©2018 Kirk Tuck.
Love being home for the week. I got to do two wonderful shoots at Zach Theatre and I just finished my third consecutive swim practice this week. About as close to perfect as I can ask for....
Scene from "A Christmas Carol" at Zach Theatre.
I photographed the image above with a Panasonic G9 and the 40/150mm f2.8. But what equipment I used is immaterial; the real question is: Why did I shoot this frame and what attracts me to it? This is a scene in which the Ghost of the future shows Scrooge Bob Cratchit going to visit his deceased son, Tiny Tim, in a cemetery. I was visually attracted to the way the lighting designer used spots to rake the side of the "angel" stature behind Cratchit. The scene is lit in a very monochromatic fashion and it adds to the feeling of sadness and gloom. One part that I particularly like is the bright light hitting the bottom right of the statue's pedestal and creating a hard contrast with the front of Cratchit's coat and face. My first inclination was to use a shot taken a fraction of a second earlier with Cratchit more or less centered in front of the pedestal but this frame, and it's off balance timing and geometry seemed to have more energy. That Cratchit is hunched over, carrying a heavy emotional burden, adds to the overall effect of the scene. In a final print I might tone down the two brighter, warmer spots on the floor at the bottom of the frame but only because I know other people will like that better....
So, after a hectic schedule last week I was delighted to be home this week. I've been shooting local stuff and doing lots of post processing but since my studio is ten steps from my house it's actually fun and low stress. I spent this morning post processing my take from last night's dress rehearsal of "A Christmas Carol." Belinda and I headed over last night to see the play, see theater friends and for me to photograph the show. For last night's foray it was Panasonic/Olympus all the way. We left with nearly 2,000 frames and I was very proud of myself to have whittled it all down to about 600 frames before I left the office for the noon swim practice today. I left Lightroom humming along, processing the images so I'd have a folder to upload when I got back.
Swim practice was great. Yesterday there was an issue with the water heaters and the temperature in the pool was about 76. Perfect for a competitive race but too cold for a routine master's workout. Today the pool was back in peak shape and the water was a luxurious 82 degrees, Fahrenheit. It's pretty amazing that the staff at the club is almost always able to keep the water temperature in a tight range since the pool is an outdoor pool and the weather in Austin can be all over the map during the course of twenty four hours.
I swam in a lane with restauranteur, Emmett Fox, and I did a quick glance around the pool and saw (gold medalist) Olympian, Tommy Hannan at our practice, in lane seven. Olympian (multiple gold medalist and former world record holder), Ian Crocker was finishing up coaching the kids club that practiced right before us. Pretty amazing to have two medal winning/record setting butterfly swimmers at one noon practice in a dinky little athletic club in west Austin, but there it is....
We started with a 500 yard warm up, and then got into a set of 3x200's that were half fast freestyle and half individual medley. We followed that set with four 150's within which we were supposed to descend (get faster) by each 50. We spent the rest of the workout alternating between sets of 50 yard sprints and sets of middle distance, 200 yard swims. The workout is just an hour but we managed to get in about 3200 yards.
Back at the office I uploaded my finished files to Zach Theatre and got back to the task of organizing my files for my big October/November client. I wanted to make sure I had the raw material backed up across three hard drives and also resident on a memory stick. Most of the images have been converted from raw to good sized Jpegs and uploaded to galleries on Smugmug.com; both for safekeeping/additional back-up, and also to share with the client's marcom team in order for them to make final selections for retouching. Still, with a big client and numerous jobs in process, I always feel better with a certain amount of file back-up overkill.
Roderick Sanford as "The Ghost of Bob Marley."
I have been amused by some comments I've gotten when I write about out-of-town trips. Several people have given me restaurant recommendations in various cities where I'll be touching down. Ah, they must be remembering the "good old days" of advertising photography when we were all staying in five star hotels and wrapped up each shoot around 4 pm in the afternoon so we didn't get stuck in rush hour traffic as we headed back to our concierge level hotel rooms to tidy up before ringing up the car service to take us out to dinner. All billed to the client's account. There seems to be a clinging mythology from then; that we still hew to a normal work day schedule on the road.
Sorry to burst bubbles but at least in my business we tend to be constantly on the move with multiple location projects. And most of the time we may be "flying in" to a nice, big city but it's because that's where the airline's hub is. The normal reality is that our flight arrives from Austin and I rush to some other, distant terminal to catch the second leg of my flight and do so within a window of about 55 minutes to an hour, from touch down to take off. I'm lucky if the line at the airport Starbucks isn't too long so I can grab a coffee and maybe even a sandwich to toss down in flight.
On an upcoming shoot day I'll fly out of Austin at 5:31 a.m. which means I'll be at the airport around 4:31 a.m. to ensure the checked luggage (lights, stands, winter wear) makes it onto the flight. We hit Charlotte at 8:59 where I wait impatiently for the same luggage and then find the little bus to the rental car "plaza." Where I'll wait impatiently while the person in front of me has tremendous difficulty deciding on just which car he or she might like to rent. That'll be the same person who is renting for the first time and would like all of the words on the rental contract explained to them before they move on.
Once I've got the rental car and I've got the location programmed into the phone I've got a two hour, fifty six minute drive to reach my destination; a rural, unincorporated township that just happens to be next to a remote infrastructure project. If it's like the town in Texas there will be one very old gas station as the sole business in town. And yes, that's where you can get the frozen burrito and microwave it for lunch. We'll shoot for two hours (if everyone shows up on time) and then I'll turn around and drive back to the Charlotte airport and head from there to a smaller airport in Indiana and, while flying, I'll pray that the rental car facility there stays open long enough to get me a car. Which I'll use to find my motel/hotel and check in around midnight. Food? There might be some fast food still open somewhere near the big highway but I have no idea how far I'll be from the big highway.....
So, when you suggest I might like this little French bistro just north of Charlotte I laugh and cry a little bit and wonder what the other photographers do. Me? I've learned to pack Power Bars and to buy bottled water whenever I land (remember, it doesn't go in through TSA) and occasionally treat myself to a Snickers bar for a decadent dessert.
My mission is to get to where I need to be, get the shots and get to the next destination. I won't be site seeing.
But for now I'm relaxing in Austin. Getting some swims in every day. Walking through downtown with new Fuji cameras and then banging on the keyboard to post process a backlog of files. Tomorrow I'm taking the whole day off. No work. No blog. No phone. No travel. Sounds like a vacation......
Coming in the next few days. The decisive competition between the Fuji X-T3 and the Panasonic. G9. Real world comparison. A winner announced.
I shot my last last five assignments with a Fuji X-T3 and I photographed a bunch of assignments before that with my Panasonic G9; including 9 days in Iceland. This week I photographed two different rehearsals of Zach Theatre's "A Christmas Carol" using one camera system for each performance. I'm examining over 2,000 files shot at ISO800 to 3200 from the G9 tomorrow. I'll compare them with the 1200+ files I shot with the Fuji on Sunday. Same lighting. Same actors. Same costumes. Just different cameras. Then I'll tell you which camera has the best operating characteristics and the best images overall (for me). Stay tuned. My assessment is coming right after Thanksgiving Day.
Just got my shooting itinerary and travel reservations from my infrastructure client. I'll be traveling the first three days of next week; pretty much non-stop. Yikes.
I'm starting to turn down work in December. I'm planning on enjoying a lazy holiday season of dinners with friends and family and lots and lots of swimming. Oh, and some photography just for myself...
Thankfully, I am here all week long for Thanksgiving!
Scene with "Scrooge" and the "Ghost of Marley" from Zach Theatre's
Technical rehearsal of "A Christmas Carol."
In my new zest to try out the Fuji cameras (X-T3 and X-E3) I took both of them to the technical rehearsal at Zach Theatre Sunday evening. The cast of "A Christmas Carol" was doing a run through of the entire performance, in full costume, and I always like to come and do a "pre-shoot" or scouting adventure before the dress rehearsals on Tuesdays. Doing this shows me the blocking and lighting and gives me ample opportunity to move around and get images from any angle I want. I don't have to step over audience members on Sunday nights because there are none.
I tend to take cameras I am testing, or breaking in, to the tech rehearsals; that way, if I screw up or get stumped by a shy menu item, I still have the actual dress rehearsal in which to get all the images buttoned down and correct.
I packed the two cameras and the small selection of lenses I've accumulated thus far: 18-55mm, 50mm f2.0, and the 55-200mm. I brought along extra batteries, a couple extra SD cards and my best, well worn, black cotton baseball cap; the one I bought at the Gap twenty three years ago... to cover my bright head of hair...
So, here is the first conundrum of the evening:
I presumed that when set to the same menu settings the cameras would generate files that look identical (with the exception of actual resolution). I was expecting to see the same color palette and overall tonality on the rear LCD of both cameras but it didn't turn out that way. With both cameras set to "Provia/Standard" and all the fine-tuning controls zero'd out the images on the rear LCD and EVF of the XT-3 were lower in contrast, showed more detail in the shadows, and had very good color.
The images on the screens of the X-E3 were much contrastier, with the shadows blocking up very quickly and color also looking compressed. As with any active experiment I kept shooting and going back and forth between cameras. At intermission I changed lenses, using the lens from the other camera and vice versa. My first thought was that the difference was probably in the preview and would probably be more similar once I pulled all the files up on my studio computer. Perhaps, I thought, the lower res of the screens on the cheaper camera were causing the disconnect.
When I got back to the studio and dug into the files in Lightroom I saw a difference between the two cameras' files but it wasn't as drastic as it appeared in the field. The X-E3 seems to create a snappier and more saturated file with less information in the shadows. I've gone through and checked every parameter looking for something that would cause the differentiation but I've come up empty handed and with no other overarching theory to explain it. If you are a Fuji expert and have any ideas I'd love to hear them.
Here are a few other things I discovered in my test shooting:
Both cameras are quick to focus on things that fall in the center of the frame (actually a big target area) as that's where all the groovy phase detection AF points reside. Fine with me as that matches the way I usually set stuff.
The 55-200mm zoom is pretty impressive at most of the shorter focal lengths; it only starts to lose a bit of sharpness (fine hairs and threads) at focal lengths above about 150mm. This isn't distressing at all since the files are still very nice and it's actually a good performance considering that I was shooting mostly at the widest aperture... And, please remember that these are results when using the camera at 1600-6400 ISO, which could be part of the equation.
The choice of review settings in both cameras is a bit coarse. You can review your images for what seems like a micro-second, or 1.5 seconds, or continuously. I'd prefer a 3 or 5 second set time preview that automatically cancels when you touch the shutter button.
The files from the E-X3 were sharp and contrasty but responded well to the use of the shadow and highlight sliders in Lightroom. The images were much nicer on the studio monitor than in the camera review but interestingly I never previously noticed the same overall performance when I shot the camera outdoors during the days before. I'm still toying around with it and it just dawned on me that I might need to set the controls on the EVF differently... Again, if you've had experience with this, chime in.
The 50mm f2.0 is certainly sharp enough to use wide open and then gets better and better as you head toward f5.6. The character of the lens is really attractive. So much so that I'm also buying the 35mm f2.0 as a complement for it.
The previews and review in camera for the X-T3 looked flatter in both the LCD and the EVF. Sometimes it almost looked like I had F-Log engaged (I did not). But when I pulled those files into Lightroom they seemed perfectly normal; more or less what I expected.
I also used this opportunity to see how the X-T3 worked at various ISO settings. I'm here to report that files at ISO 800 and below are perfect. No discernible noise and no weird artifacts. Even the handful of raw files I shot to potentially help with some difficult mixed lighting situations opened nicely and without any of the ill effects I've heard about in rants about the Adobe/Fuji processor mismatch.
A lot of the background on the stage goes to black in this show and it's an opportunity to see how well the cameras handled noise. At 100 % viewing and at 1600 ISO I just started to see small white and colored dots in the black areas of the frames. I made a quick attempt to quell them with the noise reduction controls in Lightroom but the total removal of the tiny spots caused the sharpness to degrade a bit more than I would have liked. Shooting at 3200 and 6400 ISO with the X-T3 gave me a bit more noise in black areas but in brighter scenes and in bright areas in darker scenes the noise was well controlled. Trying to shoot into jet black is a challenge for most cameras and I think the Fuji performed a bit better than my Nikon D800e or D810. Also, when used in Jpeg mode the camera does a much better job at noise remediation than I do with raw files.
I tended to use my faster lens on the smaller camera so I didn't do the same range of ISO testing with that one. I'll try it again in the near future.
I'm happy the cameras both use the same batteries because you'll go through them if you engage the high performance setting in power management menu. I got through the entire show with one battery in the X-E3 but the bigger camera with a higher res sensor and a higher res EVF seems to be a bit more power hungry. I made it 3/4 of the way through the production before I was down to one or two bars of battery strength indicator and I chose a safe moment to change the battery out. I didn't want to keep going on a largely depleted battery and have the camera shut down just when the cast comes together in a group pose at the end of a musical number.
You can gnash your teeth and bitch about the battery life but if you like using the camera you could just buy the battery grip and add two more batteries to the mix for a total of three. That should work for just about any daylong job ----- unless you get the urge to shoot 4K video. If you do that I think you'll get about three total hours of recording time before you've exhausted all three.
I just carry a good supply in the camera bag and change them when they need changing. I'd rather spend my camera money on lenses than accessory grips. Chalk up a big plus for Panasonic G9 and GH5 batteries --- they run circles around the Fujis...
The overall handling of the cameras and lenses was good. Not sure if I'd want the X-E3 as my primary shooting camera (button ergonomics, zany touch screen swiping that I'm having trouble figuring out) but it's a nice, casual shooter and an effective back up camera. My advice? Keep your X-T3 healthy. Or buy two of them instead. If I like the system well enough I probably will.
We shoot the dress rehearsal tomorrow and I'm going to switch gears and go back to the G9 cameras. There's so much I already like about them. Tomorrow I'll shoot them in the raw file mode and see if I can squeeze them through post processing with enough competence to get close to matching the output of the better Fuji files. It should be an interesting experiment. Same show, same lighting and actors, just different cameras and lenses. May the best camera win.
I shot 1,500 files with the two Fujis last night and edited down to about 750 files that cover the entire show. I shoot lots of variations because I'm trying to play the odds and get images where most of the actors have their eyes open coupled with an appropriate expression on their faces. You might be Superman with your camera and get every scene squared away in just five or six shots. I'm just human and can't quite seem to watch ten or twenty actors' expressions and eyes, through an EVF, all at the same time. I work on overall scene composition and then play the odds to get enough frames to get some good ones.
Then it comes down to choice. I deliver a large number of photographs because I may have a different perspective or point of view than my client(s). I'll let them decide which expressions best sell the production instead of being maniacal about just giving them a bare minimum edit. Some clients like it and some don't. But it's better to have a couple hundred too many photographs than to fail to deliver a useable one in every scene.
But how was the performance? Not of the camera and lenses but of the play? In short, this is my favorite play of the year at Zach Theatre. It's not your mom and dad's Christmas Carol because it incorporates Broadway quality lighting, staging, acting and sound. It also gets light-hearted in places with great contemporary music and songs. Along with some pretty incredible, and fun, choreography. It's more a musical than a traditional holiday play and that makes the whole thing absolutely fun. I love the message of hope, joy and redemption and I love some of the incredible ballads. Love the use of "Halo" as a pivotal song in the production! Director, Abe Reybold, just absolutely knocked this production out of the ballpark. It's the Leica M series of Christmas entertainment. (the M4 of holiday plays. With a dual range 50mm Summicron).
I look forward to seeing it again tomorrow and I'll probably go back whenever I need an emotional/mental health recharge during the holidays. I can't help but feeling great when the curtain comes down. But that's what a good theatre production should do for you. Come to Austin, buy a ticket and see how a show is done when it's absolutely perfect.
The Fujis are not perfect but are very, very good and imminently usable for professional work. Even mine. Full frame? Who cares?
Kamlan in the studio. f2.8
Fuji XF 50mm f2.0.
Kamlan. Love the choice of manual focus indicator options in the X-E3.
Kamlan. Not altogether sharp but loving the background...
Kamlan+X-E3 at f4.0. Acros setting.
I was down in San Antonio a week ago visiting my Dad in his memory care facility before heading off on my various jobs. I made it back in time late Wednesday to go down again on Thursday, with Belinda, to celebrate Thanksgiving with him a week early (the facility pulls out all the stops and does a nice family lunch with turkey, all the trimmings, four different kinds of pie and wine for family members (and those for whom it is not contraindicated...). The facility is in the middle of our old neighborhood and is incredibly good. I was back there today for lunch with the old man. I also had him sign holiday cards to send to my brother, sister and their kids. It's a three hour drive, roundtrip, and the actual drive can be a bit off-putting after a week of endless travel, but a guy is only 90+ years old once in his life and I don't want to miss even a week of it. I'm thankful for two things: One is that my dad can afford the best care available and, two, there is not a week that goes by where I would feel that he and I didn't part on a high note... We're both hanging in there for now and he's seems content.
I regaled you earlier with my crazy work schedule and the (short term) loss of my phone last week so I'm not going to re-hash that but I am going to quickly discuss why I'm in advanced flirtation with the Fuji system at the moment.
With all the advancements for video in the X-T3 they finally crested the hump into total hybrid usability. The video rivals the GH5 and almost pulls even with the GH5S but it does so with a different visual personality. You can have analytic or romantic based on the system you choose to use. I have yet to do more than shoot some cursory comparison footage (antiquated terminology..."footage") and quickly compare in Final Cut Pro but each has its strengths. I find the GH5S footage to be more accurate and the camera to be better set up for video (menus, buttons, peripherals, connection points) but I do like the softer flesh tones and perhaps more tonally nuanced files of the Fuji.
But the reason I bought the first Fuji camera a few weeks ago was to see if there would be much improvement over the m4:3 cameras in photographic portraits. There is a longer tonal range in the X-T3 which also translates to a bit more dynamic range. Plus, I like the colors better than the files from the D800e or the G9. The G9 is a close contender but the X-T3 is just better. I'm not seeing a huge difference in overall sharpness or total resolution but I chalked that up to a difference in the quality of the lenses I'm using between the two systems. The 40-150mm f2.8 Olympus Pro, even when used wide open, is tough to beat. While the Fuji 55-200mm f3.5-4.8 is a decent lens (actually a good performer, one stop down) the Olympus is exemplary and goes a long way, where resolution and sharpness are concerned, toward ameliorating the differences between formats. The APS-C format will have a different de-focus ramping and there's nothing that really changes that vis-a-vis lenses.
No, where I really wanted to test was in the realm of portraiture and so far I'm finding much that Fuji fans say to be true. The Jpeg files are very, very nice and the raw files are very malleable. There's just a bit more safety margin for shooting error in the bigger format. With the latest update to Lightroom (8.0) I don't see any quality difference between Nikon, Panasonic and Fuji file processing...
The fun camera for me though is the E-X3. I warmed up to it quickly. With the little 50mm f2.0 on the front it reminds me a lot of one of my favorite older film cameras, the Leica CL. The Leica CL was kitted for a while with two lenses. One was a 40mm f2.0 Summicron which was one of the best lenses I ever shot in the Leica system (and I shot a lot of different lenses!), and the little 90mm f4.0 was plenty good as well. The size, shape and output of the XF 50mm f2.0 reminds me of those lenses and the very early results I've gotten with the lens have me considering the 23mm and 35mm versions as well. I just wish there was also a 60 or 70mm f2.0 in the same style because I'd order that one so fast it would be here before I finished the transaction.
The E-X3 uses the same sensor and processor that Fuji had in the X-T2 and according to all sources it's pretty darn good. It comes in a 24 megapixel resolution and eschews the AA filter so it's plenty detailed but also presents Jpegs with the pleasing palette of the other cameras in the system. The camera is small, exceptionally light and not much of a burden to carry pretty much everywhere. (The nemesis of all the Fuji's appears to be the tiny batteries and limited charge endurance..).
It's also a good fit with the 18-55mm lens, which I also like a lot.
But here's the bottom line at the VSL headquarters: There's no real brand loyalty left here. I can find something compelling about nearly every system out there in the wild. Now that I no longer have to pay for the kid's college (and he is happily and well employed) I have a new game plan for gear --- buy whatever I want.
My plan right now is to use the Panasonics for video, the Fujis for portraits and ad/commercial work and then add in a Fuji medium format camera and portrait lens as the premium spread. I can't see much advantage to the older, mirror-driven, full frame cameras so they are all headed for the trade-in department at my local camera store. Part of my relentless downsizing; which happens in fits and starts.
Yeah, I guess I'm having a hard time being "just" a two system guy but I feel well enough established in my industry to use whatever I like. My clients never suggest systems, formats or other parameters, they do ask me to do my "style."
I'm no longer worried about what something may cost because I'm comfortable with the almost certain knowledge that I'll be able to pay for whatever I buy with projects for clients using that same gear. I no longer feel financially responsible for anyone else and my financial advisors tell me I've planned well and invested well (never in my own industry!!!).
If you want to stick a toe in the Fuji world my friends who've been shooting it for a while suggest either the X-E3 or the XT-20 as starter cameras. Toss in an 18-55mm and you've got a nice upgrade from point and shoot cameras and access to the same sensor and color "science" (I'd say it's more of an art...) as the bigger and more expensive cameras from Fuji.
Knowing my buying patterns as soon as I get comfortable with the Fuji system I'll be snapping up various lenses that most people agree are exceptional. I have my eyes on the 60mm macro next but I'm taking suggestions from the cognoscenti. Weigh in. Have a great Sunday. I'm off to photograph a dress rehearsal. Now, which cameras should I take???
As you are probably aware I am a working commercial photographer and am somewhat old school in some of my business philosophies. One that I can't (or won't) shake is the belief that every pro on assignment should carry back up equipment, in case of gear failure. Since most people are using multiple zoom lenses these days there is generally enough overlap to cover one in a focal length emergency. But, when a camera bits the dust, there's not much you can do with a bag of nice lenses. While I've rarely had a digital camera fail on its own I have had an accident or two which rendered a camera inoperative. And I firmly believe that the photo gods would quickly punish my hubris were I to attempt heading out for even the simplest job without a back up camera in the mix.
That's why I have two Panasonic G9s, two GH5s, and now two Fuji cameras. The Fujis are not identical models but they are still in a probationary period as I fully assess the one competitive system I've passed by for well over a decade.
I've had good results from the projects on which I've shot the X-T3 and associated Fuji lenses. So much so that I decided I'd bring them along exclusively when I hit the road again to continue photographing for the infrastructure company in various state-s outside Texas. As much as I'm liking the X-T3 I'm not ready to bend my hard and fast rules about back up cameras so I headed to my local bricks and mortar camera store to grab a camera that would provide a reasonably good back up. After a bit of research and the prodding of a sale in progress I settled on the compact, rangefinder styled E-X3. And since there was/is a sale in progress I also picked up the well reviewed 50mm f2.0 XF lens to add some additional depth of field control to my portrait lens options. I love the look and feel of the 50mm and I'm coming to grips with the smaller camera. It trades off some handling speed an dedicated buttons for more things controlled by touch screen but so far it's logical and quick.
I'll have more to say about the X-E3 once I've had a chance to use it extensively. Sorry, no shallow "hands on preview," "first impressions review." "unpacking video" or any other video or blog in which I go through the buttons one by one and tell you what I think they might do.... You can go elsewhere for that. I paid with a check for the camera and lens so I don't think you can really call them "review copies." By way of a disclaimer: I'm nobody to Fuji, have never approached them about doing a review or borrowing their gear, and no one is paying me to write this. Finally, there's not even a link here to refer you to a gear seller who will send me a commission for my referral. So there!
At any rate, as I was gathering up my packages and getting ready to head home for the ritual battery charging ceremony where we burn sage and try to scare away the demons of lithium battery failure, I stopped by the used Fuji equipment case to see what might be in there with my name on it. I was immediately drawn to a very zany lens. It's a Chinese made 50mm f1.1 lens made for cropped frame cameras. It's available from multiple suppliers online and the one I bought is marketed with the name, Kamlan. It's all metal and glass and nicely dense and compact. I added it to my planned purchases and thought I'd test it on the same two days on which I planned to walk around shooting and getting used to the X-E3.
I'm now able to make good photos with the camera and I spent an hour or so over the last two days walking through Austin and making photos. alternately, with each lens. Here's a group of samples from the Kamlan. Most were shot wide open or, at most, one stop down. Click on them to make them bigger.
I started my week of photography in a coat and tie for the Zach Theatre, Terence McNally event and ended up on Thursday evening back in a coat and tie at the Texas Appleseed, Good Apple Awards at the Four Seasons Hotel. In between I was near Sacramento, California photographing experts in fire hazard remediation and wildfire prevention and then ankle deep in mud out in the middle of nowhere in North Texas photographing engineers and construction people at a project to build a new lake from scratch. From coat and tie to steel-toed boots, a hard hat and a weathered sweatshirt. Photography can be a multi-wardrobe adventure.
The Terence McNally event was a blast. The high point for me was when McNally (and, by extension the audience) was serenaded by the amazing Christy Altomare, who is currently starring in the role of Anastasia in the Broadway musical by the same name.
Also on stage were Richard Thomas (Waltons, The Humans, and Tell Me Your Secrets), Chita Rivera (anything that ever hit Broadway, including one of the original leads in West Side Story), Lauren Lane, Michael Learned, John Glover and many others. Recently I've been shooting the stage work with the Panasonic GH5 and G9 cameras but I thought I would give the Fuji camera a try so I brought along the X-T3, an 18-55mm and a 55-200mm thinking I'd toss them into the mix once in a while. I ended up shooting all evening with that system and ended up really enjoying both the process of shooting (although the G9's are better handling cameras) and the post production I did later that evening. The Fuji has a bit more dynamic range and holds onto highlights a bit better. I delivered 600+ files to the Zach marketing team about three hours after the show. I really didn't have a choice; they needed the files sometime on Tuesday and I would be traveling on my next assignment early in the morning. I shot entirely in Jpeg and depended on my prior knowledge of the theater's lighting system (and styles) to nail color balance and exposure. The EVF on the X-T3 is great and seems to match up with my studio monitor pretty accurately. I shoot a bit conservatively when it comes to exposure so I tend to always be under exposing by a third to a half a stop and then compensating in post production. I fear blowing out the highlights... It wasn't a problem on Monday night.
Here's how I used the Fuji system: I bought the 55-200mm f3.5 to 4.8 a few days earlier, anticipating that I might want to use it on one of the out of town assignments. I thought I'd switch between the normal zoom (18-55) which is a very good optic and the longer zoom but most of the presentation and the performers fell into the range of the longer lens. I used ISO 3200 as my base to compensate for the slower lens and I was happy to find that the X-T3 files are not very noisy. I'm presuming that the camera is kicking in a good amount of noise reduction but I didn't lose as much sharpness as I have when using that ISO with the Panasonic cameras, and most of the Nikon's I've shot with. I shot in Jpeg and took advantage of the 200% dynamic range boost.
As is my habit I used the single point AF in the "S" mode and was happy to find that the camera focused quickly and well under the stage lighting. While I know that lens is supposed to be at it's best under 150mm I didn't hesitate to use 200mm when I thought it was a compositional advantage. I'm not sure if the higher ISO or the lens is to blame for any lack of sharpness but all the images were usable and technically acceptable at the longest focal length. All in all it was a nice evening of photography and stellar evening of live theatre and well deserved tribute to a theater genius.
I headed to Sacramento on Tuesday morning. Delighted to find my favorite breakfast taco provider, TacoDeli, with a eatery at the airport. The taco was perfect and the coffee not too bad. It was a nice start to a long and stressful day. This is the same client that I traveled extensively for in October. Most of our work for them revolves around environmental portraits and I've been fine-tuning and narrowing down the kit with each flurry of assignments. I now have my gear down to two cases. One is a Manfrotto rolling light and grip case which I've shown before. It's a bit longer than 48 inches and can hold three traditional moonlights, three light stands, various modifiers and a bunch of grip equipment.
On the first few jobs I did for this company I was dragging around a couple of monolights, multiple diffusion frames, soft boxes and more. I also dragged around a separate rolling duffle for my clothes, extra shoes and toiletries. On the trip this week I replaced the bigger, heavier monolights with two Godox AD200 flash kits, I kept the same two, smaller Godox shoe mount flashes and I pared down to two light stands, one diffusion frame, one soft box and one small umbrella. This left me room in the case for my extra clothes, an extra pair of running shoes, my toiletries and a warm jacket.
I've honed a lighting style that consists of using available sunlight as a back light and then filling from the front with a main light in a small soft box. If the sun's position doesn't work for the backlight I bring out the diffusion frame and two layers of white silk diffusion and use it to tone down and soften the sun exposure while angling in my main light to create effective short lighting. Since we're working mostly outdoors in regular sunlight I've ditched the tripod entirely and depend on the image stabilization and my hand holding skills (such as they are) to compensate. This allows me to create a convincing portrait lighting set up with only one light and one additional modifier.
The second "case" is the Think Tank Airport Essentials back pack which I bought at the start of these projects. I have other cases but I knew I'd be flying some of the smaller regional jets into the (very) secondary markets and wanted to be absolutely sure that I'd be able to put the cameras and laptop under the seat in front of me in any imaginable scenario. It's worked out great. The case fits perfectly under the seat with no overflow. I keep my cameras, lenses, memory cards, batteries, computer and phone in this case and one pocket serves as my "filing cabinet" for receipts that will need reimbursement.
When we landed in Sacramento I grabbed a rental car and headed to the small town of Newcastle about 35 miles away. The smoke from the wildfires reduced visibility down to about half a mile; at the most. I got a Ford sedan and was miffed that I couldn't fit the light case into the trunk. I had to toss it across the back seat. Otherwise the car was great and the trip non-fiery and non-eventful.
When I get to a location the first thing I do, after talking with the client on the ground, is to scout for multiple, possible locations. We needed to photograph eight different people at this location and my client likes wide, establishing shots along with "waist up" shots and also tighter (head and shoulders) portraits. I always need to find a background that will accommodate each version for an individual subject. In Newcastle we had a good selection of backgrounds and I was able to "personalize" the scene for each subject.
Which brings me to a discussion of lens choice. I started with the 18-55mm because I knew I'd want wide and mid shots. But when I thought about changing lenses to the longer zoom I realized that I'd need to duck into the car over and over again to change between the two. There was just too much airborne particulate matter to take a chance on an out in the open lens change. I ended up zooming in with my feet and using the 55mm end of the lens for my tightest portrait cropping. That worked very well and I never had to expose my camera's sensor to the nasty elements of the moment.
The haze was amazing. It diffused the sun and probably dropped the overall exposure down by two or three stops. While it didn't affect the portrait the haze did subtly blur the close by background in an interesting way. But with the light so diffused and low I decided (rightly) that I just needed to use one of the smaller Godox V850 shoe mount flashes, firing into a soft silver umbrella, as my main light. I brought along two and had two triggers as well. The first one fired up perfectly and worked as planned with the associated trigger in the hot shoe. I don't use TTL but it's great to be able to change power levels on the fly with the trigger on the camera.
These days I'm always trying to build "short lighting" into the overall project. It works well with smaller flashes and is mostly flattering for my subjects. I always imaging a line that runs parallel to the sensor plane, at the subject location. If the subject's nose is perpendicular to that line I want to be on one side of the perpendicular line while keeping my main light about 45 degrees around the other side of that perpendicular line. I guess it's just geometry but it works.
I photographed each of my Newcastle people, chimping furiously as this is basically a week old camera system for me and I wanted to catch any mistakes before we got too far down the road. Everyone was great and cooperative and so, a couple hours later I was heading back down the road towards the airport.
I dumped off the car and went through TSA PreChek (Thank you, Global Entry!) and grabbed the best burrito I've ever had; airport or not, and then made it to my American Airlines flight which stopped in Phoenix for fifty minutes and then continued on to Dallas/Ft. Worth.
The second flight is when a totally unexpected catastrophe (almost) struck which would have made me scramble to get the job done. Talk about cold sweat.....
Have you ever lost your smartphone? It's karma. I know it. I've always teased people for their cellphone addictions and their compulsive use of them. It was bound to catch up with me. I made a connecting flight from Phoenix to Dallas on Tuesday night as I moved east from Sacramento. I generally choose window seats on airplanes and this flight was no different. I got to my seat and put my jacket and my iPhone on the still vacant seat next to me. I turned around to shove my camera backpack under the seat in front of me when I heard a thump on the floor. Lots of things go "thump" when airplanes are loading up so I didn't pay much attention. Then I turned back to the middle seat to find my jacket sliding off and my phone nowhere in sight.
I figured it just hit the floor. The plane wasn't moving so I was pretty sure the phone didn't slide far. The other people in my row hadn't arrived yet so I swung around like a monkey and looked under the seats. No phone. I asked the people in the row behind me to check. No phone. I asked the people in the row in front of me to look. Again, no phone. And then it dawned on me; the success of my business trip depended as much upon logistics as it did my skills with cameras and lights. If I couldn't get to the right place at the right time then everything would be for naught.
We started our departure and I sat nervously fretting for the next two hours and fifteen minutes about my paralysis by (lost) cellphone.
When we got to Dallas I waited impatiently for everyone to deplane so I could get down on my hands and knees and do a complete search of the airplane. One of the flight attendants jumping in to help me. By sheer luck (and experience) the flight attendant bumped the bottom of an under seat floatation device and the phone tumbled out, none the worse for the fall. Apparently the phone bounced and got trapped by something under the seat.
But the event made me realize how thoroughly dependent business travelers have become on their smartphones. Before we found the phone, as I sat on the plane, I tried to plan out what to do until I could replace the cellphone. I decided I would pick up my rental car and get to my hotel where I could then gather critical info using my laptop. But...how do I get to my hotel? Does anyone have a map of Dallas? Does anyone have a physical map of anywhere?
So I went to plan B. I'd grab an Uber or Lyft to the hotel and then wrestle with information on my laptop. Only...how do I get an Uber without my phone? And once I got to the hotel I would need to get up at the crack of dawn (and it was already midnight...) and head north into a sparsely populated part of Texas. Part of my path to the next project was on dirt roads. I would need turn by turn instructions for most of the trip and my notes for the last 15 miles. But the notes were on my phone.
I could get another phone from AT&T but the stores didn't open until 10 a.m. and nothing at AT&T gets done quickly. If I left at 11 a.m. to get to my project destination I'd be at least three hours late. And that would be critical since eight people were traveling to converge at the spot for photos.
My Hilton Honors account info? On the phone. My banking app? On the phone. My telephone? On the phone.
It was an overdue lesson in how dependent I've become on my phone. It can't be logical to have a back-up phone can it?
My rental car was a Nissan Pathfinder which turned out to be the perfect vehicle for my jaunt through the emptiness of north Texas. More so because the last dozen or so miles of the journey was on dirt roads. I got to my location outside of the unincorporated town of Honey Grove, Texas by mid-morning and hopped in a pickup truck with a construction supervisor to do a scout for photo locations. We found two different spots and I realized we had time to make portraits of the same 10 people in both locations. On that day wind was a problem. I like to use a 4x4 foot scim to kill direct sunlight but with 20 to 30 mile wind gusts there's not a lot of ways to sandbag a diffusion scrim effectively. But we needed the scrim for our angles and lighting to work (especially since were trying to be in the stylistic ballpark with the dozens and dozens of images we shot in other locations and the dozens yet to be shot elsewhere) and we needed something to block some of the breeze to keep peoples' hair from blowing around.
I convinced the assembled engineers, construction supervisors and regional managers to take turns holding the stand and scrim in place against the wind and made sure we rotated people to keep arms from getting tired. It actually worked. We got great photographs of construction pros both with big equipment behind them and on a cliff overlooking the project (which is the construction of a recreational lake and water source). I packed up and asked where a person might get lunch in the area and the crew laughed. Then someone mentioned Dallas. About 2 hours away. I'm happy I brought along the bottles of water from my Hilton Hotel check in gift bag along with the PowerBar that constantly gets restocked in my camera pack.....
When we started working outside of Honey Grove, Texas, the temperature was in the low 30's (f) and the wind was stiff and constant. I was happy to have on my favorite boots, with wool socks, and my Heat 32 long underwear. The gloves were also appreciated.
When I got ready to leave I calculated the total time to drive straight to Austin versus returning the car to the DFW airport at rush hour and then waiting for my 9 pm flight. Driving had a potential 2.5 hour benefit for arrival time so I opted to drive. But before I left the location I paused to back up all the raw and Jpeg files to my laptop and to a 256GB memory stick. You can't take too much for granted.
The drive home was non-eventful and I got a good night's sleep on Wednesday. On Thursday morning I decided to see just how good (or bad) the raw files might be from the Fuji XT-3 so I fired up Lightroom and attempted to import the files and build previews. I figured that the XT-3 had been out for a while and Adobe Camera Raw had to have been upgraded already. I came up a bit short when my version of Lightroom wagged it's metaphorical finger at me and let me know that these were an alien raw format. Not accessible by my version. Gulp. Would I actually have to use a less efficient processor? Would I be able to batch process the files at all? But, of course, the internet is your friend and since I've been traveling I missed seeing the last update to the app. The update that added Fuji XT-3 raw files to the mix. Big calming breath and sigh of relief. A quick upgrade and everything worked like a champ.
I spent the better part of the day selecting images to import, batch color correcting, labeling and uploading the two sets of files (Sacramento and N. Texas) to individual galleries at Smugmug.com. My take? Lovely flesh tones, less noise and more forgiving files than I usually get from the G9s. I can just about duplicated the look and feel between the two sets but there's that niggling 3-5% difference that could vex an OCD photographer.
Flush with good feelings about the camera (and the first good night's sleep in the week) I headed downtown to the newly re-styled and refreshed Four Seasons Hotel to photograph the annual fundraising event for Texas Appleseed; a legal advocacy charity. I used a Godox 685 (f) on the XT-3 and shot mostly with the camera in the manual mode (1/60th at f5.6) and the flash set to TTL (-.3). I bounced the flash off the ceiling but also had a little two inch card rubber banded to the back of the flash for a bit of front fill. We shot bunches of posed shots; groups of two, three, four or more, during the hour long reception and then covered all of the speakers, awards and the presentation of the "Good Apple" award to the honoree. It's a great event and all the biggest law firms in Texas buy tables and attend.
The surprise musical guest, the capper to the evening, was blue's legend W.C. Clark. He did a great, short solo set and had the room full of attorneys, spouses and donors on their feet for a long standing ovation. It was wonderful. And, given my status as the only photographer in the room, I got to photograph Mr. Clark from any angle I wanted; as long as I didn't use a flash. I finally got to put that longer zoom to good use. Sure, I used it on the speakers but this was my favorite utilization since purchase. W.C. Clark is a legend for good reason. I'm glad I got to hear him in a such a great venue.
Once again, I was happy with the files. How happy? Well, I headed to Precision Camera the next morning and bought a Fuji XE-3 to use as a back up, along with one serious lens; the 50mm f2.0 XF, and one play lens: a used Kamlan 50mm f1.1. I can't wait to see the work near f1.0....
Now I'm back into the double system quagmire but at least neither system is ruinously expensive or precious. I'm keeping them both. They are both virtuous and effective. But maybe the Fuji is a bit more aimed at portraiture. We'll see as we go.
Friday is the day that all the serious post production gets done. I've got a week off over the Thanksgiving holiday and then it's off to Virginia, Indiana and other points east to continue my documentation of some of the people who make massive infrastructure projects happen. While I could give or take the actual travel I'm absolutely loving the problem solving each location needs and I'm always thrilled to have my expectations about the capabilities of people and companies exceeded on nearly every working day. I love photography. It's still the most fun I've ever had working.
Someone recently asked me what I'll do when I retire. It took less than a second to respond: "I'll start doing more photography."
W.C. Clark at the Four Seasons Hotel.
Other blog news: Our workshop/tour of England got scratched. Not enough people followed through. It's a blessing in disguise as I was starting to worry about juggling the onslaught of (well) paying work with my nine day absence... Maybe we'll do one next year.
But it does give me more bandwidth to write the blog. Please stay tuned.