3.07.2017

SXSW starts this Friday. I'm thinking about renting out one of our cars as an "Air BNB."

A sign of the times. Taken last year. Parking for a month? A week?
Naw, that was the rate for the day.... welcome to New Austin.

In about three days the onslaught will begin. Hordes of pale skinned people with tight legged pants will descend upon the city, finding and taking every parking space within a sixty mile radius. All 200,000 temporary visitors will walk around downtown and all will have smartphones pressed against an ear or held just in front of them as they stroll, oblivious to traffic lights, "walk" signs, other pedestrians and multi-ton chariots of steel barreling down upon them. 

I will be on a busy street corner hawking elevator passes, helicopter transport coupons, maps to the downtown houses of famous rock musicians and, of course, translation "cheat sheets" for those who do not speak Texan. 

Restaurants will languish as most of the attendees live on endless coffee until mid-afternoon, replaced by beer and more beer around prevning (pre-evening). Rounded out by donuts and breakfast tacos. And swag food at the parties for the platinum pass holders.

I very much recommend photographers in the area head downtown to document this gathering. It's the documentary equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. Just walk out into the middle of Sixth St., spin around in a circle and keep the shutter button pressed down. The difference between a good SXSW photographer and all the rest? The quality of the captions. 

I actually do think it's all fun. I just feel sorry for people such as my wife whose advertising agency is located in one of the downtown high-rises. For about ten days in a row getting downtown and into one's parking garage is akin to one of the labors of Hercules. Messy work. 

One real benefit of the gathering is that it provides much work for many of my friends in the video field. There's always a new batch of up-and-coming start-up companies hungry to have their events shot on video. Let's give those Sonys and Canons a workout. 




And they all come with nice little labels on lanyards.


Strange Name. Nice Microphone.

Aputure Diety Shotgun Microphone. 

Lots of microphones out in the world. Picking the right one seems to be a mystery. The ultimate in subjective auditioning and shopping. In the projects that I've done in video I've found shotgun style microphones to be better solutions for most of the situations in which I've been filming. There's something about the universal lavaliere microphone that just seems acoustically "flat" to me. Used correctly I'm pretty sure that a good hyper-cardioid microphone has richer tones and better dynamic range than the tie-clip minis. 

On previous projects I've used a Rode NTG-2, an Audio Technica 835b, and, most recently, a Sennheiser MKE600, with mostly good results. If I put on the good headphones and really listen I'll have to admit that the AT has a bit of coloration that makes things sound...different. The Rode seems a bit insensitive and requires more amplification, which, in turn, adds more hiss or noise to the recordings. The Sennheiser is pretty neutral and has a lower quantity of noise in the files. It's a good, inexpensive choice. But far be it for me to leave "well enough" alone. 

I made the mistake of visiting Curtiss Judd's YouTube channel recently and watched his reviews of a number of different microphones. One that seemed particularly interesting was a microphone from an unlikely source --- the people at Aputure. 

Aputure is the same company from which I've recently sourced five great LED fixtures that I've been very happy with. Continued use has proven to me that the company's claims that the lights are in the CRI range of 96 and 98 are accurate. They are full spectrum and deliver what I need for the work I do. After working with their lights for a while I gravitated in Aputure's direction when I started looking for a replacement, 7 inch, field monitor. I've been happy with their VS-2 FineHD in every regard. I also appreciated that they came out with a firmware upgrade that allows the monitor to be used with 4k video streams now. A wonderful, after-the-sale upgrade that makes the monitor a great support tool for 4K shooters. 

When I saw the Aputure Diety microphone, watched the reviews, and saw the price ($359) I decided to try one and see if the rumors were true; would it go toe-to-toe with the standard of the industry, the Sennheiser MKH 416? Could the Diety match the quality of a $1,000 microphone? I'll probably never make the direct comparison but I keep seeing the comparison pop up on the web. Owners of the 416 usually end their reviews with a grudging approval of the Diety but with the insistence that the 416 still rules. Reviewers who own both usually find them to be very close, and reviewers who own neither seem to find them evenly matched. 

Mine came via Amazon delivery today. I unpacked it, plugged it into the Tascam 60DRii audio recorder and started listening to everything I could. The new microphone is handily better than my Rode, and my Audio Technica, and quieter and clearer than my second place contender, the MKE 600. Noise is almost non-existent and, if there is a visual analogy for  its performance, I would say that the difference between the Diety and the other microphones in my collection is similar to first looking through a dirty window or a lens with a smeared filter, then cleaning the window or filter and looking again. Everything is just...clearer. 

I tried the microphone in the Zoom H5 recorder with the same results and also with a Saramonic SmartRig+ audio pre-amp and phantom power interface, into a Sony RX10iii and loved the performance of the combination. I think we've got an audio winner!

Bizarre Coincidence: So, I usually swim in the early morning but today I decided to go to the noon swim. I can count the times I've ordered microphones from Amazon on one finger. The manager at our swim club is not in the audio visual business, nor does he make video. But all of this made a lunch time coincidence eerily strange...

The Amazon delivery guy hit my house just as I was getting ready to go to the pool. He handed me a brown box with the distinctive Amazon packing tape on it and I brought it into the studio, opened it to look for shipping damage and, finding none, headed over to the club for our masters swim. I dropped by the manager's office to ask about some paperwork. As we were chatting there was a knock on his office door and when we opened it there was an Amazon delivery person. He had a box the same size as the box I'd just received back at the studio.  He handed it to the manager who said, "Ah, good. My microphone came!" 

I was shocked and stood around while he opened the box and revealed a brand new, Shure, dynamic microphone. I backed out of the office cautiously and headed to the pool. Random coincidence? 

Not what I expected to see at swim practice. 


Alaina. A portrait in the studio.



Every once in a while you have to step back from the "business of photography" and just have fun taking portraits. It keeps you engaged in your craft in a wonderful way.

I am fortunate to have worked with a regional theater for so many years. My show images cover the walls at the rehearsal studios and in the main offices. It's rare for a week to go by without getting a call from an actor, inquiring about headshots.

When I am wrapped up in projects I tend to refer the actors to people who specialize in actor's headshots. When my schedule is clear I welcome their business. But when I want to just enjoy the process of making portraits I seek out the actors who've made it clear that they want one of my portraits, and who have a look or sensibility that I want to capture.

I ask them to exchange their time in front of my camera for portraits. We talk about the parameters of the sessions and how much time we'll spend getting images we like. I try to cover all the nuts and bolts of how I work and why so we are all on the same page and ready to work toward a common goal. A beautiful portrait.

The image above is an outtake, a shot between shots that made me smile. I love the energy and the happiness it conveys. I also like the more serious one I've included below.

The opportunity to experiment with light and lenses, and poses and expressions, is a vital element in honing our craft to do our best in commissioned engagements with other clients. Practice makes better photographs.


3.06.2017

Pulling out a favorite lens and pushing it just to see. Morning shoot on white.

A 100% crop of the image just below all the "gray space." (type). 

I've been playing around with one of my old, favorite lenses quite a bit in the last week. It's a Contax Zeiss 28-85mm, f3.3-f4.0 zoom, combined with a CY > Nex K&F Concepts adapter. Now it's a manual focus, manual exposure lens for my A7Rii. 

I started playing with it again when Fuji announced their two, new, inexpensive "cine" lenses, just recently. The introduction led the major photo and video sites to revisit what's different and wonderful about "cine" lenses versus just plain, old vanilla lenses. There are lots of operational and cosmetic reasons between the two genres but the real reasons pros feel like splashing out on "cine" lenses mostly has to do with the benefits of par focal zooms and the standard focus and aperture gearing that allows the use of focus follow mechanisms. 

Here I am mostly interested in the idea of par focal lenses because it would be nice to shoot video with my big mirror-free cameras and be able to zoom in or out during a take without the focus shifting. I tested the lenses I have in house and just about any of them will work if I am zooming from a long focal length to a shorter focal length but very few (one) will do the trick in the other direction. You probably guessed it but that lens would be the Contax/Zeiss 28-85mm lens. I've tested it and it actually does the whole par focal thing; and in both directions. 

That piqued my interest and so I ended up tossing it in the camera backpack and taking it with me to my shoot this morning with the idea that I'd use it for everything. Which I did. 

Today I was photographing an actor for a play that will run in 2018. He was in town and the marketing people pounced. The marketing staff will drop out the background on the final file they choose and will do any sort of retouching necessary to make the image work for their project. My reason for posting the images here is solely to discuss the lens performance!

A few caveats. I've looked at the original MTF curves published by Zeiss for this particular lens and found them to be very, very high performance; especially for a zoom lens. The center of the lens, at every focal length, is outstanding when used wide open and even bette when the lens is stopped down to f8.0. Here are the exceptions to what I just wrote: The corners and the farthest edges of the frame take a fairly big hit in terms of sharpness, as accurately described in the same MTF curves. Secondly, the lens has various distortions that affect straight lines, etc. But the distortions are nowhere close to what you see from modern zooms if you turn off the internal camera corrections for those lenses.  

What this means is that if you are considering this lens to use in photographing products or architecture you are bound to be disappointed. Likewise, if you are a portrait photographer with a mania for putting your main subject into one corner you will also be disappointed. For the rest of use who photograph three dimensional, organic forms, and lots and lots of portraits, you will likely be delighted. 

I'm not sure how much compression Blogger/Google does to the files that I upload so I'll just give you my impressions from today's shoot. I spent most of the shoot at f5.6 and used the focal range between 50-85mm for nearly everything except the three quarter shot at the bottom of the post. If I needed to keep a hand and a face in focus I went with f8.0 and split the focus difference. 

When pixel peeping at 100% the A7Rii files were very, very detailed and very lifelike. The lens has very nice microcontrast (and enthusiastic nano-acuity). Within the confines of the limitations I wrote about above I find it to be exemplary. With appropriate technique is has low flare and no perceivable fringing. The native contrast is neither low or high but accurate. It is at least as good as the $1,000+ Sony/Zeiss 24mm-70mm f4.0 lens, which I like as well. 

The older lens is mechanically robust and offers good focus control as well as smooth zoom control. And it remains par focal all the way from 28 to 85 at f5.6. The rush to autofocus zoom lenses has brought us.....autofocus zoom lenses. But we've lost some controls in the process. Trying to do good manual focus and focus pulls with a fly-by-wire lens is more or less an exercise in frustration. Zooming with most modern AF lenses is equally unsatisfying. We traded control and repeatability for convenience. 

I'll be keeping my eyes out for other cool zooms from the old C/Y mount and N mount Contax systems. Zeiss lens formulations combined with total imaging control is a powerful combination. One I'm willing to come out of pocket for. 

I put all these images up as big files. I'm thinking you can click through and really see the detail. If that's not the case you'll have to trust what I wrote. After all, I'm not trying to sell you one. In fact, I'd like to keep them all for myself.


On another note, we used the four Aputure LightStorm LED fixtures again today and once again I am so pleased at the color accuracy and spectral accuracy we're getting out of these lights; especially when I take the time to do a good, custom white balance. The days of LED lights with magenta or green color casts seem to be coming to a quick end. I've written about these lights before but they are high output panels that have CRIs of 96-98 (depending on the model). That's a great metric, and it's borne out in day-to-day use. 

Final note: When using a relatively slow, manual focus zoom lens (especially at the wide angle settings) you really do need to hit the focus magnification button and look carefully at your focus. It's trickier than we remember back in the days when our eyes were perfect, the focusing screens superb and the system resolution low.  Not anymore. 


Yes, we have variations without paint on the actor. Yes, we can use those too. 

Focus. Breathe. Wait for the Moment. 

The second video in a series I shot earlier this year, in Toronto, Canada.


John Mitchell C-Leg Story Rev. 1.1 from Kirk Tuck on Vimeo.

Many readers have asked to see the video productions I've been writing about. We have to wait until our clients publish the work we create for them, in a public forum, before we can share them. Fortunately, the client we worked for in Canada, Ottobock Healthcare, is happy to get the videos posted to their public Facebook page as soon as we get them edited and they are approved.

Here is the second video from our time in the great North.

I thought I would quickly rehash how I shot them so that the gear specs will be fresh in your mind while you watch the video.

I took along four cameras but ended up using the same two cameras every day. The "A" camera; used for each interview, was the Sony A7Rii. I shot it using a modified version of picture profile #4, in the 4K setting, and in the APS-C format. The APS-C crop is higher quality than the full frame, although most of us would not know the difference. The second cameras, used for every shred of "B" camera work --- interior and exterior --- was the Sony RX10iii. It was also set up using the same profile but I used it mostly in the full frame, 1080p mode.

My standard fps setting was 30 but I did go to 120 fps for the scenes where I was pretty sure I would like to slow down the action in post processing and would appreciate the smooth, detailed content.

The Sennheiser MKE 600 shotgun microphone was my mic of choice for all interviews. I ran that microphone into a Beachtek interface and took the audio from the Beachtek directly into the interview camera.

The editing was done on a recent iMac computer in Final Cut Pro X. I added Nattress Curves and Levels to the program as a plug-in so I'd have more control over the tonality of the parts that we converted to black and white.

The project parameters in FCPX were 1080p with a ProRes 4:2:2 rendering, sound at 48k 16 bit.

I like the Sony cameras very much and have backed away from my initial bedazzlement with dedicated video cameras. I like being able to toss super fast 85mm lenses on the front of a full frame sensor to get that razor thin depth of field look from time to time. I also like being able to grab stuff from far away with a 600mm equivalent lens. Mostly though, I've found the image quality from the conventional Sony cameras I am using to be exemplary and I'd rather fully fund my SEP every year (yes, it is tax season) that buy more cameras.

One more thing... the Sony RX10iii running with an external monitor delivers nearly 2 full hours of run time. Far exceeding the video run time I was able to get in conventional mirrored cameras I'd previously used.

3.05.2017

Random Sunday Posts: Packing for a shoot tomorrow, Editing video today. And, as always, buying stuff.


Planning stuff in Abilene. 

I've neglected the blog recently because I've been almost overwhelmed by the amount of editing work in house. Seems like every project starts out as "one" three-to-five minute video and, after the fact, turns into three or four separate videos. Like a video Hydra. Chop off one head (get one project done) and three more pop up to take its place. I'm starting to settle in and get my editing chops down but it's all about getting the details right and that's very much a different mindset for me.

Tomorrow morning I have a photography assignment at the theater (ZachTheatre.org) and I've spent some time packing up for it. The choice of camera is very straightforward; I'll take the Sony A7Rii because the images we'll be taking will have multiple uses. Might be used as a large, exterior building wrap graphic, a large, backlit sign and then various direct mail pieces. It's a given that anything we can blow up well to four by six feet (or larger) should be easily repurposed into web applications...

Since this will be a "set up" shot over which we'll have complete control I'm only bringing along two lenses. The 70-200mm f4.0 G lens and the Zeiss 24-70mm f4.0 lens. We're shooting against white seamless paper so anything longer than 24mm is just meaningless and anything longer than 200mm is just wretched overkill. Big graphics mean getting the main subject sharp so fast aperture lenses are also just a burden.

I'll be lighting the white background with two of the Aputure LS-1/2 lights (high CRI LED panels), oriented vertically. This gives me a nice, even wash of light behind my main subject (an actor). My main light will consist of two Aputure LS-1S lights (also high CRI LED panels but with a much more narrow beam angle) shining through a 48 by 48 inch, 1.25 stop diffusion cloth on a Chimera ENG panel. Fill light to consist of a the silver side of a large, collapsible reflector on the opposite side of the main light. Might also use a very small LED panel right above the camera as an "eye" light.

The bane of location work using LED panels is the need for so many light stands. We'll have the background stands, two background light stands, two main light stands, a stand for the diffuser and a stand for the fill reflector. At this point we're already up to seven stands and I may want to add a few stands for flags and other light control modifiers.

I'll also be taking along two long extension cords as well as the detachable cords for each of the lights. There are many...

The sad thing is that the set up will take the better part of an hour. The teardown will take about 45 minutes and the actual shoot may take 15 minutes. It's with a professional actor who knows how to hit a mark and how to turn on his character, on demand. That's about an eight-to-one ratio, time wise.

I will be taking along a Sony A7ii as a back-up camera but it's been years since I've had a camera failure. We're working just by habit at this point.

As I mentioned, I've been spending a lot of time in front of my computer editing video files. Nearly every job comes in these days either as a combination job: photos and videos from the outset; or they come in as one or the other along with a tentative toe-dipping into the other camp. A "by the way, if we set up and shoot this video could you also shoot some high resolution stills after each take?" Or, "We've got six portraits to shoot and were wondering how hard it would be to bring along the gear to be able to shoot a quick interview of the CEO. He'll be the last person of the six you'll be shooting..."

The days of just shooting one or the other as discrete jobs, separated by time and intention, seems to be waning quickly.

So, as I've been editing I've been asking friends with long tenure in the film industry to spot check my work and advise me to make sure I don't make too many career ending mistakes. This pushes me to really up my game and try to be as picky and detail oriented as I can be in order not to look like a moron to my close friends. It seems like as good a motivated learning strategy as any other....

Luck has been with me so far. I haven't had any production catastrophes; no out of focus A camera footage, no unmanageable noise in the tracks. But I'm getting more and more sensitive to the sound profiles of specific microphones and their "noise floors."  It's that part of the new learning curve wherein one finally realizes that there is a certain logic in getting the best one can afford going into the real production phase. Dollars on the table and that sort of thing.

I feel as though I have several aspects of videography down well enough. The lighting is no mystery and my years of research and use of LED lights works to my advantage here. In much the same way my understanding of the visual parts of the projects is also fairly well fleshed out. Moving the cameras in a transparent way is always a challenge but I think it's a lifelong learning practice in most regards. No, the wild card is the audio. Every room has a sound, every building's electrical grid adds something to the mix and every microphone has a sweet spot.

I've been buying several audio components and, for the first time in a while, returning a number of them that I find to be unsatisfactory. I recently bought a Tascam DR-70 with the idea of using it in field production as a pre-amp and mixer, sending the final signal directly into the camera for recording. The microphones hooked to the unit sounded good and the unit has very little noise until I connected the "camera out" port to my camera. Listening to headphones from the camera shocked me. Here's recently launched unit with a camera port that doesn't do proper signal matching. The hiss coming into the camera was overwhelming at any level. A quick check on the web reveals that this is a "known issue" and can be fixed with a special cable. No thanks. Don't need to be dependent on special cables dedicated for one particular use. Back in the box. Back to the store.

A bit later I was searching for something on Amazon.com and came across a simple device from Saramonic called a SmartRig+. It's a small pre-amplifier which also provides 48V power to microphones that require phantom power. It comes with a dedicated cord and a switch. You can plug the cord into your camera or your smartphone. Voila! A simple solution to putting professional microphone feeds into your Sony RX10iii camera. I bought one. It came. I listened to it and found it to be astoundingly quiet and clean; especially when considering the price tag of less than $100. I should by a couple. It runs for about 12 hours on one 9V battery and fastens to the side of the camera cage. The device even has its own headphone jack for camera that don't offer such (Panasonic FZ1000, Sony a6300). You'll want to use the camera headphone jack to make sure the signal actually got to the right spot.

At this point I want to tell you about a great resource I found on the web. It's the site of an audio guy named, Curtiss Judd. Just as photographers have a manic focus on reviewing and pixel peeping various cameras, Mr. Judd is afflicted with the same addiction when it comes to audio gear. He's constantly testing microphones, mixers, recorders, sound blankets, and anything else in the signal path. He's also very clear about his testing methods and provides actual recordings in each episode in order to prove his points and nail down his credibility. His videos are very well done and; unlike most of the rest of the web, the audio never sucks (unless he is intentionally making a point or comparison).  I found validation about my purchase of the little Saramonic on his site and I've stayed and read many other articles that have proved sticky in my brain.

One of the things he did a segment on was a new microphone from one of my favorite video oriented companies, Aputure. Apparently they've more or less copied (and improved upon) the classic (and much loved) Sennheiser MKH 416 hyper-cardioid microphone. The Sennheiser is about $1200 and has been on the market for well over a decade. It owes its longevity to the fact that it is very, very good and has earned a reputation among sound people as the microphone to demand in the sound package for many movies and cinematic style projects.

The new Aputure microphone is called, "The Diety" and promises a similar sound profile, a bit more efficiency and ..... serious weatherproofing. Curtiss Judd's review suggested that the new microphone was a worthy competitor to the legendary Sennheiser mic, but at about 1/3rd the price. I have purchased one and will start testing it after a shoot we have booked on Tues. I'm hoping for clean vocals and a very low noise floor. The microphone is strictly phantom powered but now I have three options that provide phantom power and very low noise pre-amps as well.

On my next project I may just break down and record sound to both an external recorder as well as the camera and test from there. I must say that the pre-amplifiers in both the Tascam DR60ii and the Zoom H5 are very clean and uncolored. I'm also auditioning sound people with the idea of putting together a core crew for future work. I'm hoping to enlist a second camera operator who can also run first camera if I want to fully dedicate myself to interviewing. The second position is the sound "guy." I need someone who understands microphone placement and can work with my idiosyncrasies in areas like sending an audio signal to the recording camera.

One interesting facet of each video project is the necessary purchase of two four Terabyte hard drives at the outset of each assignment. One to work from in post and one as a secondary back-up to our main drive back-ups. At the end of the assignment; once the edits have been approved and delivered, the both get labelled and go into the filing cabinet, in a job jacket for that client. Adds about $160 to each job but helps ensure good sleep.

At this juncture I am waiting patiently for the Sony RX10iv and the Sony A7iii. I have a little piggy bank sitting on the edge of the desk just waiting to be smacked with a hammer.

Happy clients. Happy creative person. Two more edits to go on the Canada project. I'm actually having fun editing --- who would have thought?

Ben is doing well in Korea. He's been everywhere already, including a visit to the DMZ. He started classes last week. No foisting the edits off on him until the middle of the Summer. Drat.



3.03.2017

One of the four videos we're producing for a healthcare client.




I came back from Canada last month with hours of good video material that we're weaving into various programs. One of the first priorities was a short video message from the Canadian CEO about the 20th anniversary, in Canada, of one of their prosthetic leg products, the C-Leg.

More videos to come.

3.02.2017

I finally had time to do a better edit on this interview with Dave Jarrott. I like it now.


Dave Jarrott Interview Solo from Kirk Tuck on Vimeo.

Location Portrait Shooting in 201X. Leverage what's there.

©2015 Kirk Tuck. All rights reserved.

©2015 Kirk Tuck. All rights reserved.

Recently,  I was asked by an Austin-based tech firm to make a series of portraits of a collection of their people. We're consistently moving away from using manufactured backgrounds for nearly all of our "out of the studio" locations and so my first task was to go to the client's location and scout for good, existing, environmental backgrounds. I was looking for clean spaces that would look good and contemporary. I wanted to find spaces where the backgrounds could be far enough away to achieve limited depth of field; even with smaller format cameras.

The building the company occupies is one of the prime, downtown office towers and the office plan calls for floor to ceiling windows on three quarters of the perimeter. So you have a windows on one side of a continuing hallway and offices on the other. The effect is one of open and airy space. Even the conference room, in which I ended up shooting the top portrait, faces out onto a western part of downtown through an exterior wall that is also a huge window. 

When I shot these images I was still working with the Panasonic GH4 cameras. I used the little 42.5mm lens and my amazing Olympus 60mm f1.5 Pen lens for all of the photographs done for this project and I have to say that I was happy with both the tonality of the lenses and the whole system's ability to render a nicely out of focus background rendition; not too much but not too little...

I used a 50 inch white. 1.25 stop diffuser between the subject and the windows. I did this to drop the level of light on the subject so I could control the overall color and quality of light that fell directly on him. In each image I added to the light on the subject with a bit of flash, bounced into a 60 inch umbrella, to control his contrast and exposure. I felt that by using just natural light there would be a bit too much contrast in the images and I'd rather get the parameters right while shooting than having to labor over stuff in post production. 

The flash also neutralized the greenish-blue cast caused by the tinted office windows. You can see the color cast in the background areas but not on the subject. 

I tried my best to use a light touch on the flash but to still exercise the control needed to get what I wanted aesthetically from each shot. While the photos look casual they were both executed using a tripod to help me hold the exact composition I wanted through the whole series of exposures. 

We've been using styles similar to this for most of our portrait clients over the last three years and have been getting good feedback and repeat engagements. It's a nice style and one that also "cuts" well into video projects. Certainly much better than an executive in front of a blue paper background with a spot circle in the middle of it....

Styles and aesthetics change. We change with them. That doesn't mean there isn't a place for the traditional studio but; oh wait; maybe this is an argument against the traditional studio....



3.01.2017

Game Over?

http://www.styleshoots.com/live

Go to this link and tell me what you think. "An endless stream of content..."

Sounds about right.