2.23.2017

First Walk Around Downtown in Weeks. Took my favorite "trash camera" the A7ii.



I worked on editing video all weekend and right up until the middle of Tues. When I felt like I had a fairly solid "rough cut" I uploaded a copy to Vimeo to share with my clients. I'd been "nose down" on the project for several weeks and felt overdue for a little photographic downtime. I also realized that I hadn't been in downtown Austin is a couple of weeks; and a lot can change in 14 days.

Yesterday started out at a chilly 51 degrees but by the time I got out the door it was in the 80s and headed for a (late February!!!) high of 91 (f). We went from jacket weather to shorts and flip-flop weather in a matter of hours. 

Being a traditionalist I took along the Sony A7ii camera and the new-ish FE 50mm 1.8 lens. It's a nice, small combination. I like using it the way we used older cameras. I keep the exposure setting to manual, pretend I'm using Kodachrome 64 by setting that ISO, and then setting the white balance to generic daylight. Of course, I am cheating because I have the camera set to generate raw files. 

The walk was non eventful. Austin is in a quiet lull. The calm before the storm that we call, SXSW. 
The restaurants looked a bit empty and the streets were strangely almost clear of traffic. In the first five minutes of my walk I passed by five different 30+ story building projects that will add more class A office space and high end residential capacity to the central business district. The next part of my walk was around Congress Ave. heading towards the City Convention Center -  ground zero for SXSW. All over this area crews were working to clean the chewing gum (and worse) off the sidewalks, putting up new food trailers, getting signage ready, finishing street projects in order to have open traffic lanes for the estimated 100 million people who will be escaping here from the frozen North to listen to bands, listen to panels about the future of social media and to either get drunk or overdose on coffee. 

The most interesting stuff I found in my walk was, again, wall murals. The one just above is more or less an advertisement for how to reduce your consumer footprint/impact. But I'm a sucker for "exploding balloon" graphic design so I just had to document. The entire wall was fun but I didn't feel like standing in the middle of a four lane street to try and get it all in. Just note taking here. 

If you are keeping score then you should know that I had a blast doing the latest video project. After our last project the biggest thing on my to-do list for the current project was to do a much deeper dive into pre-production. I wanted to have all my ducks in a row before I even pulled a camera out of the bag. I wrote a detailed scripting outline (our project was composed of unscripted interviews but I still wanted to concept the structure and direction as a map to lead the interviews....) a two page shot list and a "look and feel" statement (just for me). 

I asked for the names of the people we would be interviewing in Canada and took time to call each of them and do a phone pre-interview so that the interviewees and I knew something about each other, shared some stories, and didn't have to fire up an interview cold. That was a huge help!

I know we tend to spend a lot of time talking about gear but it's generally the least of my worries on projects like this. The big concern is whether or not you'll be able to create the right emotional space for the person on the other side of the camera to share their story in a way that will work for the whole of the video program. So much rides on the way you ask questions. You also have to create a physical space that makes people comfortable opening up and sharing. 

I could have used any number of cameras or microphones and gotten into the same rings of the target, technically. If the content seems transparent and the story keeps your attention then you have more or less gotten the hard stuff done. 

It's no different than photography in the sense that pre-production and having a plan makes for a much more efficient and light hearted shoot than just waiting for the client to show up at the door with a grab bag of stuff to shoot. 

Sometimes I feel like I ask too many questions when we begin discussing even the simplest shoot but, knowing that we'll be shooting chrome against white, or interviewing someone who has had a recent trauma, means we can be ready with dulling spray (for the chrome) or a quieter, more sympathetic demeanor for our interviewee. It's like scouting. A walk through of your primary shooting location before the actual day of the shoot gives you a mental map of the best locations in which to shoot along with understanding the location challenges for which you need to come prepared. 

Is the perfect room, visually, a bouncy, echo-y room, as far as audio goes? Knowing this in advance means you can prepare and treat the room with sound blankets and padded furniture to subdue acoustic problems. Is the interviewee prone to forehead/nose shiny-ness? Maybe bring along a make up person. Is the HVAC noisy and old? Find out who can help you turn it off for a half hour so you can get good audio. Heading out to shoot exteriors in the snow? Bring great gloves and shoes.

In the hierarchy of tools I guess I'd have to say pre-production, scouting and familiarity with the subjects, are much more important than which type of camera you'll use, or what brand of microphone you'll hang out in front of your subjects.

As I write this I know that it's a lot more boring to discuss pre-production than talking about which lens we might get if we decide to buy the new Fuji medium format camera, but --- the real mission of this blog is to share real information about what I do for a living in.....the real world. All the organizational stuff is really where the "rubber" of the businesses of photography and video production meet the road. 

The amount of time shooting or recording is about 5% of most projects. The rest is selling the project, casting, getting props, figuring out the logistics of getting there and getting back, archiving, editing and post production. Camera in hand? A couple hours a day. When working. Everything else? Days. Weeks. 

note on boy: Ben made it safely to Seoul (a bit jet lagged), he's having a blast. I am relieved. 



2.22.2017

The purchase of a "bargain priced" video tripod. For no good reason at all.

75mm ball socket for quick leveling of the tripod head. 

Some people love camera bodies, some love lenses and others are hellbent on collecting small flashes and radio triggers. Me? I'm partial to tripods. And tripod heads. I've owned enough tripods to outfit an entire workshop full of handholding camera buffs with their own "sticks." But somehow there always seems to be one that I "need" for some specific photo or video adventure. 

When I headed up to Canada to shoot video I bought a smaller set of Benro "legs" that would pack into one of my duffle cases. I wrapped a big Manfrotto head separately from the tripod, and I was impressed with my ability to pack so efficiently. I was less impressed when I actually got on site, put a camera, the heavy head and a weighty monitor on top of the new legs. When I panned the tripod you could see s little flex at the beginning and end of the move. You could also see that the top-heavy nature of the camera, combined with the seven inch monitor, created some vibrations when touching the camera that a heavier rig might have done a better job cancelling out. Next time, I vowed,

2.21.2017

I was consulting for a client this month and I recommended a camera to them. I'm sure the camera I recommended will surprise you.

Shooting by the shores of Lake Ontario. Warm as toast. Photo: Courtesy ODL-Design.
4K video for a project, courtesy Sony RX10iii. 

I'm a big fan of mirrorless cameras and an even bigger fan of cameras like the RX10iii which seem to be able to handle just about everything. But when a good client came to me and asked me to consult for their company about equipping a warehouse with an imaging system I made what might seem to be a contrary recommendation.

Here's the backstory: The client is a medical device manufacturer with offices on several continents. They have a wide range of products and an even wider range of replacement parts. Their warehouse needed a photographic solution that would allow them to shoot small to medium (smaller than a shoe box) products and parts on a shadowless, white background. The images would be uploaded and used on websites, and they wanted a solution that would not require post processing.

I researched and sourced a self contained light box. It's a box that's 30 x30 x30 inches in size, black on the outside and silver on the inside. There are two stripes of (quite good) LEDs across the top of the interior of the box and one can insert a white, plastic material as a cyc. There is a round opening in the front of the box that allows you to poke a lens through and shoot. It's a bigger and better version of the pop-up white light tents that some people use to shoot products destined for sale on Ebay.

The box is pretty much fool proof. We tested it today and the light, softened by a diffuser, is even and bright.

We also sourced a very inexpensive, Manfrotto tripod with a two axis head. It's not a big, carbon fiber Gitzo but it's adequate to hold the camera steady and, if handled with care, should last for a while.

Finally we come to the camera. Since we were working within a tight budget, and we needed a camera that was easy to operate and has straightforward menu, I opted to recommend the Canon T6. It's an inexpensive choice which, along with the 18-55mm kit lens, sells on Amazon for around $425-$450, depending on which sales and rebates are on offer. 

The camera is decidedly unsexy. But....it has an extremely uncomplicated menu system. It features 18 megapixels of resolution. It has a decent live view implementation. The kit lens is very decent and focuses down fairly close. It's very easy to train someone to use. And it's cheap.

Sometimes we forget that not every imaging situation demands an elegant and state-of-the-art solution. My client will dedicated this camera to the backroom of a warehouse in a city in a different state. We'll make a step-by-step chart for its use. It won't be seeing kids' soccer games, fast breaking Olympic sprint finals or fashion locations that feature Stygian darkness. It will spend it's life looking down on Flugal Joints and Bristom Arches; as well as mounting screws and radiation deflectors. Sitting happily on top of it's companion tripod, peeking furtively through the round window, onto the small white stage.

When someone calls and there is confusion about a product someone else will be able to put it into the box, turn on the camera and take an 8 or 4 megapixel Jpeg, and send a reasonably good and detailed photograph to the original someone to confirm that the part is or isn't what said someone requested.

My client spent about $700 for a complete imaging solution, carefully selected for ease of use, image quality and budget constraints. In this case the Canon camera was the wise choice. It is reliable, a good imager and has about 1/8th the number of menu items found in the typical Olympus or Sony camera. It's not difficult to see why people on tight budgets gravitate toward these cameras. They fill a need without the added encumbrance of pretentious spec-manship.

Would I own one? If my budget was under $500 for a good camera and lens system? You bet I would. And it would probably deliver images that would be fine for most work. Am I planning on minimizing my photo footprint to this distilled level of gear? Not on your life.

2.19.2017

A Year Without New Cameras. A New VSL Record.

Shooting the RX10iii on a freezing day in Burlington, Ontario.
Photo courtesy: ODL-Designs

For many years I was known as "one of those photographers who changes camera systems as often as he changes his socks!" I bounced around from one system to the other looking for the magic mix of features and handling that would create a shooting tool box that got me the results I wanted, in the way I wanted them. But looking at my current inventory I am surprised to see that my last camera purchase was almost a year ago, and it was not a wholesale system change but just an addition of one more camera from the same brand of cameras as all the others in my collection.

At my age I'm pretty sure I haven't somehow changed my stripes and somehow become more careful and measured in my proclivity for reckless change, and avaricious acquisition urges, so something else must be in play.

Could it be that a major camera company helped me to check all the boxes pertaining to the way I use cameras? Across six models from the same maker.... I am inclined to say, "yes."

One of the big reasons I switched from Nikon to Sony was my belief that conventional photography would continue to evolve as an ever diminishing business opportunity and that video would be the ascendant tangent for visual content creation. Video will continue to rise in popularity amongst clients while photography will continue its change from needed craft to utter ubiquity. (Commercial) Photography is quickly following the path that typesetting did so many years ago. Typesetting tumbled from being a poorly understood craft that required experts and dedicated machines to something that everyone can do (not always well....) with their word processors. Very few typesetters still exist. Graphic designers can do a better job (mostly) making type look good than can the general population but most people just crank out their written work and the idea of typesetting becomes as automatic as getting coffee. Maybe even more so. 

I believe that the vast majority of photography used in fleeting commercial applications will come from employees' smart phone cameras, sometimes aided by the gentle nudge of a canned "enhancement" filter or two. Most other still imaging will be purchased for pennies from the Stock Photography Walmarts of the world. 

I don't think the role of professional photographer will completely disappear. Perfect product shots (that are not just skinned CAD renderings) will still be desired, as will images that desperately need to be lit. Or perfectly styled. Or used enormously large. Or fill needs for a specialty market. But I do think the role of the generalist photographer is dying quickly and, along with photojournalists, will end up represented only in small niches for declining pay.

As with most trends things will change quicker in some locations than others. I'm not particularly pessimistic about my ability to make a living at traditional photography but I know I'll have to spend more time and effort marketing in the future to return the same income I earn now. I'm riding out the (hopefully) long tail of the decline. 

So the cameras I was looking for, and ended up choosing, needed to be as strong on the video side as they were on the photographic side. That necessary combination was the main driver of my 2015-16 camera change. I hedged my bets by getting a Sony A7Rii which is still regarded as one of the strongest still image making cameras on the market. It's a camera I can pull out when we are engaged in a traditional still imaging project that requires a highly competitive set of image quality parameters. 

Since its only weak point is the continuous focus performance required for shooting sports it is more or less the perfect camera with which to shoot traditional portraits, studio still life and general lifestyle advertising project. It routinely delivers very high resolution files with state of the art dynamic range and (with the tweaking made possible by a highly flexible profile interface) the color response is very pleasing. 

I also filled in some gaps with other cameras from the same maker. A fast shooting a6300. A cheap but effective "daily shooter" in the form of an A7ii, and a few "do everything" cameras from the RX family.

But the camera that more or less put a cap on new acquisitions was the RX10iii. If your idea of the future of imaging is based on the idea that photography and video will be intermixed and interchangeable; and that it is almost entirely made for display and distribution on screens, then the RX10iii represents a kind of camera possessed of a feature set that neatly checks nearly every box on the checklist. 

I believe it is the most subversive camera on the market today. Subversive in that it challenges the hierarchy of camera types that we've been conditioned, by experience and marketing, to expect for each application. 

The 20 megapixel sensor is more than adequate for almost everything we use cameras for commercially. The 4K video out of the camera is competitive with dedicated video cameras ranging anywhere from 2X to 5X the price of the RX10iii. The 1080p video is wonderful and detailed. 
The camera is highly flexible. Need better audio than you might get through the 3.5mm stereo mic inputs? Sony has an XLR unit that plugs right into the multi-interface hot shoe. Nice and clean. 

Need to shoot wide? The camera gives you a 24mm equivalent focal range with pristine software corrections of geometric distortions and other optical flaws. Need to shoot long? The camera gives you the equivalent of a 600mm super telephoto. Need a remote? Open up your cellphone and launch the free camera control software. Need to shoot fast? How is 12 fps? 

It's not just that the RX10iii has many features it's the fact that Sony made so many of the features to such a high level of performance and quality.

Why have I kept the system for so long (relative to my past experiences)? Because nothing out there currently matches or exceeds (in any real, discernible way) what I already have in my hands. If I need ultimate image quality (short of the nose bleed, rarified level of the 100 MP medium format cameras) I have that well covered by the A7Rii. If I need 4K video with great low light performance and fast, accurate AF, then the Sony a6300 camera is my choice. If I need a great, all around performer for video and stills, with ultimate flexibility, then I select the RX10iii. What else could I buy?

In a few years Nikon and Canon might catch up. They would need to embrace EVFs to even begin to make my curiosity twitch. I could never willingly go back to a DSLR with an optical viewfinder. It would be like going from a 60 inch 4K flat screen TV to a 21 inch CRT. Just not going to happen. 

A few of my friends have asked about my interest in the Fuji medium format camera but they misunderstand the needs of most video producers. Our goal is to get the people we interview into focus, not to chase after the thinnest, most vaporous pane of sharp focus imaginable. 

We've reached an intersection of sorts. The business in general no longer returns the large and easy money we saw in the 1990s and the earlier part of this century. Like most industries photography is continually being flattened out. The costs are being reduced. There's less margin per hour. What this means in an existential sense is that the old mantra that: pro's can afford to buy the most expensive gear because they can depreciate it and it "makes" them money, is becoming less and less true with every round of flattening and budget "normalization." 

For a smart business person this means we no longer want to chase ephemeral and minute potential enhancements to image quality that might be delivered by something like a medium format system. It all becomes a drastic case of overkill and creates an over-rich equipment inventory chasing an under-capitalized business model.

So, the flattening of photographer income nicely coincided with the maturity of the camera market, which means that once we find gear we love to work with we have the luxury to coast along with it into the foreseeable future because we are already bringing the equivalent of 50 caliber machine guns to a carnival target shooting booth. 

There is a downside to the diminishing of camera lust = lower readership for a photography blog. But I'm okay with that. (#NikonversusCanon: The Death Match!!!!)(#WhatIsTheUltimateLens????).

There is an operational calmness that comes from being satisfied with your current selection of cameras and lenses. If they deliver the results you want it frees you to think about different investments and different issues that impact image quality or profitability.  Would the $6500 you were thinking about dropping into that new medium format camera be better as an addition to your retirement account? Would it be more fun turned into a pair of plane tickets to see someplace on the other side of the world that you've always wanted to see? Would it buy you the time off you wanted in order to finish your short film, your novel, or your first person research on napping in the afternoons? 

To be truly happy with your cameras means knowing them better and better. There is some sort of bargain my mind has made with the Sony cameras. You may need a different set of parameters for the work you do. You might need the features that another brand does better. But we've all reached this technology plateau together and I don't think we'll spend our way to any radically better cameras any time soon. 

In other news.  We all got up at the crack of dawn today to take the kid to the airport. He's not flying back to his college in the northeast U.S., rather, he is embarking on an exciting adventure: A semester abroad. He's been inoculated, vaccinated, visa'd, etc. He applied spend the Spring and early Summer at one of the top research universities in S. Korea and he should be rolling into the airport in Seoul in about 18 hours. 

He's taken three years of Korean language and is enrolled in an intensive, six credit hour Korean language course this semester as well. He's got a full roster of other classes as well. 

As a parent I will miss him almost as much as his dog will miss him. As a video producer I am in the depths of depression because, with his exit, I lose my editing lifeguard. Ben is one of the best video editors I've worked with. I've been preparing for this event by binge-watching all the editing tutorials on the learning site, Lynda.com. It takes time to learn this stuff, but Ben didn't leave me empty handed. He gave me short list of alternate resources....just in case. 

I'm sure all you parents out there with grown kids have been through this same sort of thing. You want your kiddos to sprout wings and fly well. You want them to gain independence and have fun experiences but you sure do miss them when they are off somewhere else in the world....


2.16.2017

For photography or videography I really like using the Aputure VS-2 FineHD monitor. It just got 4X better.

Aputure VS-2 FineHD.

I was very happy with my purchase and subsequent uses of the the Aputure VS-2 HD monitor. It did everything I expected a seven inch, 1080P monitor to do, and a lot more. It was a screaming bargain. But, it was only a 2K monitor. It was not designed to accept and display a 4K signal. If I plugged it into the HDMI output of my 4K cameras I could see my composition while in "standby" but the second I hit the red record button the image on the screen would go black and the screen on the back of the camera lit up and became my display screen for UHD video. 

I was okay with that. No one promised me a 4K monitor for the princely sum of around $250. When I came back from my recent assignment I happened to read something on RedShark or Cinema5D (can never remember which) that indicated there had been a firmware update for the monitor. How wild!! A firmware update for a bargain monitor. I was impressed just by that. A few minutes later I went to the Aputure site and was impressed to find that the firmware update would give me monitoring capability for 4K. Very exciting, and just in time. 

I tried to download and expand (unzip) the file on three different machines and three different browsers but something kept tossing the download into a loop and it just kept making more zipped files when I clicked on it to expand. 

That's when I called in an expert. Enter Frank. A few deft keystrokes later and he sent me the .bin file like it was no big deal. I hooked up the download cable supplied originally with the monitor and carefully followed the instructions. Three minutes later I restarted the monitor, hooked it to a Sony A7Rii, and monitored me up some 4K. 

Of course, the screen resolution hasn't changed, it's just that now the monitor can handle the bigger video stream and downsize it on the fly for me to see. 

That's some pretty cool customer service. Some of the big boys could learn from that. I've bought six Aputure products in the last two months and so far not a single one has disappointed. Happy to have discovered this brand of photo stuff. 

Disclaimer: I'm happy with the stuff I've bought and used from Aputure. I paid for all of it with my own money. All bought directly from Precision Camera in Austin, Texas. Nice folks. They also don't pay me squat for saying nice things about them. I go there for the service, the great prices and a mix of products that work well for me. Sometimes I just call them and they deliver. It's so (nicely) last century.  Next product from Aputure for me? Might just be their new "Diety" microphone. Looks interesting and it's getting some great reviews.

2.15.2017

Quick Turnaround Video. Substituting for a colleague waylaid by the flu.


Elephant+Piggy from Kirk Tuck on Vimeo.

I spent last week up in Canada, working on a video project for a healthcare client. I got back to Austin, Texas around 7pm and I was pretty wiped out from two days of travel and three days of non-stop shooting and interviewing. But the freelancer's credo is to make hay while the sun shines so instead of taking Sunday off I recharged my batteries, unpacked the video stuff and repacked the photography gear so I could do a Sunday afternoon assignment at Zach Theatre. We were booked to do marketing photographs for a children's play called, "Elephant and Piggy go to a Play."

This production was done on one of the theater's smaller stages; in fact, my favorite stage and one I've made photographs on for nearly 30 years. I packed a motley collection of cameras but I used only one for the entire performance. The shoot started at 3pm and I was on my way back home by 5:00 to post process the images I'd taken for the marketing staff.

I used the Sony A7Rii to shoot the entire performance; along with the 18-105mm f4.0 G lens. It's a bit counterintuitive since this is an APS-C lens and the A7Rii is a full frame camera but let me explain. We love the performance of the sensor in the A7Rii but don't always need to use the full, 42 megapixel potential of that sensor. Many times our clients' needs are such that 16 to 18 megapixels is the sweet spot between capture, storage and online transfer. Most of the marketing for the kid's shows is done on the web and via post cards. Neither application demands the highest levels of resolution.

Sadly, the big Sony camera doesn't give you the ability to photograph at a reduced raw size but I am more than happy, in many situations, to shoot with the camera set to the APS-C crop mode and make use of the 18 megapixel files that configuration creates. But rather than shoot raw I end up shooting in the Jpeg extra fine mode. With good attention paid to color balance and exposure I just don't think the photographer is giving up much quality in the final files....if any.

With the camera set to the APS-C mode the 18-105mm f4.0 G lens becomes, effectively, a 27mm to about a 158mm zoom lens. In the smaller theater this is the perfect lens with which to capture both near and far action.

One more thing I do to ready my camera these days is to select a picture profile instead of using the canned looks. I've come to like the look of PP3 which rolls off the highlights more quickly than the still camera profiles. I've changed the "knee" just a bit to roll off highlights even a bit more aggressively which means I rarely end up with burned highlights. My last customizing step is to turn down the "detail" setting in the picture profile's sub-menus from zero to minus 4 (out of a range of +7 to -7). I can always add a bit of sharpening in post but it sure is harder to subtract over sharpening that is already baked into a camera file.

The images got delivered on Monday morning and the marketing staff was happy. So was I. The new PP3 picture profile method is giving me smoother skin tones and nicer highlights. The shadows are slightly more open as well.

With this small assignment done I got to work on Monday logging my video content from the previous week. It's not fun listening to the same interview over and over but it's necessary if you want to put your project together correctly in the edits.

I was about to call it a day on Tuesday and head into the house to grab a snack when I got a phone call from my favorite marketing expert at Zach Theatre. Seems they had booked one of their regular videographers to videotape a performance of the same kid's play on Weds. (the next day) and the videographer had come down with the flu. He thought he might be able to come shoot at the midday performance but the theater was hesitant about not having someone with full blown flu in the middle of a performance for a packed house of first graders.

Was there any way I could make it over and record the show? A client in need is somewhat like a friend in need except the client also pays you. Even though I was busy with my project at hand I decided to help out. After all, a client of 30 years is generally always worth it.

I asked how they usually record the shows. Some people do it with one camera and then ask the actors to come back and run through some of the performance after the audience leaves in order to get usable b-roll for their edit. Some people shoot single camera and call it a day.

I decided we should use one camera in a stationary mode to capture a wide shot of the stage and then use another camera throughout the show as to capture closer action, to get tight shots of the characters and to follow the action around the stage. I set up on the top row of the house, dead center to the stage. My stationary camera was the RX10ii set almost to its widest focal length and stopped down to f5.6. It gave me ample depth of field, given the relative distance from my position to the stage, and the effective f-stop. That camera was matched with the Beachtek XLR interface so I could get a balanced feed from the mixing board of the sound engineer. With the help of the sound engineer we were able to fine tune the levels in camera for great sound. That camera was set up on a big, wooden, Berlebach tripod equipped with a Manfrotto hybrid video/photo fluid head.

The second camera was the RX10iii set up on a big Manfrotto tripod with an enormous Manfrotto video fluid head. The Aputure monitor was attached to the hot shoe of that camera. The bigger monitor and the much more define focus peaking made following actors upstage and downstage, with good focus, much easier. I didn't bring cages for the cameras but I did want a microphone on the roving camera just to catch sound if I needed to sync up any frames with the other camera but I'd run out of hotshoe space by mounting the monitor there. Instead I dropped the microphone onto the hotshoe of the stationary camera and ran a cable back to the roving camera's input. Problem solved.

With both cameras set to ISO 640, and the white balance set to 4100K, I spent the next full hour operating the moving camera; following the actors, trying to decide who to keep in the frame when they split up across the frame, and trying to smoothly change the apertures on both cameras when I sensed changes in the light levels.

I knew the client was in a rush to get something they could use for distribution to media outlets so I had a quick lunch and headed back to the office to edit. At 5:00 pm I sent off a finished 1:30 minute edit to my client. We'll probably have a few little changes to make; that just goes with the territory, but she did e-mail me within minutes of downloading the video to tell me she "LOVED THE VIDEO!!!"

Starting tomorrow morning it's nose to the grindstone on the Canada job. Well, maybe after swim practice...

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.