "works for me."  Thanks for reading. 

4.25.2015

Most interesting musical instrument at Eeyore's Birthday Party.


I wish I had been able to also show the front of this dress because the whole thing was pretty amazing. The woman who wore it also played it, as a multi-faceted percussion instrument, with drumsticks to actuate the different sounds. It was kinetic fashion at its best. 


Shot with the Oly EM5.2 and the 60mm Sigma dn.

My big acquisition for the day? A chocolate pecan pie from Whole Foods Market. Finally a purchase I can eat. Certainly trumps lens lust for pure enjoyment at a reasonable price...

Have you seen one of these in the wild? it's a Voitlander 17mm f0.95 and it's a pretty amazing lens.


You never know what Frank will bring to coffee. Last week it was this combo, the EM-1 and the Voitlander 17mm f-superfast. I played with the lens for a while and was quite impressed. You can emulate the look of a 35mm on full frame right down to the narrow depth of field and from what I could see it was sharp, sharp, sharp. Of course where I was seeing the sharpness was in the center because the sides and edges were at a different focusing distance from the center and the depth of field limited the theoretical sharpness we could expect. As it does in nearly every fast lens. But, of course, no sane human is using these high speed optics to do copy work, right?....

My tiny review? Great build quality, nice finder image. Perfect heft.

I went to Eeyore's Birthday Party and I felt the magic but I just didn't get any great images.

Eeyore's 2015, Acrobat.

I'm guilty of going to Eeyore's with mixed feelings about photography. Every year the party gets bigger and bigger and every year I feel more and more like a tourist there instead of a documentarian. I guess that's how you come to know that you are really tapped out. Now, don't get me wrong, I still think Eeyore's Birthday party is one of those quintessential Austin events. 

The drum circles were operating a full intensity and ringed with an asteroid field of observers that was so dense photographers defaulted to a "hail Mary" approach to shooting, holding their cameras above their heads and craning their necks to see the images on the rear screen in live view.

The forest was filled with cliques of counterculture types looking defiant while trying to be surreptitious in their consumption of cannabis. Jugglers juggled and topless woman bounded through the throng with their breasts painted in bright colors and funny patterns. 

It was 94 degrees by the time I got there and the heat was oppressive after our mild Spring. I tried to force myself into a formalist exercise by taking only one small camera and one inappropriate lens (or maybe my lens was appropriate but my brain wasn't properly calibrated for it. Whatever the reason I felt as though I was just "phoning it in" and so I dropped the camera to my side on its slender strap and just watched the people play. And that was alright too. 





I can't really blame the camera or the lens. I was shooting with the Olympus EM5.2 and the Sigma 60mm f2.8 dn lens. It's just that everywhere I looked I had seen it all before....

Time to search for new experiences. Thinking about a shooting trip to Mexico City..... more later.

4.23.2015

We are currently supporting a play about LBJ called, "All The Way." How are we helping? With marketing photographs, research video interviews and more.


Show logo.

I've been producing photographs for marketing and advertising at Zach Theatre for 24 years now and I love it. Everyone on the casts and crews is so focused on doing the best possible production they can, show after show. For the current show the marketing and public relations people have taken their efforts to a higher level. We've done five different assignments to create photos and video as well as making research interviews with which to inform the cast and give them insight into a personal side of the former president.

Our first shoot was at the LBJ library where I documented Steve Vinovich interviewing the head curator, soaking up the displays and collections and actually giving me an interview at the museum's replica of the Oval Office. I switched back and forth between one Nikon camera on a tripod (for video) and one Nikon handheld for photographs. 

Our next shoot took place in Johnson City, Texas. Steve V. and the artistic director from the theatre toured the boyhood home of LBJ, had a wonderful lunch at the 290 Diner with the head park ranger and got a tour, in a convertible Lincoln Continental complete with "suicide doors", of the LBJ Ranch and even got a private look at the inside of the main house. Again, with two Nikon cameras I was able to record the interviews and the tours on video while also stepping over to the photography side to make interesting images.

Next up was a long interview with several of LBJ's contemporaries, two men who worked with him in the White House during his presidency. Again, once I got the camera rolling for the video recording of a nearly two hour interview I was able to move around the large room and grab additional photographs.

As we got closer to the show we scheduled a "studio" shoot with Steve Vinovich on one of the three stages at Zach Theatre. We shot various images with Steve in character, all against a white background. Once they had selected a good frame the art director at the theater dropped in the background that you see in the image below. In about 15 minutes we had twenty different poses to use. 

Steve Vinovich in his role as LBJ.

The final assignment was to do our regular dress rehearsal shoot. It's a long play and there's a lot to cover so I ended up shooting about 1300 photographs divided between two Nikon cameras.

While it may seem like a lot of coverage we collectively wanted to do whatever we could to fill the 300+ seats in the theater every night and to tell a compelling story about LBJ to the community that grew up in his own backyard. The show runs through the 10th of May and you can get more details about Zach Theatre's production of "All the Way" here: http://www.zachtheatre.org/show/all-the-way

Twenty four continuous years is a long time to serve a client but I really love the relationship. I can truly say that after hundreds and hundreds of productions I completely understand their mission, their vision and the best ways that I can help them succeed. I feel like it's an honor to be their photographer.  

4.22.2015

No sexy photographic tools here. Just the nuts and bolt we use to get jobs done.


I was struck, as I was filtering through six years of blog posts, by just how many cameras and lenses I had written about. Some breathlessly as though the cameras were destined to change the very fabric of our industry. Every step forward by the camera makers was analyzed and pored over as though the addition of 4 or 5 million pixels would change lives. One stop less noise would cure malaria in our lifetimes. I know why I wrote those reviews and why you read them, it was because the new products represented a form of movement and being a predator species we are drawn to movement. In millennia past the recognition of movement was how we hunted down prey.

Unintentionally we've sent the message out to new photographers that the road to mastering the making of images rests with magic cameras and lenses.  But every day I find, in video and in still photography, that the camera is just one part of the puzzle and it's a part that's interchangeable, for the most part, between brands and specifications.

When I look across the studio this little corner is one of the vignettes my eyes land on and it's probably the most cost effective and hardest working gear in my studio. Without the stuff here I would have trouble getting to the spot in which I need to be with my cameras, I might not be able to see through the finders of my cameras and I certainly couldn't make the lighting work. The fun/interesting/sensible thing about this collection of things is that they have remarkable longevity.

To the left, by the door, is a hard sided, Tenba light stand transporter. It's hexagonal and holds even my tallest light stands and tripods. The hard, internal panels are covered with ballistic nylon. I bought this bag/case to transport light stands, tripods, umbrellas, soft boxes and electrical cords in around 1991 from a camera store that has long since closed. The bag/case has been on dozens and dozens of airplanes, even making a round trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. It has travelled on hundreds of trips in half a dozen cars.  In 24 years of service I've never had a broken piece of gear emerge from it. I've long since forgotten what I paid for the bag/case but it didn't seem like much. That's a good investment in gear.

Just to the right of the Tenba stand bag/case is a wire container filled with light stands and arms for C-stands. I have always liked to be able to look across the studio and see what stands I have readily available as I pack or when I am shooting in the office. Bags like the Tenba are good for travel but they cloak the inventory and make it less immediately accessible. One day in 1988 I was shopping around in a Container Store and found this little container. It was designed to hold rolled up blueprints or CAD drawings. The top has a wire grid which separates the blueprints from each other, it also works well at keeping light stands separated. The container has wheels on the bottom so I can roll it around the studio. I paid $14 for it and it has survived rough light stand insertions and random studio accidents better than I would have ever imagined.

To the right of the wire frame stand container is a small, two step ladder. It's made of lightweight aluminum and it allows me to shoot at eye level with people much taller than me. It's also helpful when you need just a little bit of "looking down" point of view. Being five feet, eight inches tall in a world of giants, the ladder gets a lot of use. It's also nice when I need to get seldom used gear off high shelves... That particular ladder arrived in 1995 to replace a wooden version that didn't survive a really rough project. One more thing! The new ladder also doubles as an extra sitting stool when all the chairs are taken and people keep pouring through the door.

I am constantly amazed when I meet photographers and videographers who do not have the pleasure of owning a stout and compact-able cart with which to move the mountains of gear that are sometimes required on location assignments.  I bought one of these carts many, many years ago and after much abuse we were finally able to kill it by moving a thousand pound, fully configured server rack across one building at Dell Computer. As we reached our intended location the front wheels hit a bump and the entire front of the cart collapsed under the weight of modern computing.

Mea Culpa! I read the instructions, the weight limit was a stated 500 pounds. But I did mention that the stalwart cart did not give up the ghost until after it delivered the goods to our shooting location. I went out the same day (sometime in 1993) and bought another one. At the time it cost about $125 but I feel, some 22 years later, that I am getting my money's worth from it. A decade or two more and I should have it fully amortized. I cannot imagine going on a shoot with eight or ten light stands, a stout tripod, a case of camera gear, two cases of lights and all the accessories and attachments and not having a rigid cart for transporting it all from car to client and back.

Finally there is the green PVC pipe. It's a more recent addition, purchased from a photographer exiting the business in 2009. It's filled with frames for diffusion clothes, nets, black flags and other light modifiers. A good pro can use just about any light source to deliver enough photons but the real secret of good lighting is in shaping it, diffusing it, sculpting it and keeping it from going where you don't need it and don't want it.

Those are the things that I see in that particular corner of my studio/office and they remind me that cameras and lights come and go like leaves turning or budding in the seasons but the power tools of the craft, the support stuff, is all there for the long haul.

Funny to me to look at the various stands in the stand holder. The oldest one is nearly as old as my business and the younger ones are at least five years old. There are two more nests of them around the office space. Some are small Manfrotto stands that fold up short and were bought to hold speed lights. Three are C-Stands bought to hold anything you need held, and the rest of come in like stray cats looking for regular food and shelter. Who would have thought I'd have such loyalty to my light stands? But, in truth, they've never let me down.

There are some things that are unchanging in our businesses.




Starting over again. We're archiving the past and starting fresh. VSL re-imagined: Post #1.


2300 blog posts is a lot of words.  And a lot of images. The original content on the Visual Science Lab covered the years between 2009 and yesterday. We discussed a lot about cameras and lights, tripods and books, workshops and industry trends. But that's all in the past. If you read them I'm happy, if you didn't it doesn't really matter because reading them now would be nothing more than looking back at the wake of a boat to see where it has been instead of looking forward to where each of us is going. By eliminating the previous posts I can start fresh. No baggage. And believe me, the stewardship of all those posts was starting to drag me down...

What is happening right now? Today? In the next five minutes? With life? With our art? That's what we'll talk about as we move forward.

The Visual Science Lab has always been about the art and business of visual work. From now until some time in the future we'll continue discussing cameras, video, writing, books, coffee and swimming. If you want to come along for the ride you are welcome.