Comparing style and technique. They are intertwined.

I can shoot available light as well as anyone but on important assignments (or when I just want stuff to look really good) I bring along lights and I've learned to use them effectively. I have several friends who are full time videographers and they are sometimes at odds with the way I shoot video. They have bought into the idea that "good" video work should be cinematic. But like every term tossed about these days nearly every person with a camera has their own definition of "cinematic."

What I see most often from my "cinematic" friends are very, very flat files with no well defined blacks, not much structure in the shadows, milky and opaque mid-tones, endless highlight tonality and very low color saturation. Much of their work is "available light" which means: "Hey, these cameras are so noise-free I can use them without having to set up lighting. No, I am not looking at their ungraded S-Log files I am looking at their samples and their finished work.

The friends whose work I know best are both fairly accomplished videographers and I understand that they prefer a flatter contrast than I do. They also seem to enjoy files with about half the saturation I want. They also have, in the past, dreaded setting up lighting that I would routinely consider mandatory.  That's all okay. It's style versus style. Taste for taste.

But I recently swapped files with a good friend and he said he struggled to get the same kind of color and contrast out of his dedicated video camera that I've been getting out of my cheaper, all purpose camera. We compared technique and we more or less concluded that lighting a scene, well, made all the difference in the world. Controlling variables is the magic bullet.

So, let's talk about light. Here's the first fact: digital image files look best and are measurably better (meaning they have the highest potential sharpness, lowest overall noise, best dynamic range and most saturation) at their lowest ISO. This is almost always the "native" ISO of a device. You can extend the ISO range of many cameras but the lowest ISO, without extension, is the native ISO of your device. While an A7Sii may be useable at 12,000 or 96,000 ISO there will be a deterioration of all the desirable attributes listed above. It is true of every digital camera sensor.

Here's a second, related fact: Getting good exposure is more than just getting enough photons on a sensor to make an image, it also means getting good balance, from light to dark, in the image file. Yes, most cameras with Sony sensors generate files that can be "pushed" or "pulled" in post processing. But, if you are underexposing because you live in fear of overexposing your highlight tones you will be degrading the tones and information in the shadows of your image and, when you "pull up" your exposure via curves, levels, or just straightforward exposure sliders you are shifting crappy, low information parts of your tonal curves from the shadow areas into the mid-tones. By having fewer bits of information to work with in your mid-tones you are sentencing your mid-range tones to a life in which optimum separation of details and tones never meets its potential.  Want a "better" camera? Buy a meter and learn how to use it. Or really pay attention to all those exposure indications that come bundled with your camera. A balanced file is our initial aim point.

What this all means is that in order to realize your vision of a file full of good information; from shadows to the highest highlights, you need to expose correctly in the first place. If you are "saving" highlights by pulling down curves, or "opening" shadows by pulling up curves, you are losing vital information that is essential to the optimum file integrity you pursue.

If you are videotaping or photographing in a location with low light you have only one real choice if you are to pursue ultimate technical quality (and by extension garner the artistic control you desire) and that is to add light to your scene in order to get closer to the optimum exposure at the native ISO, or to use wider apertures and slower frame rates, or shutter speeds, to get the same exposure results. Since depth of field is generally determined by what you need to keep in focus it makes sense to have lights handy and to know how to use them.....well. Changing depth of field to compensate for not lighting isn't always a workable compromise.

There is a reason that Hollywood blockbuster productions don't scrimp on lighting, or attempt to shoot feature movie files at nosebleed high ISOs. They get the best bang for their production bucks the closer they hover near native ISO for their cameras and the closer they hover to the idea of balanced files. We may have different tastes in the look for files but we can generally agree that most feature productions aim for uniform lighting styles which means most film are well lit and lit well enough to use the cameras the way in which they were designed to excel.

While it's true that there are many fast lenses and that fast lenses will save you if you need the speed and don't mind a very, very narrow depth of field the fact is fast lenses can't do much to help you if the lighting contrast of your scene is out of whack. If you are shooting interior locations and showing some exterior scenery you are playing around with a set of variables. To max the image quality of your still or video camera you have limited options. You must either bring up the level of interior light on your interior subject or bring down the level of exterior light which your camera can see outside --- nothing else is an optimum image quality solution, no matter how badly you want to think you can always fix the problem in post.

If you opt not to light your interior subject you may have to let your exterior burn to white ---- if you want the light on your interior subject to be correct and ample enough not to use up your accurate shadow detail. Just for reference, most of the information in digital files is engineered to be in the mid-range to highlight areas. The nature of the way files are created takes advantage of the fact that our eyes see less tonal variation in shadows and so camera makers don't put as much information in the areas of shadow. The eye is much more capable of detail discrimination in highlights, and when the files are written detail in shadow areas of the files is somewhat compromised, by design, in order to maximize detail in the medium toned and highlight areas; areas where your eyes and brain are most sensitive (it's a "rods and cones" thang). If you choose to "hold" the highlights in your exposure (under expose) and sacrifice the mid-tones with the idea of fixing it all by lifting the shadows in post you'll be pushing up the part of the file with the least bit depth and tonal information and placing it onto the visual curve at a part of the curve where the human eye has much more ability to discern and value the opposite kinds of visual parameters. Pulling shadow mud up into the mid-ranges only gives you mid-ranged mud. Achieving acuity in visually vital parts to the tonal curve requires balanced files.

Let's move on to one more vital part of the whole quality chain. This is color balance. This is most important to still shooters who like to shoot and stay in Jpeg, and to filmmakers who are using any camera file except raw files (and, in the case of Canon, many aspects of what are traditionally expected of raw files are already "baked in" to their cine cameras...).

If you are shooting any of the popular video camera profiles (or Jpeg in still cameras) it really doesn't matter (much) what your camera's bit depth is or how color is written. The basic balance of the color spectrum is locked in when you shoot the file. You may be able to adjust the colors somewhat but making any significant changes to the color results in throwing away valuable spectral information that's a necessary part of a full information file. Shifting color balance after exposure is like working with a light that only puts out partial colors ---- something is missing that needs to be there to make sense to the human brain when looking at a finished representation of a scene. After the fact color balancing on anything but a raw file always involves tossing away information that you need in order to have color that reads as "real."

If you have a file that's too yellow and you change your RGB curves to "add" more blue you may find that what you are really doing is tossing the yellow information altogether which will affect your greens, reds, oranges and their sub-hues. There is no free lunch in post exposure color correction. Except, sometimes, in raw files.

You have choices. You always have choices. If you decide to rescue a scene by placing a subject that should be in the mid-tone range down into the shadow range to later bring it "back to life" in post you'll be "reviving" an image that's already been damaged and lost information. If you add to that the degradation of also having to throw away pixels to color correct you will have thrown away even more valuable information. At some point, without actually going in and painting back color with a brush, you will never be able to get to the aim points that constitute a "good" file, or a file that looks good. There's just not enough magic in the software to save the results of low information files.

Raw is a different story. But raw isn't magic either, the same basic constraints apply, the only difference is that in raw there is a lot more leeway for slop because the raw files start with more native information. You can throw more away before the files look as crappy as baked in files because there is more to through away to begin with. But even raw files have their limits.

I'm a plodding photographer and a more or less novice film maker but I am a creature of habits and most of the habits have survived from the days when files were very fragile and there was very little information in the files to compromise with. I am a stickler for getting things right before I push the shutter button to make a photograph, or push the red button to start making video.

Step one is always exposure. If the exposure is off one way or another then it's not always practical or practicable to get a good, solid custom white balance. There are logical steps to doing the process correctly. In film making and in photography the first step is always exposure. After the right amount of light is falling on the sensor only then can you make a perfectly accurate custom white balance. Anything less than a custom  white balance will require changes in post and those changes will require you to throw away information. Even if you are shooting video in S-Log the two steps to proper file creation are still carved in stone. Exposure and then color balance. Then everything else will fall into place.

Finally, to my friends who are working with inexpensive (+/- $1,000 cameras) to mid-priced (+/- $12,000 cameras) I would council shying away from using S-Log ( or V-Log or C-Log) profiles in any environment except full, high contrast sunlight. The reason is simple, Log files work by shooting super flat and then mapping the resulting files into a fixed gamut. It's hard to do well and requires shoehorning wider data into a smaller gamut space. Some aspect has to be interpolated in order to fit. You may use curves to bring down shadows into a usable and range and visually desirable contrast range but it's rare for me to see files color managed this way that don't have milky, almost opaque mid-range tones and lifeless near shadow tones. Just doesn't look convincing. The only way it really works well is with cameras that shoot at higher bit depth and write color as 4:4:4:4. Those cameras? Sure, use all the Log profiles you want...

I'm a proponent of getting as close to your desired "final look" as you can get while operating your camera and only depending on post production for things that absolutely can't be changed any other way. Is shooting and doing post (laboriously) in S-Log 3 really more desirable than taking time to put up a diffusion scrim on top of your subject to mediate the collimated rays the sun? I think the change in the quality of light speaks for itself, and the scrim gives you added control and uniformity. Sure, you might be able to get a decent file by presenting a flatter file in post but is it in line with our preferred visual references? Don't we want to see deep, rich black? Don't we want to see contrast in our mid-tones? Don't we want to see open and airy highlights?  I contend that we do and that the current style of flat light, vague saturation, and muddy shadows and lower mid-tones is a short-lived style that will soon recede from general practice.

Much like the mania for shooting everything with super narrow depth of field is already looking like a "last century" style because of it's massive overuse. In fact, one could say that these styles are analogous to the constant zooming that amateur film makers did in the 1960's when inexpensive zoom lenses first flooded the market on the front of consumer-accessible Super8 movie cameras. And we tired pretty quickly of that kind of "tromboning."

The bottom line is that if you start your process with a file that needs rescued you will never squeeze out all the imaging potential your camera is capable of. I may make files that are a bit too saturated but it's easier to get rid of excess saturation information in post than it is to add it to a file in which the color was absent because non-linearities in color curves change the look of the file as you add saturation. And the color spectrum shifts. I can start with a perfectly exposed file and throw away information to make the file conform to my vision but it's much harder to take a dark file and make it lighter with the same quality as an optimum file. It's true in reverse as well. If you start too light you might be able to get to a workable file by pulling down the curve to recover highlights but if you start with a file that is right on the money you can shift it with total control to a lighter version.

Pianists practice scales and keyboard exercises so that when the opportunity comes to play real music they will have already mastered the techniques and muscle memory required to play well. Sloppy technique is not a sign or great artistic promise or merit. It is only a signifier that you still have some technique to master and some skills that need practice. In digital imaging style and technique go hand in hand. You master technique in order to master your style. Anything else is just wishful thinking or playtime.

Early Sunday Morning Photo Assignment. Who Schedules a photo session at 8 a.m. on a Sunday?

Leslie for Zach Theatre. ©2017 Kirk Tuck.

"It was the only time we could schedule five different actors, an art director, two artistic directors, a make-up person and a wardrobe person, all at the same day...." -client.

I got up early. Well, early for a Sunday... packed the car with interesting equipment and showed up at the front door of Zach Theatre at eight a.m. We spent all morning, and some of the afternoon, shooting new images for the upcoming show season at Zach Theatre. Everything was shot against a muslin background which will be dropped out to white; but not by me 😂. 

Rona was the art director and, in addition to being a great creative collaborator, she dropped by Austin Java this morning to pick up (really good) coffee, killer muffins and breakfast tacos. I must pause here to say that the black bean, feta cheese and avocado tacos were wonderful. She pulled up with the chow right at 8 a.m. on the money. I was already dragging a cart of gear to the front doors of the theater.

We did this shoot differently than many of my recent shoots. There are two big things I want to talk about. The first is listening enough to bring the right gear for the project. I've been on an LED/Continuous light jag for some time now and generally use the Aputure Lightstorm LED panels for just about everything. But I am cautious. I want to be prepared. So when we shoot at the theater I always ask if we've be doing any shots with motion. Like dancing. Or people twirling around in fancy costumes. Or jumping from the balcony. I'm glad I thought to ask yet again because we had one person who did some big dance moves and another who did big dress twirls. Not to knock the continuous light world but on a shoot like this it just makes sense to go with flash and freeze the frames that need to be stop motion. No horsing around with high ISOs and noise reduction solutions today...

I mostly used two lights. A 500 w/s flash into a 72 inch, white umbrella, and a 500 w/s flash into a 36x48 inch softbox. Simple and straightforward. 

The addition of flash to the mix gave me the chance to "take a risk" and prove to myself once and for all that shooting at the base ISO of just about any camera on the market today would give me very good, very professional images. At the last minute I pulled the A7rii and A7ii out of the camera bag and stuck them back in the drawer. In their places I substituted a Sony RX10iii and a Panasonic fz2500. I was hellbent on testing them together; eliminating as many variables as possible and seeing just how good each camera (and each lens) would be if I zero'ed out the effects of motion blur, camera movement, and high ISO noise reduction blurring. 

I used the Sony for the first three actors and the Panasonic for the last two actors of the day. The lighting stayed pretty much the same with a few little adjustments. Both cameras were set to their lowest ISOs (native) the Panasonic was 125 and the Sony 100. Both lenses were set to f8.0. Both cameras were set to face detection AF. And, in the end both cameras were nearly identical in their results. It's pretty much what I expected. 

We worked hard this morning. The actors were wonderful. The experience was well worth getting out of bed for. The cameras were whimsical, but well behaved. And now I have proven, at least to myself, that, used properly, both cameras are well suited for studio work like this. They both make very nice raw files. Adobe's Lightroom takes care of everything else. 

It's been a long week working on projects for the Theatre. I shot candid b-roll video on the "Billie Holiday" stage a week ago Saturday, followed by a tech rehearsal shoot on Sunday evening and a dress rehearsal shoot on Tues. evening.  Weds. morning was consumed with photographic post processing and the afternoon taken up with video interviews of the "Billie Holiday" director and the lead actor. 

Thurs. and Fri. were taken up, in large part, by video editing for the same production. Yesterday I shot and post processed at kid's play called, J.J.'s Workshop, and finally, today was the all consuming, season brochure project. With the exception of the two non-video "Billie Holiday" shoots all of the projects have been done with the one inch sensor cameras. They've worked out well. Stop worrying about sensor size and make sure you nail the lighting, composition and timing.

Here's a few more from this morning.

This is an approximate 100% crop from the image just below. It started life with the Panasonic camera.

The full frame of the image just above...

don't know what I said to get this much laughter but I wish I'd written it down...

the "over the shoulder" shot is a perennial Zach Theatre favorite. Wigs and tiaras = wow. 

For those who offered condolences about the recently deceased Sony lens: I want to thank you and let you know that the wake for the passing of good glass was cathartic. We raised a few glasses to its memory and vowed to replace it with something virtuous. Thank you!

Click thru and buy something if you have the time and money.
A new lens? A nice shirt? Maybe a new watch. 

Damn it. I just lost money. I was thinking about watches and went to Amazon to see what's what in watches. I ended up buying a demure, little Seiko automatic. It's the same on Ben has. Not too pricey but totally unnecessary. Oh well. It's nice to look at. 


The Sad and Accidental Destruction of a Lens Earlier Today. It Could Have Been Worse...

 It is with no small degree of sadness that I must announce the passing of a valiant and steadfast lens. While the Sony FE 28-70mm lens was relatively new to the lens cabinet he was a jovial addition and quickly made friends with a diverse group of lenses from several different systems. He'll be remembered for his convenient size and weight as well as his ready wit. Often, he would muse to no one in particular, "Who needs anything wider than twenty-eight. Really?!"

We lost him around 11:30 am, CST, today when he seemed to leap in front of a Sony A7Rii camera and the new 85mm lens in order to save them from an accidental tail wag. The assorted gear was sitting on a shelf about four feet from a (dreaded and obviously dangerous) Saltillo tile floor. The CEO of VSL had lifted his companion, Studio Dog, up off the floor in order to carry her across the way to the studio. One swish of a tail was all it took.

The brave little lens was swept from the countertop with a fair amount of force and hit the floor with gusto, bouncing at least twice. Its companions came to no harm because of his brave intercession.

At first there was hope that 28/70 had survived. There was no "apparent" damage. But a cursory check with the lens on a camera indicated that it had lost the ability to focus and had partially lost the ability to zoom.

It was a sad loss of great potential; the lens had only been out on a few test runs, but we had great hopes that this would be the one to turn the tide and revitalize the entire photographic industry. I thought it might be "the chosen lens" of which the legends speak...

A eulogy will be said by his close friend, Sony 24-70mm f4.0 in a small, private ceremony. The wake begins after supper this evening.

To say I am devastated may be slightly overstating the situation but I will state for the record that this is the last time I'll put loyal and valuable camera gear on the counter next to the front door again. If we can save one other camera or lens from the same tragedy our caution will have been worth it.

We have maintained a safe space for lenses for over 20 years without incident. That sign (which brags of our safety record) gets replaced on Monday and, hopefully, will read = "No lens accidents in over 2 days".

Please....no flowers.


A new lens purchase. Sometimes nostalgia takes precedence.

In the early days of my time as a photographer I could barely afford three lenses. I made them do everything on every job. There's always been the mythology that to be a "professional" photography one needs a Pelican case full of lenses; every focal length the maker of your camera provides. It's a paralyzing mythology for a lot of young photographers who can't afford all the glamorous glass they've been led to believe they need. But as one progresses in one's career it becomes pretty obvious that there emerge preferences for certain focal lengths and, at some point, the majority of images from some well known photographers end up being made almost exclusively with one favorite lens; one favorite focal length.

When I started out I made some logical decisions (at least I imagined that they were logical...). I bought a nice, used Canon FD 24mm f2.8, an even more used Canon FD 50mm f1.4 and a newish Canon FD 85mm f1.8. I used them mostly with my Canon EF SLR and my ancient back-up camera, a Canon TX, which boasted shutter speeds all the way up to 1/500th of a second!!!

I used the 24mm sparingly, pressing it into service to shoot interiors of new homes for developers and the exteriors of new apartment complexes being built in central Texas. The 50mm was my standard street shooting, new documentarian lens. But the real money maker was the 85mm f1.8. I used it to shoot portrait after portrait, and to build my business. There was a flow for me and it was always toward the medium telephoto focal ranges. Something just clicked in my brain whenever I picked up the lens and aimed it at someone.

Over time I followed in the routine pattern of photographers and decided that lenses of all variety were a vital necessity for a growing imaging business; that I would be letting my clients down if I did not have every focal length from 14mm to 300mm (and beyond), with 10 or 20mm of difference in between each of the primes. Crazy, but that's the way so many people roll ---- they think they need almost overlapping "coverage" even if they must go into deep debt to achieve it. Can't let those clients down, right?

Well, give it thirty years or so, drop 300,000+ photographs into your Lightroom library, and you begin to be able to see a clearer picture of what drives your work, your art. A bit of informal data mining shows me that the vast majority of work I've done was completed with focal lengths between 85mm and 135mm but that the vast majority were done right around 85-90mm.

When Sony came out with their G Master 85mm f1.4 I was momentarily intrigued but then I lifted one up and all my interest vanished. Damn thing is a weighty brick and the price tag must have been calculated by the ounce. I've been making do with a Rokinon Cine 85mm t1.5 but I was getting tired of manually focusing everything and remembering to stop down, etc.

Why not just use the (very sharp) 85mm focal length on the 70-200mm f4.0 G? Because it's too big and unwieldy for an every day, tagalong user. So, I was thrilled when Sony came out with their FE 85mm f1.8. I read some reviews, watched the guys on TheCameraStoreTV compare it with the similar model from Zeiss, and finally decided to pick one up.

I drove out to Precision Camera this morning, dropped my six hundred bucks on the counter and walked out with one in the box. It's utilitarian, manageably small and the front element (67mm) looks very cool. I haven't shot with it yet ---- I'll do that all weekend long on two jobs coming up --- but I like the way it balances on my A7ii.

When it comes to my full frame, working cameras I am very happy to be circling back to the basics. I'm loving the new FE 50mm f1.8, the 85mm holds great promise, and I'm toying with getting a 24mm as well. That will be the last one of the trio I'd buy. I've got a nice, small 24-70mm Zeiss lens that seems to handle that focal length well. At any rate, I'm getting a nice, nostalgic hit of pleasure from my new purchase. And reasonably priced as well.

Now, when will they come out with a new RX 10 series camera, complete with a super fast 85mm equivalent lens? Happiness across formats.

P.S. owning a wide range of lenses is hardly necessary for a working photographer. In retrospect most of the focal lengths I ended up buying I would gladly trade back for the time I spent working for them.....

Full frame versus one inch? Nope; it's not a contest.

One of these images was made with a $1500, one inch sensor, bridge camera while the other was made with a camera most would consider either "the" or "one of" the current state of the art, full frame camera ($3200) coupled with a $1500 lens. If I pull them onto a 27 inch Retina screen and blow them both up I can tell that one is less noisy, a bit more detailed, and has slightly nicer overall tonality (chalk that up to increased dynamic range). Would my client care which camera made which photograph? Hardly. They are looking for the right moment, the right expression, the right composition and the right emotion. The idea of "extreme" technical differences between these cameras would be laughable to them. So, which one is from the RX10iii and which was created by the A7rii? The one on top is the RX while the one on the bottom is the A7xx.

I was thinking about the images I recently shot for Zach Theatre as I drank coffee this morning and read the usual sites. I start with the Washington Post, dabble in the Wall Street Journal and NY Times and sometimes end up seeing what's new over at DP Review. Today, chomping on a waffle, I started reading through the comments on DP Review that readers had left on the Fuji medium format camera review. That inspired me to also read the review.  Given all the hoopla attached to breathless "previews" and "first impressions" looks at the product I presumed that DP Reviewers would find the camera (GFX 50S) to be a very big step up from the full frame contingent from Nikon, Sony and Canon. It was not the case. 

While the reviewers found the camera endearing and brave they also had to admit that the output from the Sony A7rii was, in some cases, very close to the overall quality in comparison and, in some cases, even superior. Add in fast, sharp lenses and great zooms and the review soon devolved into a study of just how far 35mm sized systems have come and how the system really determines how well the various  cameras will work and how high the quality of the output will be. And they mentioned that it would be nice if the two MF cameras focused, you know, more rapidly. And more importantly, will the quality of MF translate into the kind of work you do. 

I laughed at one point when someone on the DPReview staff earnestly wrote that there was a difference of .08th of a stop in some performance aspect of the Fuji MF versus the H-Blad mirrorless MF camera. A pea under the mattress of the reviewer princess, indeed. 

As expected, the comments ran the gamut but the schism was between people who encouraged putting off a final judgement until the MF makers could rush faster lenses to the market in order to match the (mindless) equivalency between the systems, and the people who already knew that this kind of MF camera, coupled with slow lenses, at misguided focal lengths, would render the product only useful to collectors and people anxious to show off their purchasing power (awfully hard to bring your luxe car into the night club with you on the end of a strap...).

Which brings me back to the question of competition between formats and sensor sizes. There are differences but they are aesthetic specific. You need ultra thin depth of field you go one way, you need incredible reach you go another way. But point of view, mastery of lighting, directing and composition mostly trump a lot of technical considerations....at least where clients are concerned. 

I have several full frame cameras but I find myself preferring to shoot most things with a one inch sensor camera. When it comes to producing video I am even more firmly in the one inch camp. Master the techniques of photography and the absolutism of format tyranny fades. It's nice.

While the commenters at DP Review seemed to think that there were never fast lenses for medium format systems I remember owning and using the Zeiss Planar 110mm f2.0 with a Hasselblad 201F for a while. That and the 150mm f2.8 seemed plenty fast to me.


Photographing The Stage With an Old Favorite: The Sony A7rii. And its understudy...

On Saturday, at a rehearsal, I shot video of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" with the Panasonic fz2500. The 4K video looked really, really good so I brought that camera back the next evening to shoot images from lots of different angles at the technical rehearsal. But last night I defaulted back to the tried and true cameras for the important images at the dress rehearsal. The "go-to" camera for me at the theater these days is the Sony A7Rii. It has much to commend it; the 42 megapixel sensor is great at higher ISOs, and at moderate ISOs the image quality is pretty much unbeatable by anything else in the 35mm sensor sized digital camera market. A medium format sensor might be theoretically better but I'd be hard pressed to find the right glass for any of the models I'd want to budget for. 

I haven't seen a 70-200mm f4.0 with image stabilization on the Hasselblad roadmap....or Fuji's roadmap, for that matter. And neither of those camera can challenge the A7Rii's hybrid CD-AF/PD-AF focusing performance. 

I was planted mid-way up the house with a full audience surrounding me. I set the camera to the "silent mode" and was audibly stealthy for the rest of the evening. Since I was shooting frequently and chimping rarely, the dinky battery in the camera got me through about 700 frames.

About half the time I used the camera in the APS-C mode which gets me 50% more reach and still delivers 18 megapixels of good file. The camera and the 70-200mm f4.0 lens make for a great theater shooting photography system. I can shoot wide open without hesitation and I can handhold at all the shutter speeds that will freeze subject movement, without concern. 

Last night I also packed a system that gave me about 2X the reach of the A7rii and the 70/200 (used in APS-C mode). It was the redoubtable, Sony RX10iii. I swear that camera is magic. Its color profile is nearly identical with the A7rii and it matches, tonally, as well. But the ability to reach out with a 600mm equivalent reach and to watch the image stabilization steady up the image in the finder is breathtaking. I tend to set the RX10iii to f4.0 and leave it there. It's sharp and contrasty and, even though focusing is slightly slower than the newer Panasonic fz2500 when it locks in it's right on the money every time. No caveats. 

In a rational and sane photographic universe I would own four perfectly complementary cameras: Two A7rii's and two RX10iii's. I can't imagine anything I could not handle, photographically, with those two systems. The thing that cured my long time (chronic?) gear acquisition compulsion is the simple fact that Sony makes the two dominant cameras in their respective fields and I already own both of them. What else is there to buy?  I guess the closest thing, in terms of image quality, would be a Nikon D810 with a painstakingly calibrated 70-200mm lens inside a sound proof blimp. Wouldn't that be fun to shoot with? (sarcasm intended here). 

As to the perfect super-zoom bridge camera, nothing out there matches or betters the overall photographic performance of the RX10iii. I am tempted to buy a back-up just in case Sony management goes insane and discontinues it. To have used one and then have the option taken away would be heart-breaking. 

These files are too small to assess on the web. I am constricted to uploading files that are no larger than 2200 pixel on the long side. Take me at my word when I say that these files look amazing spread across a Retina screen at full resolution. Both cameras amaze me everything time I use them. 

On another note; I used the Panasonic fz2500 today to do interviews with Chanel (the actor shown here) and the director of the play. I was reminded of just how good a video camera it is and how different recording video is from recording very high resolution photography files. I am as impressed by the 4K video that came from the Panasonic this afternoon as I was when processing the Sony photography files this morning. A time of amazing camera riches, for sure!


Finally getting the focus tuned in on my own Panasonic fz2500. New cameras take time to learn. At least for me...

I lately thought I was stumbling around in the foothills of the learning curve with a new camera. It's the Panasonic fz2500 "superzoom" and it's a totally different camera in so many respects than the Sony RX10iii I've been using for the better part of a year. While the camera created great looking color and tonality right off the SD card I was having trouble mastering sharpness. And mastering sharpness (focus) seemed to me to be such and elementary thing to master; until I couldn't do it. 

Now, don't get me wrong, the files were not a fuzzy mess, it's just that when I punched in to 100 % the details looked soft. Much softer than my Sony. And this corresponded to what I had read about the camera in reviews. So, ever happy to waste time ferreting out why things go wrong with cameras, I dived into trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. One little clue was that when I focused on a person or  object in the distance the EVF would often show a sharper image before I hit the shutter and the resulting review image would be softer or less detailed. It seemed pretty obvious from the preview image that the camera was fully capable of delivering the results but my technique may have been the culprit...

In analyzing how I have been using these kinds of super zoom cameras I've concluded that: If you give me a longer focal length I'll probably be attracted to using longer than normal focal lengths more and more often. Indeed, I found that the 85mm and 100m equivalent focal lengths were looking wide-ish to me now and the 200mm to 300mm focal lengths were starting to seem normal. I also noticed that a lot of my test shooting were in situations similar to the one here; shooting nearly wide open at long focal lengths and with ISOs of 1600 to 3200. It started to dawn on me that getting a good focus lock could be hard for the camera given the magnification of camera shake via my hand holding skills. Further, the long focal lengths magnified both focus error, camera movement and subject movement in a way that works against ultimate sharpness. Finally, I am convinced that the AF steps in the Panasonic are stacked against distance auto focusing but can be overcome by manually focusing distant scenes we try to shoot at the long end of the focal length range. 

With all this in mind I put the camera on the biggest tripod I own, turned off the I.S., turned on the 5 second self timer, focused manually and made images in the most controlled way that I could. Revelation, camera and lens perform well when not under undue stress. I decided to test the camera in my favorite "torture test" for any camera; shooting the tech rehearsal for a live stage show with a high contrast target which is constantly moving. A target than I can only approach to within 30 feet or so...

I shot about a thousand images last night with the fz2500 at the tech rehearsal for "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" for Zach Theatre. The star of the show, Chanel, is mostly in a bright HMI follow spot. She has a dark complexion and she is wearing a bright, white dress with sparkly rhinestones scattered across it. Using manual focus with "punch in" manual focus assist gave me a very good success rate at focal length from 85-400mm+ I also experimented with face detect AF and found that it was also a very successful method. My least successful tests were the use of focusing groups or the use of the wide focusing array which lets the camera choose where it will focus (generally the nearest point...). If I needed to have 100% assurance of focusing accuracy I'd use the manual option. If I set it carefully (and subsequently used good hand holding technique) I could pretty much count on nailing good focus every time. 

The other thing I think I was ignoring is the very, very shallow depth of field one ends up with at the long end of these zooms. We tend to think, "Oh, one inch sensor, loads of depth of field, no worries, I'm sure it will cover any focusing errors!" But we would be wrong. The d.o.f. is very narrow once we crest the 200mm zone. This makes technique even more important. 

I know it will sound silly but I worked on being smoother pressing the shutter button. I worked on not swaying forward or backwards as I shot. I worked on improving the stability of my stance. I leaned more often against railings or seats for additional stability and support. I tried to be more patient and allow enough time for the camera to really lock focus. You could say that last night was an exercise in remembering all the stuff we used to need to know to get sharp images out of long lenses in the slow, slow film days. But, in the end, it paid off for me. As the evening and the show progressed I watched more and more frames pop up in review that were satisfyingly sharp. And on my monitor at the studio they were just right. 

Now I think I have a happier understanding with and of the camera. There are a few things I wanted to mention that impressed me last night. One was the value of the highlight/shadow control feature. Setting this to increase exposure in the shadows and lower exposure in the highlights made for wonderfully pliable raw files. Easy to work with in post with fewer blown highlights and slightly more open shadows. The ergonomics of the camera are exemplary. Much more comfortable to hold for several hours at a time than my smaller, shorter Sony A7 bodies. Finally, the camera shoots and writes files; even raw files, very quickly and I am able to review files just shot even while the camera is still writing large files to the cards. It's a very well done system.

One more note. This camera gets dinged a lot for having a "weak" battery. The web-propaganda infers just a few hundred shots before depletion and failure. If you shoot the way we do on professional jobs you'll be shooting a concentrated number of shots in a short amount of time. My first battery change was at intermission; an hour and a half into the show, and over 750+ raw exposure recorded. The first battery was still showing 1/3rd power remaining but I changed it at the break for convenience sake. Works well for me. 

All the images shown were handheld, shot at between 1/80th to 1/250th of a second, mostly at f4.5, and at ISOs between 1600 and 3200. WB= custome setting at 4100 K. Raw files. 


Rubber meets road. The Panasonic fz2500 really performs well as a 4K video camera. Hat's off.

We put the fz2500 to the test today at Zach Theatre. I shot b-roll footage of the star of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," Chanel,  going through a rehearsal, on stage at the Topfer Theatre. I also shot footage of director, Michael Vader, well.....directing.

I used the fz2500 on top of a monopod for most of my work but near the end I also used the camera handheld in order to get more feeling of motion. We worked under the stage lights and also in dim work light. I was able to dip down to ISO 800 for some of the stage shots (mostly at f4.5-5.6) and I had to scrape up photons with ISO 4,000-6,400 when shooting the director out in the middle of  dimly lit audience seating. Once I disabled the touch screen I had no issues with nose controlled focus points or shifting focus points and everything I shot was either insanely sharp or wildly out of focus (my fault).

I used the UHD, 30 fps, 4k setting with the camera set to 1/60th of a second. While the AF was good I find it much better, at the long end of the lens, to use MF which I have set up to "punch in" when I touch the focusing ring. I'm also using focus peaking to enhance my chances. The camera is much, much, much easier to manually focus than the RX10iii. Much easier.

After the rehearsal, and a quick coffee with one of my video mentors, I rushed back to the studio, opened Final Cut Pro X and started looking at the stuff I'd shot. The "footage" at ISO 800-1,600 was impeccable. Very little noise in the shadows and lots of sharp detail and good saturation. No additional sharpening was necessary.

The image stabilization, in concert with the monopod, was great. The hours I spent shooting at the theater this afternoon helped me gain a new respect for the fz2500 as a video camera. I used the slow zoom controls and was very happy with the smooth, slow zooms I was able to achieve. I trust the focus peaking on this camera more than I do on the Sony RX10iii. And I think the quick menu is highly effective.

I'll be using this camera to shoot my interviews this week with the actor and director and look forward to seeing if the microphone pre-amps play well with external pre-amps and audio recorders. I've got time scheduled tomorrow to do a complete audio run through in the studio in anticipation.

My assessment of this camera? As a low cost/high performance 4K video camera it is exemplary.


Gearing up to shoot another little video project for Zach Theatre. Putting the Panasonic fz2500 through its paces.

I have a project to do for Zach Theatre. They are producing "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill." It's a musical play about Billie Holiday and from what I've heard so far it's amazing. We thought it might be a good idea to expand on the idea of the quick interviews we did of three actors for the previous "LBJ" play and do a nice video interview with Chanel; who will be playing the role of Billie Holiday; and a second interview with director, Michael Rader.

I'm trying to be more strategic in my approach to these video projects so we don't get rushed into producing a bunch of (mostly unusable) footage under tight schedules. We haven't scouted shooting locations for the interviews yet but we know they will be somewhere on the Zach "campus." Before we schedule the actual interviews I want to see what kind of b-roll we can get of the two interviewees  in the context of the play. The "behind the scenes footage."

Tomorrow afternoon is the last rehearsal before the tech rehearsal on Sunday. I'm heading to swim practice in the early morning and then will get to the theater around 12:30 pm to get ready for some very discreet, candid video shooting while Michael and Chanel go through a full run of the show.

I won't be lighting any of this and I don't need to record sound. I'm shooting with the fz2500 on a monopod so I can move quickly and get as many angles and compositions as I can. I've mapped out a list of shots I want, everything from tight shots of Chanel's face while she sings to much looser "two" shots of the team working through the fine-tuning that always happens. I plan on taking this footage and rendering it as black and white. I'm not worried about noise because I love the look of grain in black and white and have been testing in post with files from the fz2500 to get a very similar effect. I'll use it in conjunction with the color footage from the interviews. It's a luxury I didn't have with the previous projects. I'll have about two hours to get as much good stuff as I can.

Today I tested my set up. I'm shooting in 4K with the idea of downsampling to 1080p (Pro-Res 4:2:2) in post. At ISOs all the way up to 6400 I'm fine with the way the noise works in black and white. I wouldn't really consider going there in color. I'm shooting in color with the Cinelike D profile instead of shooting black and white in camera because I'll have a lot more options for the conversion to monochrome in the editing software.

The image stabilization in 4K is pretty good. Not as crazy good as it is in 1080p but the use of a monopod more or less equalizes the stability advantages of the 1080p, five axis performance. I've also been working on focusing for high sharpness with longer focal lengths and longer distances. Frank and I played with all the variations this morning and we found an interesting and weird anomaly. When using the mechanical shutter I tend to get a tiny bit of secondary ghosting that only becomes obvious when I chimp the files at 16X (this is in the "stills" mode/photographs) but the ghosting goes away if I use the electronic shutter setting. It makes sense that if we were going to see vibration induced image destruction it would happen at the higher magnifications. Something learned for the next still shoot.

While I am using the Cinelike D profile I am fine-tuning it by pulling out some of the noise reduction. I'm working at minus three right now and can see more detail; especially at higher ISOs.
This reportage style of shooting should be a nice test of the camera's video functionality and I'm happy that I've tested most of the parameters in advance.

I'll go to the other extreme next week when I shoot the interviews and bring a bunch of good lighting; aiming to shoot as close to the "native" ISO of the camera as I can and with an aim to get wonderful skin tones. I want the contrast between the black and white b-roll and the color interview footage to be very obvious.

With a pocket full of batteries and a 128 Gb card in the slot I should be able to get as much b-roll as I'd ever want to dig through.

From my tests so far the 4K video from the camera is really, really pretty. Nicely detailed with few motion artifacts. I'm ordering an Atomos Ninja Inferno monitor/recorder to use for the interviews; I'd like to see how the footage looks writing the files directly to 4k Pro-Res files instead of the H.264 internal files. I'll flesh out a report as soon as I test it out.

The fz2500 is a camera with a very nice, very camera-esque personality. I like it a lot even if I think the files coming out of its closest rival, the Sony RX10iii are just a hair sharper and contrastier. Once I drag the Panasonic files through post processing you'd never be able to tell the difference. Remember? We're adding grain...

I'll keep them both. Interesting personalities and perfect for two different project mindsets. More after the shoot........

Trip to the Blanton Museum #93. Confronting the red furniture.

It was a luxurious, warm Spring afternoon. I'd spent time blowing oak pollen out of the gutters with a leaf blower. I had a leisurely, late lunch of cheese enchiladas, corn and beans washed down with a grapefruit soda. It seemed like a good time to go to a museum. 

The Blanton has been closed for the last few months to revamp, re-fit, and re-imagine the space. Some galleries got reconfigured. A giant wall got painted a blue-ish purple. Three pieces of red, seating furniture arrived.

I brought along a camera just in case I saw someone who was so beautiful that I couldn't bear to go through life knowing I had no photograph to prove such beauty existed. I settled for images of the red couches. They are not so much beautiful as overpowering. 

The camera was a battered example of the Sony A7ii. A pedestrian, 50mm f1.8 on the front. It felt simple and perfect. For once I didn't mind that it is goofy loud. the noisy camera seemed to aurally match the visual scheme in front of it. I tossed some mezzotint all over the photos, in post.