4.19.2017

Preliminary Thoughts about The Newly Announced Sony A9 Camera.

Lou. Studio. One frame at a Time.

When I read about new cameras I  usually get caught up in the excitement about all the new features. 

I wonder what I could do with a camera that could shoot 200 images in a row at
20 frames per second.  Then I wonder which unfortunate photographer  will be required to sit down and edit through 200 nearly identical images in the search for one that may (or may not) have all the right stuff. 

I read about auto focusing sensors that range, densely, almost to the edge of the sensor  and I imagine what it  would be like to just point the camera at a scene and let it decide just where that point of sharpness needed to live. 

I 've been using  cameras with many focusing  points for many years and  I usually disagree with my camera when it decides to pick a point for me. That's why my cameras and I have agreed to mostly stick to using the center AF frame. It's a simple solution but in a way it's very elegant in that I rarely have issues getting important stuff in focus. And I rarely spend time looking at useless frames filled with perfectly sharp backgrounds and oozy foreground subjects. 

I certainly can't fault a camera for having a very high resolution EVF that also refreshes fast enough to seem....seamless. Nothing wrong with that  and certainly something I would like to have on all my cameras. I also like the idea of more external switches; like the little dial that surrounds the dial to the upper leftmost control  as I  hold the camera. I let's me choose the focusing mode. Will I use manual focus? Will I use continuous auto focus? It's easier now to go in either direction because I won't have to dive into the menus and scout around for the right column to find the switch.

Will I enjoy my new found freedom and become empowered by having a battery with twice the mph? Yes, but I'll miss the uniform battery size (and type of battery charger) across the whole Sony camera product line that I own. I'm not a manic shooter so I'm pretty happy glancing, from time to time, at the battery life indicator in the existing cameras and then pulling a battery out of my pocket , as required. Comforting too, to know that I can pull batteries from one camera and put them in another in those moments where necessity steps in and demands a quick solution. 

Who is the new Sony a9 really for? Is it aimed at a portrait shooter like myself? Is it aimed at the casual user who likes to range across cities and look for magic compositions in everyday life? I just don't think so. I'm presuming that this is really a "halo" product that won't sell in great numbers but will start to cement Sony's position in the professional camera neighborhood. By price point and spec it's obviously aimed at sports photographers and ...... well..... sports photographers. I may shoot a swim meet from time to time but I'm quick enough to catch the photos at the point of high action and not nearly patient enough to wade through tens of thousands of images taken in hopes that superior numbers will yield the frame I want. 

The one area of interest for me is video, but even there I don't see any real improvements over what is currently available in the Sony line up. The a6500 also samples the full 6k frame and beautifully downsamples to 4K and other than that and a new finder there isn't much to lure videographers in....especially at such an ambitious price point. 
Perhaps if they'd done one or two more things to the body video would be a consideration but I looked with distress at that same small and fragile micro-HDMI port and just shook my head. 
The Panasonic GH5 might not be having  the smoothest intro right  now (hello focus issues) but it's set the bar for video interfaces just by including a full size HDMI port under the flap. 

For the kind of work I do....that most of us do....I just can't see much advantage over the A7Rii. But the camera I am waiting for from Sony would be the replacement to the A7ii. And all I'd really like to see is 4K video (internal) and the option for a silent shutter. Not to much to ask and I have a piggy bank with about $1995 sitting on the floor next to my desk, just waiting. 

The Sony announcement of the a9 is exciting and fun. The camera looks really good. I'd do an even trade for my A7Rii in a heartbeat. But only because I like that 24 megapixel resolution region. It's nice to make files that don't clog up the processing pipeline or make me a prime customer for Western Digital or Seagate.

If you are a Sony shooter you'll have to make up your own mind. It's a shiny new toy. But is it "my" shiny new toy?

An interview with Michael Rader, the director of ZACH Theatre's, "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill"


Michael Rader directs "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" at ZACH Theatre from Kirk Tuck on Vimeo.

Please click through to Vimeo to see the video in a higher quality format.

This is my second video for the show at ZACH Theatre. The first was the interview of Chanel that I put up earlier this week. This video is an interview with the play's director. The same hardware was used to produce it.

I shot with the Panasonic fz2500 in the 4K mode and edited on a 1080p timeline in Final Cut Pro X. The lighting was a combination of LED panels from Aputure; both the Amaran and the LightStorm lines. The audio was recorded with an Aputure Diety microphone (and I was delighted with the sound on Michael's interview...).

While some of the still images may look familiar I tried my best to find photographs that I had not used before.

The extensive crew for this production consisted of: me.


4.18.2017

The Sucky Thing About Video is Sharing.


I worked hard to get my video to look just right on my precisely calibrated monitor the other day and once I had it just the way I wanted it I rendered it and uploaded it to Vimeo. My client got a clean H.264 file and uploaded that one to YouTube. Oh Dear God! How depressing. While the Vimeo version looked crappy compared to what I was seeing on my monitor the YouTube version was even worse. All the shadows looked muddy and the fine detail had just vanished. I thought I was looking at SD video on a CRT. I guess that if one wants to see their video displayed the way it was intended you just have to bite the bullet and host it on your own server. Which would be a recipe for financial disaster; depending on how many loyal viewers you have looking at your work.

I've gotten into a horrible cycle of uploading to Vimeo and they, after the file is processed on their site, going to review it there and then come back and make changes to every clip (color, contrast, density) and then render and upload again. It's a time consuming process. 

On another note, the Panasonic fz2500 still has a few glitches when it comes to stably keeping the AF sensor where I want it; even with the touch screen turned off, but it's rare enough that I consider the camera usable and have gotten some really great images from it. Where it shines is in shooting video.

Personal note: If I seem a bit removed from the blog this week it's probably because my son is doing a semester abroad at a university in Seoul, S. Korea and the war posturing of the U.S. and N. Korea is a bit unsettling for an already anxious parent. Seems things are quieting down now and I'll focus a bit more on the writing and photography. I'll take that bottle of Xanax back off the desk.....


These images were all done handheld, at ISO 800 and 1600 with the Panasonic fz2500. I like them a  lot.


4.17.2017

The CHANEL interview has been reposted with an accompanying technical note. Please check it out.

https://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2017/04/my-interview-with-chanel-as-billie.html

A still of CHANEL from the tech reshearsal of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill. 
Zach Theatre. ©2017 by Kirk Tuck

Stills and video from the fz2500 camera. 
Amazing performance for the price. 
Oh heck, it's just amazing performance!

4.16.2017

I think I've got the focusing/sharpness issue with the Panasonic fz2500 under control.


I initially had many photos that weren't quite sharp enough when I viewed them at larger sizes. I shot with the camera at a technical rehearsal at Zach Theatre, a few weeks ago, and found that with manual focusing and pin point focusing I was able to get a high percent of medium and long focal length shots in perfect focus. Count the eyelashes focus. 

Since then I've been trying to fine tune my camera settings in order to get highly repeatable results. Today was my day to mess with noise reduction settings. I shot raw and used the Standard profile as my base. I went into the profile parameters and turned the noise control all the way down. I boosted contrast by one notch and then I spent the day shooting. I am using the pin point focus setting with the sensor in the middle selected. I also have the focusing speed set to one notch down.

I spent a couple hours walking around town, shooting everything at ISO 125 and I am happy to report that every frame was perfectly focused and convincingly sharp. No misfires and no misplaced measurements. Now I am happy with the camera as a photography tool. I'm already very happy with it as a 4K video camera. It's nearly perfect in that use. 

The images of the old Cadillac are from the Rainey Street neighborhood. The votive candles are from Mexicarte and the deck plate live somewhere on West Fifth St. All the files sharpen up well and there's very little noise to be seen in spite of the minimal noise reduction setting. 





My Interview with Chanel as Billie Holiday in Zach Theatre's, "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill."

Chanel's Interview at Zach Theatre. Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. from Kirk Tuck on Vimeo.

I recorded this interview at Zach Theatre on April 5th. The still images I used as b-roll as from our dress rehearsal documentation on April 4th. The video footage of rehearsal was recorded on April 2nd. 

Tech notes: The still photographs were taken with a Sony RX10iii camera while all the video content was recorded with the Panasonic FZ2500 camera using its 4K video setting. I lit Chanel's interview with two large, Aputure Amaran 672W LED panels plus two smaller panels from the same company. 

Audio was recorded with an Aputure Diety shotgun microphone. 

My next video is an interview of the production's director. 

(please click through to Vimeo and choose the 1080p, HD version of the video for best quality). 


I decided to film Chanel's interview at Zach Theatre with the fz2500 because my early tests showed me that the color in video was rich and accurate, with little of the overly sharp renditions I'd seen in other, similar cameras. It's incumbent on a videographer to take the time to test the equipment ahead of time to see, personally, how the settings on the camera affect the final results. I was able to see a kinder skin tone rendition with the Panasonic.

I set the camera up to shoot UHD 4K with the idea of downsampling. But, rather than downsample by transcoding on the import of the material I decided to actually work with the original 4K footage in the edit and only apply the transcoding when making the output version into h.264. I thought I would see improvements in overall quality when done in this fashion. When I output the video to the h.264 codec I saw two things: The compression of h.264 exacerbates the noise by a bit (not too troublesome) and it also compresses the tonal range of the middle tones enough to make the overall files slightly darker than they are in Final Cut Pro X, or when played in their native format via QuickTime Pro.

Just to test a bit further and to see where the limitations really hit I also output the file to a Pro Res 422 HQ file. This file had 10 times less compression. The h.264 files weighed in at 695 megabytes while the HQ files tipped the scales at 10 gigabytes. Viewing them side by side makes on more aware of the destruction wrought by compression. The bigger file is much more tonally detailed; the tones are well separated and the tonal transitions are as smooth as they seem in real life. The bigger file also shows less noise in comparison. It's really a moot point for a project like this one which will be used on YouTube by my client. The amount of compression in YouTube's process is at least a whole order of magnitude more destructive than the conversion to h.264 out of Final Cut Pro X. I wish I could show clients, family and friends (and Chanel) just how good the high quality file looks on a calibrated screen in a viewing appropriate room.

I think the secret to getting good video from an $1100 cameras is to pay strict attention to fundamentals. There can be no slop in exposure calculation. If you need to bring up exposure from an underexposed file you'll end up losing precious detail and it will degrade image quality. Don't plan on boosting shadows after the fact; take the time (and light) to fill the shadows to the level you'll want them in the edit before you push the record button. Controlling the range of tones, and the overall dynamic range, is an artistic step as well as a technical process. They are intertwined.

The same applies to color correction. If you've worked with smaller Jpeg files in photography you'll know that they can't be totally corrected if you didn't get it right in camera. Push the blues and you kill the yellows; push the magenta and kill the greens. It's all as interrelated as the Buddhist view of the universe. If you are working with an inexpensive camera you don't have the luxury of endless latitude but, guess what? the DPs I talk to don't believe that their twenty and thirty thousand dollar cameras have latitude to spare either. They get color balance correct in camera. A quick custom white balance at the head of the interview prevents hours of slider jockeying and teeth gnashing later in the process.

If you have the color and exposure nailed into place then the next thing to worry about is shadow and highlight mapping. I use the shadow/highlight tool in FCPX a lot. For this I had a one notch increase in shadow exposure and a one notch decrease in shadow exposure (on an S curve) which helped to open up the shadows and keep highlights from burning out. In the CineLike D profile I used I changed several parameters. I upped the contrast by one notch, upped the sharpness control by one notch and decreased the noise reduced by three notches. In retrospect I should have also reduced saturation by a small amount.

I took the time to light everything. There is a big, soft main light and a big, soft counter-balancing fill light on the opposite side. I have lights on the background and a weak backlight on Chanel. The lights establish the highlight and shadow range and are critical to the way I see video.

The one place I wish I had more control was over the ambient noise in the theater. The theater is a large space and we were just a couple hours away from a full audience show. In Texas it is critical to keep the house at the right temperature and we were unable to turn off the air conditioning. You can hear as a low frequency noise bed. I was torn because a lavaliere microphone might have gotten me a bit less noise but the lower noise would have come at the price of really clean high frequency response and also clarity in the mid-tones. I made the choice and I'll have to live with it when I listen to the final result in a quiet room.

I hope you enjoy the interview. Chanel is a world class singer and actor and, I find, an interview subject who makes her interviewers look more competent. I appreciate the time and expertise she put into helping me tell this story about the her show; and about Billie Holiday.


Read this book and save your creative life.

4.14.2017

My first two jobs with the Sony FE 85mm f1.8. It's a good lens.


I recently purchased the Sony FE 85mm f1.8 lens at the current, full, retail price of $599 from a camera store, here in centralTexas. As I've written before, I really like the 85mm focal length and depend on lenses in the 85mm to 135mm focal range for a large percentage of both my paid and my personal work.

I bought this lens because I have owned the manual focusing 85mm 1.5 Rokinon Cine lens for the last year. I noticed that I was enjoying using that lens for work less and less because it added more steps to the shooting workflow. I had to constantly make sure that the "non-click" aperture ring had not been moved inadvertently while shooting. I had to "punch in" to ensure I was in focus. And the geared focusing ring, while great for using a follow focus mechanism for focusing in video, was a pain in the hand for day long, repetitive use.

I wanted a lens that I could use in conjunction with the face detect AF in my two A7xx cameras. Yes, I've gotten lazy. Or I've gotten too busy to have the patience to nurse the process.

I've owned the 85mm f1.8 lenses from both Nikon and Canon, as well as the 85mm f2.8 for the Sony SLT series cameras. I was hoping this model would be at least as good.

My testing routine is fairly simple: Toss the lens on the front of the camera and then start shooting stuff around the stuff. Put the camera on a tripod, turn off the I.S. in camera and pay attention to the focusing points I'm using. I shoot papers with fine type that are strewn across my desk. I make portraits of the ever patient Studio Dog. I shoot the leaves on the trees outside the windows. Then I grab all the big-ass raw files and put them into Lightroom and start examining them at 1:1. If everything looks good and the focus is accurate then the lens goes into the bag and we're off the to races. If not, the lens goes back to the store and my credit card is once again newly energized with buying potential.

This lens passed with flying colors. It gives me a highly detailed file at f2.8 and higher. It's sharp enough at f1.8 but I don't often find myself making portraits at that f-stop because I find it difficult to keep the tip of a portrait sitter's nose and their hairline near the front of their ears equally in focus. It's that depth of field thing. By f4.0-5.6 this lens is everything you could want in a lens at this focal length. It's sharp, contrasty and brimming with nano-acuity(tm).

The overall design is spare and utilitarian. There are two controls on the body of the lens itself. One is a simple AF/MF switch and the other is a round button which gives you a convenient focus hold. It can apparently be programmed to do other things but I confess I haven't found an application that would be better than a focus lock for a lens mounted button. I guess the eye-AF on function and the depth of field preview functions would both come in handy, depending on the kind of work you do.

The optical formula is more complex than previous generations of 85mm f1.8 lenses I have used. It features nine elements and at least one of them is claimed to be  an ED (extra low dispersion glass). A bonus for all the people who believe a camera should be usable in driving rain = the lens is said to be moisturize and dust resistant. It is also designed with nine aperture blades for a smoother out of focus rendering. Finally, the focusing mechanism used double linear motors which makes focusing fast and noise minimal. This also makes it a good choice for video production.

I spent two days shooting commercial projects with this lens exclusively. The first project was to make eight individual portraits of attorneys, in the studio, against a white background. The lens worked well, the face detection AF worked quickly and with no hunting, and there is no evidence of any flare or veiling as a result of shooting into the white background.

On the second project I was making portraits of several attorney at their downtown high offices. They were environmental portraits which leveraged soft window light and the supporting light of a couple of LED panels shining through large diffusers. I shot at f3.2 for these images. I was happy with the highly accurate focusing (again, using face detect AF on the A7ii) and the overall tonality of the lens. It has an optical quality that I would call "solid." Everything in the scene seems, optically, well locked down and detailed even when viewing the resulting raw files at 100%. There is one thing I did notice in the files shot at f3.2 that might bother other shooters and that is a tendency to vignette. I don't have a profile for this lens loaded into Lightroom yet and I'm sure that would eradicate the vignetting. It's certainly not enough to be disturbing to me and it's easy to fix manually. But it is there.

The lens is small and light. It's a bargain compared to the 85mm f!.4 lenses that people seem compulsively drawn toward. It's less than a third the price of the Nikon or Sony f1.4 versions and far less than half the weight. And more importantly, I am sure that from f2.0 up to f8.0 there is no real, optical quality difference that can be reasonable discerned with the human eye. Caveat Emptor.

Even using my own hard earned cash, I would buy this lens again in a heart beat.



4.13.2017

So, Changing Gears for a Moment. I Want to Talk About a Pitfall of the Portrait Business.

In all the years I have known Belinda she has never complained about her face or seemed to be particularly self-conscious. So this image is here, at the top of the article, because I like it and I won't get sued for using it in conjunction with this topic...

I am in the business of making portraits for people. In order to make money doing this I have to make portraits of people in such a way that they will like the end result. But what do you do when a person just doesn't like the way their face looks? How do you handle the customer who feels that their face is not particularly photographable? Where is the intersection between customer satisfaction and business survival?

I bring this up because last year I'd taken a number of photographs of key executives for a mid-sized company. We created a style for the company and followed through on that style for every portrait. A few weeks after the shoot; and after all the selections had been made, and all the photographs were retouched, one executive got in touch with me and told me that she regretted her choice of blouse. She felt, after seeing it in all of its saturated (almost magenta) glory, that is just didn't match the expectations of her professional culture. I take things like this in stride. The office manager had already gotten in touch and scheduled an additional session for several new hires and, since we'd be on location at their offices, it would be very little additional work to re-shoot our disappointed customer in a better choice of wardrobe. 

She was very happy to have another shot at wardrobe selection and the re-done image was exactly what she wanted. We did not charge a fee for the re-shoot. My philosophy is to make the client happy with their portrait in any way that I can and that includes re-shooting if they are disappointed in any way. It's just good business. 

Recently the office manager got in touch again to schedule a session for another new hire. She also asked what I would charge to shoot another round of portraits for a different executive; one we had photographed in our first session, over a year ago. I told her that I would add the second portrait in when we came to photograph the new hire at no charge. If the executive was unhappy with the original portrait I wanted to fix the situation, and if another try at bat would do the trick I was certainly game. 

But I wanted to know what the person wanted to change; what would be different in the second attempt? Was it another wardrobe issue? No, it turns out that she just isn't at all comfortable with being photographed, doesn't like her smile and could be tough to please. What could I do differently this time?

I arrived at 10am and set up lighting, etc. The new hire was a fun attorney in the same age demographic as me and we developed a more or less instant rapport. We both have a kid in college, we both have spent the last 40+ years in Austin, Texas, our politics are solidly aligned, we both have technical backgrounds that are different from our current vocations. Getting a great expression from him was simple as pie. 

When we finished up sharing hands and exchanging business cards my re-shoot client stepped into the conference room we were using as a temporary studio. After the first client left I asked her to tell me what she didn't like about the last round of portraits and she was very honest. She told me she has always hated the way she looks in portraits. It quickly became apparent that her anxiety about being photographed was creating enough tension so that she was having troubling relaxing and showing her real self. I don't have any magic bullets for dealing with difficult portrait situations but experience tells me that people relax over time. Even making them bored beats photographing someone who is uncomfortable.  Neither of us had pressing business following our session so we starting making a few images, looking at them and then talking through what we wanted to fix. 

But most of the time we talked and got to know each other. She told me stories about her children and I shared stories about Ben. She's an avid golfer so I told my two favorite golf stories; one about getting an inadvertent,  four hour long, private lesson on driving on the 7th tee box of the Barton Creek Country Club's Fazio Course with Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite, and the second one about playing eighteen holes with Sugar Ray Leonard (the boxer), who spent a good part of that time talking about the birth of his youngest child...

At one point, while flowing along in conversation my reticent subject, she said she had an epiphany and realized why she didn't like the look of her face. It was a cathartic moment that cleared out a lot of the tension she felt. The final frame I shot was clearly the best of the batch. We had spent thirty or forty minutes chatting and shooting. It was worth the time.

I'm editing down the number of images I'm putting up in her online gallery (for selection) and I have no idea if she will like the new group of images better than the last ones but I did take the step of retouching several image candidates just to show her what we can do in post processing to change a few of the things she is not particularly fond of. It takes some time to do this but it's my preference not to have single customer/client in my home market who has anything but good reviews for both my work and my commitment to creating work that.... works. For them.

I find that when things aren't going smoothly the power of just slowing down and getting to know your subject is more important than anything technical that you might try. After all, it's rarely a technical glitch that causes someone to have buyer's remorse about their portraiture. The usual culprit is that the session didn't go long enough or deep enough to penetrate the glossy outer layer of a person's defenses and show something real and authentic (and positive) about the subject. The only way around it is to go through the process and find a way to make connections that give clients a pathway to show themselves genuinely to the camera. Same applies to video interviews. You have to get through the protective shields that we all surround ourselves with. The shield is there to keep us from getting hurt but it also keeps the portrait process at a distance. 

Some people are more inclined to make that shield thick and strong. I think the only cure is time, and the shared process of creating a safe space for clients to show their honest selves. 


4.10.2017

Did I mention that I'm posting more and more stuff to Instagram? I wonder how that will work out.

Chanel for Zach Theatre Marketing Project. 2017

I am putting up favorite photos on Instagram. 
I would enjoy your feedback there. 

Here's the address:

https://www.instagram.com/kirktuck/