2.14.2017

Improvising on location. Making mobile, solid, light stands in real time.

This blog post image is about the cart in the foreground, center frame.

I tried to travel light on my last trip. I didn't want to check a third bag. For the most part it worked out just fine. But no matter how many light stands you take with you any time you venture out of your studio you probably know that Murphy's Ordnance declares that you will need at least one more.

I brought along 4 Manfrotto light stands but the optimal number for location work seems to have escalated to five; minimum. My first two days of interviews went smoothly, as far as lighting and light stands were concerned. I used two to hold LED light fixtures, one to hold the diffusion panel and one to hold the microphone boom. Easy as pie.

But then I tried to get fancy and use a larger part of a big room to do my Friday interviews. I marked the position I thought would be best for my interviewee with an "X" of orange gaffer tape and then went divining with my camera and tripod until I found the right combination of focal length, background and distance. I marked that spot with tape and then started lighting. I set up the big scim first because I knew that would be my key light and you kinda always have to have a key light. And through some quirk of my personality that key light (nearly) always has to be diffused. Two stands down.

I knew I needed a light across the background, a mural of a forest, to keep it from falling into noisy darkness so I put up a LightStorm LS-1/2 on a third stand and sprayed the wall. Just lighting up that particular plane (the wall) and nothing else (except a welcome little spill that served as a backlight for my interviewee's shadow side...). Lighting in planes, in a big room, is a good strategy because you only end up lighting what you'll see instead of trying to fill up the whole space with photons. See more in Russ Lowell's great book, Matters of Light and Depth. 

At that point I turned on the camera, walked over and sat in the spot I'd designated as the "interviewee" spot and ran some selfie video to test. When I looked at the test I knew I would need some fill for the main light (key). A traditional solution for photography would have been to tuck a big flex fill reflector near the subject's shadow side but I had a "B" camera set to film from that side so that was a "no go."

I bit the bullet and tossed the second Lightstorm LS-1/2 (CRI 98 !!!!) onto the last remaining light stand and bounced it off the ceiling at full power. Gone was my fill light dilemma but newly arrived was my microphone/boom arm imbroglio. Now bereft of light stands I was temporarily stuck. Fortunately, I was setting up all this after a long day of shooting (instead of waiting for the morning of...) and I had time to scavenge for a support.

I roamed around my client's facility looking for something that would work as a light stand. The limiting parameter being the need for a 5/8ths inch termination at the top to accommodate the grip head that would hold the boom support. That part was a non-negotiable.

I found the Metro cart first and realized that the corner construction would make a channel in which to insert a long pipe. It would also make the who assemblage portable. In a store room I found some metal conduit that was the right length but its diameter was to large. Finally, I found a length of aluminum tube that was just the right diameter; and long enough to work. I put the conduit into place through the gaps in the shelves of the cart. Then I gaffer taped the metal tube to the top of the conduit. Finally, I attached the head and boom to complete my grip project.

When the cast and clients came in the next day no one gave the "Rube Goldberg" assemblage a second look. I seated my first interview subject, wheeled the "microphone cart" in the right position and made a few small adjustments, and we were ready to roll.

Yes, I'm sure someone will tell me they never travel without ten stout light stands and some very compulsive visitor will regale me for not mapping out every single shot on a spreadsheet along with sub-categories for every screw and bolt that might be necessary. I don't care. I'm happy I got to do some basic problem solving and that it worked as seamlessly as it did.

Next time I'll suck it up and bring the fifth stand. Then I'll find the hidden Murphy's Regulation: All people packing five light stands will find, on location, that they actually need six light stands. It never ends.

2.13.2017

New Sony SEL 85F f.18 lens. Finally, a short portrait lens for the rest of us.

I'm happy. I love 85mm lenses but I hate paying the outrageous premium for super fast apertures, the pursuit of which ultimately compromises a bit of performance and, for the most part, are not very usable. I'm a lover of sensible, high performance 85mms with sensible maximum apertures. Like the classic 85mm 1.8s from Canon and Nikon which have been in their line ups for decades.

When Sony introduced their line of Alpha translucent mirror cameras such as the a77, one lens that came along for the ride was a much under appreciated 85mm with a maximum aperture of f2.8. It's much, much easier to design in, and manufacture with good precision, a lens with a modest f-stop. The real costs and compromises come in trying to make the fast glass perform.

I snapped up on the 85mm f2.8 lenses and found, as expected, that it was sharp and sassy from wide open on. It weighed about what the current Sony 50mm f1.8 weighs and it focused quickly and accurately. I'd buy one in the FE mount in a second, if Sony offered it...

But for now I will happily line up and pay for the 85mm f1.8 (to be shipping late March) as I expect its performance to be very, very good and, just as important to me, it will be priced so that most of us can actually afford to get one. I'm always a bit pissed when a camera maker adds the showy lenses first and makes us wait for the daily users. 

I'm sure someone can make a good argument for the G Master 85mm f1.4 and the G Master 70-200mm f2.8 but it sure won't be me. I can't imagine having to carry those heavyweight packages around all day long in a shoulder bag when I can have the same, basic image quality and performance is the 85mm 1.8 and 70-200mm f4.0 but at half to one quarter the cost. What am I giving up? Just a prestige aperture that rarely gets used in real life. Certainly not in corporate portraiture where the overwhelming majority of clients expect both the tip of one's nose and one's eyes to both be in focus in the same image....

Is there anything Sony could do to improve their offering of the 85mm f1.8? Hmmm. I've got it! They could re-price it to $495. That would feel just right.

Nikon Cancels DL series of one inch bridge cameras. Entirely. Now. WTF?

http://www.nikon.com/news/2017/0213_dl.htm

Wow! Just....wow. Nikon announced three models of one inch sensor, fixed lens cameras in three different zoom ranges, including one that might have competed with our favorite Sony camera, the RX10iii; and now they have announced the cancellation of all three products. They cited delays in the development of the image processor as well as the stumbling camera market.

Is this a (scary) tipping point for Nikon? Or will they circle the wagons around their DSLR position and retrench back into the cameras they feel they know best?

I wrote a few weeks ago that Nikon needed to focus like a laser on their core market if they were to move forward. They need to get back to producing their full frame DSLRs but they need to make sure that there are no more issues that lead to highly publicized recalls; like the D600 oil spots  on the sensor and the various mirror path design/implementation issues that plagued the D750.

I'm coming to believe that the days of having a business model built around offering something at every single price point and in every style are quickly coming to a close. It's almost impossible for a company to fight their own DNA and to make both an ultimately capable and distinguished flagship model, like a D3 or a D5, or a D500, and also a line of inexpensive models that seem to have no real market strategy or position, like the Coolpix series.

The writing was on the wall even before the announcement of the DL discontinuation when Nikon more or less stopped all support for the interchangeable lens, one inch family of cameras they created.

One imagines that they'll now pursue a strategy of building more strength in their core, DSLR line-up and offering traditionalists solid models that fit well researched price points.

The tragedy for Nikon will be that the traditionalists' market is quickly shrinking and what's left of that camera buying demographic is embracing the smaller and more advanced alternatives from Sony, Olympus, et al.

Canon, on the other hand, seems to be making inroads in the very same mirrorless market that is eating Nikon's lunch. The M5, while not ready for my camera bag, is a big move in the right direction and has been well reviewed in some corners.

While Nikon seems to have a hit with their APS-C, D500, is the cancellation of the DL series an indicator that they changed too little, too late?

Or perhaps the overwhelming performances of cameras like the Sony RX10iii were too much to compete with...

Interesting news with which to start the week.

2.11.2017

The changing nature of video capture. Faster, Pussycat; faster.

Photo Courtesy: ODL Designs.

Habit is a powerful deterrent to change. Most of my friends who have been in the video business for quite a while started out shooting with big, over the shoulder, ENG video cameras. They weighed a lot and came with batteries that are heavier than my entire RX10iii camera. Most people used them planted on stout tripods. Part of the process was connecting multiple people to the camera.  Umbilical cords running off to sound techs and cables running off to remote monitors so everyone on the crew and client side could second guess and comment on your shots. People standing next to the camera to focus.  It's a process that depends on a slow, step by step collaboration with one's crew. 

I was the still photographer on an advertising video shoot last year and I was amazed at the  waste of time a relatively large group of seasoned professionals was able to engineer. We waited for 1990's style lighting to be set and tweaked by a crew of three. We waited as the sound person went through cord after cord, trying desperately to track down a persistent hum until someone finally pointed out to him that his cable was running directly across one hot extension cord and running parallel to another...

I am certain that the audio would have been just as good run directly into the videographer's FS7 video camera instead of monkeying around with dual sound into a high end audio deck.

The videographer was experimenting with flexible, rubber dolly track and a motor driven set of tripod wheels and we lost a time to all the jerky motion, caused by the on-off of the motor ,out of the system.  I would have suggested turning the servo driven motors (complete with game style joystick controller) off and having one of the many superfluous people on the set just push the whole assemblage. 

With the camera fully festooned with "pro" crap it must have ballooned to double its unencumbered size and weight. Fancy grips, electronic zoom triggers on the handgrips (doh! Prime lenses), giant matte boxes on rails, Anton Bauer batteries hanging off the back (and we were surrounded by electrical outlets....go figure) and a gigantic, third party EVF replacing the stock one ---- even though the whole camera rig was tethered to a monitor just to one side of the camera. It was an amazing example of last century necessity translating into this century overkill. All the touches, the job specific crew, the tight anchoring to the tripod, the emotional anchoring to the failed dolly track, and the constant fixing of unproven new tech cut the total number of in studio shots to about 10 that day. And when I saw the final product I didn't see the value add of the time expended. It reminded me of a mid-tier corporate video from 20 years ago. 

I am baffled at people's resistance to change. I can't imagine trying to get enough fluid and dynamic shots in a day straitjacketed by such a clumsy process. Especially when most of the video being produced is headed straight for your phone.

The "big crew" approach to video production is entirely at odds with the style of video content and editing that's popular today. Watch commercials, good web content, or a modern event presentation, and you'll see fast cuts. Except for interview segments it's routine to see a new scene, from a new cut, every two to three seconds, and four to five seconds now feels like an eternity. If you are editing a current, three to five minute, video ( see our "Cantine" video) you're likely going to use about 60 to 100 short clips (or more)  cut together to make the program. This edit pacing demands a faster, more fluid approach to shooting ----- unless your client is comfy giving you days and days to move the big camera and crew around, and to stand stationary, problem solving your rig for a while...

I like using my RX10iii, or the model 2, for the majority of my non-interview shots. If I'm on a tripod (a nice, lightweight tripod with a good head) I can shoot lots of moderately long shots with good stability in 4K and also have the advantage (when working in a 1080p timeline) of being able to crop in, use the "Ken Burns" effect, or lay on additional image stabilization in post production. 

These cameras come into their own when you pull them off the tripod and use them handheld. In this capacity I switch gears and use them in 1080p so I can take advantage of Sony's very, very good "active" and "active intelligent" I.S. modes. With practice one can learn to do steady, even, short pans that work. In wider angle settings, when using the continuous focus modes, you can use your feet (or bend at the waist) to "push in" or "pull out" instead of zooming. No need to set up sliders or improvise dollies for these kinds of clips. And, with good performance AF used in close, wide shots you certainly don't need to travel with a focus puller. 

We were shooting mobility this last week and I thought it would be great to do some trucking shots; moving the camera parallel to the talent while he walked with the camera cropped in close to the talent's microprocessor controlled leg. The old school method would have been to have the extended crew bring in dolly tracks and piece them together for the fifty foot stretch we might be traversing. We'd also need to rent a dolly.

With a stellar lens and really good image stabilization we made good use of a Metro cart with a heavy book and a soft, pliable scarf as a camera holder. It's hard to see in this illustration (below) but I have a small (7 inch) monitor on the top shelf of the cart so I can accurately track the talent and match his speed. It took five minutes to rig and the shots looked great. Total time getting 8-10 variations was about ten minutes. Then we were on to the next scene. 

And it's not just "about the camera" it's about the need to embrace a newer, faster production mentality if you want to work efficiently in a modern visual idiom. I could do the same thing with a Sony z150 video camera but I couldn't do the same kind of work with an FS7 and a handful of single focal length, manual focus lenses. Not the same. Difference in quality? Tell me when you see that FS 7 programming on the small laptop screens, telephone screens and on your iPads....

Photo Courtesy: ODL Designs.

One of the most compelling production features of the RX10 series cameras are those great lenses on them. The shot I was working on below tracked along with our talent couple as they walked up a long sidewalk toward the camera. Using the center focusing sensor the camera was able to accurately track the couple while I use the power zoom control next to the shutter button to (slowly) zoom out and maintain the same frame composition as I slowly and smoothly zoomed from nearly 600mm (equiv.) to about 35mm (equiv.) as they strolled past my camera position. One take. We reviewed it, saw that it worked and moved on. Can you imagine doing this same shot "old school" style? A bigger camera on a solid tripod with an operator moving the camera to maintain the couples' comp in the frame while a focus puller racks focus on a super heavy and super expensive, manual focus zoom lens! That takes coordination, rehearsal and manpower. And for what? To match the quality of a shot we were easily able to get while handheld, in blowing snow and freezing wind? A shot of which only a small portion will be included in the final edit...

Photo Courtesy: ODL Designs.

When my (videography) friends and I talk and the conversation comes around to how we shoot video they are always quick to dismiss the Sony RX10's (and other non-conventional cameras) and when I ask them what's different they point to XLR connectors, built in ND filters and external controls. Really? Adding a filter, and an audio interface from Sony is child's play ---- and very affordable. External controls? Set your camera up before you start shooting and you'll have it nailed. For high end work I totally get the bigger, denser files from more expensive, dedicated video cameras, but.... the Sony UHD looks pretty good on big screens; especially if you nail the exposure and white balance before you push the red button...

I could be missing something but the final results tell me I'm heading in a direction that feels right for me. Smaller, faster, happier.

2.10.2017

My Wonderful Video and Photo Adventure in Canada. Images Courtesy Abraham at ODL-Designs.

VSL Baby Wrangler, Kirk Tuck, calms the talents' two  month old daughter.
Photo Courtesy: ODL-Designs

My time in Canada is coming to an end and it's a crying shame. Everyone I met here, and everyone I worked with here, was kind, happy, helpful and just flat out wonderful. I've spent the last three days just consumed with making video and I'm heading back home tomorrow with well over 100 gigabytes of 2K and 4K video content. I could not have asked for a more fun work project. 

I landed in Toronto on Tues. evening in the middle of a big ice storm, grabbed my rental car, and headed slowly down the QEW to Burlington where I checked into one of the Hilton suites hotels. It was situated about 500 yards from my client's offices. About a thirty second commute every morning. 

All the lights and the audio gear arrived without incident. The only injury was to one of the locking screws on the fluid tripod head but it was still usable. I checked out the gear, repacked and then hit the bed in anticipation of a fun day ahead. 

The next morning I donned on my long underwear, a couple shirt layers, my warmest shoes and biggest gloves and made the 30 second commute. I was warmly greeted, given a tour, given my own "all access" key card and left to my own devices (in a good way). I'd planned for this day to be a combination scouting and B-roll harvesting day. I walked around, from lab to lab with my Sony RX10 iii, a Lastolite white balance target disk and sometimes, a tripod. I shot at least one hundred B-roll clips with one break to go and grab a couple fresh and tasty slices of pizza from Longo's grocery store. In the late afternoon one of my clients took me on a scouting trip of local parks. It was 12 degrees Fahrenheit outside but my haberdashery was more that adequate. 

On Wednesday evening the CEO of the company took me to dinner at an amazing restaurant where we enjoyed a great meal and discussed everything; from the attributes that made (make) the Leica M3 such a desirable camera to the intricacies of his industry. And lots more in between. 

On Thurs. morning we started in earnest, interviewing a user of one of my client's products, documenting the alignment and adjustment of a CPU powered prosthetic, and then going to a nearby park to document the user's incredibly good mobility. I shot the interview with the A7Rii and kept myself efficient and entertained by again shooting buckets and buckets of B-roll with the RX10iii, along with lots of stills on the RX10ii.

It's hard to find quiet spots in busy offices to record interviews but we did our best. The Sennheiser MKE 600 was my microphone of choice and I was again impressed by its detailed reproduction of human voice. I dislike using lavaliere microphones as most non-pro talent moves around, touches their clothing and creates a lot of random noise. That's one thing hyper cardioid and super cardioid microphones are relatively immune to.....clothing rustle.

The 600 was routed through the BeachTek XLR interface on the way to the camera. I monitored the audio with headphones but couldn't use the Aputure video monitor with the "A" camera because it is only a 1080p monitor and our "A" camera was set up to shoot in 4K (UHD).

We had a relatively big group from the client side. Product managers, marketing managers, a make-up person, the talent and the talent's wife and then, of course, there's me. After a nice, catered lunch in our main shooting area we all suited up and headed to one of the local parks. Our talent, who is walking on a high tech prosthetic leg, navigated a long, gravel path,  stepping over lots of tree roots and tackling inclines galore. I shot wide, medium, tight and extra tight shots of everything. I figured out that the "active" setting worked best for image stabilization but we don't have that setting available for 4K (only standard in 4K) so I dropped down and shot in 1080p, but at 60 fps so we can slow down the footage in post and do a "half speed" slo-mo. 

The active I.S. worked well and, after inspecting the footage on my laptop back in the hotel, I am impressed. The I.S. is not as good as the Olympus I.S. but then, what is?

The weather on Weds. was cold but no rain or snow. That came later....

After a long day of shooting and getting my bearings at my client's facility I had the pleasure of meeting a Toronto-based VSL blog reader for a wonderful dinner. We ate and talked for three hours and I'm sure I bored him to tears but he proved to be a wonderful host, and quite resilient since he volunteered to come back this morning and assist me on the busiest day of our three day project.  He also shot these great behind the scenes images. 

Today we interviewed two different people, one product user and one clinician. We also got action shots of the technical experts calibrating and testing a prosthetic for that user. I'm sure I came across as unorganized to my fellow photographer/assist as I tried to juggle an RX10iii on a Leica table top tripod at one shooting angle, the A7Riii as a primary camera and also carry an RX10ii for still photos in between monitoring audio and video. It wasn't too big of a stretch as we had a person from the client side actually conducting the interviews. 

I'm always nervous about video content until I get back to the studio and back up the memory cards to my little laptop. 

I was exhausted by the time we wrapped up, what with baby bouncing duties and keeping track of all the details, but my VSL reader/volunteer, Abraham, helped lighten my load by assisting me in disassembling all the gear and helping to pack it out to the car. I am so thankful that he came along with me instead of me muddling my way through the busiest day solo. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

More below.....

Stepping away from the video camera to take some silent still photographs with the "C" camera.
Photo Courtesy: ODL-Designs.

Do you see the Metro cart in the foreground (above)? Do you see the conduit taped to the 5/8ths inch metal pipe at the top, where it connects with the grip head? Yeah. Well, I only brought along four light stands and in this one particular set up I wanted to use three lights as well as a big diffusion for the main light. That used up all four of my stands and left me bereft of support for the microphone boom. I hijacked the cart and built this "Rube Goldberg" rig the day before; after I tidied up for the day. It actually worked well as it's a wheeled cart and could be easily adjusted. That, and the fact that it was amazingly stable. No sandbag needed there...

Monitoring the audio and the "A" camera for David's interview.
Photo Courtesy: ODL-Designs.

Here's a good view of the main light for this interview. Notice how far it is from the diffuser. The Aputure LightStorm LS-1 LED panels have a pretty narrow angle to their illumination. It's a tight beam. I pulled the light back from the diffuser for a softer, more even spread across the diffuser. Our standard ISO was 640 and I was using a 1/60th of a second shutter speed to get a nice, smooth 30 fps. All cameras were set to the same picture profile and all were color balanced with the Lastolite WB target. Hope it makes the edit that much easier...

Canadian clients head to the car while the video team keeps shooting the Lake Ontario shoreline in a valiant attempt to log enough b-roll. 
Photo Courtesy: ODL-Designs.

Around the time we headed for our exterior location the wind began to blow and the snow began to fall. It was exciting for me. I'm from central Texas, we don't see this kind of weather much. Not so exciting for the natives who seem to have lost their sense of amazement concerning frozen precipitation.

The big gloves are from REI and the thinner "camera control friendly" gloves are also from REI. So is the hat you see and the little Polartec skull cap underneath. I was toasty warm but the best part is that I found the jacket at Costco for about $29 and it seemed as warm as anything my Canadians were wearing. Never a shiver, even after 30 minutes shooting in the wind, and standing adjacent to Lake Ontario.

I guess we Texans aren't that slow on the uptake, when it comes to personal comfort. 

A naysayer suggested that I did not have good cold weather gear; or the world's warmest gloves. Au Contraire. Here's proof. Tossed in the Sherpa hat for good measure. Me cold? Not likely.
Photo Courtesy: ODL-Designs.

Early to bed tonight as I've heard the U.S. Custom in the Toronto airport is notorious for long lines and big delays. I'd rather be five hours early than five minutes late. Besides, the family moved our traditional Thursday pizza night to Saturday evening just so I could share in the fun. I wouldn't want to miss my flight and disappoint them.

Canada Rocks! The people are great. The food was great. I give the whole experience five stars. 

Now comes the hard part, reviewing and editing all that footage.  Good night!