4.07.2019

A Note to Prospective Clients: Please don't consider handing me a contract that has:

"The agreement that we are entering into is a work-made-for-hire agreement. You agree that we (Satan Productions) are the sole copyright holder, sole owner and soul owner of any work you create while even just in close proximity to us. You also agree that our exclusive and total ownership of the work strips you completely of all rights of authorship."

 No. We would never agree to that. I create the work and I own the creative work. You and I would be entering into a usage licensing agreement. As part of the agreement I would only convey to your company specific usage rights for use of the material I create on the project. I am happy to negotiate and make sure you get the rights you need for your project; potentially even future projects, but you don't get "ownership." And, as if I have to tell you, paying a one time fee doesn't mean you now own the camera we shot the project with or the lenses, or the lights, or the car we used to bring all the gear and staff to your location. It doesn't. Although I'm sure your accountant would love to grab for $50,000 or $60,000 worth of gear in exchange for one small day fee and a reasonable usage fee. Right? Not gonna happen.

(note to the person who proffered the contract to me):
I know your strip mall attorney wrote all this stuff and you've probably never read it but you should. And if you did you'd be embarrassed.

Back the meat...

When we come to your project we're not just trading some working time for some money. As I wrote above we're generally bringing along gear which we use to do the project that has value far in excess of what we charge for most projects. I'm also bringing along my ten thousand hours(+) of expert experience in doing photography, or video, or writing. This means you are not directly paying for a long and productive learning curve, six years of higher education, 30+ years of hands on experience, a valued perspective, a practiced approach. Those are intangibles that are part of the value we bring to every project; no matter how small.

You are also not purchasing outright, for small change, my point of view, taste and cultural understanding. You'll get it in each shot but judging by the rights grab agreement form you might want to have people sign you desperately need to get this from an outside supplier because your contract makes it clear that you have a very limited perspective, a winner take all attitude, and very little in the way of good people skills. In fact, I would say the proffering of any such contract points to a diminished capacity to understand negotiation and effective agreements, which should benefit both sides in any business deal.

Your contract should also never have this:

"You will indemnify our production company and our client in all matters arising from the use, or mis-use, or negligent use, of the intellectual property we are trying to grab from you. This will include your commitment to legally battling on our behalf should anything ever go wrong with our often misguided use of materials over which you now have no control, no stake, and no ownership. And Satan just whispered in our collective ears that we'd also like you to cover our attorneys fees in perpetuity." 

Sure, I use hyperbole a lot in my writing but I swear I got an "agreement form" last week that had the above indemnification clause in it, almost verbatim (note to their attorney: that's Latin for, "as spoken."). I would have laughed if I hadn't wasted time discussing a project with the company previous to receiving this form. At that point I just wanted to pick up the phone and scream for a while....

Essentially this means I could go on location and work under the direction of this client to make a photo of "Chip." Chip might be a willing subject. Chip is happy to be involved; he was, after all, employee of the month. He might even sign a model release. I turn over the images to the client. They decide, a few months down the road, that Chip is a dick and they fire him without severance. Then Wendy in accounting, who had a bad break up with Chip takes the photo from wherever client keeps the photos and gives the image away for free to the Russian mafia who use it in a series of seriously nasty ad campaigns which picture Chip in a "bad light." Chip in a choke chain. In an savory threesome. In ads for erectile dysfunction. And then they run a series of joke posts about Chip's political beliefs for an American politician.

Chip gets a lawyer and sues his former employer who turns around and sues the production company who comes back to me waving their indemnification clause in their agreement form. All hell breaks loose.

Signing an agreement to legally cover anything that arises out of the mis-use, or negligent use, of photos which you no longer even own is like selling someone your used Dodge Charger and then signing a lifetime agreement stipulating that you'll be responsible for any and all repairs. Or accidents. No matter who is at fault. Forever. For a car you no longer own. What client would not love a warranty like this? But it doesn't make it right.

Finally, when dealing with a reputable photographer, videographer or other artist, your contract should never have a part that reads something like this:

"We are only responsible for paying the artist after we inspect each and every image and find each and every image to pass our inspection for quality, usability and general coolness."  

Yes. I've actually seen this as well (without the "general coolness" clause....)

Suppose the client is hiring a photographer to document a day in the life of their service staff. Any good photographer will shoot more than one image per set up. Given a tightly scheduled day hundreds or even thousands of images will be made. In some a client provided talent might blink, fart or look melancholy in such a way as improving said photograph is beyond the skills of even a world class retouching team. Suppose the product to be photographed has rampant defects and is the only one available. Perhaps the room the client insists you take photos in desperately needs to have the walls painted. The graffiti removed. This contract would give the rights grabbing client an easy out to not pay the photographer. Even if there are similar photos that are perfect, and many other variants available as well.

What passes for advertising strategy these days seems to change at the drop of a hat. Consider that the client could hire the production company to hire and supervise the photographer; all working under a very, very specific brief or scope of work. While the production company and photographer are creating content the client's ad agency gets cold feet about their (worn and sad)  concept and decides to have a "focus session." In the focus session it's discovered that the idea they sold to the client totally sucks. It's almost as bad and useless as an all rights/indemnify me for everything contract. The client and agency decide to change gears entirely. Now all the images that the photographer has created for the campaign are useless to the client-- even with all rights and a nice insurance policy against legal disasters --- but now the client doesn't feel like they should have to pay for work they no longer have a use for.

The production company has a rare "Aha!" moment and realizes that the nasty contract the artist signed has a convenient escape clause. They get to inspect and approve the photographs. They decide not to like them. They use the contract in order to not pay for any of the photos, or the time it took to create them. They never bother to tell the artist that the project was killed before they even looked at the work....

Imagine how hard life would be for restauranteurs if they offered the same sort of agreement for their customers. One could order a nice, gigantic Waygu steak, a caviar and lobster appetizer, a 1964 Bordeaux wine from the cellar, and then some vanilla ice cream for dessert. Upon assessing the bill, and having already stuffed themselves with wonderful food the customer decides that the ice cream is different from what he is used to getting from the local convenience store and that he does not like the taste as well as that of the ice cream to which he is accustomed. He calls over the waiter and tells him, "the ice cream isn't pleasing me. I'm declining to pay for this meal. Maybe we can try again in the future..." 

Insanity. And not a business model I'm putting to work in my business. I'd rather garden and read on the couch.

In the end it's the actual clients that get hurt when their intermediaries vastly over reach and try to force a bad contract on a quality provider. Any artist or writer who understands the value of their own work will walk away (or run quickly from the smell of brimstone, etc.) from a bad or totally one sided agreement. Why would they accept such bad terms? Why bend over for a rights grab?

The rights grab essentially means that the person signing over their rights can't use the images they created in their own marketing or in their portfolio. Can't enter it in an awards show. Can't use the work to get more work. Can't use the work as an example of their abilities. Why essentially donate valuable tools and valuable skills for the meanest, almost token cash exchange?

The indemnification clause puts the artist in legal peril for a long time and from every angle. Not an issue you say? Slow down and remember that in America anyone can sue for any reason. Happens all the time. You might not even be safe from being sued by your own client ---- remember, they were spiteful enough to hand you that nasty contract --- right? Is a fee of a couple thousand dollars (if you can get paid!!!!) worth the potential of months of even years of legal hassles and lawyer fees? You get to pay the lawyers even if you win!!!! Lucky you.

And the final clause, the inspection before payment clause. That's the capper. After the job is cancelled for whatever reason (the company spokesperson kills a bus full of nuns...) someone will leave it to a junior staffer to field your call (you know, where you ask for the money you are owed) and tell you, with phony regrets, that the work just didn't pass their stringent sniff test. "Sorry! We look forward to working with you again soon."

So, when the client's agency, production company, or in-house legal department run off/piss off all the good and capable independent artists they will be left with the people willing to take the smelliest contracts. These are bottom feeders and someone at or near the top of the client organization will realize they are no longer getting the "A" talent for their projects. Heads will roll but it may be too late to undo the damage of bad work used, and the worse damage which is to the client's reputation, painting said client as an unsavory and unreliable collaborator.

It's sad. The people who push contracts like this act like those agreements are the industry standard. They aren't. Bad rights grab contracts are like payday loan contracts. They are not illegal but they only benefit the finance company and lead the vast majority of people on the other side of the contract into financial ruin. Let's not let that happen in our industries. Fair contracts for fair use of good, solid intellectual property.

Oh, and the thing that triggered all this, beside actually getting one of the worst contracts I've ever seen? The nasty contract had a blaring typo/grammatical error in the first paragraph. That's just so embarrassing. Would you accept a contract that was almost guaranteed to screw you over even after you saw a double negative show up in the second sentence? I didn't think so. Me either.

All material ©2019 Kirk Tuck.

4.06.2019

Stuff that worked well on Friday's three camera video shoot and stuff that could be improved....


We did a video shoot for Zach Theatre yesterday, in a hidden recording studio just west of downtown. I just transferred and reviewed the footage and I'm giving 95% of the stuff we shot an enthusiastic two thumbs up. We have more than enough primary footage, second camera angles and b-roll to create multiple final videos as well as three really great interviews. But part of the process of reviewing results is to see where we could have done better and whether or not some piece of gear let us down. 

This was our first three camera shoot on which we used the Fujifilm X-H1 cameras and I'll start out by saying that I love the look of all the files and personally think that the "Eterna" color profile provided in the X-H1 and X-T3 is the most beautiful profile I've ever worked with. Bar none. While I might consider using a log profile if we are shooting in contrasty Texas midday sunshine I'd want to really, really test out that choice because the stop or stop and a half of dynamic range the log file might  provide would likely be offset by lots and lots more time trying to get the color grading right while shooting, metering and light correctly while working with the Eterna profile would give us a file I could use right out of the camera. A big win for Fuji with the Eterna color profile. Nice, soft, flat but not too much... (I like it so much I used the Eterna profile all day long on a corporate job that was mixed daylight and flash, since I was shooting raw I didn't have to have any regrets but, for the most part, the Eterna files were very malleable and, with minor tweaking, looked just great). 

The image stabilization in video, using non-stabilized lenses, was very good. Not quite as good as some of the amazing Olympus camera bodies (EM-1.2, EM5.2) but good enough for me to handhold up to about 60mm with success. 

The video menu is great and very straightforward to master. Love that all in the stuff that doesn't  work in video is already greyed out. The ability to punch in for focusing and then back out to full frame couldn't be easier. The EVF is wonderful and the rear screen with touch controls makes using AF in manual focusing good. I was so happy to find that, when in the video mode, you can actually select 1/48th of a second shutter speed giving you a true 180 degree shutter angle when shooting 30 fps. Finally, I was super happy with the sound quality I got from the cameras. Not just when we were able to pipe in a beautiful feed from the audio engineer's mixing board but also when I was recording interview audio directly into camera via wireless lavaliere microphones. 

And you knew the list of things I want improved was going to follow right along, right? So here goes.  What the bejeepers is the deal with the battery grip and complement of batteries???! Here's the premise: Fuji: "Yes. We know our camera bodies suck juice out of our puny batteries at an alarming rate. Here's what we've done to make that better, we're making a battery grip that will hold two batteries while you keep a third one tucked into the camera. Cool, huh?"  Here's the real (tormenting) issue: The batteries switch over from the two in the grip, sequentially, and then finally hit the camera battery ----- but only when shooting stills! If you are shooting video and your first battery in the grip runs out the entire circus comes to a screeching halt. The camera just stops shooting. It doesn't care if you have two other fresh batteries in the same product, just brimming with fresh, juicy electricity, it just stops recording. 

What is the work around? Um. Um. Hit the record button again. A (sarcasm laced) great idea for the middle of an interview.... Just start over.

I must be missing something. Maybe putting the camera and grip in boost mode changes the battery usage order. I guess that's the next thing to test.

But let's not take the battery grip out of the hot seat just yet! One reason videographers grudging part with over $300 per camera for an added battery grip is to get the headphone jack that they finally just included on the body of the X-T3. It didn't exist on a stock X-H1. Yes, the camera body has a microphone in jack but no, the body without grip has NO headphone jack. So, across three camera bodies I have about $1.000 worth of battery grips; proprietary to one camera model, just in case I want to run audio at each camera location (and need to monitor it for quality!!!). 

(All the stuff in the strike throughs below is faulty information. Read the added material just below the strike throughs. Thanks, Kirk 04-09.)

If everything worked the way I think it is supposed to then I would be hearing beautiful sound through my headphones but, sadly, this is not the case. Lucky, I discovered an audio glitch when I tested the camera more or less feature by feature before committing to using three of them on assignment. At first I thought the whole audio chain was compromised or required some very special (and unobtainable) microphones or something. I would set the levels so they would never go into yellow, much less into red, and even with a minus 12 to minus 18db level I was getting some distortion in the headphones. The headphone level setting was set in the middle of the range as well. In fact, the setting level for the headphones had no impact on improving or worsening the distortion I was hearing. 

I thought it might be the headphones so I tested the camera+battery grip with AKG headphones, Audio Technica headphones, Apple earbuds and even a set of Bose noise cancelling headphones. Each had the same issues. I thought it might be a microphone mismatch so I tried a box of different mics and a squadron of microphone pre-amplifiers. (yes, we disabled the internal mics for our test). I even went so far as to disable the external mics and to test again just using the internal mics. 

Edited on 04/09: Interestingly we did not have the headphone distortion problem on a shoot we did last Friday, using many of the same components. To be fair to the Fuji X-H1 I went back and re-tested again. This time I did it in my living room. Components all over my coffee table. But the times I tested the cameras before were all done at the desk in my office. I took the camera, headphones and a microphone back to the office, sat down and listened again and there was the distortion. So I started looking around my desk to see just what the heck might be causing the distortion I was hearing.

For starters my desk is the epicenter of about ten hard drives, each in their own enclosure, each with its own power supply. Then there is the 27 inch iMac about two feet from my little test area. Oh, and there's also a dual band modem/router, and, and, and...... As I moved the camera set up closer to the desk and tested it the distortion was a bit more obvious and when I moved away from the desk it diminished. And when I moved to the living room, about 30-40 feet from all electrical circuits, the microphone pre-amplifiers were as silent as mute angels.

So, this is a big mea culpa. Sometimes we imagine that technology has perfected all the routine stuff and that it will work perfectly no matter how much we try (wittingly or unwittingly) to fuck it all up. The pre-amps are a bit sensitive to huge, giant, unsavory electrical fields. Can you blame them? 

I am now chastened and must send an e-mail to my friends at Fuji to apologize to them for blaming my bad technique on what I see is now a nearly perfect camera.

In addition, all the audio that we ran into three X-H1 cameras at our video shoot last Friday is perfect. Not a trace of distortion or noise. 

I'm sorry to have been so far off on this and will try to be much more careful in my testing of microphone and headphone circuits in the future.

Moving on. Let's talk about lenses. While I love the Fuji XF-18-55mm f2.8-f4.0 you can already see the problem. It loses a stop from the wide end to the telephoto end. If you think of it as an f4.0 lens and don't shoot at f2.8 you won't see the exposure change as you zoom through the range but many times, in low light you'd pretty much kill for that extra f-stop. 

I queried Fuji about their cinema lenses but someone suggested that for corporate video work the really nice, red badge, constant aperture lenses from the XF line up would work just fine. And I'm happy to say that if you never want to zoom that's probably really true. They are very, very good lenses. But, sometimes you want to zoom during a shot; or the client wants you to zoom during shot and so you go for it and give the system a try. On Friday I was a little shocked. I was using a 16-55mm f2.8, constant aperture lens and I needed to do a slow zoom in from a medium composition to a tighter composition and somewhere, mid-zoom, there was a disconcerting and abrupt bump up in illumination as though passing through a certain focal length range triggers a compensation that opens up the aperture to compensate for the light lost when zooming longer. It's a design glitch. I could hardly believe it but I tried it twice more, here in the studio today and was able each time to replicate this issue. 

We need to find a zoom for the system which doesn't do this (I guess that's why I was asking about the cinema zooms...) while zooming. I love the images from the 16-55mm but I'll never be able to do a zoom shot with it in video. And even though zoom ins are generally overused it's still a tool we need from time to time.

Moral of the story? If you don't do your own tests, on every piece of gear you own, problems will come back and bite you on the ass. But don't think this glitch bitch is just about Fuji, I can well remember more than a few heat related shutdowns from a number of Sony cameras. All full-framers....
Seems the only perfect digital camera ever made is the Sony RX10 IV...

Enough about the cameras. We'll get that stuff sorted out. The video looked astounding. The rendering of flesh tones was the best I've seen from a less than $10,000 video camera. I think it's a bit above the benchmark Sony FS-7, less noisy than a Panasonic GH5, and fun to shoot with. Loving the front and rear tally lights....

But my favorite piece of video gear is fast becoming my Beach Tek DXA-2T audio interface. It's not powered  and uses really clean transformers to convert a balanced signal from XLR connected devices to a signal that is perfect for most camera's microphone inputs. I love the device because it makes professional microphones sound and perform better with most consumer hybrid cameras but it comes at no cost in terms of signal loss. And there are no batteries to forget or to run out of mid-shoot. I would tell everyone to run out and buy one but I think the product is now discontinued except for a copy-cat variation from Saramonic. I love being able to grab one of the knobs on the small unit and pad down the signal to the camera rather than having to go into the camera's menu and touchscreen to accomplish the same task. I won't go to a shoot without one of these. It may have been a perfect audio product. I'm sad not to find one on B&H's site or on Amazon. 

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't again make the point that in video handheld shots are, to my mind, special effects shots that get really boring and annoying really quickly. If you value your audience you'll put the camera with which you do the majority of your shots on some sort of stabilizing platform rather than defaulting to image stabilization. I love having a locked down version of a shot, using a good tripod. A moving shot, also using a good tripod, and then, in order a shot from a "chicken foot" monopod with a fluid head, a monopod with no head and finally, a gimbal. The less jittery the shot the happier the audience. 

There are a lot of good $10,000 video tripod and head combinations in the marketplace and most are probably made for cameras in the 18-30 pound range. I've got a Manfrotto video tripod with a 501 head and I think for DSLRs practicing a lot with one of these probably trumps the results of someone who uses their pricier tripod a lot less often. As with anything else, it's not the Speedo or goggles the determine a good 100 butterfly, it's 99.9% the swimmer. Same with adequate versus perfect tripods. 

wow. That was a lot to wade through but it's helpful to me to put it all down so I can process my most recent experience. Would I have changed the way I shot, lit or ran audio? Probably not. If anything I would have pushed my partner to spend more time of some sort of camera support and dissuaded him from too much "Jason Bourne inpired camera movement (fight scene kinetics...). But it's all a big learning process, right?

If anyone is interested my cold is receding and I'm giving credit to Mr. Nyquil for getting my first good night's sleep of the week last night. And this is how I reward you? With a long, rambling blog about video? Almost criminal.

Exposure. White Balance. Stable platform. Enough headroom for audio. The foundation for successful video production. 



4.05.2019

Yeah. It's a post about video. I know... you hate even thinking about video. That's okay. I may write about something different later. Have more coffee.

On Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday, last week, I concentrated on making 
marketing photographs for the Zach Theatre play, Matilda.
Then I did a corporate event job last night.
Today was a change of pace...

(Image: Jimmy Moore as Ms. Agatha Trunchbull). 

If you do the same stuff over and over again your brain will turn to jello and life will seem like a Moebius strip of unending and repetitious boredom.  People will move away from you at cocktail parties, fearful that you will once again tell that story you tell all the time about those same things that you do the same way all the time. I do a lot of photography (maybe too much) so every once in a while, when I get to do a video project, it's like breaking an unsavory habit.

The folks at Zach Theatre's marketing department seem never to sleep. No sooner do they finish the amazing project just in front of them, and watch the curtains rise on the labor of love they've been selling for the last month, than they clear their brains and advertising palettes, and dive into the next project. By the time that project is ready for an audience they will have moved on yet again.

I got a note a couple of weeks ago asking if I'd be willing to help with a video project for an upcoming play that involves two people who fall in love and help each other (metaphorically) help each other unpack their baggage. There is a lot of great music in the play and both of the actors who are cast in the lead role are performers whom I admire and love watching on stage. The theatre's smart, young director of social media and interesting video content wanted to know if I'd collaborate with him to produce content for several videos and three interviews; all of which we'd shoot today. I love collaborating with people who are far less than half my age so I was on board in a flash.

The formula was that Joshua (the theater guy) would bring the concept, the directorial vision and the editing prowess if I could supply the camera work, the audio savvy and the lighting. We talked the project over well in advance and I liked his concept: the two lead characters would go into a recording studio and produce the sound track for radio, television and anything else we needed for our project. We would video them singing this incredible song from every point of view that made sense, add in a bunch of b-roll that we'd also shoot during our afternoon in the recording studio, and then, if we had time, we'd interview each of the actors as well as the musical director for the play; individually.

It was decided that the optimum way to handle a time-limited production like this would be to use a three camera set up which would allow us to shoot the recording session with, simultaneously, a wide central "A" camera, then additional cameras for me and Joshua so each of us could concentrate on cross shooting the talent as they sang the money song over and over again until the sound engineers figured they had everything just right. Lucky for us I just happened to have three exactly matched Fujifilm X-H1 cameras and a Think Tank roller case filled with Fujinon lenses.

I was a little under the weather today. I'm still battling a cold and a cough, and I worked on a job for a tech company called, WP Engine, until late last night in San Antonio, driving back and arriving home just after midnight. That's why I pre-packed most of my stuff for the video shoot the day before. Packing should be done when one is rested, rational and deeply satisfied with existence (pick any two). 
It's never fun to get somewhere and realize that in a Sudafed inflicted haze you have forgotten the most needed piece of gear; the linchpin for everything else...

The studio was one of those typical Austin Old Music affairs. Hidden behind an electrical supply company, no signage anywhere, no parking; it's almost like they are daring customers to find them. But these places seem to attracts some genius engineers who can create great sound and some of the Austin music royalty seek them out. I knew we were in the right place when I saw the Studer one inch tape recording machine in one corner, and a mixing board older than the creative director with whom I was working.

The "live room" where the talent and our two man photo crew worked wasn't particularly large but the acoustics were absolutely perfect. We figured out where we wanted to position our talent and then set up the "A" camera on a tripod. A 14mm lens was the perfect choice for our wide, static POV. I roughed in the lighting as Joshua styled the set, adding some great older guitar amps to the background and taking out stuff that doesn't fit the milieu we were creating for the show.  I used three big LED fixtures bounced into 4x4 foot reflectors and used up pretty high. We also turned on all the soft, old fashioned "practicals" (table lamps) in the room which softened the shadows and warmed up the overall color balance. 

Joshua and I cross shot the scene. Each of use shooting the person on furthest from us. It was all about getting the right angles. Joshua shot nice medium shot, handheld, while I went in tight with a 90mm f2.0 balanced on a monopod. Once we each had good coverage from our initial angles we switched sides and switched the talent we were shooting. Me getting tight shots of the person he'd shot wide previously, and vice versa. 

The recording studio was actually creating the song as we worked and when they nailed down a perfect mix we used the mix, piped into the performers' headphones, to help them lip sync exactly so that no matter which versions of video clips we used in the final edit we'd have a better than average shot at everything syncing up well. We ran through the song in this fashion enough times to do dolly shots for each person, in close up, Some push in shots, and some super tight stuff on the performers' mouths and eyes. Really striking stuff but hard to keep in focus. (I'll keep practicing). 

I talked in a recent post about having a problem when monitoring audio through the battery grip headphone plug on my XH-1s. There seemed to be a little bit of distortion. I tested them enough to know that the issue was with the headphone circuit and NOT what was being written to the memory card but on a project like this, where audio is all important, I wanted to be doubly sure. 

Here's my work-around: I used an Atomos Ninja Flame, 7 inch, 4K monitor/recorder as an "A" camera mounted monitor. It served several purposes; the play's director and the theater's marketing director were able to get a good idea of what the whole visual effect was. I would get second (back up) recording of everything we shot on the "A" camera (but only in 1080P, laid down as Pro Res files). And the most important benefit of using the Atomos was that it has a headphone jack and monitors what is being recorded to the SSD in the Atomos. If that signal is good then so is the audio coming out of the HDMI jack on the camera. I still don't have a clear idea about the camera's headphone jack.....

So, the "A" camera is locked down on sticks and fitted out with the 14mm lens. Joshua is using maybe three different focal lengths like, 23mm, 35mm and the 50mm, while I'm mostly using the 16-55mm f2.8 with a close in "assist" from either the 90mm or the 60mm macro. 

We wanted to warm up the whole set and a little trial and error with the Kelvin setting convinced us that 6300K was just right. We used that setting on all three cameras and never varied it. We also kept all three cameras locked in at ISO800 and the video files are virtually noise free. I preferred to shoot the longer lenses on a "chicken foot" monopod while a non-caffeinated and 27 year old Joshua took his chances and shot handheld with an assist from the in-body image stabilization. Finally, I now swear by the Eterna profile in the camera. It does a beautiful job holding onto highlights, with the tenacity of a terrier, and provides nicely open shadows as well.

The "A" camera took a line feed of the beautiful audio coming off the mixing board while the other two cameras just used internal mics to provide tracks we can use to sync up clips in post production. The line out from the board is the wrong level and impedance for consumer video cameras but a Beach Tek DXA 2T does a nice job matching balanced XLRs to unbalanced camera inputs. It also provides a dial for each channel to pad down levels. Still easier than trying to change levels on a touch screen any day. 

After we shot the music section of our production we re-set for individual interviews. Now we were off the safety net of the sound studio's audio system and I had to change hats into my "sound guy" beret. I decided to go with a lavaliere microphone instead of a cardiod or super-cardiod microphone on a boom pole. You'd be so proud of me, I tested both sets of my Sennheiser wireless systems earlier in the week and drilled with them until I could set them (almost) blindfolded. The real trick is knowing exactly where to place them on each person for the very best audio. I only own six sets of lavaliere microphones and have used "lavs" for paid and personal work since the mid-1980s. I'm still just a student when it comes to microphone placement. Today I lucked out and did a good job. 

I had the receiver in a cold shoe on my camera cage and ran the output from the lav receiver into the Beach Tek again just to have total control over levels. The audio sounded good to me and I handed the headphones to my young collaborator to get his buy-in. All good. 

We shot a classic, two camera interview set-up with almost "classic" three point lighting. Joshua had written down his questions for each person which endeared him to me in no small measure. I hate "seat of the pants" interviewers...

We went a bit over our reservation time in the studio and had to pack and be out in a bit less than half an hour. I spot checked footage all the way through and everything looked good. I had an inventory list in each case and I'm happy to say we didn't even forget a bongo tie. We marched into the recording stuff (well I shuffled, what with a profound lack of sleep and cold virus induced headache) at one p.m. shot a lot of good content and were loading cases back into the incredibly sexy Subaru Forester right at 4:30 pm. I slipped into rush hour traffic and listened to "real" news on NPR all the way home. 

Sometime tomorrow I'll transfer all the footage onto an SSD drive and hand it off to Joshua. He's pretty excited about hitting the edit and showing off a bit. I can't blame him; he did a masterful job of imagining this project and putting all the pieces together to pull it off brilliantly. It's the kind of collaboration that can only make my reel look better and better. 



4.03.2019

Crap. Somehow I caught a cold, or some permutation of a cold, and now I'm both busy AND miserable....


I hate getting sick. Even more so because it happens to me so infrequently now that I forget how miserable it is to be ... miserable. The whole thing started stealthily. I felt a bit warm around the edges on Sunday evening. By Monday morning I was congested and developing a slight cough. By today I've got a nice cough that only seems to diminish while I'm drinking something; doesn't matter what. Any liquid will do. I tried to play my illness for sympathy from the nuclear family but they weren't interested in foregoing work in order to come running to see what I might need every time I ring the little bell at my bedside. If we had servants I would presume they'd find some reason to call in sick in response. 

The dog was mildly interested in my plight until she realized that I was going to be making coughing noises pretty much all through the day and most of the night. Once she became overwhelmed by my apparent neediness she started moving away from me when I would stumble onto the couch, box of tissues in hand. Not even a jar of dog biscuits was enough to convince her to cuddle up with me and keep my feet warm on the couch. Later on that day my wife suggested that it might be a novel and fun and spontaneous thing to spend the night in the garage, on a cot. Just for grins.

I tried the universal, short term prescription for blasting through head colds and other pedestrian maladies but after three or four cups of coffee at my favorite coffee house I realized I'd spent about $20 on coffee and at least $30 tipping the very attractive wait person. I trudged home nearly penniless and made more coffee in the 34 year old Krups coffee maker that my sister had given us as a wedding present. It was reasonably good but by the sixth or seventh cup my hands were shaking too badly to hold the cup without spilling..... Spicy sushi was even less helpful. 

I spent today doing the only thing I really know how: post processing image files from my photo assignment at Zach Theatre yesterday evening. Now there are 978 happier files and a near comatose keyboard jockey.  But I did manage to send out my second big gallery of the week to my clients at Zach Theatre and we're only up to mid-week. 

I'd been invited to a corporate donor appreciation happy hour at Zach Theatre at 6:00 this evening and I thought the social function would take my mind off my throbbing sinuses (remember that scene in the movie, Alien, where the alien creature hatches out of a crewmember's abdomen? That's how the sinuses in my face and forehead felt. 

I tried to be socially aware and compassionate at the happy hour but I think most people thought it was a bit creepy that I was wearing a big bottle of Purell hand sanitizer on my belt. I would meet someone new and we'd shake hands, then I would let them know about my monstrous head cold and I'd offer a few squirts of Purell in order for them to sanitize their hands. It didn't really play out the way I imagined it would....

....and I can tell you right now that two vodka martinis and some deviled eggs dusted with caviar are no help for encroaching congestion either. But I think I did meet exactly the right talent for a shoot for which I am currently doing pre-production; which also means: getting your ducks in a row. I'll count the happy hour as a rare "win" for this week! 

Of course no one in their right minds wants to swim with Typhoid Larry so I've been out of the water for three whole days. It just serves to compound the misery.
And then there is the annoying reality that everyone has their own, personal cold remedy, which always seems manufactured around the idea of drinking more water during the day than I use in the shower, combined with eating vast amounts of jalapeƱos. No wonder sick people don't stray far from convenient bathrooms. 

After knocking out the web galleries full of actors I settled into my favorite writing chair, grabbed my laptop and got back to work on my book. That, of course is an absolute lie. I did think about it but as far as I got was calling a few friends to bitch about my condition and whine about my ill treatment at the pernicious hands of fate. 

Tomorrow, if I am not bed bound, I need to be in San Antonio to photograph an evening corporate event and set the world's record for just how many cough drops a 63 year old man can suck down to their terminal nothingness before succumbing to cough drop overdoes or the onset of metabolic syndrome. I'm not worried about the camera part; I've done my ten thousand assignments; I'll let the mastery flow out and take care of business while I try not to nod off in a comfortable corner. 

But before I head down to San Antonio I know I'll need to pre-pack for Friday's video shoot. It's a three camera extravaganza and the packing list will probably go something like this:

Three Fujifilm XH-1 cameras 

One box Kleenex brand tissue. 

Four or five lenses.

One box of Sudafed.

Two Wireless Microphone systems.

One bottle of Purell. 

Microphone cables. 

One jar of Vick's Vaporub. 

LED lighting package.

One more box of Kleenex..... Well, you probably get the picture..... I hope I do as well..

The downside of working as a freelance artist is the lack of an "I'm sick and I don't want to work so I'll just call in and tell my boss I'm not coming in" option. My boss is a cold-hearted bastard who's not interested in my sob story; he just wants to see the jobs get done and the EFTs hit the account.  Someday I'll retire and just spend my days lounging but since my boss is in charge of my retirement account, I can guarantee you that we're looking way over the horizon on this one. But can you blame him? He still remembers the 2008-2012 total devastation of the freelance economy..... 

On a lighter note you may have noticed, if you read some previous posts, that I have now seen two technical rehearsals (very tight and proficient) and a dress rehearsal with an invited audience for the Zach Scott production of, "Matilda." I can only say that it is by far my favorite play/musical of the last several years and that I enjoyed each presentation very much. So much so that I can hardly wait to take Belinda to the Champagne opening next week....that is, unless this cold does me in. 


Smoking while trying to recover from a cold is...contraindicated. 

This is what my brain feels like.

Wise Belinda thinks I'll probably survive. I've got life insurance so she wins either way...


There is one cure I tried on many occasions over the past decade to cure various maladies. I could head to Precsion Camera and find yet another lens I don't already own and buy it. Might work, might not but without a double blind test system we may never know about the real healing power of new gear. 


Going to sleep now. Or becoming unconscious due to the Sudafed. 
Beginning to dream of coffees to come......

4.02.2019

And here's one of my photographs in print. Taken for Zach Theatre and appearing this morning on Page 2 of the NYT Arts Section.


And here is the original from the show.

The show is "Notes from the Field." Written by Anna Devere Smith, directed by Dave Steakley and produced at Zach Theatre in Austin, Texas.

I like the way the New York Times used my photo, including a nice, big credit. Sweet.

4.01.2019

First Live Theater Dress Rehearsal Using the Fujifilm 16-55mm f2.8 Lens in Combination with the XH-1 Bodies and the 50-140mm f2.8 Zoom.


I don't know why I've felt so intimidated by the prospect of photographing the play, "Matilda" for my friends and colleagues at Zach Theatre. I think part of my hesitancy is based on my usual apprehension of shooting any performance where most of the set and background are black. There is also quite a big cast and lots of moving parts to the play. Another contributing factor is that this is the first big splash of the season and I think a lot is riding on making the numbers. I want the images to be as perfect as they can be and that's why I wanted to go and pre-scout the show this last Saturday. 

I saw what I needed to see and I showed up yesterday evening prepared to give it my best. I was shooting from mid-house, in the fancy seats, and I actually used three cameras and three lenses to get everything on everyone's shot lists. Since Zach Theatre designed and constructed the set they'll be renting it out to other theaters that produce "Matilda" so they wanted some super wide shots that encompassed the stage and a bit more.

My two "primary" cameras were XH-1s. One had the 16-55mm f2.8 on it while the other sported a 50-140mm f2.8. I shot with both of these nice lenses stopped down by 1/3rd to 2/3rds from the widest aperture (f3.5?). The third camera was my little XE3 with the (wonderful) 14mm f2.8 lens on the front. I used the XE3 + 14mm combination for lots and lots of handheld stuff. 

The Topfer Theatre at Zach has been completely LED for a while now and each lighting designer opts for a different base color temperature. In Matilda the base white balance seems to be right at 5100 K but there's a lot of gelling in some scenes. When we see Matilda's family there is a distinct warm, yellow hue to the stage lighting. In the classroom shots there is a slight bias to blue and in the shots that showcase the evil Ms. Trumbull the light has a very slight greenish cast overall. 

I try for neutral faces unless there is an obvious lean toward one color palette or another. 

Shooting stage shows is tough under normal lighting conditions where there is some sort of scenic, lit background mostly because of the contrast range of the light and the constant change of light levels. Going with a black stage that supports a mostly black set is tougher because there is only enough light to break the subjects away from the background in scenes that have the actors backlit. And separation is a good thing! There is also no bounce light coming from back walls, side walls, props and other parts of the set to reduce the quick transition to black in most frames. 

It's pretty amazing to realize this but if you want to teach an entry level photographer the difference between what the eye sees and what the cameras sees I would think shooting on a dark stage with an actor in spotlight would be a perfect example. When I look at a scene that's black on black I can see into the shadows enough to discern all of the set but when I correctly expose for the main actor in a spotlight there are many times when the camera can't see additional people just outside the circle of the spot; much less the stage detail in the background. 

When I'm confronted by a high contrast stage set like this I abandon my default Jpeg preference and head quickly into raw territory. I know that when I pull my selected images into Lightroom I'll want to make good use of the shadow and highlight sliders to bring back some detail in the shadows while preserving the good stuff in the highlights. And thus far the Fuji cameras, at or below ISO3200, do a good job controlling noise.

Since I was shooting raw format I could experiment a bit more with wide-ranging global settings. One of the things I played with extensively in Lightroom today was looking at the effects of all the different camera color profiles that Fuji offers on the XH-1 and which, by extension, are available in develop menu in Adobe Raw. Standard (Provia) had richly saturated colors but the shadows fell to black very quickly. I went in the other direction and applied the Eterna profile to the photographs. It was flat but held onto both the highlights and shadows to a much greater degree than any of the other profile settings. I guess that just makes sense considering it was modeled after a very wide latitude color negative film for moviemaking. I liked the look but decided that the files benefitted from an increase (slight) in contrast and about 5 points more saturation. 

It also helped the overall look to put in about 12  plus points of clarity slider to balance out the flatness of the files. 

In keeping with the title of this blog post I want to discuss my use of the 16-55mm lens. In a word = excellent. In conjunction with the XH-1's image stabilization, in the vast majority of my 1300 selected files (about 50% of which were shot with the 16-55mm) there are few that aren't perfect and those are a result of my hubris in thinking I can freeze moving subjects on stage at speeds of 1/125th of second and slower. When setting shutter speeds you have to take into consideration, if you want all parts to be free of subject movement, just how fast people are moving across the stage, shaking their heads, wiggling their hands and kicking up their legs. For most shots of people in normal motion on stage 1/250th is a good, safe shutter speed but if there is dancing, running or frenetic gesturing you'll need to head up to 1/500th of a second, and beyond. 

When I did properly nail the right speed, the right exposure and the right focus the finished photos were in line with all the glowing material I've read about the lens from other photographers, and from my own tests. 

The lens and camera combination is not nearly as heavy as I thought it would be after a couple of hours of handholding, and the handling characteristics of the lens, the way it feels in the hand and the quality of the aperture ring, make it a delight to use as a tool. I was happy to see that all three of my Fujifilm "red badge" lenses take the same filter size and even happier that my 77mm variable neutral density filter arrived in the mail box today. 

After having used the 100-400mm for a while the 16-55mm seems delightfully small and fun to handle. 
It's also perfect when zooming in on small groups and then zooming out to put the groups into context with the stage sets. The 24-84mm range (ff equiv) is just right for a normal range, premium zoom lens. I've never been able to make a good adaptation when using the more limited 24-70mm permutations because I'm always begging for that last ten to fifteen millimeters of reach. 

I'm wracking my brain trying to think of some negative aspect of the lens so as to provide some illusion of balanced neutrality in discussing the 16-55mm but I have to admit I'm struggling to find anything wrong with it. I guess (age appropriate analogy) it's like trying to find something wrong with Audrey Hepburn's performance in the movie, "Funny Face." You just can't reasonably do it. 

Leaving the 16-55mm for a moment I'd like to discuss my one caveat about the 50-140mm f2.8. I wish it was about 10% longer. I want the speed, the size and the weight to stay the same. I just want it to reach out a bit more. Many times last night I was wishing I could comp some two person scenes just a little closer. I guess I got a taste of real reach when I tested my 100-400mm....

I am married to a graphic designer though, so when I showed her my photos and expressed my wish for a bit more focal length she asked the right questions: 

Is the image sharp?  Did you photograph it with a high resolution camera? Did you get the tonality correct? Do you remember that there is this secret technique called: CROPPING?  Do you think you can find a cropping tool in Lightroom or Photoshop? End of spousal correction/conversation. 

But I kinda have to listen to her since she is, from time to time, one of my favorite clients....

All in All, the combination of the two premium zooms is an almost perfect set of lenses for the kinds of theater work that I do. I wish I had more time to photograph each play. I'd probably do three days of shooting for each. One for general stuff and ensembles, one concentrating on all the production aspects that are new and different, and then one day with the long zoom just picking out actor's faces at particularly appropriate (and awesome) times. Might be fun. But clients, of course, are more interested in condensing time rather than extending or diluting it.....

So, how did I enjoy the play? It's by Roald Dahl and it may be one of the best stage shows with kids I've ever seen in the 500+ live theater performances I've watched. It's that good. I'm heading back tomorrow to photograph the final dress rehearsal and then heading back again for a business networking event and show on Wednesday. (I am a guest at the networking event so I'm sure to show up for cocktails and food but less sure I really need to see "Matilda" for a 4th time this week.....).