10.10.2016

Going small and light at Esther's Follies. Two cameras, two lenses. Both APS-C Sonys.

Ellen Kelter. Esther's Follies. 

The fun photographic assignments for me are the ones we do for theaters. There is something really exhilarating about being around talented actors and the idea that they routinely work live; without a safety net. I am under no illusion that my photography has to hit the mark every single time I work with clients. Sometimes I try something outside my comfort zone and get bit. I know the times when the client and I can get away with experimenting. For something like last Friday's shoot at the theatrical temple of political satire, Esther's Follies, I knew that I could try shooting a live show, and some behind the scenes images, with a couple of Sony a6X00 cameras and, if things hadn't worked out I could come back and reshoot the live show the next day.

For the last few theatrical documentations  I've done at Zach Theatre I've used a combination of cameras. Usually the a6300 and the A7Rii. My choice of these two cameras comes from the fact that when I shoot dress rehearsals of plays at Zach Theatre I am usually working around an audience and I think the ability to select the silent shutter option is comfortable for everyone. I tend to shoot a lot with the smaller format camera because I get a bit of extra reach from my lenses and I'll end up post processing files that are less than half the size of the A7Rii's huge raw files. 

The theater space at Esther's Follies is much smaller and so I don't really need the reach of something like the 70-200mm lens. I knew I could sit about ten rows into the audience and get both tight and wide shots with the very flexible 18-105mm f4.0 G lens on the a6300. When shooting a show with a full, paying audience I don't get to move around from side to side to get various angles, and being stationary also limits the lens choices I make. Action moves very fast at Esther's Follies. Skits can be as short as a couple of minutes which makes a wide ranging zoom much preferable to prime lenses. 

I was asked to come early for the first Friday night show so I could see a loose rehearsal, get a feel for the blocking and then hang out with the cast and shoot some shots behind the scenes, behind the curtains. I've shot at Esther's Follies for many years but in the past we always brought along studio electronic flash units and shot set-up poses on the stage. The images were good but lacked the kind of energy and verisimilitude we can get if we shoot images under actual stage lighting, during a live performance with an audience. Those kinds of shot were my main goal for the evening. 

The theater is down on Sixth St. and this weekend the city of Austin played host to the Austin City Limits Music Festival, so we had an extra 100,000 people in town. I wasn't sure about parking downtown. I thought I might end up far from the theater so I came prepared. I selected the a6000 and the a6300 as my cameras. I paired the a6300 with the 18-105mm f4.0 and decided that camera and lens would be my primary stage shooting camera. I gambled that I'd be able to keep the ISO around 1600 and the shutter speed up near 1/160 - 1/250th in spite of the lens having a maximum aperture of f4.0. The main reason for selecting it over the a6000 for shooting the show was that I would be sitting right next to (and in front and behind) patrons and I wanted to make sure I was using a silent camera. I also wanted to take advantage of that lens's image stabilization since I planned on spending time shooting at the long end of the lens and having the electronic tripod could make a quality difference. 

The two cameras, two main lenses (I tossed in the 50mm f1.8 OSS just for fun --- unused) a sack of batteries, my phone and a "just in case" electronic flash all fit into my little Tenba photo backpack. A perfect traveling case for practicing minimal gear photography. 

I paired the a6000 with the Sigma 30mm f1.4 DN lens for all of my "back of house" images, including actors in their dressing rooms and various views from backstage. The 30mm Sigma has the same angle of view on an APS-C camera as a 50mm lens does on a full frame camera and that just happens to be my absolute angle of view to shoot reportage with. It's has an unforced, lifelike view and it's a real chameleon of a focal length. While it would be even better with image stabilization either in the camera or the lens I felt like my handholding technique would be good enough to make the combo work.

I set both cameras to shoot raw. On the backstage camera (a6000) I used AWB because there was a mix of low level lighting that ranged from the greenish tinge of compact florescent lights to the orange warmth of incandescent, as well as a few LED bulbs in a fixture here and there. I knew I'd be individually correcting most of the back stage files but that was fine since I didn't shoot an enormous number. In situations like this I prefer to shoot with the camera set to manual. I can set a handhold able shutter speed, use the lens close to wide open (I seemed to prefer shooting at f2.5) and using ISO to fine tune exposures. Having a live histogram and live view in an EVF made it easy to zero in on the best exposures (but not always the most objectively accurate exposures). 

The a6000 does not have a silent shutter feature but it didn't matter since the actors and crew were all well aware that I was in the house and shooting.  I was actually pleasantly surprised by the a6000. I hadn't picked it up recently and I didn't remember it being so small and light. It felt almost transparent in its weightlessness. Even though it is an older model it's very close to the a6300 in handling and even low light, single frame AF. The main benefits of the a6300 in this kind of shooting, besides the silent shutter, are mostly that the newer camera has more phase detection AF points and AF seems zipper. The camera's EVF also seems a bit better (10%) at tracking color and exposure --- at least getting pretty close to what I would eventually see on my monitor when I transferred the raw files into Lightroom. 

I found the raw files to be quite malleable and I was happy to find that the latest rev. of Lightroom has  a profile built in for correction of the Sigma 30mm. It works very well and makes that lens shine. 

The stars in the Tenba bag were the a6300 and the sometimes maligned 18-105mm f4.0. I was able to sit in the middle of an audience and shoot at 5 or so frames per second without any noise at all. I elected to set the viewing controls to activate only the EVF so there was no distraction from a bright, rear camera screen. The image stabilization in the lens is good and probably buys me between two and a half or three stops of handhold-ability. There are few things I don't like about the two cameras but neither has anything to do with the menus or the image quality. I'm not even fazed by battery life. No, the one thing that I don't like about either camera is that they are just about half an inch to an inch too small. Not in ever direction, only in their height. Even though I have medium to small size hands the camera is so short that my pinky finger and the adjacent finger have no purchase on the camera. Making the camera a bit taller would make all the difference in the world to many users; myself in the forefront.

I have crested 10,000 actuations on each camera. This gives one much practice in holding and operating the cameras. Since I am shooting (in rotation it seems) with six different Sony cameras I have come to grips with the general layout of the menus and the familiarity is finally giving me comfort and confidence that I will be able to quickly find what I need. But the 20,000 combined exposures have made me realize that this could have been the perfect camera with just three ergonomic changes. First, as I just stated, the camera needs to be taller. Judging from the images of the new a6500 it seems that Sony does not believe this. Having finally understood this short coming I am researching the availability of battery grips or add on grips for the cameras. That would quickly solve my main problem but might introduce a secondary issue given that both cameras load their memory cards from the bottom. A grip might interfere with access. The secondary workaround is, I guess, to start with bigger memory cards so they need to be changed less often...

The second handling issue is the EVF finder area. This needs to have more relief for one's eye and more standoff. I feel as though I need to press my eye right into the finder to block reflections and see the image properly. The image in the finder is great but the mechanics of viewing need to be finessed. I can't imagine any add-on could fix this so I'll live with it....grudgingly. 

The third aspect is minor but annoying. I want the control dial on the back of the camera to be more tactile and much more robust feeling. The touch aspect of the rotating dial with four "button" points is so light that it lacks the tactile feedback to give me confidence in the control. This is important to shooting satisfaction as this control dial sets shutter speeds when I have the camera in manual exposure. I wish it were even half as good as the top mounted aperture control.

Once the a6300 is set up with the most used settings in the function menu, and once you've practiced 10,000 shots with it, the camera becomes highly responsive and quick to use. The size, when coupled with a lens like the Sigma 30mm, is a wonderfully light touch for just walking around and, when used in a non-intense shooting regime everything is comfortable. I've been noticing the things that bother me more because I've been using the camera more for longer shoots where I may end up shooting 500 to 1,000 shots in a day. You learn a lot more about a camera when you have it in your hands and in front of your face for hours at a time.

While the image quality in fringe situations (lowest light) might not be exactly as good as the A7ii or A7Rii cameras it is very, very close and a really great tool for most kinds of photography. The silent shutter is also "physically silent" so you won't worry about "shutter shock"  when trying to handhold the camera at slower shutter speeds. You could do a good business for 95% of the work in the market with these two cameras and an assortment of really good lenses. The Sigma is highly recommended. Even wide open I think it is capable of superb results. With the automated geometric corrections in Lightroom or Photoshop it becomes nearly perfect --- or as perfect as a $350 has any hope to be. 

The 18-105mm f4.0 G lens is currently my favorite event and "quick work" lens. It covers such  good range for me that I am tickled every time I use it. From a wide establishing shot to a tight head shot in the flick of a zoom ring. While reviews point to less sharpness in the corners I haven't really found that to be the case in these higher resolution cameras. I think what early reviewers were seeing was the results of "stretched pixels" in lower res cameras when the camera auto corrected the pretty big inherent distortion of the lens at the extremes. If you have fewer pixels to distribute into the corners then sharpness suffers. If you have bountiful pixels then the effect is much reduced. For the kind of work I do, with the subject of interest largely positioned away from the corners, these shortcomings are something that just doesn't affect me. 

I shot a lot of frames at Esther's Follies on Friday and paid for my exuberance on Saturday as I tried to coax myself to edit down 2300 images (total between the two cameras) down to about 600. I finally gave up and just tossed out images with technical faults or blinks and bad expressions. I'll end up delivering around 1200-1500 images later today. They start life as raw file and eventually find their practical stride as minimally compressed, full size Jpegs. 

Of all the files I've processed this weekend I am happy to say that they hold together very well. As to dynamic range I have "rescued" a few darker images by pushing the exposure slider in Lightroom by up to three stops with very little destructive effect. The shadows become a little noisier but an application of a small bit of noise reduction cleans them right up without visible damage to the sharpness and detail. Altogether an impressive show for me from both cameras. And a workable system with back up for about $2,000. Interesting. I had not given these cameras the credit they deserve. I wrongly judged them by their size (at least subconsciously), and that was a big mistake. They play in the big leagues. 

Final note, the only real difference I experience between the a6000 and the a6300 is with the shutter and the lack of a silent option on the a6000. That, and a lower resolution in the EVF, are the only things that differentiate the two bodies for my use. The phase detection point increase is welcome but not critical. The a6000 was itself a very nice shooting tool. Now if I can just find a decent grip.....






10.06.2016

Sony slams out new products. Seemingly laughing in the face of an industry slowdown.


We all know that everything is changing quickly in the camera biz. But even knowing that the pace at which Sony is launching product is a bit breathtaking. It seems like the a6300 just came out in late Spring and here, just a few months later, is the launch of the new Sony a6500. Same basic body style, same sensor, same rear display, same EVF but with a brand new price. What does $500 more dollars really buy you?

There are two main features that will either drive you to embrace this updated model or leave you smugly satisfied with the a6300 you already have in your hands. The first one is legitimate, it's the five axis image stabilization that they coerced out of Olympus. The advertising propaganda states that it will give us up to five stops slower, handholdable shutter speeds. Okay, as a photographer who likes using lots of non-stabilized, non-Sony lenses on my a6300 I can see this as a big plus. The second headline feature is the inclusion of......a touch screen with which to move and adjust focusing points.

For me touch screens fall into the category of features that may be mandatory for other people but seem like some much fluff to me. Into that category falls GPS, Panoramic modes, wi-fi, and "sports mode!!!!"  Maybe wonderful stuff for fiddly amateurs but extra stuff to be mis-set or go wrong for fast working professionals. But maybe working stiffs are not the target market for this camera. Heck maybe we are no longer a big enough market for camera makers to give a rat's ass about anyway.

I guess I'm a Luddite about some of this stuff but I'm trying hard to evolve an embrace "progress."

I read an analysis of the camera industry this week and it showed an overall decline (rapid, huge) in sales of interchangeable lens cameras. A lot of the bleeding came from Nikon. Things were flat or down for other lines. Some don't sell enough cameras world wide to be anything more than a speed bump. But I think it points to massive changes in what people look for in a camera. Changes in what constitutes a good, standalone, image making machine. If you can look past the form factor of Sony's a6x000 series you'll find cameras that are head-to-head competitive with the APS-C cameras being offered by Nikon and Canon. In all cases the Sony's are better 4K video machines. In most cases the newer two Sony's are as fast to auto focus as their competitors and, at least in the case of the cameras from Nikon, the sensors are as close as identical. What this all boils down to is whether or not you want to transition from a "traditional" design implementation of "classic" DSLR to a much smaller sized body which also features an EVF.

As you can tell, I've made my choices and most of them were at least somewhat driven by the inclusion of EVFs in the feature set.

The a6500 was just announced today and the indicated price for the USA market is $1,400, with is actually only $200 more than the a6300 was at its launch. Given Sony's recent inventory practices it seems like the a6500 is not a replacement for the a6300 but a new product tier with added features. Just as the a6000 is still in the line up I think the a6300 will also be regarded as current product for quite some time. This is actually nice. A consumer can choose the level of features as well as the build quality that serves their needs and/or their points of pricing pain.

Bottom level (a6000) delivers good performance, a similar (but not identical) 24 megapixel sensor. Lower video specs, a mostly plastic body and a slower frame rate. It's still a very serviceable image maker.

The middle level (a6300) gives you 4K video, a 24 megapixel, BSI sensor with copper tech, a faster imaging processor, a mostly metal body, the addition of picture profiles and S-Log for video. It lacks a touch screen and Image Stabilization.

The top tier (a6500) gives you some new (slow motion) video features, shares the sensor tech, shares the fast phase detect AF with 400+ sensors, increases the buffer dramatically, adds in a touch screen and state of the art Image Stabilization in much the same body.

I was interested in the a6500 when I first read of the announcement. I thought the improved video specs and the improved (faster) image process would be great for video but then I did some more research on the Sony website. The one feature that would have driven me toward a serious consideration of the camera would have been a headphone jack. It's absent on the two lower models and, sadly, also missing from the newest camera.

Given that the imaging pipeline is nearly identical to the a6300 the only real feature the a6500 would buy me would be the image stabilization. Since the whole a6X000 is a secondary system for me I'm not in a hurry to toss down more cash to acquire one. In time I'll probably sell off the a6000 and, if I'm using the system often enough, I'll consider replacing it with the new camera.

If I were starting fresh I think I would definitely go with the newer camera. If all the basic functions operate the same way the a6300 does I think it would be worth the extra cash to have a faster buffer and the I.S.

It's interesting to watch. Bigger cameras were always equated with better image quality in the film days. It's a prejudice that's driven the digital camera market along for quite some time now. But between the amazing Olympus products in micro four thirds and the some product line we're seeing equivalent image quality in each sensor size category, when comparing output (and handling) with bigger, more traditional cameras.

It seems as though Sony and others are driving us to reconsider what a good camera looks and feels like going forward. There might always be an argument for a bigger camera when used with bigger and faster lenses but maybe we'll just change the ergonomics of how we handle the lenses and cameras as unified package. Certainly, smaller cameras with fewer moving parts will be more reliable and portable. Now, if the haptics are friendly enough we'll probably see a tidal shift in the design of the actual packages.

It's fun to watch Sony's evolution on this line of cameras from the Nex models (loved the Nex-7 body, hated the menu) to the a6000 all the way to the a6500. These cameras must be resonating with the marketplace as Sony earlier this year bragged that the a6000 was the best selling, interchangeable lens camera in mirrorless digital. The market speaks.

I'm including an Amazon link for the a6300. It's here now and is a great intro to the Sony ILC systems. It's how I got roped in in the first place...


Imminent Travel. This time just for fun.


In Texas leaves are either green or desiccated brown. Up North? It's like rainbow on the ground.

One week left before I head to Saratoga Springs, NY. I will not be working for a client. I will not be teaching a workshop about "understanding shutter speed" or "how to insert your camera battery." In fact, all I will be doing is visiting my kiddo at college, hanging out with a photographer friend in town and (hopefully) enjoying the Fall color. It's a yearly event. Parents come to visit their children, eat a few meals in the dining hall, see some student performances, the faculty art show and a brief reception with the faculty. I'm sure the parents with more prodigious net worth are invited to the chancellor's house to have drinks and to learn about "opportunities to financially support the institution" but I'm sure the bursar's office has culled us out of that corral. 

I am looking forward to eating fried chicken at Hattie's with friends and swilling way too much coffee at Uncommon Grounds. I hope it gets cold enough in the evenings to comfortably wear a warm jacket and sturdy shoes. And, from now until late Wednesday night next week, I'll be mired in the process of deciding which single camera and lens I will drag along with me. Right now my money is on the A7ii and the 50mm f1.8 but the announcement of new cameras from Sony has me sidetracked. I keep looking at the a6300 with new appreciation, and I like what I've shot recently with the 18-105mm f4.0. But then I'd also want to carry along the Sigma 30mm f1.4 for a bit of speed and then we start down a slippery slope...   What do you carry with you on non-photography centric family trips? I can't bear to only take my phone...  


A house on Broadway. Heading toward campus.

The Case Center on the Skidmore College Campus.




Northeastern version of a cowboy?

The universal beverage. Crossing all language barriers. 


Just a few more images from our dress rehearsal shoot from Zach Theatre's production of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert."


In the week since I shot this work for Zach Theatre the marketing staff at the theater has done an incredible job leveraging social media to ramp up interest in the production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. American Theater Magazine is using one of my shots on the masthead of their website and on their Facebook page while the number of people who've commented on the images at Zach's Facebook page is enormous. They've used some of our rehearsal photos to make a web video, others to make printed and web delivered post cards, and they aren't slowing down. It's wonderful for an advertising photographer to see images I've shot go viral within our theater community, and all the way to various outlets out-of-state. The whipped creme and cherry for me is that I get a photo credit on each image and every use. From the public relations use in traditional newspapers to the edge of the posters. Seeing a credit is standard for editorial photographers but less frequent in advertising materials. Thank you! Zach Theatre for acknowledging my contribution!

After the high energy of the Priscilla rehearsals and performances you'd think I'd be ready to move on to something else but I'm heading back tonight (without a camera) to see the Champagne Opening from a different vantage point: As an actual audience member, unencumbered by the need to hold a camera in front of my face. I want to see the whole arc of the production, just sitting in a comfy seat next to my date (the wonderful Belinda).  

Since documenting Priscilla I've braved the Austin City Limits Music Festival traffic to come back over to Zach and photograph last Saturday's dress rehearsal for a children's play on the Nowland Stage, next door. It was a very well done production of Charlotte's Web. I used the same two Sony cameras but made one lens change. I got much use from the Sony a6300 + 18-105mm f4.0 G but I switched out the lens on the A7Rii, using the Zeiss 24-70mm f4.0 instead of the 70-200mm f4.0. The reason? The smaller theater is much more intimate and I can stand right at the edge of the stage to shoot. It's heaven. I'd forgotten just how great a feeling of depth is conveyed when getting close to an actor with a wider angle and seeing the forced perspective with the background. It feels so much more three dimensional than shooting further back with longer lenses. 

Since the Austin City Limits Festival closes most of the roads around the theater area and floods the surrounding streets with car traffic I actually packed my cameras and lenses into a small, moss green, Tenba backpack and hiked from the edge of our neighborhood to the theater. Right through the middle of the music loving hordes crowding the street (closed to cars) in front of the music venue. From the end of Rollingwood Drive to the front door of the studio it's a half hour walk at a brisk pace. I was already warmed up and ready to go when I got to the auditorium. And I didn't have to search endlessly for (non-existent) parking...

While the main stage at Zach (the new Topfer Theatre) uses a mix of mostly LED and some gelled tungsten lights and the smaller theater is still all tungsten I had to make allowances for the differences in color temperature and also lighting intensity. In the big theater I'm generally setting white balances around 4400K while in the smaller theater it's more in the range of 2900K to 3300K. It's also about one full stop darker, on average, for a stage wash in the smaller theater. 

So tonight I'm an audience member but tomorrow evening I'll be shooting for another great theater here in Austin, Texas. It's Esther's Follies. It's a famous troupe that's been down on Sixth Street for as long as I can remember. They are masters of comedy and political satire. Heck, they'll satire just about anything, and Texas politicians give them a rich potpourri of targets at which to aim. I've done a number of "set-up" shoots for them over the years. Set-up shoots are when you come to rehearsal and they stage a grouping and "look" for the more popular or highly visual skits. In these instances you have the ability to shoot the "peak" moment over and over again until you (photographer) get exactly what you want. It's different than shooting dress rehearsals or shows with full audiences. This will be my first project for Esther's Follies with a full audience in the house.

Tomorrow night I'll head to Esther's Follies early enough to capture images of people getting ready, getting into costumes and make-up, and then I'll find a spot that gives me an unimpeded view of the stage and spend the rest of the evening shooting the live show. I have the idea that I'll be using fast primes in the dressing rooms and versatile zooms from my fixed position during the show. Nice to shoot theater in a different space and with a different cast and crew. 

If you live in Austin you owe it to yourself to get out and see some of the incredible stuff that's going on with our local entertainment industry. Sure, you can go to a big show like ACL but that's like the McDonalds of entertainment. Places like Zach Theatre and Esther's Follies are more like fine dining. It's a deeper, richer and more Austin-based experience. And you don't have to sit in a field, in the dirt.














10.05.2016

A quick look around the studio at the lighting, etc. from yesterday's shoot.

We started with two soft boxes for our main lighting and used the 4x6 foot panel as an overhead "wash" light but some objects really wanted to be lit from above and skirted with black to read correctly. The big, silver reflector in the foreground is black on the opposite side and is blocking light from outside a window that was making a tiny reflection on one particularly shiny object. Count the number of light stands....overkill. 

Common 5-in-1 reflectors are cheap and ultra-handy in and out of the studio. Silver to block the light coming through windows, black on the other side to kill reflections. Turn the covers inside out and you have one gold reflective side and white on the other. Lose the covers altogether and you get a diffusion disk that's great for doing Minimalist Lighting (tm) set ups. I also use them outside. Silver toward the sun with the talent underneath for shade. The black helps subtract light from above and it's easier on the eyes. 

The reverse side. 

Three, big SMD LED lights illuminate the 4x6 foot Lastolite 1.25 stop panel. Shiny board on the table gives a crisp cutting edge for clipping paths while a smaller SMD LED with barn doors directly illuminates my background.

This is the reverse angle to the shots above. We wanted backlight for one really cool, highly machined product and it was the perfect setup. The Marshall monitor in the foreground (right) works well and moves super quick. It's plugged into the HDMI port of the A7Rii. Love the side arm on the Gitzo tripod. Need to find a side arm for the much bigger Benro...

These three lights do most of the heavy lifting (light-wise) around the studio and on most corporate locations. Clients seem to find flash on location disruptive. I just like the WYSIWYG nature of the LEDs (and all continuous lighting). 

Vital furnishing. This is Studio Dog's down comforter on top of her oval shaped bed. She generally likes to be comfortable if she needs to supervise both a photographer and an art director. 
She would often get up and circle the studio as I worked to make sure none of the cables or sandbags needed a warning growl.

Just a quick post to show how messy I get when I'm working on a project. 


How reliable are cameras? Why do I always write about cameras needing to travel in pairs?

I am always, always shocked to meet a photographer with pretensions of being professional who is out on a location with only one camera. And lately I've been meeting more and more photographers who tell me that their cameras are so reliable that they've never even thought of buying a second one...just in case. That's fine with me. I love competitors who will one day let a client down instead of making a modest investment in a back-up camera. Clients who've been badly burned by lackadaisical photographers are easy to win over.

But why the my paranoia about camera reliability? Why do I bother bringing along at least one extra camera on every single engagement? Why don't I just take my chances along with seemingly everyone else? There's got to be a few backstories, right?  Well, in fact, I have a few at my disposal to share.

Many years ago the gold standard of professional film cameras was the Hasselblad system. The cameras were expensive and by all accounts very rugged. But they did have a few idiosyncrasies. 
If you tried to shoot a 500 CM body before fully winding the camera between frames the whole camera and lens would lock up. You needed to be able to take off the film back, stick a specialized tool though the rear baffle shutter, engage a slotted gear on the back of the stuck lens and re-cock the lens shutter (leaf shutter technology...). Only then could you shoot again. 

There was one photographer in Austin who was notoriously cheap and, though his business could well afford it, he owned only one Hasselblad camera body. Being anxious about technical things he never bought the emergency tool and never learned the technique of unlocking a stuck camera. Several times a year he'd be shooting in his studio or on location and, yep, the camera would lock up. Sometimes with clients and models on the set. When this happened the whole shoot would come to a stop and he would send his assistant, along with the camera and lens, to Precision Camera so the owner and repair guru, Jerry Sullivan, could unlock the camera for him. 

The roundtrip to the camera store took an hour or two. Longer if Mr. Sullivan happened to be out at lunch. You can imagine how well this went down with some clients. To be fair though, Austin was pretty laid back in the 1990's and I guess everyone could have just grabbed a beer, sat on the loading dock and spaced out. I just know this wouldn't fly today. Not with the deadlines everyone is under. 

When I bought into the Hasselblad system I started with two of the ELX motor drive bodies. They were supposed to be built to take lots and lots of exposure cycles reliably. As my business grew and the cameras became central to my workflow I added another motor drive body and one of the workhorse, fully mechanical, 500 CM bodies.

I would always take the three bodies out with me if I was going to be shooting out of town. Just in case. Paranoid, right?

Well at one point on a dry and toasty August day I found myself in San Antonio working for one of the big home improvement chains. We were shooting a sports oriented campaign for the stores and it revolved around kid's sports. We were heading into late afternoon and we'd already shot a complex basketball shot with complicated lighting and a camera rigged onto a backboard. We'd shot a fake swim meet, and some young track stars running hurdles. Our last images of the day were going to be about kids who participate in Little League Baseball.

Our location scout had found a great ballpark and locked down the location. Our casting person had pieced together a small team of young men who play baseball and outfitted them. We set up to shoot in the late afternoon and we were contending with a lot of wind and a lot of dust. Apparently, there were dust storms in west Texas but we hadn't heard about them yet. The nice thing about the approaching storms was the way the dust diffused the sunlight and gave me a very interesting (and compelling) light to work with. 

We were finally set and had a shot blocked out. One of our super stars would be sliding into home plate as our catcher tried to tag him out. The temperature hovered in the low 100's and we were moving fast to get our shots before the sun moved out of its perfect position. I had a 110mm f2.0 Planar on my tripod-mounted camera and I shot off about half a roll of 220 color transparency film when the camera and lens just locked up. The client sensed something had "gone south" and came over to see what was wrong. I didn't feel like trying to perform field surgery with the special tool so I reached into our equipment case and pulled out a second, identical body and stuck on a similar lens; the 120mm Makro Planar. We picked up right where we left off and started working on different angles and different actions.

And then the second (almost brand new) body locked up and I started getting nervous. What were the odds? I Grabbed the third body and put the 80mm lens on the front. I figured that with the bigger transparency we could crop in and still get a nice angle of view, even though the lens was slightly wider than I would have liked. We were able to get through the rest of the project and finished with our last shots just as the sun started to set and we started to run out of light.

Since  I was 70 miles from home and had a crew and cast of nearly 16 along with me I was deliriously happy I happened to have the third body with me. The cost of not having it would have been multiples of the one time purchasing price. The client was pretty impressed too. It was an agency I still work with. 

It was a weird event and it never happened again. The repair service cleaned out the bodies (too much coarse dust) and we shot with those same cameras for years afterward. But it was a good lesson.

Of course many readers might be tempted to think that my misfortune could be tied to the fact that these were mostly mechanical cameras with lots of moving parts and tight tolerances, and I can give you that. But...

I remember when the Fuji S3 digital camera was a popular workhorse camera of the early digital days. I bought two of those as well. They both worked perfectly for months. Then I was up in a helicopter shooting luxury properties at Lake Travis when the screen on the back of my shooting camera started flashing an error message. "Card Not Readable." or something like that. Maybe it was, "Card Error." 

I popped the card out and replaced with with a different one. It gave me the same error message after three exposures. I pulled the lens off the offending camera and put it on my back up camera and put a fresh card into that camera and formatted it. We got through that shoot thanks to the back up camera. And it's a good thing we did because the helicopter my client rented was a Bell Jet Ranger and back in the early part of this century the hourly retail rate was around $650. 

"Ah." You might say, "That was a Fuji "Frankenstein" camera. Not the solid technology you would expect from Nikon or Canon!"  Had I been using a real pro camera I might not have had those problems, right? Well that brings me to the Nikon D2X. A camera that I really loved. A camera that I bought to replace the Fujis after a few more card disasters. I'd purchased a D200 and wanted the D2X as it had a few more megapixels and also had a reputation for uncanny sharpness and resolution, so I splashed out $ 5400 and got one. It worked for a week and a half before the shutter stopped working ( purchase new from a Nikon USA dealer) and it had to be sent back to the manufacturer. Seems that there was a "known" early shutter problem and a few subsequent recalls. 

I circled back to the D200 and used a D80 as a basic back-up camera until the D200 developed  non-linear, front and back focusing problems with all of my Nikon lenses. I found this out on an event location when I tested and evaluated images the night before the opening of a 2500 person conference in Orlando. Off went the D200 (which, incidentally, could never be repaired correctly) and I rushed out to a local camera store and bought second D80 to back up the first one. (I guess it would be perceived as "piling on" to mention the three different recalls for my recent Nikon D750...hmmmm). 

I'll close by saying that even the best camera in the world failed me once. It was a Leica M3. Outfitted with a dual range, 50mm Summicron lens. It had just been overhauled by a Leica certified technician and I took it on a romantic trip to Paris as my only camera. On our second day in the city, standing in front of some magnificent example of architecture, the camera locked up and would not wind. With two weeks of vacation in front of us I sighed, pulled a credit card out of my wallet and went looking for a camera store... Time and opportunity lost, not to mention yet another mostly unnecessary camera purchase. 

So, when someone says they don't need a back up camera I'll just assume that they don't do this photography stuff for money or for clients with real content needs and real deadlines. Because my experience tells me they are heading for a fall. Not just by a camera failing on its own but also failure due to drop damage, drip damage, or my favorite = the time an assistant stuck her finger through a fragile shutter curtain. The spilled coffee, the unlatched case, the fast sprinting hit-and-run thief, etc. etc. 

Even though we were shooting in the studio yesterday I prepped two cameras. One to actually do the job with, the other just in case. If you are serious about providing good service you should be serious about having gear you can use if your main camera does a swan dive. You don't have to be two identical Phase One 100 megapixel cameras but your back up should be able, at the minimum, to give your client useable files for the project at hand. Even if that second body has to be rented for the job. 

Get a back up. A decent back up body is less than the charge for one day's work at most people's fees. Seems like good insurance to me; clients are hard enough to find and please...



Going close and deep with the Rokinon 100mm f2.8 macro.



I've been photographing for a high technology healthcare client this week. They make things like CPU controlled joints and prosthetics. We were shooting against a white background and all the products will be clipped and have the backgrounds dropped out. The client likes big files and I like sharp files. I used the Sony A7Rii and a fairly recent lens purchase, the Rokinon 100mm f2.8 Macro.

The lens is physically large but not too heavy. It comes with a very deep lens hood (and I use lens hoods all the time) and seems to be very, very well made. The model I am using is an FE Sony mount so I'm not using an adapter.

There are many lenses I use where I am happy to auto focus and might thing twice about buying a model that "only" features manual focusing but in studio macro work this is not one of those lenses. The need to place focus very accurately means the lenses we use for close up work in the studio should be manual focus lenses.

When I use this lens in the studio I am generally collaborating with an art director and so need to share the preview image and the review image on a big enough monitor so we can both see the images and evaluate them. While many photographers like shooting tethered to their computers I prefer a smaller monitor that I can use right next to the camera as we move it around the studio. I also prefer to have the images written to the in camera card instead of to the hard drive of a laptop. I use a small, battery powered, Marshall field monitor for preview and review purposes.


While I have spent time and energy calibrating the monitor we don't rely on it for color judgements, I prefer to make a custom white balance, shoot raw and fine tune the resulting colors in post production. The highly portable monitor is a great tool on the set since the HDMI connection gives me live view imaging on a bigger screen throughout the shooting process. It is easier to see sharp focus that evaluating for focus on the camera screen and it also shows focus peaking and zebras generated by the camera. When attaching the monitor to the camera the camera screen and EVF turn off. This adds much more life to the camera battery. We were able to work with the camera on continuously from 9:30 am, yesterday morning, until nearly 1:30 pm  before we changed camera batteries. I think four hours of run time is great, considering the compact size of the Sony batteries.

Circling back to the lens itself I have to say that it is a very good option. I've used it now on a number of industrial shoots like this one and find it to be sharp across the frame by f4.0 and able to go head to head with any Leica or Zeiss lens I used in the past for macro work. Keep in mind though that the Zeiss and Leica lenses I am referencing all were designed and manufactured back in the film era and so, I am sure, there are newer versions that may be even sharper than the Rokinon. 

One aspect of shooting close in is always working with depth of field. There's never enough. At least I think there is never enough. I needed to get enough DOF to keep all parts of the products I was shooting in focus and even though I am very aware of the theoretical sharpness robbing effects of diffraction from stopping down too far I pushed my envelope of technical prejudice and worked with f-stops starting at f11 and going all the way down to f22. 

When I examined the files this morning at 100 % I was happy to see that the images were still more than adequately sharp, even at f22. I have not tried shooting at f32 as I think of that stop as a "hail Mary" stop. Put there when nothing else but DOF matters. 

The art director and I worked with five SMD LED lights which gave us the ability to see, in real time, what we were getting. The lights were bright enough to make fine focusing easy and the ability to punch in and magnify the preview image all the way up to 25 times was wonderful. That magnification would be useless if you tried to use it while handholding but with a heavy duty tripod it becomes much more practical. At 25x we focused on the grain of metal machining. It was a perfect target. 

So, three things have changed since I first started doing fine and close product photography back in the film days. First, we've switched from flash to continuous lighting which makes the process of photographing much less iterative and much more immersive. It also allows me to select and aperture and fine tune exposure via shutter speed (unlike flash which allows control mostly through aperture and ISO). Second, the use of a very portable, battery powered monitor with a much bigger screen (compared to the camera) allows the process to be quicker where collaboration is involved. The art director and I can easily share the monitor and position it on the fly. Finally, using an "all live view" camera along with a well calibrated monitor means we are shooting with a live histogram and lots of good feedback. Once we nail the look and feel of a shot on our monitor we are able to shoot a couple of frames and move on where, in the past, we would have bracketed exposures or moved them to the big computer to evaluate. 

As good as the lens is and as fast as the shooting process has become the choke point is always the lighting. Not every object fits into cookie cutter lighting templates. Yesterday we had curved products, built from carbon fiber that had a highly glossy finish. It was a lighting challenge that took an hour, in some instances, to solve. As good as cameras are the bottom line is that lighting still drives the need for experience and expertise as well as understanding all the fundamentals of lighting science. My copy of the book, Light, Science and Magic never gathers dust. And no matter how many things you've lit Murphy's Law ensures that there is always something out there to stump you. 

Final thought: The 100mm f2.8 Rokinon Macro is a great lens for a price of around $550. I look forward to spending some time shooting portraits with it in order to understand its strengths and weaknesses as a portrait lens. For now, I am happy that it's a great tool for traditional, industrial close up work.



10.02.2016

A good, small working system. Right under my nose.


In the 1990s I spent a great deal of time shooting with a small Leica system. Usually a couple of M6 cameras (the .72 and .85) as well as the 24mm, the 50mm and 90mm focal lengths. All five items fit into a small, Domke shoulder bag and were never the kind of burden I've since experienced with a couple of full sized DSLRs and the usual "Holy Trinity" of zoom lenses: The 17-35mm f2.8, 24-70mm f2.8 and the monstrous 70-200mm f2.8. Those five pieces in a bag would quickly make one's spine lopsided or the small of one's back a war zone.

It's seems like all but most dense or the most physically courageous have left the punishing load of cameras behind and embraced some of the smaller systems. A good idea unless someone is paying you thousands of dollars per day to haul the freight. As a (hard) working professional who carries his own bags I'm still a bit stuck. I'm using the Sony full frame A7 series and while the two bodies I use are lighter and smaller than my previous gear I would not be gaining much (or, indeed, any) advantage once I added in Sony's gargantuan, fast zoom optics. Their 16-35mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm f2.8 lenses are no smaller or lighter than anyone else's and, in most cases are a bit more weighty.

My workaround for the Sony system is the same one I used for the previous Canon system: get better optical performance and less of a physical workout by purchasing and using the same basic lenses but choose the ones with the f4.0 aperture instead of the prestige f-stops. In nearly every system the pro lenses that are one stop slower are sharper, contrastier and better corrected. I won't find out if that's true in the Sony system because I never intend to drop the money (or suffer the burden of carrying them long enough) to find out.

This past week I shot a couple of dress rehearsals for Zach Theatre. We did one for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and we did one for a children's play, Charlotte's Web. In both cases I wanted to use cameras that were silent. At Priscilla we had a full audience and I was positioned near the videographer who was recording theater sound in addition to having a patch from the main sound board. At Charlotte I was surrounded by kids and parents and the space we were shooting in was more intimate than the main, Topfer stage.

I have two cameras that feature the option to use the shutter in a silent mode (just counting interchangeable lens models; both of my RX10ixx models have the same silent abilities), the A7Rii and the a6300. During Priscilla I shot with the 70-200mm on the A7Rii and used the 18-105mm f4.0 G lens on the a6300. They were quite silent, but here I also have a tip for people just starting out in theatrical photography or performance work: Turn off the review screen on the back. If there is an audience then chimping on a brightly illuminated screen is sure to piss off everyone behind you... Suck it up and buy a camera with an EVF and then select EVF-only for your review options. When you stop to chimp during a performance you'll just look like a guy in a partial coma instead of an indifferent asshole.

As you probably expect, the performance from the A7Rii and the big zoom lens is pretty great. Wonderful detail and the ability to be used at ISO 6400 with no worries. But the camera that made me smile both times was the a6300. It's small and light and resembles my old and nostalgically remembered Leicas. I use it mostly with fun little primes but the 18-105mm is sharp and lightweight. It's the perfect selection of focal lengths for the work I've been doing and the handing is straightforward --- at least if feels like it now that I've been using it for a good while....

Though small and light the EVF is very good and the overall response of the camera: focus, zooming, viewing and taking, is very good as well. After looking through several thousand images shot in the space of a week I can honestly say I'd feel confident going out with just that camera and lens to shoot just about anything; from a conference to a portrait session. Of course, I am "old school" so I'd want an extra body in the bag as a back-up, and while I'm taking up space with back up bodies I guess I'd also toss in a similar lens as well. No sense traveling across town or half way around the world and then suffering through a camera accident or failure.

Sony has packed a lot of capability into a very small package. One that can almost keep up with the full frame flagship from that company. I'm carrying it with me to San Antonio tomorrow. I've got meetings and obligations but what a perfect tool for pulling out of the messenger bag just to snap a few shots between the endless cups of coffee and the sometimes false camaraderie of commerce.


What has changed in LED lighting technology?

RPS Dotline, 50 watt SMD LED.

When I started working on my book about LED lights for photographers there were limited choices in the general configurations of LED lights that were affordable for most hobbyists (and pros buying a second or third lighting system) to choose from. Nearly all LEDs aimed at photographers and videographers were small, rectangular constructions that depending on grouping dozens or hundreds of small, low powered, individual bulbs. Cost effective bulbs were small and low powered and so, to get enough lumens on a subject to be effective, the designers depended on strength in numbers. At one time I owned several panels that had 1,000 individual bulbs. 

These panels worked. They were especially useful in situations that required soft light since they were necessarily large in size and could be easily diffused. The granddaddy of the multiple bulbed panels was LitePanels. At the time of my book publication one 1 foot by 1 foot LitePanel was around $1800. If all you wanted  from your light was a biggish, diffused source then these were very practical. But most videographers, directors of photography on TV and movie sets and photographers wanted more flexibility. We wanted to be able to use LEDs the same way we used to use flash and tungsten. We wanted to have strong, highly collimated light if we wanted to create hard shadows or place a shaft of light with any sort of precision. 

While the price of multi-bulb panels dropped and became more and more widespread in the field higher end light manufacturers started working with a new technology: High Density, Surface Mount Device (SMD) LEDs. This technology allowed LED makers to radically shrink the surface area required for the LEDs down to the basic area of a traditional bulb. Or smaller. The first applications came at the high end as lighitng manufacturers for film and stage started engineering fresnel spot lights with the new SMDs. 

About three years ago Fiilex and several other light makers started introducing what we used to call "open face" instruments. These were smallish lights with high output SMDs. The advantages were all about controlling the character of light. A smaller source gives you the ability to have either a hard light or a softlight by using the lights bare or with various softening modifiers. The advantage beyond lighting character was portability. The lights could be made smaller and in more practical shapes and that meant we could toss three or four Fiilex 360s into a small case and light in lots of different locations. 

I got samples of the Fiilex units early on and I was very impressed with the light quality the created. The one thing I was unsatisfied with was their output. It was hard to use them in some situations because they would be overpowered by ambient lighting in industrial and office environments. There were more powerful SMD LEDs available but at the time the pricing for those upgrades was staggering. For example, Fiilex makes and markets a unit with the same output as a traditional 1K (thousand watt tungsten) for around $2500. Given that you need three or four matched units in a kit and the pricing for an individual photographer (who must still have a strobe system....) becomes unworkable. 

But around two years ago I happened upon a boxed product at my local retailer. They'd done a poor job at displaying the product and I had never heard of it before. It was an RPS product. In the box was a 100 watt (500 tungsten equivalent) SMD LED configured like a monolight. It uses a Bowens mount for speedrings and reflectors and has simple power level controls in the back. The price at the time was $299, which is a relatively painless "toe in the water." I bought one to test. With a simple custom white balance it was good. And bright. And (with a whisper fan) pretty quiet. 

The ability to use these lights with soft boxes, umbrellas, shoots, grids and all the usual cinematic modifiers quickly sold me on the concept and I purchased two more of the big units and two of the lower power (50W) units. Each light came with a standard, bowens reflector, a set of barn doors and a diffusion "sock" that fits over the front of the reflector. 

Since the electronics and the light source of an SMD LED light are more concentrated heat management becomes part of the engineering equation and all of the SMD lights (cheap and dear) that I have played with come with cooling fans. The RPS versions are very, very quiet and, in all but the most anechoic environments, would be okay for shooting video interviews with sound. 

I have used the SMD LEDs to light lots of food, products, interviews, portraits and more. I have intermixed them with smaller panels I have in inventory around the studio and I have mixed them with indirect sunlight. They have worked well. In particularly light being able to use them in medium sized soft boxes since I can now light portrait set ups with half the number of stands I needed when using large, multi-bulb LED panels. I would need one stand for the panel light and one more stand at each station to hold the modifier. My total investment in SMD LED lights is about $1200 for five instruments. 

While I'm talking about RPS product here I want to quickly say that it appears the same basic SMD LED light source is being used in quite a number of inexpensive units that come from China. Godox, Fotodiox, and Alzo all seem to use the same basic form factors and the same Bowens mount fitting which leads me to believe that all the units start life at the same factory but have the option of customizing the casing, features, etc. 

Anecdotally, the 100 watt units seem to garner the highest number of good reviews and a lower number of instances of failure then do the newer, 200 watt versions. While the extra one stop of output would be nice, I think I'll err on the side of reliability for now. 

The shift from big panels to compact, flash-like, lighting configurations (made possible by the SMD tech) is changing the market. I'm pretty certain we'll see a shift away from the multi-bulb panels except for permanent installations (TV studios, etc.) as the newer form factor, made possible by the concentration of light power, makes these units easier to transport and much more versatile as lighting instruments. Given how clean middle ISOs (400-1600) are in the newest cameras and you can see that the combination of technical advances leverages in both directions. 

There are plenty of instance in which I still depend on electronic flash. When I fly out of town on jobs I tend to take multiple smaller flashes and radio triggers because they travel well and can be massed if I need to mix with sunlight. In some very critical instances the more balanced spectrum of flash can be discernible on projects where flesh tone rendering (skin) it critical. 

The one Achiiles heel (only for photographers) is that in order to match the power of sun light with continuous lighting you need sources that are very strong. If you put people in front of these lights you will invariably get squinting and blinking. This application; matching the power of sunlight, will be the provence of short duration flash for the foreseeable future. 

In the studio, shooting product, I can't imagine a nicer lighting tool than an open face SMD LED light that takes popular flash modifiers. For travel on small planes to remote locations I can't imagine a better set of tools than a rolling case filled with 120 watt second, battery powered flashes and a bunch of high capacity batteries. As usual, it's a case of choosing "the right tool for the job." 

If you are running out to buy some SMD LEDs you probably should be aware that the current "budget" lights, like the ones I've been using, are not as highly corrected, color wise, as the more expensive models. While it's hard to find real numbers you want to look for a CRI (color rendering index) of over 91 and preferably over 95. Don't expect to find this in any of the under $500 units. 

It's an issue if you must correctly match daylight but in most cases, working in controllable studio settings, custom white balancing your camera will give you files that are pretty close to perfect. I found great value in using continuous light sources like the SMD LEDs in a recent assignment we did shooting small, glass ampoules for a client. I was able to work at 1:1 with a macro lens and instantly choose an aperture/shutter speed ratio that worked for required depth of field with various sized objects. I was able to use the lights in close and not worry about heat or the optical aggravation of intermittent pops of bright light (flash). It's a calm and relaxing way to work. 

I'd love to say that a generalist could make a career with just LEDs as his or her lighting tools but we still need a good combination of tools. LEDs can be a much more efficient and easy to use source but flash still has mission critical features in lots of situations. It's good to have access to both. 


An example of a primitive and very inexpensive multi-bulb panel from yesteryear. 



The diffusion cone helps to emulate the character of a classic bulb.





Old, 500 bulb panels. Perfect for shooting food...


New SMD LED in softbox. Less stand clutter.