6.07.2017

A quick look at a recent portrait session with an attorney.

Luke. ©Kirk Tuck 2017

I first photographed Luke a number of years ago when he commissioned a local advertising agency to create a new website for his law practice. We both liked the images we generated in that first encounter and when the time came to update the website design Luke moved on to a different design firm but called on me directly to do new portraits. 

I knew that he was looking for images the that would project a calm competence and that's what I aimed for. Our session was scheduled for 10:30 one morning but I started the basic lighting design and set up during the afternoon the day before. I knew I wanted to use a cool, steely gray background because it creates a nice color contrast for flesh tone. I wanted to use continuous lighting because I wanted to work with wide apertures and also wanted to leverage some of the daylight coming into the studio for very subtle fill light. 

My main light was an LED panel pushed through a Westcott diffusion flag (2x3 feet) positioned about four feet from his face, 45 degrees off axis, and up high enough to create a flattering shadow under his chin. Just behind the main light and a bit more to the center I put up another LED panel and pushed it through a 4x4 foot Chimera diffusion panel with the power all the way down at 20%. The purpose was to add fill light overall. 

I used a smaller LED panel as a hair light. It came from the right rear of the set and created some interesting separation in Luke's hair. I used another LED panel pushed through another Chimera panel from the back left side of the set. Its effect is almost invisible but it shows up as more even lighting on the right hand side of his face and is more noticeable in bigger enlargements. 

The final light was a vertically arranged LED panel with one sheet of translucent material clipped on to soften the beam; aimed directly at the seamless paper background. This light was positioned directly behind Luke and carefully metered to get a halo effect around him without having to resort to post production vignetting or manipulation. 

I took a couple of test shots and then we spent time just chatting and catching up. The session lasted long enough to generate several hundred shots, which may sound excessive to retail portrait takers but is part of our advertising tradition. We're looking for small but important changes in pose, gesture and expression. Even small adjustments to expression can change the impression of the subject being photographed. 

I included three different expressions here so you can see what I'm talking about. Each is very similar but, to my eye, each has a very different demeanor. Luke selected 12 final shots and I spent an afternoon getting the flesh tones exactly the way I wanted them to look for web use. The files were delivered as large, layered Tiffs as well as "ready to use" Jpegs in two sizes. 

Luke and I were both quite happy with the results. It's a straightforward project but, as usually is the case, knowing the final use is important. Knowing the subject well enough to have a good rapport is priceless.



Camera: Sony A7ii
Lens: Sony FE 85mm f1.8
Lights: Aputure LightStorm LEDs

6.06.2017

"Fixing" the Sony a9's overheating issue....hmmm.

Many years ago, while attending the University of Texas at Austin, I worked part time as a sales person for a middle-to-high end audio store that was located just off campus in the Dobie Residence Tower. We were on the bottom floor. We had cool stuff.

For an electrical engineering student it was more or less a dream job. I got to play with all the latest audio gear while listening to the favorite music of my generation. But we had clients who created interesting challenges...

One of the huge audio amplifiers we sold was from a company called, Phase Linear. Its claim to fame was it's ability to deliver lots and lots of power. Speaker-meltingly intense power. And there were some speaker systems that thrived on buckets of power.

I sold a system with the Phase Linear power amplifier driving a set of very good sounding, but inefficient speakers to an music lover who liked his music nice and loud. Wall shaking loud. Front row concert loud. He loved the way the amp and the speakers worked but he had one little problem: the fuses in his amplifier would fail frequently. Every week or so he'd come into the store, complain a bit about the amp shutting down, and buy another little box of fuses.

Then I didn't see him for a couple of months. He finally came back into the store to look at turntables (they were a thing back then) and just to visit a bit. Browsing like me, now, at camera shops...

I asked him how his Phase Linear amplifier issue was going and he told me that he'd permanently fixed the problem. No more blown fuses. All music all the time.

I was impressed and thought to pass his wisdom on to other customers in similar straits so I asked him how he fixed the issue.

"paper clips." That was the answer. He'd run out of fuses late one night and tried wads of aluminum foil. That worked but the contact wasn't as good as it could have been so he experimented with conductive materials at hand and found the paper clip to be the optimum "firmware upgrade."

In other news, Sony has fixed the a9 overheating issue with a "firmware upgrade."

(every ten degree celsius rise in operating temperature above the optimum target temperature of a semi-conductor device shortens the life of the device by half. Or so I am told... your engineers may disagree). 

6.05.2017

Lighting competently adds strength to a commercial photographer's bottom line.


When Sony first started cranking out camera sensors that worked well (enough) at high ISOs many who were engaged in building their photographic businesses rejoiced. They concluded that they would no longer have to learn to apply enough light to their subjects to prevent objectionable noise from creeping into their files. Practicing their craft as "available light" experts they would no longer be questioned about the sparkly and speckle-y noise in the photographs they were delivering to their clients.

The remedy to noise, for photographers who could not or would not light, was to crank up the ISO in the camera menu and then wash out the photographic detail (which included noise) in post production, with canned noise reduction programs. This led to an epidemic of plastic looking skin tones and images with less detail than had been available in correctly exposed files from 2-4 megapixel cameras long since abandoned.

As the economy recovered fully from the last recession and clients once again started investing more time, money and attention to their marketing content a funny thing happened; clients started demanding that their photographers know how to light images. It is not good enough anymore just to get an image that could be post processed into submission, now it is becoming mandatory to use lighting correctly.

Photographers can (and should) use lights to create depth in images, raise the overall technical quality and sharpness in images, and to create images on locations, on demand, that have the same kind of quality metrics as controlled studio work. The re-introduction of good lighting as a primary function of photographers points to a small renaissence in commercial work; both in still photography and video.

The current mark of competence in image making is the ability to light well. To enhance one's subjects and create looks and styles that are repeatable and not just subject to luck. Every project is different, that's why mastery of lighting requires looking beyond a handful of formulas. One job may require huge, directional soft lights while another might require the fine edge of a hard spot light. The project and the imaging goal should drive the lighting and not the other way around.

If you want to have repeatable photographic results and repeatable client engagements I highly recommend gaining a comprehensive understanding of how to light. Even if you wish to remain an "available light" photographer understanding the theory behind good lighting can't be a bad thing.

The nice thing about having lights and knowledge is that when the sun sets you can still do work that is financially rewarding. I'll leave discussions about the art to someone with an MFA.

6.04.2017

Panasonic fz2500 and the Atomos Ninja Flame. An update.



As I wrote here: https://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2017/06/the-story-i-glossed-over-about-real.html I was a bit miffed at myself for not diving deep enough into the Panasonic fz2500 manual (page 180; thank you dear reader...) to know that, in addition to providing a clean 10 bit, 4:2:2 HD file over HDMI, the camera was also capable of providing the same configuration but in 4K (UHD). For a product that costs around $1200 this is an amazing feature. The closest competitor in the Sony realm is a dedicated video camera called the PXW-Z150 which sells for about $3200 (USD).

Once I'd been made aware of this capability I started researching to find out which external video recorder might be the best one for my needs. I settled on the Atomos Ninja Flame which provides the ability to accept the 4K files from my fz2500, but also from every single one of the Sony cameras I routinely use in my work.

The difference in the outputs to the card and to the camera are pretty big. The greater bit depth means more distinct colors while the move from 4:2:0 to 4:2:2 means less color interpolation. The payoff is when one goes to edit the files. The color transitions are

6.02.2017

A few rehearsal images from the production of "In The Heights" at Zach Theatre. Some from the RX10iii and some from the FZ2500.


On Sunday and Tues. evenings I headed over to the Topfer stage at Zach Theatre to try and capture the look and feel of the big, new production; In The Heights. On Sunday I went outfitted with only the Panasonic fz2500 while my shoot on Tues. involved a few shots with a Sony A7Riii (which went back into the bag in short order), the Sony RX10iii (the lion's share of the Tues. images), and a collection of images using the Panasonic G85 with the kit 12-60mm and also an ancient Pen-FT Olympus 50-90mm zoom (that was just flat out fun...). 

Here's what I ended up with: 

The Story I glossed over about the real reason to use the Panasonic fz2500 for video instead of my Sony A series cameras or, even, the RX10's.



I can't believe I've been so dense. It was right under my nose all the time. The one critical set of capabilities that makes the fz2500/2000 such an incredible bargain for video shooters hellbent on getting maximum quality at a low price point. It's all about the clean HDMI out.

Let me explain. The Sony a7x's and RX10's are great cameras for shooting video if you are intent on using them only to capture video to internal SD cards. Just like the fz2500 they write really nice (albeit compressed) files directly to internal cards but in order to do so they limit the color information to 4:2:0 and the they limit the bit depth to 8 bits. Within these constraints they do a very good job. But the differences emerge when one hooks up an external field recorder and sends a pre-compressed signal out the HDMI connection to a waiting SSD drive. The fastest SD cards can sustain a write time of a little over 120 mbs but if you want higher bit depths and richer color spaces you'll need sustained write times closer to 200 mbs. And that's exactly what field recorders give you.

But, if you hook up an Atomos (or other brand) field recorder to one of the Sony cameras you gain only greater bit depth and not a change from 4:2:0 to 4:2:2 color information. With the Panasonic fz2500 you gain 10 bit, 4:2:2 color even at UHD video, at 24 fps and 30 fps. This is crazy good. And the field recorders allow you to take the clean HDMI signal and write ProRes files to the SSD card which means there's no need to transcode when ingesting the files into your editing program.

What does the change from 8 bit to 10 bit buy you? Better tonal separation and less banding in uniform color areas within a frame. That means less banding in blue skies and more realistic tonal shifts within a frame.

What does the change from 4:2:0 to 4:2:2 buy you? You are getting more color samples to work with which gives you more color accuracy and richer color in your files. It means the files are easier to work with and edit because there is more information to work with. It's a big step up.

I was really busy doing projects when I bought the Panasonic and I'm sure I must have read about this capability somewhere but... when you have your head down in projects you are loathe to change directions or workflow because the unknown or untried is...scary. Now I am paying attention and I'm delighted to investigate just how big a change the use of an external recorder will be for my video work.

I'm trying to decide which recorder will work best for the fz2500 so if you have any information, experience or opinions I would love to hear them. Right now the Atomos Ninja Fire seems to be the right choice but I'll wait to hear from some of my smart readers.

Realizing the potential I have sitting in this camera in front of me on my desk is like unwrapping an new present. Now to acquire the external recorder and start testing.

Video really is a deep dark rabbit hole. Bring a flash light.

Hey! Sony! Unlock 10bit in the RX10iii and I'll put you on my Christmas card list...

The Strange Saga of the Sony a9, and other random thoughts on an unexpectedly open Friday.


I'll start with the Sony a9. Right off the bat you have to know that I have only held one for a brief time but I have read just about everything written about this camera so far on the web. I am certain that it's a wonderful camera for a very, very small subsection of photographers who have very special needs for their very particular kind of work. As I understand it the a9 is Sony's statement about what constitutes a really great, mirrorless sports camera. It's optimized for fast, fast, fast.

It's probably the fastest focusing of all the full frame Sony camera and it may be faster than the a6500. It has an incredibly deep raw buffer. And they made the battery twice as powerful as the long running npw50 that's used in just about every other serious Sony camera.

But here's the deal: Most photographers (who are not specifically sports photographers) tend to value image quality above speed. If we're spending real money and taking our time to shoot with purpose and passion we're generally trying to maximize the image quality of our work above all other parameters. In this regard the a9, when compared to the A7rii is a step backward on the quality timeline. It has lower resolution, much lower dynamic range and less ability to finely separate color tones. Why then all the interest in a camera that's 50% more cost? Why have Sony absolutely inundated the web-o-sphere with millions and millions of social influencers all touting this camera as the alpha and the omega of modern cameras?

Here is why I am profoundly uninterested in the a9, won't buy one and won't be "testing" one "in the real world" or anyplace else:

1. This camera is too expensive for the quality of file it generates.

2. This camera is optimized for speed over quality.

3. This camera is two steps backwards for anyone who values the ability to create video and stills with one picture taking machine.

4. Stories are emerging from many quarters about overheating issues with the camera (and one would think after dealing with the marketing splatter from overheating A7 series cameras and A6x00 series cameras Sony would have learned something...and implemented some way of dealing with heat..).

5. The sheer volume of people vying to review/dissect/promote this camera on social media makes me NOT interested in a big way.

6. Lloyd Chambers was first to bat with revelations about serious noise banding in shadows when pushing the shadows --- even at ISO 100!!!

The outright flogging and shilling of this camera has become downright embarrassing and, I think, counterproductive.

I would guess Sony is trying to build a two year cycle of momentum using the a9 as proof of execution in the sports camera niche in order to prepare the battlefield for the release of a much better camera 18 months from now to showcase at the Olympics. (is it true that viewship at ESPN has dropped by over 30% in the last two years? Will we still even want "sports cameras" by then?). The goal must be to have enough photographers sporting Sony gear and logos at the games that they are finally taken seriously by the new gathering community which will give them credibility and a certain glow (halo) with consumers in general. The ultimate goal being the snatching of additional market share from Nikon. And Nikon seems to be making it easy for them.

I think the a9 is the ultimate consumer-beta'd R&D camera. As the blog sites, websites and social media sites of all flavor relentlessly flog the a9 a certain number of buyers will hear the siren wail of marketing and part with an enormous sum of money in order to get a camera that will mostly be used by people who have photo interests similar to yours and mine; we'll use it to take walking around photographs, family images, headshots, product shots, real estate shots, concert shots, food shots and all the regular and routine things we do with our cameras 90% of the time. In that same span of time the people who buy the camera will do two things. They will decide that the image quality of the a7Rii, or the combination of price and image quality of the a7ii, would have been preferable to the a9 for them and, secondly, they'll be guinea pigs for Sony's engineers; finding and reporting on glitch after glitch so Sony can fix everything and put a great product out in time for the games in 2020.

It's hard not to believe that Sony stumbled onto some key methods of controlling and inspiring the legions of camera reviewers and have done what most marketers do when they suddenly realize they have a potent consumer driver in their hands; they turn up the marketing knob to 11 and go massively overboard. But like any other gimmick the public will soon tire of it and the intensity of the repeated assaults on the city walls of the consumer mind will result in rebellion, revolt, cynicism and other brakes to the a9 onslaught.

The very idea that many, many photographers desperately need to create work at 20 fps is just ludicrous. I'll take the insanely detailed of the A7Rii's sensor and its almost unrivaled dynamic range any day of the week, and I suspect that you would too.

The camera to watch, in my opinion, is the Panasonic GH5. That's a remarkable piece of gear by any measure.

Sony, me dost thinks thou market too hard. A little subtlety (any restraint at all) would be appreciated.

Just look what the inane repetition of the a9 mantra has done to DP Review's credibility...


5.31.2017

Another video project sees the light of day. One man movie making on location in Oklahoma City.

https://youtu.be/WjbztDHqJuY


I'm happy to see that my client has posted our most recent project on their YouTube channel. (See the link above). This assignment was one of those fast breaking projects that takes advantage of my skills both as a photographer and as a video producer. I worked with a crew of one. Me. And I worked inside a very tight time constraint; I had a little over half a day to shoot interior and exterior video b-roll, an in-depth, two camera interview, and a large collection of corresponding still images. I lit with available light, LEDs and also flash; and worked out of one big case, a light stand case, and a backpack full of cameras that can fit under the seat in front of me on most airlines. With good packing you can move quicker and that means you can get more content. That helps later on when you are desperate for some good cutaways...

This video is a story about Steve G. who was shot in the leg in a hunting accident decades ago. As a result of the accident he lost his left leg; just under his knee. He was recently fitted with a new prosthetic product from my client and, well..... click on the video to hear Steve's impressions.

On this project I made extensive use of the Sony RX10iii. Every time I do a project with this camera I learn new things to like about it. On this project I used a new set of parameters in one of my Picture Profiles settings. It's a set of parameters from Andrew Reid who runs the site, EosHD.com. With this profile engaged I felt like I could get easy-to-use and edit files right out of camera without having to resort to using S-Log.

I used the RX10iii for every part of the video except for the black and white segments of the interview. That "B" camera was a Sony A7rii with the new 85mm on the front. All of the still images from the shoot (including the ones I used in the video) were also from the A7rii.

I used a Rode NTG-4+ microphone running into a pre-amplifier and then directly into the RX10iii for Steve's audio. The ability to ride levels with a physical knob on the pre-amplifier was a good thing. No menu diving (or function button diving) needed to get to the audio level controls!

One thing I've been doing on all of our healthcare projects is to shoot all the footage I can in 4K and to bring the 4K footage into the editing timeline in 4K, along with smaller proxy files which I use for the actual editing process. The higher resolution is great for those times when a client would like for you to zoom in during the edit and crop out something in the background. It's comforting to know that you can crop in and lose 2/3rds of the frame and still match the resolution of HD. The final output, as specified by the client, is HD in H.264.

The times I shoot with HD instead are the times when I am shooting handheld and either I am moving, or the subject is moving, or both. I drop to HD because the five axis image stabilization built into the RX10iii is more effective at quelling camera movement at that setting. I get smoother footage that way. I guess I could just shoot everything in 4K and do my image stabilization in post production but it's hard, when shooting really quickly, and not to a script, to anticipate in advance how tight or loose you might need your crops to be. Shooting a nice composition in the finder means I'll be more apt to use the resulting shots.

Our shooting day generated print ad content, a video, and social media content for our client in an extremely cost effective way. As usual, the editing is like taking a workshop for future shooting. You learn just how much you screwed up when you try putting everything together in post...

One sad note for me is the fact that most people will only see the video as a (highly) compressed HD file on YouTube. I spun out a version for myself using ProRes 4:2:2 HQ as the codec and when I watch this on a 60 inch, 4K TV I am blown away by the jaw dropping differences in sharpness, detail, tonality etc. It kinda feels like those days in photography when you made a great shot on a 4x5 inch transparency (big ass slide film) and later saw the resulting ad in newsprint. Kind of anti-climatic; especially when you've had a chance to see the original.

I give it a year, maybe two, and then we'll all have enough bandwidth at home and in our offices to watch stuff on YouTube and Vimeo with larger files and more pixels. Won't that be fun?


Two Samples from the Sony 85mm f1.8 FE Lens on an A7ii.


The lens is really good. Well worth the asking price. How's that for a short review?

5.29.2017

Working at 1000 ISO with the Panasonic fz2500 at Tech Rehearsal. Nailing Focus Makes Your Lens Look Sharper.



I love shooting stage productions. Yesterday evening the folks at Zach had a technical rehearsal for an upcoming production of "In the Heights." I wanted to attend and scout the show so I could be more effective when I come back to shoot the dress rehearsal this Tues. evening; and it was a good opportunity to give the Panasonic fz2500 another good test to see if the focusing workaround I learned from my friend, Frank, was working as we both hoped (and expected) it would.

When I bought the camera and made some initial tests I got the same soft results that the people at DP Review got when they tested the camera but one of my colleagues owns the same camera and was able to pull stunning images out of it so, unlike the folks at DPR who chalked up the issue to a less than stellar lens design I was not willing to toss the blame to Leica and move on without a little deeper dive. I kept testing because I had done some images earlier, both with and without AF, and was able in some circumstances, to achieve results from the Panasonic lens that were very much on par with the gold standard lens; the Sony RX10iii/Zeiss zoom. 

I noticed that the AF square on the back screen seemed to shift left every time I shot with the camera. Frank's workaround was to create a custom AF pattern, restricting the pattern only to the very center focusing point. Once I did this the camera seemed to nail focus on everything I pointed it towards. And once I got it focused properly the resulting files were sharp and detailed; and to be honest I prefer the overall tonality of the Panasonic files over that of the Sony RX10 files (which are not bad by any standard...).

The production lighting of the show I was shooting last night was contrasty and lit to a lower level than the last few shows I've shot there. To the eye it was a lighting design that created a wonderful sense of twilight ambiance and drama but to the camera it was --- a challenge. 

I locked in ISO at 1,000 and set the camera to manual exposure. I worked with the lens either wide open or very, very close to it for the entire evening. That's a great test since most lenses are sharper a couple of stops down. I would not have the luxury of being able to work in the sweet spot of the optical design of the lens but that was fine with me because this is a test based on the real way I shoot some projects. If a camera lens can deliver at a wide open aperture it passes at least one of my tests. 

I shot 1300+ files last night and editing them down to about 700 this morning. In order to partially compensate for the contrasty stage lighting I had to make a few adjustments, both in the camera and in post production. In the camera (shooting raw) I set the highlight/shadow control to plus 1 in the shadows and minus 1 in the highlights. When I brought the files into Lightroom I used the shadow slider at +50 to get the background of the set design to read and used -15 on the highlight slider to tone down white shirts and various highlights. I also pulled up the blacks to +8. With any sensor that's a recipe for noise but probably more so with a smaller, one inch type sensor. I hit the noise reduction menu and dialed in +15 on the luminance slider, +61 on the detail slider and kept the contrast at zero. 

If you chimp at 100% you'll still see noise but looking at the images in the sizes we intended to use them they look pretty darn good. 

I am very satisfied with the AF I got last night. There were only a handful of images that didn't make the cut for reasons of unsharpness and I suspect a lot of that was me being less than compulsive about getting the focusing indicator in the correct position. 

I hope Panasonic comes out with a firmware fix that makes AF less horsey for those of us who just want to quickly designate an AF point and keep it there. Otherwise? High marks from me for the camera based on images for last night.