1.11.2017

Momentarily fatigued writing about video. More fun today writing about portraits.

Michelle 2016.

This is a photograph of my friend, Michelle. I have photographed her off and on for about 25 years now. I feel like we were just kids when we first met and started working together. I cast Michelle in a bunch of print ad campaigns in the 1990's and she came across as the perfect (aspirational) young "soccer mom." In fact, I considered her to be the gold standard for the higher end real estate projects we were routinely called on to produce.

She got in touch recently and asked me to take portraits of her to use for public relations in her speaking career. I was more than happy to oblige as I have a beautiful black and white portrait of her on the wall, just to the right of my desk. Looking at it gives me a boost of confidence when I'm working on bids and proposals because I can look at that print and know that I have been able to produce work I love in the past, and there's a better than even chance that I can do it again. I'd say, given that I've had the print on the wall since I moved my office here 20 years ago, that Michelle has already pre-paid me a hundred times over for any new portrait I might make of her now.

This image was done with simple lighting and straightforward camera work. The lights were studio electronic flash with one head into a big, big modifier to the right of the frame and the second light in a small, 12x16 inch, softbox between Michelle and the background.

The camera was a Sony A7Rii and the lens was the (too sharp) Sony 70-200mm f4.0 G.

I did a bit of post production to soften Michelle's skin tone and retouched a few wrinkles around her eyes. You might not like retouching and you may think I've overdone it but this is more like what Michelle looks like in my mind's eye. And what I wanted to create was an honest, kind, happy, warm image of someone who embodies those qualities.

In some senses a good portrait is part of the routine nature of my business. But to me, when it comes to friends in the studio, it's more an opportunity to catch up, share good news and bad news, and bolster each other to face the future with optimism, and a sense that we are all connected to each other. Some more strongly than others.


Here is a photograph of Michelle from an earlier session (1992).
She helps me understand that beauty transcends time.



1.09.2017

It's not about size, weight or form factor. No, the reason to use mirrorless cameras is for the features, the video and the EVFs. Forget about the whole size distraction.


My favorite "mirror-free" cameras are not grotesque little feather light waifs. I'm not choosing a camera because I am too wimpy to haul around a stout machine. No,  I choose my cameras based on the performance and feature sets they offer. And, unless you are medically impaired, you should too. 

It's been really annoying for the past few days to read what the sallow forum dwellers have been writing about the Panasonic GH5. There is a contingent of supposed camera users who are eager to dismiss the GH5 out of hand because....."It's as big and heavy as a DSLR!!!!!" (Imagine added whining and posturing).  As I understand it the value proposition of the GH5 has very little to do with trying to achieve a midget-sized camera and everything to do with just beating the crap out of the competition when it comes to the raison d'ĂȘtre for its existence. Video high performance coupled with photography core competence. So, in a day and age when Canon and Nikon can barely manage making 4K possible in their camera bodies (even the really expensive ones) the GH5 can shoot 4K at high bit rates, up to 60 fps. And it's been announced that the camera will be able to do 4K 10bit 4:2:2 when it's finalized. Plus, when you are shooting video the camera will still be able to auto focus like a bat out of hell. Red "Disney" eyes blazing. And all this without the 29.99 minute time limit or even a hint of overheating.

Then, on the still side, there's 9 frames per second with full AF between each frame. And a super high res rear monitor. And, and, and. Even the battery life is in the same ballpark with the traditional DSLRs.

So, you get the state-of-the-art in video technology combined with fantastic specs for still photography, along with a giant warehouse full of features and all these dolts can think about is that the camera is almost as heavy as they cameras they profess to love. I guess we are now really living in a fact-free, rational thought-free society...

Yes, dear readers who have Nikons, Canons, Pentaxes and Mirandas, I get that you don't want to do video with your cameras and that you feel as though your cameras are still highly capable of making pretty pictures. I agree. There is no need for anyone who is happy with their status quo to rush out and make camera manufacturers wealthy. But many, many, many of the new features do help working people make better images, better movies, better corporate videos and so much more. 

I would understand a carpenter in 1982 having little use for a word processor but you have to understand how excited we copywriters were when we started using WordStar 1.0, mastering the necessary 2,035 keyboard commands and all. It meant that we could write and re-write, and correct our re-writes, with an efficiency and speed we had never experienced before. Without White-out and without carbon paper. The mirrorless deniers are basically saying, "What the hell is wrong with a Remington type writer? It worked for Ernest Hemmingway, it'll work for me!" But now look. No one I've met has used a typewriter to write a blog. Or typed a post A.D. 2000 report. Or a letter (do other people still write those?). 

People who have $2,000 to spend on a new camera shouldn't really make their buying decision on whether or not their two year old can pick the camera up and carry it around all day. It's not the cleverest part of their astute decision making process. They should look at the tool and sum up how well it does the things they need to get done and then add in the new features that might make their work more efficient (auto focus stacking anyone?). 

I owned and used the GH4 a year or two ago and it was a great camera. Judging by the things I've read about the GH5 it should deliver video performance that rivals dedicated $10,000 video cameras while also providing a very high level of still photography ummmph. 

I've found that when I have purchased a few mirrorless cameras they had one design flaw. I'll use the Olympus EM5.2 as an example. It was fun to shoot and the images it takes are pretty darn great but it was just too damn small. So small that Olympus couldn't even fit a headphone jack onto the body. So small that even my small to medium sized hands spent most of their time with the camera looking for something to hold on to. My workaround was to go out and get battery grips for all EM-5 cameras in my possession. Only then was the camera nearly perfect for everyday use. 

I've railed before about people who want a camera that fits in the pocket of their pants. I don't understand their strange point of view. Why not just stick an iPhone 7 in the pocket and be done with it. But no, they are on a crusade to find an interchangeable lens camera that's truly pocketable. We call that insane. 

So look at my favorite "mirror-free" cameras. They are, for the most part, big and bulky, not frail and diminutive. The RX10iii is big. Really big. But it delivers so much. And it works so well. 

Then look at my Olympus EM5.2 in the photo just below. The battery grip brings back competitive amount of square inch space while upping the handhold ability quotient. 





Above and below are two of my favorite full frame cameras; the A7Rii and the A7ii. Once I have them outfitted to match battery life and hand hold-ability of traditional cameras they certainly feel better but they bring with them all the real features that make a "mirror-free" professional lifestyle so enjoyable. Those features would include, easy-peasy live view, the ability to use an incredibly large selection of lenses, instant entry into efficient movie modes (with tons of extras for movie making), pre-chimping via the EVFs and so much more. None of which is predicated on, or makes necessary, small size or lightweight. No, the reason most mirror-free cameras are smaller is the form following function thing. Fewer moving parts makes for better tolerances and greater reliability. The freedom of designing without having to consider a mirror box means that designers (if they were rational) could design their cameras to be optimized for ergonomics. It will just take time to figure out the right sizes now that the steam engine innards have been relegated to the past.


I know it's different for everyone. One reason I don't really care about the size of cameras (having hauled old Hasselblads around on vacation) is the fact that in my working life we're hauling around lights, cases full of modifiers, lots of light stands, tripods, diffuser frames and all the other materials we need to make photographs that sell. If I had a Guggenheim grant and the requisite coolness factor I would love to roam around with just a single camera body and a lens. But that's rarely the case in my day to day work. Even the smallish a6300 blossoms with more and more stuff. 


And neither were the early mirror-free cameras shrinking violets either. My original Sony R1 was as big as most of my "professional" cameras and bigger than some. While it was early tech it showcased something that I've come to like about one of Sony's camera design philosophies: The idea of building a "no holds barred" lens as a permanently attached part of the camera system. It worked on the R1 and it seems to work well for many of their other Cybershot cameras. It's not the way to make cameras smaller. Just better.  And I'm really OK with that. 


A quick story about videotaping the opening session of a regional (north American) sales meeting for a client. Just some nuts and bolts.

 "LBJ" Played by Steve Vinovich at Zach Theatre. Coming soon. 

I've always been on the advertising side of photography, film and video. I've been involved in making TV commercials since 1985 and in making photographs for ads even longer. My one "cross over" into public relations and special events has been the photographic documentation of corporate events. Sales meetings in Maui, customer showcases in Madrid, Rome, Paris, Lisbon, etc. The corporate meetings have always been fun because I get to learn new information and at the same time practice my craft for hours and hours a day. 

I've recently been branching out and I've been delivering more video services. All kinds of video services. This morning I had the opportunity to videotape the opening session of a sales meeting for one of my clients. Usually, I roam the events with a still camera and try to catch interesting moments, but today I was standing behind a tripod on a riser, next to the A/V "command center," making a two hour and seven minute video documentation of the executives (and a motivational keynote speaker) on a black draped conference center stage. The challenges were there but it was a fun time trying to pit the things I've been learning over the last year against the chaotic nature of a series of live presentations. 

The event started for real today but it started in my mind the day last week that we booked the job. I started planning for how I would shoot and how I might handle worst case scenarios. My imagined scenarios ranged from complete camera failure (bring back ups) to the meltdown of the audio (have multiple sources) to the grim idea of an unlit stage with black drapes (solution? hang your head and cry, but make sure the audio is perfect....). 

Over the weekend I was able to get in touch with the A/V guy at the Westin Hotel where we would be providing our services. I drove out to meet with him yesterday and he had already put a set of risers exactly where I would have put them in the ballroom. He had an XLR cable running from the sound board he would be managing, right over to my camera. He'd thoughtfully provided a power strip, just in case I needed to plug in something. I was so happy I hugged the guy. 

My worst case scenario for audio went something like this: I'll be on a platform in the middle of the room, about a hundred feet from the sound board. I'll need to grab sound from the board with a portable audio recorder running into a wireless transmitter, then into a wireless receiver that is connected to the camera. Can't imagine what might go wrong in that scenario (sarcasm implied). But I knew it would be less wrong than trying to tape down 100 feet of coaxial cable running across a crowded conference ballroom.

My back-ups, if the sound board/wireless idea went south, were, in order, grab the second set of wireless gear and get a microphone near one of the loudspeakers. My last choice was to put a shotgun microphone on the camera and pray. Luckily, Steven at the Westin was all over it and the audio was perfect from beginning to end. 

I knew which camera I wanted to use but even waffled there for a few moments. I thought the RX10iii would be a great choice but I worried about how well I'd be able to focus it. I also worried about the battery life and the 29.99 minute cap on run time. I briefly toyed with the idea of renting a "real" videocamera or, alternatively, using the a6300 with a the 70-200mm. I did few tests and decided to go for it and use the RX10iii; and I'm glad I did.

Some tips I've learned from the video camera operators I worked with on shows like this in the past. 

1. Get the venue to set up two riser stands that are about 24 inches high. These will ensure that you get over the heads of the audience in front of you. You'll want two, one right in front of the other. Your camera/tripod goes on the front one and you go on the back one, that way when you shift your weight the camera doesn't wiggle and exaggerate the motion via the 600mm focal length. 

2. You'll want a feed (cable) from the sound board that the A/V people are using to mix in the sound from all the speakers' lav microphones, along with walk-in music, etc. I vote for a single channel of audio (mixed down) that comes to me as an XLR plug. It's a line level output so you can't take it straight into a consumer camera like the Sony RX10iii directly; the signal is too strong! You'll want something like my little Beachtek D2A which has a line/mic switch for each channel which puts a "pad" in between the line signal and the camera. 

I set the Beachtek to give me two mono signals instead of stereo on the off chance that I'll want to run a safety microphone in the vacant channel.  (Yes, it was part of my strategy...). The Zoom H5 also allows you to pad a line input and will also give me two totally separate channels. 

A lifesaver on the D2A is a little switch labeled "G1" and "G2." This switches the ground phase and comes in super handy as it did today. When I hooked up all my stuff there was a nasty hum in my headphones. One flick of that switch killed it. 

3. Figure out what the dominant light source for the stage is well before the start of the program and set that instead of relying on AWB. Today we worked with tungsten/halogen spots and the "lightbulb" setting was right on the money. 

4. Wear comfortable shoes. Go to the restroom before a 2 hour program starts...

5. Use manual focusing. With a detailed, seven inch, external monitor you'll be able to punch in and check focus from time to time to make sure what you see is really what you see.

6. Set up focus peaking on your monitor but also double check focus by punching in. Just to make sure.

7. Modern executives love walking back and forth across the stage as they speak, and some love walking out into the audience. Make your pans nice and smooth and be ready to ramp up your ISO as they leave behind the lovely light that was created for them on the stage. Just remember to make slow, smooth pans when you follow them around...

8.  Forget about trying to capture the Power Point stuff on the screens adjacent to the main stage. You can get a copy of the slide deck and output them as Jpegs then add them into the program as B-Roll.

9. Listen carefully for any electrical hum in your sound mix. It's probably coming from a power cable crossing a microphone cable. That can be fixed but only if you do it before you get rolling.

10. I find that if I'm paying too much attention to the subject matter of the speaker's presentation I lose track of my duties as a video documenter. I mostly ignore what the speakers are saying and pay attention to keeping my ever pacing presenters near the center mark on the monitor screen.

Today's set up: I had the camera (RX10iii) mounted in a cage with the monitor mounted up and to my left (top of the frame).  I had the Beachtek D2A mounted on the other side, also at the top of the cage (my right). The monitor is somewhat battery hungry (and the older Sony NFP-550s I have for it are aging quickly --- they were left overs) so I used an A/C adapter and ran the monitor from that. Since my RX10iii has a headphone jack I plugged in my headphones directly into the camera. The output from the D2A went into the microphone input of the camera. The left channel was the signal from the sound board while the right channel was the output from a shotgun microphone sitting in a cold shoe next to the Beachtek.

The 29.99 minute limit on continuous recording was much less of an issue than I assumed it might be. At any time during a recording cycle you can hit the red record button to stop recording and then immediately hit it again to start a fresh 29.99 minutes. I got into the rhythm of starting a clip and then looking at my watch. When I hit the 25 minute mark I would start looking for an organic gap. Something like applause at the end of a presentation or the arrival of a new speaker. The gaps in between clips never fell on a live spot in the program.

The camera ran for two hours and eight minutes (from the walk-in to the walk-out) and never missed a beat. No overheating, etc. I got about one hour and 50 minutes of runtime from one camera battery but I was too nervous to let it go down the last 4%. Since the camera was mounted on a cage and the show was rolling I just grabbed a small USB charger battery and stuck the cable into the camera's USB port to provide enough power to get me the rest of the way through the program.

I never worried about the memory card. I was using a Transcend SDXC U3 card with 128 GB of space on it which would have given me a bit more than five hours of record time shooting XAVCs 1080p.

The show wrapped and I packed everything up and headed out the door to the car. Our raw video came in at about 49 GB but after rendering it and outputting it in the client requested MP4 format the final size on a memory stick is just shy of 20 GBs.

This was fun for me. On Weds. we'll be back at the Westin in the afternoon to catch the closing speakers for the meeting. At the very end of the program they will be playing a three minute interview of a client of the company, which Ben and I filmed and edited last week. Should be fun to shoot the event video at which one of my own videos is being shown.

I like bouncing back and forth from video to stills. Still photography work is something I'm pretty confident about but video has so many moving parts it's still a fun challenge for me to get just right. And what is life without a challenge?




1.08.2017

Using the Sony a6300 to create video promoting a new production at Zach Theatre. Austin, Texas.



   

Ben and I had all day shoots on Wednesday and Thurs. last week. We're giving the new LED lights a good workout and I'm pretty much thrilled at the wonderful flesh tones I'm getting in both video and stills with the new lights. 

After a couple of full days of shooting video on multiple locations, followed by some rush edits on Friday, (along with too many meetings) I decided that I really needed to take some time off on Saturday. 

I slept in till nearly 7 am and then hit the pool for a refreshing swim (outdoors) in our new winter weather. Fun to watch icicles grow on the bottoms of the starting blocks while we did our workout. A little later we followed our Saturday family tradition and went out for lunch. The group consensus led us to Mexican food yesterday and it was a perfect counterpoint to the frigid weather. 

By mid-afternoon the absence of an immediate project to work on started to weigh on me so I packed a few equipment bags and headed over to Zach Theatre to make a few photographs of the early rehearsals of the new LBJ play, and also to record video interviews with three of the principal actors.  Once the actual interviews are edited and online I'll share a link here so you can see them for yourself, but as a poor alternative I did roll some video on myself before I packed up and headed home for dinner. The actors are much, much better in front of the camera --- and much better looking. But I thought you'd like to see what our final set-up looked like...

The camera was the Sony a6300. The lens was the 18-105mm f4.0 G. The microphone was an Audio Technica AT835B. One Aputure LS-1/2 LED used naked on the background and one LS-1/2 LED running through a 50 inch reflector to the left of frame as a main light. No fill. 

I spent today editing and then scouting our location for tomorrow's video shoot for one of my client's annual meeting events, in the ballroom of a local hotel. Our call time is 6:30 am and the start time is 8:00 am so I guess there's no swimming in the morning. 

Here are behind the scenes images of my set up for the videos:








And a "behind the scenes" candid of my favorite public relations collaborator, Lauren L. 


Ben, Belinda and I are off to celebrate our recent video successes with a nice dinner at the Four Season Hotel's restaurant, Treo. Hope you have a great and artistically productive week ahead.






1.07.2017

OT: My coldest outdoor swim to date. Austin, Texas, 20 degrees.

Not today my friends. Not today.

We're experiencing a big time cold front right now in Austin, Texas.  Studio Dog is wearing her pink sweater indoors and people I see out and around are shivering under mountains of down and PolarTec. I woke up this morning and looked at my phone to see what the temperature was outside. My phone told me that it was 20 degrees (f) and that we had a 15-20 miles per hour north wind whipping the wind chill down into the teens. 

I got out from under the warm covers and my wife asked me (in the tone of voice one uses to talk crazy people off ledges) why I was getting up. I told her that I had no intention of swimming in the deep freeze  outside but wanted to head over to the pool to see if any of the crazier people would show up and swim in this weather. I grabbed a small, Sony camera that makes video, bundled up with two sweatshirts and a jacket, gloves and a Craftsy watch cap, and headed out the door.

The car was barely warmed up by the time I got to the pool. I was surprised to find the parking lot nearly full. I looked through the cloud of steam rising from the pool enclosure to see the tail end of a packed, early workout finishing up. I checked the phone again and it was still 20 degrees. I grabbed my swim bag from the car and headed into the locker room. The first person I ran into was John. He just turned 70, has about 2% body fat and was pulling on his swim cap and heading out the door to the pool. Call it peer pressure but I just fell into the routine, pulled on a swimsuit, grabbed my goggles and swim cap and headed out after him. 

As I got to the deck the coach, Chris, yelled to me, "Walk on the grass, there's a lot of ice on the deck!"

The pool deck was icy in spots and the starting blocks all had icicles dangling down from every metal bar and surface. I tossed my parka onto a poolside chair, adjusted my goggles and plunged into lane three. With the exception of having to keep our heads down between sets the workout proceeded as all Saturday practices do: A long, accelerating warm-up set followed by a tough, long, main set. The warm-up had a fair amount of butterfly and backstroke in it while the main set alternated between 200 yard aerobic swims and 100 yard sprints. 

The guy I was swimming with in my lane surprises the heck out of everyone early in the workout. He had forgotten his water bottle out in his car. He hauled himself out of the pool, skated across the deck and jogged through the wind to the parking lot, some 200 yards away, returning with his water bottle. I'd rather have drunk pool water than tried a brave stunt like that!

Of course the most gruesome part of any cold weather, outdoor swim, is getting from the water back to the locker room. Especially when one must navigate barefoot across an icy pool deck. Fortunately no one slipped and fell and the showers in the locker room had ample supplies of hot water. 

I felt like I had truly earned my coffee this morning. Sadly, though, no video got taken; no photos snapped. 


1.06.2017

A few thoughts on the Panasonic GH5 announcement.

Will this camera be the nail in the coffin for traditional, flapping mirrored DSLRs? Well, maybe not this camera alone but a combination of cameras like this and the Olympus EM1.2, along with better and better cellphone cameras. Why? Because cameras like the GH5 offer a much, much better value proposition at a competitive price.

What!? Well, we can start with professional video capabilities. The GH5 blows away anything consumer Nikon and Canon cameras bring to the table, along with usability features to make shooting video comfortable and convenient.  Seems that Panasonic followed a trend pioneered by Samsung in that they are speeding up image processing with faster, state of the art microprocessors that make tossing around the imaging information quicker and more detailed. It's almost like Panasonic dropped a 500 HP, turbo-charged motor into a Civic body (with better suspension) while companies like Canon and Nikon (especially) are dropping Fiat motors into one ton pick-up trucks.

With their latest product introduction Panasonic's new camera goes toe-to-toe with Nikon's D500 in terms of focusing speed, lock-on and frame rates but doesn't then drop the ball by making the 4K video lame and under spec'd. They do it all with good battery life and a convenient size and weight.

If you look back at all the good photography and video work people have done with the GH4 and then look at the specs for the new GH5 you'll see that it's the current, ultimate hybrid imaging camera of the moment.

There's a lot to like about the GH5. It's a robust camera body combined with video features that few cameras at any budget can match. I'm looking forward to the first firmware update which is rumored to allow 4K imaging at 60 fps in 10 bit, 4:2:2.

Will I run from Sony to embrace the Panasonic wundercam? Naw. Not till I've watched my friends work with the ones they are sure to buy. Truth is that I'm enamored of the Sonys because I now feel that I totally understand them. How to use them. How to process the files and what to feed the imaging chain in order to get the results I crave. Part of my investment is my investment in the learning curve of mastery. That has to be a consideration now in any upgrade.

But that doesn't obviate or negate my contention that faster processors, mirrorless designs, and EVFs are fast eroding the market for traditional cameras in the hands and minds of enthusiast and pros. Kodak showed us that having huge, dominant marketshare is not defense against a sudden disruption in the marketplace. 2010 represented the bleeding edge for the trend of moving to mirrorless but we are quickly coming to the fat spot in the curve. Hold on to your hats because we're about to accelerate the transition.

Could this be the year that both Nikon and Canon capitulate and start killing their own products in order to make their transition to products that people will really want?

The GH5 is a well thought out camera. It's not a consumer photography camera. It's a professional visual content creator camera that is first a competent video camera and secondly a competent still camera. It will sell because thats where the market is moving.


What the heck happened to Nikon? Did they just give up?

Not a traditional camera. 

I'm mystified by the latest trend in advertising for Nikon products. I looked at their feed on Twitter only to find an ad that told me, boldly, that 92% of Americans wanted 360 Imaging and that the Nikon Key Mission cameras was just the family of cameras fulfill that need. In fact, Nikon's advertising states to me that up to 15% of this 92% desire to use the camera when "getting intimate." To which I respond, "What the hell has their advertising agency been smoking? And how many product managers have been hospitalized for utter stupidity?" This is not an attack on Nikon products but the incompetence of their advertising personnel in north America. The attack on the products comes later...

I made a reply to Nikon (also on Twitter ---- just like the president elect...) telling them that I seriously doubted some 280 million people even had any idea of what 360 Imaging was, much less having a desire to buy some. I write daily about photography and I have no real idea of what the hell Nikon was trying to say in their ad. "Key Mission"? Is that latin longhand for "WTF"?

Then some wild eyed Nikon fan boy, who feels that the credentials of graduating from Central Florida Investors College and Trade School give him license to lecture me about advertising, wrote in response to call me "grandpa" and state that I must not understand enough about social media to scroll down and read the (initially occluded) fine print (two point type) at the bottom of Nikon's twitter ad. I went back to Twitter to see what he was talking about and laughed even harder. 

Apparently Nikon extrapolated their 92% number from a survey sample of 1,000 people. Chosen at random? I hardly think so. 

Look. I get it. Nikon is panicking and grasping at straws. They've made a nice copy of a Go-Pro action camera and are desperate to sell it. To sell anything. But even though "Lying With Statistics" was one of my favorite books when I was in the advertising business, wishing something was so doesn't make it so. 

A large portion of 92% of American adults over the age of 18 don't give a rat's ass about photography and many more don't have a clue what Nikon is talking about. Nikon's ad is an insult to the intelligence of real photographers and, in fact, to most consumers. 

Here's what Nikon really needs to do: Fire your north American advertising agency and find an agency with balls and brains. Figure out what products you make that are good and worth owning. Sell those products by telling us about their features and the benefits we would accrue from taking advantage of those features. If it turns out that the only two products that are worth more than a good spit are the D500 and the D810 then just concentrate on making those and talking about them in your advertising. 

Fix all the broken crap you've stumbled over in the last few years (two different recalls on my D750s... oil on the D600 shutters...D810 horrible back focus...) and apologize to those nice customers who've been patient enough to keep buying your stuff. Then....

Go out for a long walk with a Fuji XT-2 in your hands, or a Sony A7Rii, or an Olympus PenF, and see what the f#ck you are missing. For God's sake, at one time your company made great rangefinder cameras so the whole idea of designing and making a nice product should not be a frikking mystery. Just pretend you are designing an S series rangefinder then put an EVF in the viewfinder and a CMOS sensor in the film plane. Fill in the rest with current imaging technology. Market the crap out of it and let everyone know that you thought of it back in 1948. 

Just give up on the jellybean design cameras. They've had their run and everyone is tired of the form factor, the kludgy-ness and the desperately poor, pentaprism viewfinders. No more boring stuff. 

Don't screw around with CX mount this or DL that. Kill the small formats that you so obviously hate and concentrate on bringing a decent, full frame, rangefinder style, EVF enabled, camera to market. And while you are at it spend a few dollars more and upgrade the processing chips you spec to something that's not so cheesy and budget-y so you can actually offer faster frame rates, 4K without desperate cropping, and all the other stuff we savvy consumers expect (and deserve) in 2017. Oh hell, while you are getting the facelift and the marketing tummy tuck why don't you just max out the corporate credit card and make the video better than everyone else's? Faster frame rates, more bit depth and even the ultimate splurge: 4:2:2. And while you are catching up with the rest of the industry also try fixing your almost absent AF ability in video mode.

Or you can keep making up fatuous statistics, pushing out defective products and swigging beers on the loading dock of international commerce while you watch your market share shrink like my favorite jeans dried on hot. We just don't have to care because we've moved on.

One last suggestion, sell the name to some group of European scarf makers while it's still got some value. At least you'll have the last laugh.

The quality of good video depends on so much more than the performance of your camera.

Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way first. The primary driver of watchability for a video is first, how interesting/compelling is the idea you are communicating. Second is the quality of the script. After acknowledging those two things we can dive into the technical morass that seems to surround any project that is made with fun gizmos and tools.

From what I know of the photography business and what I've seen and heard in the video business pretty much everyone is obsessed with cameras. It's a subject that comes up endlessly and one that gets argued all over the web. Which camera is best? Which files are best? Should I shoot 4K or 2K? Should we invest in Zeiss Primes or go all out for the Leica primes? Should we stick to zooms? Can a camera be any good if it doesn't cost more than $10,000? More than $2,000? Do you need to have a touchscreen? Is Canon better than Sony? Can a project actually be done with a micro 4:3rds camera? Will clients run screaming from the room if you aren't writing files to an external recorder? How will we mount the camera? What cage should we get for our camera? Is the rosewood grip better

1.02.2017

Yesterday afternoon. The first downtown Austin walk of the new year. Strolling with a Sony A7ii and a 50mm f 1.8, just like the old days.


City centers shift. In the years that I was an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin downtown was definitely NOT the place to be. Blocks of it were just empty buildings, warehoused with the hope that someday development would come back. The 1980's saw a revival of our downtown with the construction of skyscraping office buildings, better and better hotels and an invasion of decent restaurants and trendy bars. In the 1980's and 1990's the pace of gentrification and development was fast and reckless and wonderful. The locus of power had been the state legislature at the north end of what we considered downtown. The southern border was the Colorado River which was always called, Town Lake, but was recently renamed as, Lady Bird Lake, after former first lady, Lady Bird Johnson. 

I'd say that downtown peaked somewhere in the late 1990's or just before the bust of 2001 and has been on a downhill slide ever since. Yes, we have built dozens of towering residence condominium projects and yes, we have subsidized retail all the way down an entire street but the fine restaurants and upscale bars and music venues that were the original and foundational drivers of downtown's energy are going or gone, replaced by seedy clubs serving jeep drinks and bad rock and roll. 

A new development in what we used to call "North Austin" (but which is now more or less the geographic center of the metropolitan area) opened up a few years ago and this year saw the blossoming of a host of new food and drinking establishments. Nearly 50 openings this year. And the development is attracting the audience that fled the squalor and potential danger of the sagging downtown. The development is called The Domain and was built on land that had been owned by IBM. It's home to stores like Nordstroms, Tiffany's, Apple (retail) and many other high end retailers. The development is being relentlessly fleshed out with high rise condominiums, office towers and carefully planned social infrastructure. There are boutique hotels and a Westin. There are niche, local restaurants and chain steakhouses. It's a soulless representation of Dallas writ large right on the shoulder of our old city, and it's sucking the party life out of the traditional downtown. 

Funny how these things go in cycles. The locals have left old downtown to the tourists, the convention goers and the fans of SXSW. 

But at the same time downtown is feeling less corporate and less homogenous than it has over the last ten years. There's still good energy here, it's just mixed with some bad. That makes it a fun place to wander around with a camera. 

Yesterday I stripped down the A7ii. I took it out of its cage and unscrewed the battery grip from the bottom. I tossed some effete Zeiss lens into a drawer and clicked on the cheap 50mm 1.8. I felt like I did when I bought my first SLR so many years ago === unencumbered by complexity or technical pretension. It was the present day analogy for the Canon TX and FD 50mm f1.8 that I sported around Austin about four decades ago. Nice. 

What prompted my revisionist urges? I had just been to the HRC to see the exhibition of Elliott Erwitt's great work and I was pounded over the brain, again and again, by just how wonderful making photographs could be with the very simplest of tools. No function buttons were disturbed during the walk and none of the menus consulted. I was shooting in Jpeg and willing to treat the whole experience the way we did with slide film. Eliminate the unnecessary choices so you can spend quality time thinking about the important stuff = which way to turn next...

There's a recent trend in our old downtown and that's the appearance of painted murals hidden around various corners. My walk yesterday kept introducing me to torrents and patches of color I hadn't seen before. The smaller side streets were like outdoor galleries. Visually, it was so much fun. 

So, today is the 2nd of the year. Everyone who could is taking today off as part of the long, weekend vacation. I'm cleaning up. (Actually I am procrastinating about cleaning up by blogging instead...). We have a project we start on Weds. and I'd like to get the studio part of the job set up, tested and ready before I go to bed tomorrow night. It's always more wonderful to get an early morning swim in before the excitement starts and it's hard to justify racing to swim practice if there are still loose ends to tie up. 

The studio works best when its clean and tidy and everything is in the right place. Then I can tell my assistant how to put his hands on a certain piece of gear, diffusion material or magic arm without even having to think about it. That makes the process of photographing smoother. The smoother the shoot the longer we'll be able to linger at lunch with our client. 
In other news, Ben asked me to make him some passport photos today for use on a visa. I thought about the process and decided that we should, instead, get in the car and head to Precision Camera and have them make the shots. They have a dedicated passport camera and an intelligently lit, dedicated spot with white background, just for this kind of work. We walked in and walked out 10 minutes later with two sets of prints for $12. If I had done the same thing we would have had to pull out a roll of white seamless, set up lights, test, shoot, post process, size the images, apply a profile, send them to the lab to be printed, driven to the lab to pick them up, etc. I figure we just saved hundreds of dollars in opportunity costs to use someone else's system. Done.
Alan left a comment today and asked me why I didn't run the sound for my video productions into a separate digital audio recorder instead of sending them to the camera as my final target. That's a question I get fairly frequently. The underlying premise of the question is that the dedicated recorders are much less noisy/of higher sound quality than the microphone pre-amplifiers on the cameras. The other premise is that it's simple work to sync up everything in post. 

I'll agree that in the early days of DSLR video recording that the Canon and Nikon cameras had pretty bad audio inputs. Hell, in those days you couldn't even disable the auto level control (ALC) in most  cameras. No wonder they had such bad reputations. The embracing of digital audio recorders was a work around mostly for the poor implementation of camera sound. But a heck of a lot has changed since 2008. 

Both the Tascam and the Zoom recorders I use do have lower noise floors than the Sony cameras the overall quality of the sound beyond the noise floor is hardly poor. I think it's basically solid. Noise floors are important where sound is the reason for the content. That being said nearly every video we make for corporations has some music added to the bed of the program and, if we do a good job with microphone placement and input matching we can get pretty darn close with our cameras to what we are getting from the external devices. Now, you might be insanely organized and able to find and match up separate audio tracks and video tracks from two or three different machines but I'm not. I like the security of having the sound permanently attached to the video. 

I use my digital audio recorders like mixers and interfaces but that doesn't mean we don't enable recording at the same time that we're sending out a signal to the camera. This makes for wonderful safety tracks in the event that we do find the camera sound underwhelming. But, having to juggle everything when shooting (sometimes) as a one man band is just a recipe for messing something up. I want to monitor what I'm getting in camera because it's all part of the handling package. If it sounds good in the camera, and I'm also recording it externally, then I know I've got everything nailed down. 

Everyone works in different ways. I'm hoping we get so busy shooting video this year that I'm able to hire a sound person whose only job will be getting beautiful audio and channeling it everywhere I need it. For now, I'll stick with the camera being my final binary check. I either have it or I don't. 

And, by the way, I found the audio circuits of the late Sony a99 to be really, really good. Tascam or Zoom good. I guess some day I'll be able to afford a SoundDevices recorder and everything will change. Not yet. 

I saw a lot of people downtown yesterday with cameras. I guess we were all celebrating the temperature in the 70's and the perfectly clear, dirt free skies. I used to take that for granted but that was before I did a lot of traveling. Now I understand that we're lucky most of the time. Fresh air is a wonderful thing. And the late afternoon light in the winter is mesmerizing to just look at. It's a great time to be out walking. And today looks pretty much perfect too.

I've spent most of today re-reading and memorizing the information in the manuals for my Zoom H5 Audio Recorder and the Aputure Video Monitor. I've used every control at least ten times to build a memory for each setting. I've put them through their paces. I've wired up six different microphones with various power or termination requires and figured out how they sound best. I feel so ready for our project to begin that it's all I can do to keep from calling the client and begging her to get started tomorrow. I guess patience is one of those things I should work on. 









1.01.2017

What I'm expecting (as a working photographer) in the New Year (2017).

Author metering in Scottsdale, Az. 

With the near collapse of the middle of the camera market and the crazy fallout from the 2016 U.S. presidential elections the crystal ball of most photo-futurists is murky. We are good at predicting the past. The future? Not so much. But I thought I'd at least let you know what I'm planning on and hoping for in the year to come. Not as a politico or social commentator but as a guy in Austin, Texas who owns a very small business that makes creative visual content for regular businesses, big corporations, medical practices, associations, and advertising agencies. There's nothing earth shattering here because the direction that your business takes is more often driven by your clarity in marketing and outreach than external economic changes or short term social upheaval.

I am expecting more and more photographic jobs to come with shorter face-to-face client engagements. We'll see more one person portrait shoots and fewer daylong "cattle call" shoots. More "We need this particular image done in this particular way" rather than a daylong trawling for likable images that may be used sometime in some unknown future. There are advantages here. We move away from the tendency to bid things by day rate and start pricing by the value of the image to the client, along with the complexity of the shoot and the knowledge and talent that will need to be brought to bear.

I've already seen this in the business and while, at first, I had some concern that billings would drop I find that we end up making nearly the same money in fees but our time (both mine and the client's) becomes more flexible and manageable. If I don't need to be somewhere first thing in the morning and then need to hang there all day long it's easier for me to schedule in my morning swim practice, an afternoon walk or a delicious nap.

We'll still have reasons for doing daylong shoots, sometimes it's more efficient to just make a list and get stuff done, but we are moving away from commodity photography into a nicer realm where we are being engaged (hopefully all of us) for things that can't be easily done by the shipping clerk with a Canon Rebel. In turn, this adds to the (rightful) perception of value that makes it easier to ask for profitable fees.

Clients have been treated to lots and lots of bargain photography since the market declined back in 2008 and they've become keenly aware that poorly produced images have a net negative effect on their brands. Lately, my new clients are all concerned about one issue that I find interesting: They want to know if I can light, and if I have lights, and, if so, will I bring them along and use them on the job I'm potentially doing for them??? It seems that everyone everywhere who is in the position to hire outside photographers (and videographers) has been burned, and burned badly, by the available light expert.

2017 is the year that we acknowledge that we have great cameras (better than we need) and we understand how to use all the neat settings and whiz bang function buttons and that nobody gives a crap about what camera you own or what lenses you use. Now clients just care about results. What it all adds up to, in my mind, is that this is the year we ignored cameras and concentrated on learning to light and light well. If a new photographer is really adamant about "upping their game" my first recommendation is to thoroughly learn all the basics of lighting. The ISO dial on a camera is not a substitute for a brilliantly motivated key light or a subtle and elegant fill light. Clients are figuring that out too. It can be a differentiator for those not too lazy to learn some skills...

No curmudgeonly photo-luddite is going to want to read this paragraph but I look at it as a bit of tough love. We are no longer in the business of "making photographs." Clients don't want "a photographer" they want someone who is a creative problem solver who creates visual content. All kinds of visual content. Every year the percentage of our income from video grows. It's growing faster. Our second job out of the gate this year (in the first week of the new year) will be producing a 1:00 video for an international medical devices company. We'll have to know a bunch of different ways to move the cameras, how to light the interiors of practical locations, which shots we'll need to have on hand to make good edits in post, and how to handle audio; from interviews to voice over narration.

We'll be shooting video and photography on the same locations with the same model and clients and we'll need to deliver lifestyle photos as well as the video programming. But as you can plainly see this opens up 100% (or more) increased billing for us over just doing the photography alone. Not everyone wants to go out and produce video and it's not my intention to build a new army of photo-videographers. If you aren't comfortable with that end of the business you can also look at the other end; building websites and live sites and offering those kinds of services.

If you have no other talent or skill set beyond taking photographs you might want to consider heading back to a good community college to pick up a complementary skill set in addition to photography because I will tell you this, clients are looking for turnkey solutions. The worker bees of American Industry are already working too much and anything you can take off their plates (in terms of creative content creation) is a big relief for them. Do the photography for the website and then design and produce the website. Do the photography and then switch into video and do the video content.

It's not that there will be less photography to do, in total, it's just that clients will expect vendors to be able to offer a wider range of associated skill sets that usually go hand-in-hand for corporate projects. You can bet that if there are photographs required for a new website that there will also be a video component for the same website. Still images for the annual meeting? Those stills will probably be produced, in part, to fit into the video that will also be produced. The reverse is also true. You might find yourself commissioned to do the video only to have your client ask, at the beginning, or halfway through the job, if you can also provide still photography.

If you are a good portrait photographer, with a good grasp of creating rapport and directing portrait subjects, you may also have a talent for producing interview footage or announcement footage with the same CEO you have in front of your camera for portraits. It's a nice and efficient use of time for the marcom people who are always, ALWAYS, frugal with their top executives' time.

The wonderful thing about this combining of disciplines is that there is an efficiency gained from mixing the tools and skills from each. My most current realization of that revolves around the use of small, field monitors in both areas. I find tethering to laptops, in the field and in the studio, to be a cumbersome waste of time that is a holdover from the early days of digital where multi-shot cameras required computers to drive them and to also capture each file directly. I suffered through the early days of lost cable connections and crashing software and I'm very aware that most computer screens are utter crap in full sun. I much prefer attaching an HDMI cable from the camera to a good 7 inch (or larger) field monitor that is originally designed for video work ---- especially when shooting photographs with an art director, client or combined entourage in tow.

We did a photography shoot in the studio right before Christmas which required shooting from an overhead viewpoint for all of the shots on our (extensive) list. Putting the camera up over the set was easily accomplished with a high rise C-stand and a solid arm. Controlling exposure and triggering the camera was straightforward with an IR trigger or an iPhone but seeing the review image could be problematic.

With a monitor attached we could see exactly what we were getting for each frame. And because the monitor is designed as a video tool it comes with focus peaking which came in very handy for getting our camera and lenses zero'd in, as well as false color  which let me see just how white I could get the background before blowing it out too far. We hung the monitor on a shorty C-Stand making it easy for me, the designer and the art director to all see, and to collaborate on the project. We also used the monitor to review shots on location for several annual reports this year, and, of course, we used it on our video projects.

I originally bought the previous set of LED lights with the idea of using them mostly for video only to find that, using them, I've evolved a new style (for me) of on location portraiture that is perfectly suited to the use of both LEDs and continuous lighting. Here is a sample:



The same is true of the diffusion panels and flags I bought to use for video productions, but which have been pressed into service in making portraits because they offer more control than just a typical softbox or umbrella modified flash. 

The mix of photography and video will continue to emerge as its own media. Magazines, which have morphed into websites, are already evolving the style of the mix and are voracious for content. 

No, the market for visual content is far from collapsing, abating or slowing down but it is morphing into a different thing than the heavily silo-ed constructs we've worked with for so long. I'd say that the classiest thing you could call yourself today; when dealing with agents from big enterprise, is a producer. It brings everything together. It's a job title that works for a new, layered and more complex, paradigm of imaging. And it seems to command higher rates and more creative control than clients are willing to invest in just a photographer...

I spent some time with Belinda this afternoon at the Elliott Erwitt exhibit at the Humanities Research Center on the UT campus. Today is the last day of the show and it was crowded. What I saw was what some might refer to as the Golden Age of Photography. Erwitt worked for multiple magazines and spent decades on assignments all over the world. His work ran across pages and pages of magazine paper and thrust his work into the spotlight for readers of what were once homogeneous touchstones of collective culture. These magazines were the places where we got our stories and saw the news.

They were usurped by television and later everything was usurped and divided by the endless selections of the web. While we are never going back to Erwitt's golden age we have to figure out ways to navigate and take advantage of what our golden age offers. This blog is an example (although a bit dated) of what the new paradigms and distributions of content and access look like, on a small scale.

To date, I've reached audiences all over the world. I've connected with some human beings nearly eighty million times (according to Google data) and I've delivered my thoughts and showed off images that I like to an audience I could never have imagined back in the days when print was king. 

Not everything is about monetizing the display and sharing of our art. Sometimes it's the sharing and dialog alone that are critical to artists. To that end the current paradigm is much richer for many, many more people. In earlier days very few people had a shot at a cover photo on Life Magazine. But currently everyone with a keyboard and access to the web can share their art and ideas to their heart's content. The only wall is the need for patience to build an audience. 

If we default to the current pop culture clichĂ© what we are trying to do is to tell a story. The difference between now and then is that "then" we were basically putting our images on a sheet of paper and passing it around to our friends and family. We were lucky if the image made the rounds inside a space of ten square miles. Today we are using a giant delivery system buoyed up by satellites, acres of server farms, gigawatts of power and the potential to go viral and splash our work across millions of screens in places as far away as Mongolia or Aukland. As business people we have to acknowledge the change, not only in distribution but also taste, style and media preference. 

Going forward we have to keep our eyes on the reality that 60% of the stuff we put up online goes to cellphone screens and not 30 inch Retina monitors. Video goes vertical. Written content is relegated to so much "gray space." The change is irreversible but not so overwhelming that we can't figure out how to make it work for our work. That's our challenge in the 2017 and forward: Understand the new things that people want to see and understand just as well how they want to see them. And then figure out how to become a valued supplier of the new media. 

Hey, back in the early 1990's, for the vast majority of people, the web did not exist as media. Now it's the dominant target for nearly everyone. More people are making more money online than the superstars of the last century did across any combination of magazines. There's a generational divide right now but nothing that can't be understood and leveraged. You just have to have the will to do it. 

And, after online content and advertising matures (like TV did) there will be a new wave of innovation but I can't talk about it here because, as far as I know, it has yet to be invented. (No, VR isn't it. VR will be the next 3D TV. It's a filler format in between giant surprises). But when the new thing arrives a whole new generation will explore it, conquer it and profit from it. 

As far as cameras go we've hit the spot where 35mm cameras were just before the tipping point into digital. Mature products that produce flawless results; even in the hands of idiots. 

I do have one idea that I consider to be controversial and it has to do with business success. What I've found over the years is that all new technology tends to physically isolate people more and more but at the same time, with the encroaching isolation comes a desperate need to connect on a real human level. A face to face need that won't be conquered no matter who trots out metrics trying to debunk it. It's why Trump's rallies worked with his followers. It's why people pay enormous amounts to see their favorite musicians or comedians in person. It's why sales people for major corporations still get on airplanes, go see their prospective clients, sit with them over steaks or sushi and drinks, and close their deals with handshakes and bows. This is the way humans like to transact. Efficiency may try to kill it but someone will always pop up to show that this business intimacy works and works well. 

If we are smart we'll try to make everything we do deliver a business intimacy that no one can get from the web or from teleconferencing. It will continue to be the ultimate differentiator between a "metric driven approach to business" and a successful, longterm business. Amazon to the contrary.

So, for 2017, I'm looking for many more opportunities to create video and to also mix photography and video as new media. I'm planning on demonstrating to clients that having a more wide reaching approach to creative content creation makes the most sense for them and that having me produce it makes their jobs easier and more fun. 

In 2017 I'll be honing my lighting skills and trying to create looks and styles that help to brand me as an artist. I'll use the cameras that make pervasive media easier to produce instead of looking at the last century paradigm of trying to find the "ultimate" camera or the one with the most titanium in its build.

I'll look at visual cues from movies, graffiti walls, nightclubs, fashion shows and live theatre and take fewer visual cues from the anachronistic echo chamber of the web. 

But most of all I will continue to swim, walk, eat well, have coffee with friends, dinners with colleagues, and more frequent glasses of wine with clients and future clients. Through it all I'll try to find a balance between making my art the way I want to, spending enough time playing fetch with Studio Dog, and giving the most priority to spending quality time with my family. Life is too short for anything else. 

The future moves, tells stories, has sound, gets spread around, and is unstoppable. You have to be like water in a stream, happy to change direction and go around any boulders that just happen to be in the way. 

Done right, we'll profit. By that I mean we'll make enough money to pursue happiness and enough happiness to make the pursuit of projects that pay that much more fun. And I'll understand that since I've been amply rewarded by life I should give back in ways that are meaningful to me. 

Happy New Year to everyone who reads VSL. Let's make the world look better. Let's be nicer to each other...