10.02.2018

With the whole world drooling over full frame, mirrorless cameras I just had to pick this moment to buy a Panasonic G9. What was I thinking?

Okay, let's set the stage for all the people who will read the blog for the first time and start screaming, "fanboy. I bet he's never even tried out a full frame brand X!!!!!" I have one job and it's to create visual content for commercial clients. To that end I have two full frame, Nikon D800x cameras, a couple of older full frame D700 cameras, and, at one time or another I've owned or borrowed and shot with just about every full frame digital camera on the market, including Canon 1 series cameras and 5 series cameras, including both Sony's mirrorless A7xx series cameras, and SLT a99, as well as Sony's more conventional a850 and a900 cameras. In fact, the only camera maker whose full frame (meaning: just about equal in size and shape to 35mm film) camera I haven't played with is the Pentax. I've also shot with the medium format digital cameras from three different companies. But, in the end, the cameras I have the most fun and, sometimes, the most success with seem to be the one's from the two micro four thirds vendors; Olympus and Panasonic. And lately Panasonic seems to be bringing to market more and more of the cameras that seem just right for me.

After shooting nearly 5,000 frames in the service of three different clients, last week, I looked back on what worked and then what worked better and after a dispassionate review; and after having looked at nearly all 5,000 of the images, I drove up to Precision Camera at rush hour, on the jam-packed Mopac Expressway (cruelly mis-classified as there is nothing remotely "express" about it) walked inside and asked one of my favorite sales associates to grab me a brand new Panasonic G9 and take my money.

But why? There's not one particular thing that moved me to make the purchase, instead there were dozens of small things that I think about as I'm shooting that cause me to either appreciate or regret having brought along a particular camera (or lens).  In the case of the Panasonic top tier of camera models it's all about a combination of features and performance.

I thought it would be tough to beat the video imaging performance of the GH5 until I bought and started using the GH5S. The camera is dismissed all the time for being "only ten megapixels" and for having no built in image stabilization. But if the people who dismiss the camera for not having their favorite features would actually test the camera and shoot the camera I think most would be amazed at just how beautiful and different the GH5S files can look. 

I had to make some decisions last week about which camera system to bring to a three day corporate event that required me to be fast, mobile, discreet and efficient. I needed to be able to shoot a lot of stuff, make it look good for multiple uses and also make files that were efficient (small) enough to be easily upload able --- in bulk. Part of the job was to provide instant access to the files for the client via a shared web folder. This kind of job is no place for finnicky, fussy practitioners who can only pull off a decent photograph if they shoot it at 45 megapixels in raw and then spend half a day massaging it and working with the file in PhotoShop. I needed to be able to send Jpegs that came straight out of the camera and I like the challenge of doing that. 

I was torn between using the Nikon D700s because they are "full frame" and the files are the right size. But man, are they ever loud. Then I considered the D800e and D800 but it's the same thing. The advantage of those cameras is in the raw file potential, once you start working in a file size that makes sense for the kind of project I was doing it doesn't make much sense to drag a big camera and big lenses around --- and I couldn't figure out how to make the cameras quiet enough and discreet enough to make them comfortable working tools for a highly focused conference. I ended up shooting the show with the GH5 and GH5S cameras, both set to 10 megapixels, because they checked all the right boxes. They are small, quiet (even when using mechanical shutters they are 1/3 as loud as the D800s) an easy to carry around all day long. The capper was that my client wanted some short video of each speaker doing their presentations up on the stage and I couldn't think of a better camera and lens combination for that than the GH5S and the Olympus 12-100mm f 4.0 Pro lens. You might be able to pull something video-like off with the Nikons but I guarantee you'll be working a lot harder for your money. 

By the third day I knew I'd made the right choice and chance hammered the point home for me at the start of the main tent session that Friday. I'd gotten to the venue ( a very nice hotel in downtown) early in the morning, had a nice coffee on a terrace overlooking the city, and I got to savor a sunrise and the first cool air of Fall. Just before the start of the morning's program the first speaker came into the main ballroom followed by a woman with a big camera bag, a light stand and several big Nikon DSLRs around here neck. She started to set up a light but the head event planner for the company holding the conference quickly let the newly arrived photographer know that flash during the presentations was NOT allowed. 

The woman looked around and identified me as the show photographer and came over to explain to me why she was there. She'd been hired by the speaker to get some "action" shots of him speaking. I smiled and welcomed her to the venue. Then I made a bee line to my contact to let her know that if she heard loud shutter noise during the presentation that it was NOT from me. My cameras are quiet but also have a fully silent mode that I use when I think silence is called for. 

The show kicked off, the speaker bounded up on stage (and he was very good!) and then all hell broke loose with the clacking of a mirror and shutter. It was amazing, I'd been photographing the previous two days from near the back of the room and most people in the audience had no idea I was in the room. Once the speaker's photographer let loose with the Nikons half the room turned around to look. She soldiered on and the audience eventually lost interest but the message was not lost on me = there is a better way.

But I didn't make up my mind to buy another camera until later. On Sunday evening, freshly back from my visit to my father, in San Antonio, I sat in front of my big screen and started evaluating files from a range of assignments I'd done over the past six days. There were studio portraits of several doctors that I'd shot with controlled lighting and the full 14 bit raw files of the Nikon D800e. There were 500+ shots I'd done for a Zach Theatre rehearsal I'd made shooting raw files with the Nikon D700 and there were several thousand shots and a bunch of video I'd done with the GH5 (vanilla version). All were good but I've got to burst some bubbles here; there aren't huge and glaring differences in quality between the formats or the cameras. In some instances I see the color from the D700 as superior to the D800e and I don't really see a lot of difference in noise profiles between all of the different cameras I shot. But then I started looking at some still photographs I'd shot with the GH5S.

The images from the GH5S are really nice. Even though I was photographing with Jpeg settings the files were rich and the color was superb. But the biggest thing for me was how nice the basic contrast of the files was and how much detail they showed without being oversharpened. I'd go so far as to say that the files from the GH5S are some of the nicest I've ever seen coming out of a modern, digital camera. 

I had the idea that a fair amount of what I'm seeing comes from new color science in the most recent Panasonics which is likely a result of a generation of faster processors that are capable of doing a much more nuanced job of file construction during shooting. What I've read in reviews led me to believe that this same color science I was seeing in the GH5S is embedded in the G9 as well. 

If I was an amateur and I was photographing only for my own pleasure I am almost certain I'd be happy with the GH5S, but as I said in the first paragraph, I do this photography thing for a living. While a hobbyist will be fine with one great camera my event job this week was a perfect example of a situation in which two (identical) camera is better, more efficient and more effective. When shooting a speaker on a stage, or a group of people at a happy hour, or any other event in which you constantly need to shift from wide, establishing shots to medium shots and also to tight shots that are almost headshots, all from one position, you learn that you need at least two zoom lenses on two cameras. You don't want to take time to change lenses on a single body, you want to be able to pull one camera up to your eye and shoot with the long lens and then, when you know you have that shot, you let that camera and lens combination hang over your shoulder on its strap while you bring your camera with the short lens up to your eye and shoot, with no delay. It's a much more fluid way of shooting than digging into your bag to grab a different lens and then trying to get the lens mount squared up in the dark. 

After seeing the color and tonality (and the perception of sharpness) from the GH5S I knew I wanted that but in a camera that matches the GH5 more closely. I want to use in body image stabilization when I need to and while the I.S. in the Olympus lens works well with the "S" body the image stabilization in the G9 lets me use any lens and still get the benefits of I.S. 

I also wanted a second still camera that matches the GH5's high resolution of 20 megapixels; not because I need it all the time but because there are projects and genres of photography that do benefit from having the right number of pixels. Since all three of the camera bodies take the same batteries I can take all the cameras on location and intermix batteries at will. 

I'm just now testing out the G9 but it's so familiar, having spent a year with two GH5's and their very rational menu structure. There's not a big learning curve. I'm shooting a quick job with the G9 on Thursday this week and again two days next week, and if it makes photographs that are as beautiful as those from the GH5S then the G9 will be the primary camera I take with me to Iceland on the 27th of October. With the GH5 coming along as a great back up.

There are many things I like about the G9. At least in theory. I like the bigger EVF. I like the idea of the high resolution mode. I like the huge USB 3 port on the camera almost as much as I appreciate the full sized HDMI port. For the faint of heart the G9 comes with two card slots and both of them are fast UHS II slots. While QXD cards may be faster SD V90 cards that can handle up to 400 Mbs are no slouches. 

But most of what I like about the Panasonics are that the differences between the bodies are not big; certainly not insurmountable. If you could find your way through a GH4 menu then a GH5 menu was hardly a challenge. It's the same with the G9 menus. The learning curve is slight and comfortable, not something that will force you into therapy like some other menus I won't mention...

The bottom line in my decision to flesh out the M4:3 cameras is the desire to balance ease of use, tight and useful imaging feedback via the finder, very good raw files, just the right file size for most stuff and when needed the ability to make video that is so good it will make a cinematographer smile with surprise. 

Here's my packing list for my nine day trip to Iceland: One fG9. One GH5. One Olympus 12-100mm lens. One Panasonic 8-18mm lens. One Sigma 30mm f1.4 contemporary lens. One sigma 16mm f1.4 contemporary lens. Some batteries. Some fast SD cards. Total weight? Negligible. Total imaging power? Significant. We'll see how everything fits into my carry on backpack but there may yet be room to sneak in the GH5S. Might need it for all the low light stuff....

Does this mean I'm rushing to sell off the Nikons I've been lauding for the last six months? Gosh no. They still have their place in the inventory. The D800s do wonderful work in the studio, and for those odd times when noise doesn't matter. And those D700s are too endearing to get rid of. Not to mention that they are so cheap I wouldn't get much on a trade or straight out sales and I like to use them because for some reason I can't really explain they seem to bring out the best in 50mm and 85mm lenses. That's reason enough to use them.

I decided to buy the G9 at this juncture because they are currently on sale everywhere in the USA for around $1,500. It's a $200 savings from their recent retail price. You can argue that you can get a full frame Canon 6D2 or a recent Sony A7ii for that price or less but you'd miss the point that, to me, the full frame sensor is not that big a deal. It's more like the idea of having a car with a big, big eight cylinder engine. Your opportunities to see any performance differences between that and a more efficient car with a smaller motor shrink daily. As we all move from print and from making prints we see the space in which cameras really have room to show off their potential (the potential you pay for) is extremely limited by your final uses. All the potential in the world is meaningless if you don't have a consistent venue in which to show it off. There are few (very few) times when there is so little traffic on Austin streets that you would be able to drive over 60 mph without immediately rear-ending the car in front of you. By the same token, with most of our work heading to the web, and being showcased on screens, the potential of larger format camera (if the glass on all contestants is equally good) is wasted. 

Part of the reason I switched in and out of the earlier m4:3 systems was down to my own bad lens buying strategy. I scrimped on lenses and blamed the cameras. People do this all the time. The two lenses that have effectively cured me of this are the 12-100 and the 40-150 Olympus lenses for the systems. They cut down the overall difference in quality between the smaller format and full frame by a huge amount and more or less evened the playing field; at least where optimum ISO settings are concerned. 

I'm not saying you need to choose one format over the other. I think, if you are a commercial photographer with wide ranging interests or a large number of sub-disciplines you should have multiple cameras and lenses at your disposal because all formats (and brands) have their strengths and weaknesses. Panasonics just seem to have fewer of the weaknesses right now. 

Next time around let's talk about why I prefer the Olympus lenses. That's another piece of the puzzle. In the meantime be sure to go out and buy several different camera systems so we can all discuss the differences between them with the (radical) benefit of experience and hands-on working comparisons. Shoot 5,000+ good frames in a week. You might just amaze yourself.




9.29.2018

Photographing a play made just for children ages 3 to 5. We made images during a rehearsal but not on a traditional stage...

Leah and Michael as Brother and Sister Bear.

After a long week of making photographs and video at a corporate event in a downtown hotel it was fun to change gears this afternoon and photograph one of the final rehearsals for a kids' play at Zach Theatre's small, north Austin satellite mini-theater.
The "auditorium" is more like a regular class room and the stage set was spare but the actors are two veteran professionals with credits from Zach's main stage productions and other top companies in Austin. 

I spent a lot of time in the last few days with a Panasonic GH5 or GH5S in my hands. I did a few portrait shoots earlier in the week with the Nikon D800e so it was a nice change of pace for me to grab a Nikon D700 body and shoot a thousand and seventy seven frames in the service of some fun art. 

I'd gotten a "heads-up" from the program director just yesterday that the space didn't have any theatrical lighting; in fact, it had only the mis-matched ceiling fluorescents that seem to come as standard equipment in older shopping centers and well used classrooms. I brought along four of the Aputure LightStorm LS-1 lights and bounced them off the ceiling at strategic points in the room. I wasn't looking for anything fancier than a nice wash of better light than that which I'd get from five or six different varieties of fluorescent tubes mixed together.....

Once I got the space lit up I made a custom white balance using a Lastolite gray/white target and then actually used a handheld incident light meter to get an accurate reading of the light throughout the shooting area. I tried to space the LED panels, bouncing off the ceiling, so that no area was different in exposure than one half stop. If I could keep it in that area it would make post processing a breeze. I think I did a good job of achieving that goal as few of the images I finally selected needed any post processing compensation. 

There was one additional wrinkle to today's shoot and that was a last minute request to also record the whole production (half an hour?) concurrently on a wide, stationary video camera. So after nailing down all the parameters needed for the still photography I got to work rigging up a Panasonic GH5S, the ever present Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 Pro lens, and several cardioid microphones (placed as close to the "stage" as possible without being in the frame...). My exposure for video clocked in at ISO 1,000, f5.6 (needed the depth of field) at 1/60th of a second. The audio will be a compromise as the air conditioning was noisy and turning it off was non-negotiable. That, and the fact that I was banging away with a photography camera that has a ...... profound shutter acoustic profile (to say the least). But I have a suspicion that the video is intended for b-roll with narration and music supplied. 

The shoot was fun, primitive and low key, by comparison to all other  recent projects. But how nice it was not to have a pressing deadline, nervous clients and a committee to answer to. 

Kind of reminds me that sometimes we do this photography thing because it can be fun. Novel that. A nice capper for the week. 

I'm thinking the images look pretty good for 1,600 ISO on an ancient camera.


9.28.2018

Answering some production questions. Shooting corporate events.

From the Samsung Smart Watch Introduction in Berlin, 2013.
The same event at which Samsung's CEO claimed his company 
invented the first tablet with handwriting recognition and a pen. 
Go back in your time machine and introduce yourself
to the Apple Newton. It would have ruled the tech world if only 
the right processors had been available at the time....

I've shot literally hundreds of corporate events and they are all different but the same. The same part is that someone is trying to sell something to their audience. It may be a product, a concept, a new corporate direction or even the need to downsize but they are all aimed at leading attendees to a desired conclusion. In some instances a show might be about teaching better ways to use a software or hardware product but the end desire is to create happier users which should lead to more sales or at least more referrals. What's different at every show is the "look and feel" of each company's culture, the size of their budget --- which determines the production quality and complexity of their show ---- and what exactly they want from their content creators. For our purposes: what do they want from their event photographers and videographers?

Many clients want a small collection of images documenting important moments from their events that can be shared online and used in publications. These might be images of famous keynote speakers, dramatic product demonstrations or flattering images of the CEO and other top company officers speaking on stage while looking smart and honest. 

If the client needs well polished images we shoot raw and convert. But these are generally situations in which the clients are not expecting heroic turnaround times; they'll be happy to get the images a few days to a week after the event. If I'm photographing a concentrated collection of images and the image quality is paramount then I shoot in raw format and generally use the highest resolution camera I have, assuming its image quality will be top tier. In any situation that I can't light (most corporate event presentations) I work really hard to get a good custom white balance. Sometimes a quick custom WB isn't enough and you have to dive into the color setting and also fine tune the hues on the blue/yellow and green/magenta axes. If you have time to take a good, portable monitor (Atomos?) or a properly calibrated laptop you can more accurately review color but it's important if you do that to take the monitor out into known lighting in order to properly evaluate a stage scene with lots of gelled or otherwise colored lights.

I shot an event like this recently and the workflow is arduous, especially if you tend to be a promiscuous  shooter like me. Since the client expected polished images and does not have an in-house creative team that wants to take the raw images and polish the ones they want to use in-house I have to assume that everything I give them is going to be used and needs to be fine-tuned or corrected in some way so I start the process by editing down the number of images much more tightly that I otherwise would. Then I try to group images that are most alike together so I can do as much batching as possible. 

In the past clients asked for Tiffs but now Jpegs are equally acceptable so I tend to deliver Jpegs at the full file size and with the absolute minimum compression. I've never had a client complain about the file type but if they do I'll be happy to convert all raw files to Tiffs provided they show up with an external hard drive to deposit them on. If a designer still requests Tiffs we generally have a discussion about the merits of PhotoShop .PSD files and they generally get the idea that the .PSDs are equally good but more flexible within their Adobe universe.  Tiffs can get mighty big for not enough benefit.

The client I worked for this week (three day engagement+post production) has a good, and large in-house media department who are young, smart and love to get their hands in the mix. It was more important to them to get an almost minute-by-minute documentation of their event, with a wide range of speaker expressions and compositions than it was to get ultimate image quality. We still aim for great images, technically, but we shoot them with the idea that they might be used within the hour and with no quarter given for any sort of enhancement. That's another reason to pay close attention to white balance. Much of my work over the last three days was used, literally, SOOC (straight out of camera).

The two cameras I used for the show were the Panasonic GH5 variants; the original and the lower resolution "S" model.  In Jpeg I like the standard profile setting in the largest image file size and the lowest compression (finest) for this kind of work.  But I find the preset sharpening to be too much and generally tone it down by three steps from the factory setting. I also drop the saturation by one or two clicks as well. With contrasty stage lighting I drop the contrast down by two clicks and also make a custom curve in the shadow/highlights setting menu. One up for shadows (lighter) and one down for highlights (darker). 

If I'm shooting Jpegs I am almost always going to be shooting them in an sRGB color profile because that's what works the best on the web and on most computer monitors --- and that's where the images are most likely to be seen. If a client decides to use the file for something else they always have the option of converting the file to their preferred setting.

When I shoot stage productions, speeches, demonstrations, etc. I use a manual exposure setting since stage light can create pools of light and dark that fool camera meters. I try to nail a good facial exposure by either eyeballing (with an assist from Mr. Histogram) or I set zebras and have them trigger at the %+5 I like for flesh tones, seasoning according to complexion.

The video I shot at this show was rudimentary b-roll to duplicate, with motion, the kinds of images I was already shooting of the people presenting. Most presenters love to roam around the stage and it's fine when shooting video. In this situation I'm not supplying any audio other than scratch audio coming off the internal microphones. B-roll is really meant to be used under an announcer bed, or music, and if the client wants beautiful audio there's generally a bigger camera (supplied with an operator by the staging/production company) who is recording the show for posterity ---- and that operator is generally taking sound right off a sound board. 

I have been hired from time to time to shoot the stage event in video with sound. Almost every time I get an XLR cable drop to my camera and run it into a mixer via line in/out to camera. With the Panasonics, using the audio adapter, you can set the input to mic or line level and then deliver to the camera exactly which levels it needs. 

Miking multiple speakers for stage presentations requires more staff. Someone needs to run a sound board and ride levels across multiple microphones. I hand those situations off to bigger production companies but occasionally I have to record sound for one event speaker. I use two Sennheiser wireless lavaliere microphones and pray the person doesn't thump on their chest like Tarzan or wear burlap shirts that rub against the mics of the cables.... I like to use two mics with two transmitters just in case one frequency has interference that destroys the sound in one mic.

If I have to play at being a news camera man and get video of a single speaker in an "on the street" video interview I have two methods I like to use. The easiest one and, to my mind, the best sounding, is to use a Rode Reporter microphone hardwired to my audio mixer/interface in the camera hot shoe. An omni or uni-direction microphone used close to the subject (think 12-18 inches, max) does a great job of isolating voice and rejecting sounds further away. If I have an assistant or someone actually conducting an interview and we don't want to deal with seeing a reporter microphone in the video frame we default to using a good shotgun microphone. I use an Aputure Diety or a Rode NTG-4+ and have the person holding the microphone get it in as close as possible without showing in the frame. I also have them point it toward the interviewee's mouth. Most fast moving situations aren't conducive to setting up lavaliere microphones. If we are in a dynamic and uncontrollable situations, accoustic-wise, then I buck tradition and take advantage of auto level control and a limiter.

In most event situations, especially when shooting b-roll, we shy away from 4K footage and other video settings that require massive storage. The GH5S has a nice codec in .Mov that gives you 1080p at 30fps with 10 bit, 4:2:2 color space at a modest 100 mbs. Bigger than the older ACVHD files but much, much nicer detail and color. It's footage you'd actually want to use. 

I leave all the hocus-pocus of V-Log for people who like to spend lots and lots of time color grading and dealing with LUTs and try to shoot everything for corporate events in Rec 709 which gives good color and fits into most applications well.  Even in Rec 709 I think the footage is too sharp and so I'm never squeamish about turning down the sharpening to taste.

If I'm shooting on cameras that take two identical memory cards, and I know I'll be able to get everything in each camera on one card per camera, I do a variation on traditional back-ups. I put in two identical cards (for the last three days each camera has had two 128 V90 SD cards in them) and set them to shoot everything identically on both cards. During the course of the event, since my client is looking for new images on a regular basis, I pull the "A" card, upload the images on it to my computer's hard drive and then upload from there to Smugmug.com and then, when the upload is complete I put the "A" card  back in the camera and re-format it for the next round of images. I do this at nearly every break and even sometimes during a long, long presentation.  Doing it this way and keeping the "A" card fresh makes uploading the next batch simpler and effectively gives me three levels of back-up: the card in the "B" slot, the hard drive in the laptop and the gallery full of full res images in the cloud. 

At the end of a job like this I pull all of the files and put them on a 64GB or larger memory stick and hand them off to the client. Once the client has the files in their hands they have two sources from which to archive; the memory stick or a gallery download from Smugmug.com. Once the client lets me know they are set I erase the files completely from the SSD drive in the laptop and, if it's a client who I know is prone to fumble files I'll make an extra backup on a memory stick to have in the drawer, just in case.

In total I generated about 4,000 photography files in three days and about 60 short (15-30 second) video files. With the lower resolution camera as the main part of the mix, and the use of Jpeg instead of raw files, the entire take fits (just) on a 64GB memory stick. The memory sticks I like to use are Sandisk USB3s and they are currently about $16 each. Not a bad delivery mechanism for bigger jobs. Not bad at all.

Someone asked me about which microphone I use at events and I wanted to reiterate that there are distinct needs and that not one single type is an "all weather" solution. One presenter on stage? Tie into the sound board or use lavaliere microphones. A quick interview in a noisy exhibition space? I'd use a reporter microphone close in to the speaker. A fast moving set of handheld camera interviews in a less noisy space? Maybe a shotgun microphone. But a shotgun is great for outdoor areas where you don't have to worry about sound anomalies caused by bounce wave interference effects. Kinda crazy but no crazier than having the exact lens for every scenario...

Second shooters? Assistants? This show had 400 attendees and was at a very nice hotel. The presentation ballroom was fifty steps from the team room where I did my downloads. Nice waiters in jackets brought coffee to me, sometimes to my shooting location. The pace was never so daunting that, even with so-so time management, I was ever overwhelmed or missed anything. 

If the show was bigger, or at a dicier venue (less security/less service), or had break out sessions concurrent with the main tent sessions, then I would definitely consider some help. But the best situation in those circumstances would be to find someone very adept at post processing and file management and to hand off the computer work to them. I know how to do it but it's boring and I'd rather be shooting or meeting with people. If the conference is so big that one needs a real (and talented) second shooter then what one really needs is a team. And then you have to decide if you are an individual artist or an administrator of subcontractors. With all the issues attached to handling people I'd rather keep it simple and turn down the jobs that require more than two of us doing the primary work. Your choices and needs may differ. If I was in poor physical shape I might need more assistance but I'm not slowing down enough to feel any different than I did in my 30's or 40's. 

I must say that, once again, I was surprised and pleased by the performance of the GH5 series cameras. Low (enough) noise and high sharpness, combined with very pleasing color, even under challenging circumstances. A nice camera system. I'm more interested still in adding a G9. We'll see what kinds of jobs are on tap for October....... my birthday is coming up....

Note from watching yesterday's Senate hearings: It's a good idea not to drink until you pass out...
hard to remember stuff clearly when one is minimally conscious/conscience.

I wanted to learn all about the new cameras coming out at Photokina but I was too busy taking photographs...


So much cool stuff has been announced lately that my brain is in acquisition overload. And yet there's a backlog of equipment I heard about last month... and last year that I found tantalizing and wished I could try out and now I'm finding it hard to change gears, abandon my enthusiasm for cameras that seemed so....just right on a few months ago, and switch my full attention to the latest shiny objects.

Here's a case in point: I've been using several Panasonic GH5 variants in my work over the past year. I love that camera line. I think both the GH5 and the GH5S are wonderful working tools, for a number of reasons, some clearly counterintuitive to many people. 

I was hired to photograph at a three day conference this week. The project was a high tech symposium that would take place mostly at one of Austin's cooler, downtown hotels. I have several camera system options available to me and I grappled for a bit between taking a couple of Nikon D800x cameras and their attendant lenses, or the two Panasonic GH5x cameras and three (or more) of the nice lenses I've put together for that system. 

It's an interesting show for an interesting, cutting edge, high technology/software company and one of the things they've always done differently than my other clients is to make immediate use of the images and video we generate, all day long. That means workflow efficiency is paramount and is a higher priority than ultimate image quality. The truth of the matter is that 99% of the imaging content I'm creating for them will be compressed and used (in some cases almost immediately) on the web in social media, or in websites. While the idea of very high resolution coupled with class leading dynamic range might seem like important qualifications and a good rationale for using the 36 megapixel Nikons those features are actually a bit of a negative for the job at hand. 

Let me lay out what we accomplished yesterday as a typical example of this kind of work and why I chose a smaller, lower resolution, not full frame system for what we needed to get done. 

Every corporate conference planner has a laundry list of images and video they'd like to get done, some locked into immutable schedules and some handled as pick up work when there are gaps in the primary agenda. We start by making lifestyle-ish photographs of attendees networking together at a sit down breakfast. Once I have a nice range of images there I move on to documenting interactive displays, signage and people engaged with demonstrations at various booths. 

The producer of the technical side of the show, a contractor for the same corporate media planner I server, approaches me and asks if I could also photograph his stage set and the interactive displays his company produced for the show. Since he is an old friend, and a constant source of (really good) referrals I am happy to try and work in as many documentation shots as I can...

I work on this kind of pre-show documentation until we are about half an hour from the start of the show. The benefit of working with a well funded corporate at a five star hotel is that one never goes hungry, you never have to eat poorly, and the coffee is ample and four or five notches above the swill that passes for coffee at lesser properties... I drink good coffee as I set up and shoot images of booths peppered with interactive screens and implementations of A.I. and machine learning. 

About half an hour before the kick off, all hands presentation in the main ball room, I head to the "team" room where I've laid claim to a tiny bit of real estate that comes complete with an electrical outlet. I pull out the new laptop, get connected to the symposium's super-fast wifi and pull the memory card out of the camera I've been using. I download the files to a sub-folder in a master folder for the event. I take a cursory look at the color and density of the files and then pull them all into their subfolder. The first sub-folder of the day is entitled: company name: day two 1st download.

I've tested downloading via a USB 3 cable from the camera, using a wifi connection or using a fast, Thunderbolt card reader and the card reader seems fastest. I probably shot 150 images on a GH5S in its ten megapixel, highest quality Jpeg mode so each image clocks in at about 5-7 megapixels.These get sucked onto the SSD drive so quickly that the transfer is done before I get a really good sip of coffee. 

I then upload them to Smugmug.com (my "cloud" supplier since 2005 or 2006) and they go into a client folder with the newest images up front and the older images constantly headed down the catalog. In this way my client has immediate access to everything we shoot and, since they are dipping into the collection and using them on all kinds of social media all day long it's most efficient for them to have the material in ascending order. The gallery is password protected but I've enabled full resolution downloading from the gallery for my clients' convenience. With a fast broadband connection I've uploaded 150 images in about as much time as it took me to write this paragraph. And I am a fast writer.

I ping the technical/marketing person who is interacting with the images to let him know there's a new batch to choose from. Then I reformat the SD card and head back out to catch the beginning of the "main tent" session. Note that the files are backed up on the second SD card in the camera (a running tally of images) as well as one the laptop and in the cloud.

I head to the main ballroom with two cameras (a GH5 and a GH5S), two lenses (12-100 and 40-150mm) and also a Benro monopod with a "chicken foot." And here's what I do throughout the day:

Each speaker on stage will present for anywhere from 25 minutes to 40 minutes. During the first part of the presentation I capture tight, medium, wide shots of the speaker engaged in the talk. I shoot a lot of frames because getting the perfect expression with the perfect composition is a gamble. I'm working the odds. And 10 megapixel files are cheap. The stage lighting is awkward because of the size and configuration of the room itself. I tried a custom white balance but even it need to be fine tuned via the cameras' hue controls.

I shoot the tight head and shoulders shots from the back of the room with the longer lens and use the shorter lens for wider shots and audience reaction shots. Once I'm pretty certain I've got nice photographs that represent the speaker well I put the GH5S on the monopod and reconfigure my settings for video. We're shooting 1080p video here because, again, it will be compressed and used on the web, mostly in social media. The GH5S is mainly talked about as a great 4K camera but I think it may be the best 1080p camera I've ever seen. The Olympus Pro 12-100 gives me good image stabilization and my technique using the monopod continues to improve; I can pull off twenty or thirty second clips that seems as though we're locked down on a good tripod. 

We do this kind of coverage for each speaker until we get to a coffee break. I hustle back to the team room and do the same download, transfer, upload to gallery routine that I outline above. I'll do this throughout the day. I check camera batteries, reformat the #1 SD card in each camera and then grab a coffee and get ready for the next volley of sessions. 

The GH5 cameras make it very easy to switch between video and stills and the EVF is helpful in isolating my eye to prevailing light so I have a fighting chance of evaluating the actual color balance I'm getting in the files. I also like the live histogram I'm getting in the bottom right hand corner. 

At the end of a long day we move on to a nightclub that the company has bought out for the evening. They're serving up delicious BBQ and there are open bars everywhere. A local band is blazing away on the first floor but there's a rooftop terrace for people who are looking for a quieter social gathering. I'm shooting basic event shots here until I feel like I'm becoming a nuisance instead of a benefit and then I pack it in and head home. Once there I'm putting batteries on the chargers, downloading the files from the last events of the evening and uploading them to the master collection on Smugmug. By the time I walk into the venue later this morning (7?) many of the images will already be circulating with their friends, the hashtags, coming along for a ride. 

So, in the midst of a month long work jag we've got Photokina spilling out new camera tech at a dizzying rate and all I can really think about is how I suddenly want to try the Panasonic G9 alongside the GH5s. I think about calling Precision Camera and having one delivered to the hotel and then I get ahold of myself and realize how beautiful the files are looking from the cameras I have in the bag with me today and I change my mind. 

I will have shot maybe 10,000 frames this month and had a camera in my hands for dozens of hours. It's actually a good remedy for gear acquisition syndrome because you really come to understand the camera you've got and you come to trust it; and by extension you come to trust that you know what you are doing when you use that cameras. I think the camera lust is at its worst when you are idle, have nothing fun to shoot and start imagining that somehow a new camera will kick start the whole process over again. It won't. You'll just have to pay for another camera. 

So, I was up at 4 am this morning to drive Ben to the airport. A business trip for my young public relations professional, to San Francisco. I'm packing up and headed back downtown. I'll get in early so I can photograph some of the exhibit displays without people in front of them. Then I'll get a great breakfast from the W Hotel and start the process I've described above all over again. 

Tomorrow is a totally different job. A different kind of project. I've already decided to use the Nikons for that for all the reasons I didn't use them today. 

Hope you had a good week. I'm heading out.

9.25.2018

"DSLRs aren't going away anytime soon..." And other fantasies. And now it's time to discuss the Panasonic announcement.

This camera, with a "normal" 50mm lens and a flash weighed in at over 6 pounds...
It was once "state-of-the-art." 

I remember my first cellphone. It was made by Motorola and it was one big brick. I can't even remember if it had a screen on it but I can remember that my monthly cellphone bill was breathtaking and that the phone was big and ungainly. It didn't send texts or allow me to read e-mail or ask Google how to chew gum but it was, at the time, "state-of-the-art." The "non" smart phone died quickly. Very quickly. And now --- we grapple with the slow fade into obscurity of the DSLR camera. Photokina was the death knell; a note heard around the world. 

Which company introduced a new, flagship, state of the art DSLR at Photokina this year? Was it Canon? Nope. Nikon? Not this time. Oh. Maybe Pentax blew everyone's doors off with the newest super mirror cam? Naw. Not even close. The one company that showed a traditional DSLR design is the one company whose medium format camera is NOT going to fly off the shelves. The sole DSLR style camera that I could find coming out of this year's Photokina (Giant German Photo Show) was the newest Leica S3 with a new 64 megapixel sensor. Not sure the photo-rabble will line up to grab the S3 as the purchase price will rival a new car. And that's before you start adding lenses....

The overwhelming focus of this year's show is mirrorless. It includes the latest Fuji APS-C, XT3 with its 26 megapixel sensor. The Nikon twins were there as was the fat and happy bourgeois mirrorless camera from Canon. And promises for many new lenses. And many pathways for using older lenses. 
But what we don't see are promises of updates to traditional mirrored models. I think it's fair to say that all the R&D emphasis for the next five years is going to be in the mirrorless space and, if you see your mirrored cameras as "investments" I'd be shorting the market right now. I don't think they've got anywhere to go but down from here. 

The amusing thing will be the disconnection in time frame between what consumers expect and what manufacturers will deliver. I said above that all the R&D will fall to the mirrorless space in the next five years but I didn't mean that DSLRs would happily motor along for the next five years and then have sales fall off a cliff. No, they are falling off a cliff now and have done so since at least 2013. That's five years ago. 

I think the fall of in popularity and sales will be a much brisker rate of decline as mirrorless cameras lean on technology to correct every single user objection to their current state. We've already seen EVFs get remarkably good. The frame rates in the new mirrorless cameras (using electronic shutters) have eclipsed the mechanical shutters in DSLRs by a factor of two. And it seems that more and more features will actively depend on raw processing power instead of mechanical components. We can comfort each other and tell each other that DSLRs have mystical powers but it's not true. 

Photographers of a certain age will continue to have soft spots in their nostalgic constructs of photography for older technology but they'll be displaced in the blink of an eye as the main market for all cameras in the near future. In a decade the only DSLRs still in use will be the ones used as props, signifying a point in time, in movies and TV shows. That doesn't mean we need to immediately give up and toss the older cameras out in the trash but you need to be prepared for a tidal shift that will make DSLRs "legacy" products, churned out in ever smaller numbers just to service the large number of lenses already in the hands of ever aging consumers. 

I wouldn't be so defiantly definite if I'd seen Nikon or Canon roll out a new full frame DSLR at the same time as their mirrorless offerings but clearly, that's not going to happen. 

So, don't I feel stupid for stocking up on Nikon stuff when I could have waited and gotten a mirrorless, full frame Panasonic instead. No, not so much. I'm playing the nostalgia game with myself while hedging my bets with the GH5 series cameras and a nice selection of lenses. I use the Nikon D800s and D700s fully aware that I'm playing with what is already starting to be considered "retro" equipment. But I still know how to use them and how to make nice portraits and art projects with them. I'm not in a rush but I'm also happy I've just been flicking small change at them instead of rushing whole hog and buying the latest lenses and a couple D850 bodies ( remind me to cancel my order for the D850....).

The camera that fell directly into my sites today was the 24 megapixel mirrorless camera from Panasonic. It's called an S1. It's a full frame camera that uses the existing Leica SL mount and  promises to deliver the perfect balance of features and performance, dancing around the shortcomings of cameras from the majors. 

I'm sure the BSI sensor will be wonderful. But that's not a hard assumption as all the 24 megapixel full frame sensors are good and have been for at least four years. But it's the little things that will make the Panasonic S1 a camera I'll covet. It's specs call for impressive video performance that's still a step ahead of everyone else's. They've spanked Canon (hard) by having image stabilization in the body and a dual I.S. system that also leverages I.S. in lenses to make a hard-to-compete-with performance metric that other products, even those just announced, will not come close to matching. The only close competitor to overall I.S. performance will be their own m4:3 cameras and the latest cameras from Olympus. Win, win, win. 

Then Panasonic turned around and just embarrassed the crap out of Nikon by delivering (or promising to deliver) two card slots. One slot uses the robust and super fast QXD cards while the other slot uses UHS2 SD cards (which include V90 cards that are already capable of 400 mbs recording IN CAMERA!!!). All the nervous Nancies can use the second slot for back ups while I use one slot for stills and one slot for video. (Finally decided on a justifiable reason for the dual card existence --- but I would have also accepted one card for Raws and one card for Jpegs). 

If you are a perfectionist the agreement between Leica and Panasonic means you can spend as much money as you want seeking that perfection in the Leica lens line. If you just want to make great photographs it seems that the Panasonic lens line will be affordable (a relative measure). And then Sigma is signed on to develop for the lens mount as well which adds another high quality option for great lenses. 

In my estimation, if Panasonic really does deliver on all the stuff they've introduced at Photokina then they will be a powerful contender in the new mirrorless zone. They are strutting into the coliseum with deep pockets of cash, some great technology, a sterling reputation for delivering great video performance and an equally great reputation for reliability. It's actually early times for full frame mirrorless and there's a distinct possibility that the video+still hybridism might really be the next innovative and desired camera space. If so, Panasonic and Sony have a head start and there's no reason to believe that Panasonic can't be number three in this fairly new space. 

I'm holding on to the old Nikon stuff for the moment. I can't just sell it off and replace it with suggested delivery dates from Panasonic. But I don't have that much invested in the system and I'll be happy just to dig into my pocket and put some seed money into my new Panasonic FF system while keeping the GH5s around as a smaller, lighter choice. 

I can't imagine we'll see much more from Nikon in the traditional full frame space; with one exception. They will deliver a full frame super sport camera (a D6) in time for the 2020 Olympics. But it be astronomically priced and will represent the final bow, bringing down the curtain on 60 years of DSLR development from them. 

It will be interesting to see it all fall out. Canon will hang in at the top of the mix in the short term by sheer power of overwhelming market share; at least for a while. Right now it's Sony's game to lose. They need to up their body design game to confront more mature and more usable designs from their competitors. Panasonic may become the new workhorse brand for professionals and may even ditch most of their amateur/consumer camera products to concentrate solely on making professional tools. It could be an interesting market niche and, with a growing world market (with growing income), the potential is there for a bigger pie. I think they've got their eyes on that. 

Of course, I could be totally wrong. But I've called a number of trends pretty well since my 2009 embrace of EVFs, mirrorless, and my prediction of the market decline in an article I wrote in Fall of 2013. I know this, the pros coming into the field now and next year will be shooting with decidedly different blends of cameras than we are using right now. 






OT: Today's swim. Trying to keep up with Bruce.

On the street in Paris.
Leica M3. 50mm Summicron

Okay, so right now I'm sitting in the comfy waiting area at First Texas Honda getting my car's oil changed, tires rotated and brakes re-done. I can't wait to write the check for $598. I'm kind of kidding but the car has been like a great horse for me; never throws me, never sick and always reliable. I figure routine maintenance is the hedge against standing alongside the highway waiting for a tow truck...

As I sit here I'm getting work done. I just wrote a piece describing what I'll be (casually and informally) teaching during my nine days in Iceland (we're about a month out). I wrote an equipment recommendation list as well. Too bad the full frame Panasonic cameras won't be ready by then; I'm sure they'll take the world by storm. 

But what I really want to write about today is this morning's swim practice. I got up early this morning, brushed my teeth, kissed Studio Dog on the top of her head, and headed out the door at 6:45 to make the early swim practice at 7:00. It was still dark when we filtered out of the locker room and made our way to the pool deck. And since it's been raining a lot lately the water was cooler than it has been. 

We call the early Tuesday and Thursday workouts the "varsity" workouts because it's when a lot of the hardcore swimmers on our masters team come to really plow through fast and competitive yardage under the watchful eyes of the somewhat scary coach, Chris. 

The attendance started out a bit light and for a while I actually had my own lane. The warmup was a Chris classic: 400 freestyle. That's it. When the 400 yards are over you know the hard stuff is just around the corner. We started with a set of "sprint-y" 300 yard swims. 3 x 300 on an interval that, if you swim them fast enough, gives you about a ten second rest in between sets. I've been working on my head position lately, trying to keep my head more in line with my body. It's starting to feel more natural and it is improving my freestyle pace. 

I was about to start the next set when I looked over and saw all the fast lanes had filled up with fast swimmers who'd straggled in during the warm-up. Bruce D. joined me and in a flash I no longer had a lane to myself, I'd just inherited one of the fastest masters swimmers in my age cohort, anywhere. Bruce was an All American at prestige swimming school (especially in the early 1970's), Indiana University, where he swam for the legendary coach, "Doc" Councilman (author of "The Science of Swimming.").  Bruce missed making the 1972 Olympic team in distance events by something like a tenth of a second. He's never slowed down but decided, today, to come down to my lane and "hold me accountable." His quote, not mine.

Our next set was 3 x 150 yards on a tight interval followed by 3 x 50 kicking. We cycled through this set four times for a total of 1800 yards. I put on hand paddles and went as hard as I could and even then it was an exercise in watching Bruce just continue to pull away and leave me in the proverbial dust (we really don't have dust in the pool).  After that set we did a final set of 8 x 50's, swimming down freestyle and back in our choice of alternate strokes. Bruce let me/insisted I go first on this set but he (benevolently) spotted me  :20 seconds lead so he wouldn't end up catching me at the end of each 50. 

It was hard work and I was out of breath by the end of the workout. We went for an hour and fifteen minutes, straight through, and nailed down something like nearly 3,500 yards. It's an interesting way to start a day... And it sure makes you hungry for breakfast. Swimming a workout with someone much faster is a good way to improve; at some point you just get tired of being left behind...

I sometimes wonder why I swim as often as I can but then the pants I wore in college still fit, my resting pulse rate is usually around 50, and my blood pressure is generally in the range of 115/65. I attribute this to consistent and challenging aerobic exercise. It's all helpful when you need to hold a camera for hours on end and still have the energy left to take a few flights of stairs two at a time.

Wouldn't you know it. The Honda people sent me a text (hey! dude! I'm sitting right here!) and let me know my car is ready. Ah well, it's an end to the free coffee and power bars. I was just getting settled in. 


9.24.2018

Blog news.

I got annoyed having to click the boxes with ostriches in them in order to leave even my own comments on the blog. I finally had enough and turned that off. I hope I don't get spammed but I'm weary of being subjected to too many barriers to the comments. Have fun. I'll still moderate.

Please, no Asian brides or low cost clipping path ads!

Added on Saturday the 29th:

And just as soon as I turned off the word verification for the blog it got inundated with spam and crap. So, all bets are off. We're back to word verification because the one thing I don't have time for is to wade through spam.

Sorry for the inconvenience. Blame all the assholes on the web...

Another look at photographs from the GH5S. Just looking at color and tone today. Also, a nod to the Sigma 30mm f1.4 Contemporary lens.








Very pleased with the new laptop. Ready for the fast pace of our corporate job this week.


Statuary in Dresden, Germany.
Samsung Galaxy NX camera.

It was a zoo at the Apple store on Friday when I went to pick up the new MacBook Pro I ordered online. I chose, inadvertantly, to pick up my computer from the neighborhood Apple store on the very day that Apple's new phones were released to all the people who pre-ordered them. I don't know what Apple's initial sales numbers on the phones are but the traffic was enough to crash their fulfillment servers across North America.

Laptop computers fulfill three functions for me. I don't use them to do heavy post process "lifting" for either photographs or video, instead I use them: In my favorite chair in order to read stuff on the NYT, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal websites, as well as my favorite blog sites. I use laptops when I am on location for clients who require tethered shooting or super fast (on site) turnaround of files. Finally, I seem to buy a new laptop every time I start on a book project. The gap between my previous machine and this one was almost seven years; years in which I did not start any new book projects.

My main impetus for buying a new machine right at this moment was the project I'll be working on this Weds., Thurs., and Friday. I have a need to shoot photos and videos throughout the three days while quickly uploading selections for concurrent display across a range of social media sites for my client. I did the same thing for the same client last year and the narrow point of the funnel was, inevitably, the speed of my laptop. I decided, this year, that life is too short to wait around for older processors and tired hard drives to do their work....

Dresden, Germany

The new machine uses an 8th generation processor, an SSD drive and the memory is twice as big and also much faster. The one downside of the model I chose is that there are only two USB-3/Thunderbolt ports. I bought a dongle which gives me back three USB3 ports as well as an SD card reader and that's just about all I need for the machine. At some point in the future I'll buy an adapter that will allow me to connect an HDMI cable for those times when I need to connect to a large screen TV for a presentation. I may actually have a USB3 to HDMI adapter sitting around anyway.....

The machine delights me most when I go to start it up and it only takes seconds instead of minutes. Seems like magic to me. I am now dragging out some of the SSDs I bought for the Atomos Ninja Flame to use as externals. Solid State is fun.

To those who conjecture that I could have saved a fortune if I'd only been willing to abandon Apple I have to look at the numbers. Seems to me I might have saved money on hardware but spent it back replacing software. Even so I might have been able to save $150 by buying a much uglier machine but since I seem to keep them for up to seven years we'd really only be talking about $10.20 per year in savings and you have to take into consideration that I'd have to look at it everyday during those seven years. Aesthetics does count for something or I've terribly misjudged the potential of what photographers do for a living. 

Next up we'll work on replacing the desktop but that's not going to happen until 2019. Can't shove all the fun into one year....

9.23.2018

It's been an interesting year for me as a working photographer and blogger...

Is photography still cool?

 I guess I'm finally experiencing what normal people live with all the time. That there are limits to our time and attention spans. That we run out of enthusiasm for writing exactly what readers want to read all the time (mostly about gear while protesting that no one writes about actual photographs -- you are welcome to comment on any image I post here, honest). I read other blogs just like the rest of my photographer friends and lately I'm struck with just how much (un)nuanced duplication there is on all the photography sites and how little of it is relevant to anything other than the sale of new cameras. 

It's getting to the point where I'm even excited if MJ at TheOnlinePhotographer.com writes about playing pool or trimming his trees. Anything but another article about how much better Fuji's AF has gotten or how people almost are ready to like the color coming out of Sony cameras. Then there is the pervasive "Oh My God, Only One Slot" drama. And the "Is Every Format But Full Frame Doomed?" threads....

I'm guessing some of my current ennui for writing about photography is a result of life burnout. My mom passed away in late December last and I've been taking care of her estate, and my father, ever since. Couple that with the lingering expenses of my kid's last semester of college and I have to be honest, the first half of this year just sucked. It sucked a lot. If you are a reader of VSL I would ask that you cut me some slack and skip over some of the stuff you don't like. 

I'm not bitter but might become so if people keep telling me that something I write sounds bitter (it's probably just a bit of truthfulness that no one wants to hear). I've never yelled at kids to get off my lawn. I don't pine for the "golden days" of photography. I am not a Canon, Sony, Pentax, etc. hater. I am not a (fill in the brand blank) fan boy. I'm just a photographer trying to make a living in an ever changing market while using my off time to play around with photos and written material, and to share my observations on a blog. 

I'm not making money here and have nothing to sell besides the (very) occasional workshop or a (rare) link to a product I think is really cool, even if I didn't invent it. 

I like Chelsea and Tony Northrup's content even if I think their well done YouTube site is more like a shopping mall than a photo school. I like TheOnlinePhotography blog even when Michael Johnston goes way off subject and shares too much. I like Tom Hogan's byThom.com and Sansmirror.com sites because ---- well, he's smart, writes well and writes about things that interest me. I think most of DPReview is a messy waste of time driven largely by ill-informed poseurs and a greedy parent company. I am probably a lot (a lot!!!) more liberal than most of you thought, even though we don't discuss politics here. 

But the bottom line is that we're probably going to disagree about things like the usefulness of GPS from time to time, and I might be snarky about it but.....but you have to take into consideration that the snark that tweaks you is likely only in three or four blog posts out of 3,807 other posts. So, dial back the vituperative sense of umbrage and try to take my few and mostly minor rants in stride. Or just shove off and read something else. I'm sure there's someone out there who will write exactly what you want to hear all the time. But what fun would that be?