5.13.2016

Friday came so quickly this week. Lots of work and lots of pre-production for next week.

A Fringe Benefit of Being a Photographer: Better Family Portraits.

I saw a statistic today that 85% of the people who work are not happy with their jobs and feel disengaged. That stunned me. I figured that at least 50% of the people in the workplace were fairly happy with their working situation. I read this piece of news as I was sitting in my office at 6 am sending along eight links of 2 gigabytes each to a client I worked for yesterday. To say I had fun yesterday would diminish the sheer pleasure I had in pursuing the same career I've worked at for the last three decades. This photography stuff is just plain fun.  

I mean, think about it. My "boss" (me) bought me four new cameras this quarter ,and as many new lenses, and he consulted with me at every single step of the selection process. I don't have "office mates" so there's no one to annoy me with silly stuff and stupid ringtones, and no one to keep track of how I choose to spend my time. The business seems happy to try and schedule my appointments around mission critical commitments like: swim practice and long lunches. The pay is good and the meetings with staff (zero attending) are very, very short and to the point. 

But the most fun part of the job is to continually do new and different stuff for a wide range of clients. Yesterday was a blast. A client hired me for the day to shoot a community service initiative and, while I am committed to creating images that work hard for them, I also saw the day as a perfect opportunity to test three new cameras. 

I love working for clients who are comfortable letting me figure out what's needed photography-wise and how to do the job. No one had an extensive and anal shot list. Just a few sentences in an e-mail with some general guidance. No one tracked my progress, and no one offered course corrections or in the field critiques. My essential task was to make the clients look good while they made themselves look good in the community. 

But that was yesterday and not all jobs are so much fun, right? Well..... the day before I had a portrait session in my small studio in West Austin. I got to decide just how I wanted to play with lighting design and spent time evaluating the various merits of Profoto versus Elinchrom versus Photogenic flashes. Did I like the big Octabank better than a smaller softbox? How would I light the background? Would I include a hair light? 

When my subject showed up I got to meet an interesting person who had moved from a career as a doctor to a career as a CEO of a large holding company. He came to the studio alone, without an entourage, which meant we could chat about anything we wanted to for as long as we wanted to. We talked about his businesses and then we talked about our kids. What could have been a 30 minute session stretched into an hour of me getting to look into a business I wasn't aware of, guided by the CEO of the entire enterprise. We had a fun time. The photographs looked great. I made a new connection into a different industry. And I got to practice using the Eye AF button on a new camera. 

I did a few more portraits for people from vastly different companies in the afternoon. I guess it was officially studio portrait day. Each person who graced the small studio space yesterday had clocked enough years and miles in their respective industries to also have great stories to tell. And I was interested in each one. It's a constant learning process. Each subject adding more to the sum of what I might know. 

The day before I packed up all the necessary gear and went on location to make portraits of eight people. I used to dread working on location because I never knew what sort of room I'd end up in. Would the ceilings be high enough to accommodate lights? Would there be blinds on the windows? Would the space have enough linear run to let me put the background out of focus? Would there be coffee? Would it be good? I kid about the coffee but location work is always a challenge only now it's a challenge that I view more like a technical puzzle to be solved. I no longer worry about things that are out of my control but I make sure I've got what I need to control what I can. (Like the keyboard bench...). 

I'd like to think that whatever career I choose in the future would be as much fun. If I move more intentionally into video production the same basic fun stuff remains: meeting new people, learning about new industries, and solving technical puzzles (multiplied by 3X). If I choose to concentrate on writing then I'll have to put myself out into the world in some way to have new experiences to write about. By the same token, if I went into sales I'd have the chance to meet an all new species of customers. 

I'm feeling in a bit of a celebratory mood today for a number of reasons. My decision to shoot with Sony cameras is panning out (well). My kid is coming home from college for the Summer this evening. My clients keep delivering fun projects to me and following up with checks. But mostly I am celebrating being able to enjoy what I do so much that I can't imagine doing anything else. It's almost like being a photographer  in this day and age, and in this culture, is a strange but compelling privilege. 

Next week is all about video. I can hardly wait.



5.12.2016

I shot 1200+ shots today with three different Sony cameras, and in three different sensor formats. So, what was I thinking? And how did it all turn out?



Top three images shot with the Sony RX10iii (my current favorite camera).

One of my favorite clients gets a couple hundred volunteers together and does a full day of work for good causes around Austin. I think that's pretty cool. They help paint school libraries, donate money for new books and then come help label and shelve them; rebuild playgrounds, read to kids and even put on a bit of live theatre in elementary schools. The coolest thing is that they are providing the kids they serve with examples of actual community involvement by grown-ups.

They hired me this year to go out with various groups of volunteers and document the work they are doing, and the fun they are having. We started the day at corporate H.Q. where the volunteers prepared materials they would need to bring along for their projects. A number of people headed to the in-house video studio to be recorded reading books for kids who are might be hospitalized or otherwise unable to attend readings in libraries. Fueled with breakfast tacos and fresh coffee the volunteers were launched out into Austin and I followed along like an eager puppy to see what I might be able to photograph. (Can you tell I thought this was a fun project?).

Being in one of my experimental moods I brought along three different cameras. They were various, new Sony models (at least new to me), including: The A7R2 with its 24-70mm f4.0 Zeiss lens, the a6300 with its 18-105mm f4.0 Sony G lens, and the redoubtable Sony RX10iii with its insane 24-600mm (equivalent) permanently attached (I hope) lens. If I could effectively juggle all three cameras I certainly would have a good shot a understanding where the quality differences and handling differences might come into play.




I also brought along a mess of batteries and an inexpensive, USB, battery charging battery (I'm at a loss of what to call these batteries that are made to charge other batteries...). I wanted to shoot everything with the RX10iii because I am partial to that genre of encapsulated cameras but my first location, in a dark conference center, called for an exposure of 1/60th of a second, f4.0 at ISO 6400. I may live in a little fantasy world about the one inch sensor cameras but I'm not delusional enough to think that they are up to delivering amazingly good image quality at those lofty ISOs. I took twenty or so frames and then defaulted to the A7R2 and the a6300; both of which are high ISO champs. My brief spell of good judgement was confirmed a few minutes ago (I am deep into post processing as I write this...) when I looked at the first images from the RX10iii. They look great fitting into the window on Lightroom, on my monitor but a quick boost to 1:1 (100%) tells the story: Mannequin-style-water-color flesh on my main subjects. But sharp mannequin-style-water-color flesh!

The files from the A7R2 are clearly from the other side of the tracks. At 6400 they look about as good as my old Nikon D2Xs looked at ISO200... or maybe even just a bit better. 

I pulled out the RX10iii for all the outdoor shooting I did which was mostly in weak sunlight. We've had cloud cover and haze for the last few days which is icky weather to live in but does wonders for preserving the appearance of tremendous dynamic range in image files...

I pressed the a6300 into service for the times when I wanted a bit more reach than the 24-70mm would give me on the full frame camera. Once I got a taste for the wider focal length range of the APS-C format 18-105mm G lens I couldn't resist trying it out on the A7R2, also in APS-C crop mode. That's very nice handling combination. You get the benefits of the great sensor as well as the flexibility of the wide ranging lens. 

The first big test for the A7R2 was a group shot of 200+ people. The building we started out in has an atrium and a staircase that leads from the bottom floor up one level. I put as many people on the stairs as I could and shot down from the second floor railing. The artificial lighting and light through the frosted ceiling of the four story atrium was very nice and I shot, handheld, without supplemental lighting, with the 24mm end of the Zeiss zoom set at f6.3.  Luck was with me as the angle of the stairs and the distances between everything worked out almost as though I had used a tilt lens or the front tilt of a view camera. Every face was in focus and perfectly delineated. It was the easiest group shot I believe I have ever shot. The focus and exposure, as computed by the camera, were optimal. 

The rest of the day was spent coming in and out of poorly lit schools and using the cameras at what I used to consider to be the limits of camera performance. But in every situation the cameras performed well and my integration with the cameras was also good. 

I've learned a few things. Across all three cameras I need to do a better job programming the custom buttons and the function settings. I've been setting up the function menu to have all the video controls I wanted at the ready only to find that I would prefer a whole different set of function menu and custom button settings for still use. I'll be making a few cards which I will laminate. Each will have a list of the functions I want on the menus, and where to find them on the deeper menu, so I can grab a camera out of the drawer and, in five minutes, have the camera set up for the kind of assignment I anticipate when I head out the door.  I generally always want ISO, WB, Quality, AF mode, DRO and a few other things on the still menu while zebras, peaking, audio levels and picture profiles are must have stuff for the video function menu.

I learned that low battery levels cause me low level anxiety. But my Kmashi 10,000 mAh USB charger unit (that battery powered USB power supply thing I talked about) is a crazy good cure for people who worry excessively about batteries being charged. I noticed the power level drop on my a63000 after a morning of shooting. The level had dropped to 30%. On my journey between locations, with a stop for lunch, I plugged the charger into the camera. By the time I hit my one p.m. the battery was back to 100%. I got into the habit of putting a camera I'd been using on the charger device when I selected a new camera to use. You could probably shoot for days without having to actually find a wall socket.

Here is a link for this device, it's too cheap not have: Kmashi Battery Pack/USB Charger.

While the files from the a6300 are really, really good my favorite camera to shoot with was the RX10iii. I like it better than the a6300 because the body has enough space for my hands and it's wonderful to shoot with a system in which the zoom lens goes on forever and ever and is at its sharpest when used wide open.

My second favorite was the A7R2 because it's a rock solid body and however I use the camera; whether in M. Jpeg or full on RAW the files look great. The a6300 should be the Goldilocks camera but it's too small to be comfortable handling. Surprisingly, I'm not getting along as well with the placement of the viewfinder window as I thought I would and, you're stuck with files that could have been a little bit technically better with the bigger camera or stuck with handling that's not as good as the smaller sensor camera. Really a compromise. The one thing it does very well though is to focus like a crazy laser. That, and great evaluative metering.

My favorite lens for the day was the Zeiss 24-70mm. Whatever the reviews might say, the reality is that the lens is very sharp, even wide open, on the A7R2.

After 1,200+ files running across my systems today I can speak to one thing: The only way to really understand the strengths and weaknesses of a system is to use it for eight hours a day and process the files for a couple hours a day, and do this for weeks at a time. When you end up a couple of months down the road you will really know a camera system in a way that no camera reviewer who has a camera on loan for two weeks ever will. Just like dating it takes time to get to know something so intertwined with your eye, your hands and your thought processes. 

5.09.2016

Here we go. Packing up for another shoot. It's the day-to-day stuff that keeps most photographers in the black...

Amy sporting a DCS760C from years ago. On yet another "portraits on location" escapade. 

I was packing up today for a shoot tomorrow morning when I started thinking about how often I do what seem to me now to be simple jobs; and how many times I've packed up like this and headed out from the studio on a morning to make the same kinds of photographs.

Tomorrow I will take headshots of six to ten insurance executives at their offices in north Austin. Even though my clients who are in technology sectors have moved on from seamless paper backgrounds to environmental portraits with out of focus backgrounds the clients in some of the more traditional fields are still using the "studio grey" seamless paper as backgrounds. In a few cases they are just attempting to match what I shot for them five years, or even ten years ago. It's simpler sometimes to keep a style that's still working for the client, if there are a number of executives whose portraits are already posted on their company website. I guess their choice boils down to: "Do we re-shoot the thirty guys we've already got photographs for or do we just keep the style we've had for these next ten?" Finance companies in particular always opt for a continuation because, after all, they are good at calculating the anticipated ROI from any particular investment...

I'll conservatively estimate that I've done a location project like this one at least five hundred times in the last twenty years. And probably a good number more that I've pushed out of my memory to make room for something else.

I tend to always pack the night before. It's a good time to check the equipment, make sure we've got memory cards loaded in the cameras and that the batteries are charged. I still have a check list on hand because no matter how often you've loaded your car the photographer, unaided by visual cues, will hew to Murphy's Law and forget that one vital piece. Usually a sync cord or the crossbar for the background stand set.

Tomorrow I'll be shooting with the Sony A7R2. I'm not excited about shooting 42 megapixel raw files and even less excited about the prospect of processing them so I'm setting the camera up to shoot in APS-C format which, I think, yields an 18 megapixel file instead. Since my mind is already wrapped around the aesthetics of shooting in the "crop" mode I feel comfortable backing up my primary camera with an a6300. I'll use the long end of the Zeiss 24-70mm f4.0 as my "A" lens (the effective FF focal range with the crop becomes about a 105mm, which is my favorite angle of view for portraits) but I'm bringing along the 18-105mm f4.0G lens as a back-up. It will work on either camera if I keep the A7R2 in the crop mode...

I've packed a couple of monolights; one is for the big soft box that is the main light and the other is for the small soft box that will light up the background. I'm also packing a battery powered, hotshoe flash in case I want to add a bit of back lighting for people with darker hair. A radio slave set for the moonlights, and extra batteries for the small flash, have also been tossed into the lighting case. My last two additions were: more hard sync cords (just in case) and a flash meter (in case I want to be fussy).

The rest of the gear is pretty straightforward; light stands, a tripod, a flexible collapsible reflector and an extension cord. There is one new addition to the mix. Don't get excited about it; it's not a new Leica SL. I always grapple with one aspect of posing and that's whether I'll have the subjects sit or stand. I've come to prefer standing poses because peoples' clothes hang better and look neater that way. Tomorrow I'll have my subjects sitting because it matches what we did for the same client a few years ago.  But the sitting pose, on location, is always fraught with other necessary choices.

Do I get to the location and hope I'll find an appropriate chair or stool at the client's place? Do I bring the big posing stool from the studio? The one with the huge, stable base and pneumatic center post? It's ungainly and hard to pack. Even with bungee cords it keeps falling off the cart as I steer it through the parking lot on my way into the location.

I remembered using a collapsible bench, about 18 inches wide, on a location a few years ago. It was made for musicians who play keyboard instruments. Every music store and guitar shop in Austin carries them so I went out and picked one up today. The reason they work well for doing seated portraits on location is that the can be folded flat and don't fall off the cart. They pack down pretty darn well. But the common benefit shared by both posing stools and keyboard benches is that there are no arms or backs which always seem to show up in photographs; and, since the bench is rather small, the subject has to exercise good posture; they can't lean back or they'll fall right over. I know it seems like a weird thing to think about but during the 500+ times I've done this bad chairs have been one of the big stumbling blocks I kept running into over and over again. I guess this latest purchase officially makes me a control freak...

It's nice to reduce the number of variables I have to think about when I'm trying to get work done in a space I've never previously seen.

So, assignments like this are efficient. I charge set fees for the time and an additional fee for each retouched portrait we deliver. The actual photography is straightforward and something I've practiced over and over again. The making of web galleries is almost automatic, and the process of retouching is a fun exercise in problem solving. The clients are stable and payment is prompt.

Stringing together a fair number of these assignments keeps the business humming and gives us the resources to play, experiment and take risks in other areas of my photographic practice. It's not the most creative kind of work in the photographic cosmology but it's certainly not unpleasant.

On another note I've spent some time this afternoon getting really comfortable with the Eye-AF controls the big Sony camera. I practiced so I wouldn't fumble around with the camera tomorrow.

That's all I've got this evening.