3.10.2020

The perilous worklife of a freelance artist. Save some $$ while you are working a lot. Everything is cyclical.

And, in an instant, all the big shows were cancelled into the foreseeable future...

Being a freelance artist means riding the financial cycles like a surfer riding waves. Sometimes you wait in the water with your board for hours till a great wave comes by and other times the waves are too choppy and the water too cold to venture off the beach.

The COVID-19 virus, coupled with some tricky Russian oil market shenanigans,  just triggered a sell off on Wall Street which should cause concern for everyone who works for a living. Especially for those who are self-employed and doing something that's (short term) not mission critical for the clients they serve.

The fear of contagion just shut down the biggest yearly event in Austin. SXSW brings in, according to the city of Austin, nearly $355 million dollars to the local economy. That's all gone now and it's not recoverable. For many small businesses there's no way to make it up. Some will tighten belts and some will fade away, buried by bills and salary expenses. 

If the country goes into recession in the next few months then this will be the fifth or sixth recession I will have navigated in my working life as a photographer. Each was different and each was the same. The decline of assignments starts early and then accelerates. After an awkward % of the business dries up and vanishes then the remaining clients start aggressively price shopping and, while some of us dig in our heels and pass on projects with too low a price tag attached, there are generally legions of artists who are scared, panicky and hungry enough to chase the market for their services to the rock bottom. 

I scraped and starved through my first recession and learned just how much more valuable having some money in the bank was than having the latest miracle camera or life-changing lens. We started tossing about 10% of our profits into savings accounts and liquid investments. With each new recession we were in better shape than in the previous ones and the panic around us pounded in the message of how important it is to save for a rainy day. Or year. 

This potential recession might be short. It might be long. But from a business point of view it's already following the traditional pattern: the freelancers are the "canaries in the coal mines." The assignments have started vanishing left and right. We'll be the first out and the last in for the recovery and, for the first part of the recovery we'll probably be struggling to get our pricing back up to a sustainable level against the pushback of clients newly trained to expect more for less. 

I've positioned myself as a portrait photographer for wealthy business people. It's the last market in photography to dry up. I'm still booking portrait work. Event work is more skittish. The cancellations just after the SXSW show cancellation are stacking up. The calendar is becoming more porous, like Swiss cheese. 

So, What will I do???? Well, for starters I think I'll not panic. There are several older cameras I've been itching to try out along with those old Olympus Pen FT MF lenses I keep writing about. I have my eye on a used Panasonic GX-8 but I can't decide if I want one in silver or in black. If you shoot with a GX-8 I'd love to read your mini-review and get your thoughts about it. I know all about the "shutter shock" stuff but I'm interested in learning how the I.S. is and how you like the handling...

Next up, I'm itching to buy a Leica SL2 but they seem not to be shipping at the moment and no one seems to have stock. In the meantime I'd love to hear from people who've shot with the previous model, the SL. I know they are different cameras altogether but I'm assuming that lots of the handling DNA will be similar and I'd love to hear stories about what separates the images from mortal cameras. 

As you know (and part of my huge, sinister plan) the Panasonic Lumix S Pro lenses are interchangeable with the Leica lenses so my total investment, if I want to dip my toe back into Leica-dom, is just(?) the cost of a body. If my ship ever comes in maybe I can cherry pick one or two Leica lenses for the ecosystem. That 50mm Apo Summicron at $8,000+ looks like just the thing to totally disrupt someone's retirement account....

And, if you are dumb enough to take financial advice from a photographer then 
here's my strategy as sketched out on a paper napkin over coffee:

Wait for the Dow Jones Industrials Average to hit 21,000 and then dump
a bunch of cash into a Vanguard Stock Index Fund. 

then, grab my favorite camera, go for walk and ignore the market for a while.

3.08.2020

Sunday Show Notes. A week in the rear view mirror.


Self-portrait with Sigma fp.

It was an interesting week. We had the medical drama I mentioned yesterday, some decent photo assignments, a white knuckle drive to San Antonio and back, and not much time for any photographic fun. The capper on the week was the Friday afternoon announcement that the Austin event with 34 years of continuous existence, The SXSW Festival, was cancelled due to the Novel Coronavirus. 

So far the cancellation is hitting freelancers especially hard. I talked to a sound engineer today who is losing about 12 days of work this month. And it's a bit late in the game to replace the lost work with new jobs. My favorite videographer and I commiserated over the loss of three days apiece next week and the litany of economic destruction goes on and on. Zach Theatre usually leases out the main stage for two weeks for the Film Festival portion of SXSW the cancellation of which effectively kills off all profits for March since they don't have anything they can rush to the stage to make up for the lost revenue. Then there's the cost to the freelance workers who would have staffed the venue. 

I thought the writing was on the wall a week and a half ago when the big names like Amazon, Facebook and Apple all dropped out of the SXSW show, but the "entrepreneurs" that own the show tried desperately to find a pathway forward since they stand to lose the most. In the end it was the city of Austin that put them out of (or further into) their misery with an emergency declaration.  There are a lot of bars that ordered and stocked in tons of inventory for private parties and showcases that are now cancelled. I hope their clients paid in advance for the alcohol and that the venues can at least make some profit selling the bountiful stockpile of liquor, beer and wine to alternate customers. 

While I would have enjoyed the money my clients would have paid what I'll really miss are the streets 
filled with people who made such fun and ample photo subjects. I had plans for some artsy looking, black and white video that would have been (fingers crossed) amazing. I'll have to figure out something else. 

We're all watching the stock market, et al, to see what's going to happen next. I swim with a few guys who are real estate developers (things like high rise hotels, big condominium towers, industrial parks) and the after-swim talk lately is all conjecture about where the markets are headed, how the correction will affect the local economy and when to push ready cash back into the market. I can't play in their league but it's fun to hear all the points of view. If your brother's plumber's best friend has any sure fire stock tips I'm sure we'd all love to hear them. 

Testing the nose bleed ISOs in the Lumix S1s. As you know I'm pretty conservative about leaning into the higher ISO settings when shooting commercial jobs but I did one today that opened my eyes to what's possible. I had an assignment to photograph a "table reading" for a new play that's aiming for Broadway but which has some local producers in the mix. The theater put on a reading of the play for an audience of financial influencers and patrons. There were about 250 people in attendance and the performance was done with 15 actors reading and singing the parts. 

The production was done in our dungeon-like rehearsal space. You know: the one with really bad, flickery, florescent lights way up on very high ceiling.... It's my least favorite place to photograph, at least as far as lighting is concerned. The first thing I did was walk up to the stage and, using some white paper, do a custom white balance for both of my cameras. That was a big help. 

I also metered with an incident light meter at the stage position and what I came up with was: f4.0, SS = 1/125th, ISO = 6400. Several actors had darker skin and when I zoomed in for closer framing I ended up increasing the ISO to 8,000 for them. 

What I learned from earlier tests is when shooting for Jpegs as your final file (in camera) the cameras progressively smooth out the detail from the files in an attempt to control noise. You can, however, go into the menu and reduce the amount of noise reduction the camera delivers. The scale is minus 5 to plus five. When I hit ISO 6400 I pulled the noise reduction for Jpeg down by -2. When I went to 8000 I pulled down by -3. The files actually look great on my 5K monitor and hold up okay even when I magnify the images to 100 %. They look like ISO 400 files from just a few years ago and they do this magical feat while retaining good color and pleasing color saturation. I was actually delighted. 

I photographed today with two S1 cameras along with the 70-200mm f4.0 S Pro lens and the 24-70mm f2.8 S Pro lens. Both lenses are good enough to allow me to shoot wide open with no issues. In fact, the sharpness of both lenses at their largest apertures is also surprising to me. They are among the best zoom lenses I have ever used. 

I have one location portrait assignment tomorrow morning, the retouching of images from two of last week's shoots in the afternoon, and I hope by Tuesday I have enough free time to go for a long walk somewhere. Of course, that's the one day that has a probably rain forecast. But I do own rain gear and I guess the cameras don't mind getting a little wet. 

Thanks for sharing your medical stories and advice. I do understand and agree that the best practice is to call an ambulance but one of our swimmers is an ER doctor who I pulled out of practice to help me assess our friend. He suggested that the hospital three minutes away would not be too big of a risk. It would take 15 minutes or longer for an ambulance to arrive...and our "patient" was not in extreme distress. If you are by yourself the absolute best course of action is always to dial 911. The EMS should have the right tools if your health takes a dramatic turn while in transit. You never want to compound the damage of a heart attack by losing consciousness at the wheel of your car and slamming into an overpass pillar at 60 miles per hour. That's pretty much guaranteed to make your situation much worse.

Your pool, health club or other facility should have a well maintained AED (auto electro defibrillator) on the premises and the staff should be trained in its use. We've had several positioned around the swim club since Spring of 2002. Won't do much for a garden variety heart attack but very, very handy to have in case of cardiac arrest! Gearing up with AEDs was one of my initiatives when I was on the board of our club. Purely selfish motives...

My friend spent three minutes in my car, was seen immediately at the ER and started receiving professional treatment within a minute after he had an EKG. Time elapsed from the onset of first symptoms to treatment was likely less than 25 minutes. Three blood tests to assess troponin (given six hours apart) all showed negative. Major bullet dodged. Scary wake-up call delivered. 

Getting older is certainly not for sissies. 

Update on Sigma fp video experiments. Silly me. I just presumed that the cinema RAW DNG files I shot for video would be readable by Final Cut Pro X without any issues. Funnier still when the files all came in as thousands of single frames of 2.8 megapixels each. All unconnected and in no way ready to function as a video clip. That's what I get for assuming that 12 bit, 4K, 4:2:2 cinema RAW files would be a piece of cake to work with....

I'm now learning to use DaVinci Resolve 16 to import, color grade and transcode the files into some sort of codec that can actually be edited by something less than a Cray Supercomputer (yes, Cray is still in business, they were one of my son's accounts at the P.R. firm he worked for...). I'll update once I've gotten the rudiments of Resolve figured out. The new software dance always sucks a bit.

On the other hand, every time I use the Sigma fp to shoot some stills I'm amazing and delighted by its 3D look and its imperious tonality and strangely pleasing colors.
While I had a truncated swim practice yesterday and spent a good portion of the day at a hospital I was back in the pool this morning. Important for my particular psychological make-up to get right back on a scary horse instead of taking breaks. I always fear that if I break for too long I'll never go back.....


That's all for today. 


3.07.2020

An evening photograph. Walking across a bridge.


 Early Evening. Early Spring.

Sigma fp.

I had an interesting day today. I was at swim practice when I noticed a friend at one end of the pool looking "not right." I headed directly over and asked what was going on. He had a pain in the left side of his chest. It was a pain or pressure he'd never felt before. We hopped out of the pool while the rest of the swimmers continued their workout. We quickly got dressed and I got him into my car. We headed to the nearest ER. His EKG was abnormal, his blood pressure was sky high and the pain was not going away. He got stabilized, medicated and then transferred via ambulance to a cardiac center with more comprehensive resources and staff. With aspirin, morphine and a nitro patch as well as continuous monitoring, his EKG stabilized, his BP dropped back down to normal levels and blood test showed no troponin. According to the attending cardiologist he probably dodged a bigger problem. 

We're not sure what caused the symptoms yet. It was a tough swim practice but not that much different from usual. At any rate, it was a lesson re-learned for me: If you get a strange chest pain don't ignore it or hope that it will go away on its own. Get it checked out. And for goodness sake, if you are having chest pains don't drive yourself to the ER. 

I have every hope that my swim friend will be back in the pool in no time. We'll make sure he goofs off more and over-achieves less. Not everything in life needs to be a sprint...

A weird day for me as I didn't touch a camera all day long. We'll fix that tomorrow. 

Take care of your friends. They're gold.



3.05.2020

Sigma fp + Sigma 45mm f2.8 go to the museum.

Fashion exhibit at the Bob Bullock/Texas History Museum.

It's all in the wrist.

Swim season is quickly approaching. Time to work on starts and turns with more diligence. Photo season is fast approaching, time to work on quicker technique.

Jennifer. Triathlete.

I'm sure you were dying to know this but the USMS (United States Masters Swimming) Short Course National Swim Meet is coming up in April in San Antonio, Texas. All members can sign up for as many as three events without having to meet qualifying times. You can sign up for up to five events if you have the qualifying times. The exception to the above is the 1650 yard race. You must have qualifying times to enter. It's done that way so that particular event doesn't go on forever. 

In shorter races so much depends on getting off the starting block as quickly as possible while avoiding the dreaded, "false start." We all need to constantly work on our starts. The 50 and 100 yard sprints are won and lost at the walls so we all need to be working on our flip turns, our streamlines off the walls, and our underwater dolphin kicks. Finally, you need to finish strong all the way to the wall. Finishing strong is critical.

If your turns suck you might want to find a good coach and work on them NOW. Trying to perfect a turn in a new pool on the day of the meet is a fool's errand. 

For more info on the event: 


Can't wait to see you all there! 

Photographers: Time to tune up for Spring photography. While the Corona virus is causing panic and havoc for many big events it shouldn't affect those noble souls walking through the streets of interesting cities and town with a camera in hand and intention in their brains. In fact, it's probably the best time to travel (by car) to major cities you've always wanted to photograph in because the hotel rates are already dropping faster than the Dow Jones average, and Open Table (online restaurant reservations) will probably go on vacation for the foreseeable future since there are ample open tables at even the finest restaurants. 

Here in Austin we hold an annual festival called SXSW. So far, in the last two weeks, nearly every major U.S. sponsor and exhibitor for the show (Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Intel, Amazon, etc.) has cancelled and will not be attending. Neither will their employees. With a local petition of 38,000 calling for the event to be cancelled Austin has all the earmarks of being a relative ghost town for two weeks. I wonder if wristbands will start being discounted and hotel room rates heavily reduced in price. 

I don't think the people who own the festival can take a full year's cancellation and stay in business so I hope it survives in some form this year. I'm on hold for three days of shooting for a corporate client beginning next Friday but I have a suspicion that I'll be getting a phone call just outside that 48 hour cancellation period telling me the gig has been cancelled. I'm fine with that since it means more time at the pool, at the half empty restaurants, and on the phone with suddenly un-busy clients.

Mindless Photo Workshops.  I saw a mindless ad for a laughable workshop on Instagram yesterday. The copy basically said: You are on assignment for a client. You are very excited about your assignment until you get to your location and find that the light there is ugly. What do you do? You can take Bob Smith's workshop that will teach you how to find beautiful natural light. 

WTF? If you are at the point in your career where you are accepting assignments, taking a client's money to produce photography for profit, and working on various locations then why in all that's holy don't you know how to use lights? Yes, available light can be great but after years of doing this and earning a good living at it I'll tell you straight up that not every location will have ANY beautiful, naturally occurring light. And then there's mixed light. And then there is darkness. And then there is good light with bad backgrounds, and even worse locations. And just because the light is best over there by the dumpsters doesn't mean the CEO of Super Corporation wants to stand next to a smelly dumpster to take advantage of that crucial spot of available light. 

If you are accepting a range of assignments from paying clients you need to put on your big boy pants and learn how to light with lighting instruments. Flashes, LEDs, movie lights, and so much more. Anything else is malpractice. Of course the ad was from a camera store and flashed on Instagram...

Doesn't anyone want to learn how to do the business correctly? Geesh. 

Michael Johnston doesn't understand Leica. MJ recently wrote something that was so (intentionally?) opaque about Leica, and the idea that most photographers don't like rangefinders, that it led me to believe his newest diet fad is causing him some light-headedness. 

I think the underlying issue is much the same as today's reader's response to the Sigma 45mm lens blog post (all lenses with the same focal length and aperture are commodities and interchangeable) which, reading into the comment was basically the question: "Why should I pay four times as much for the same thing?"  Short answer: Because all lenses of the same focal length do not supply the same results...

MJ is wearing his finances on his sleeve and it's spilling over into his writing about cameras. If we can only be interested in cameras that fit into a very narrow price band then this hobby, profession and industry is going to get even more boring and homogenous than ever before. 

Yes. I get it. Leica's are expensive. Very expensive. Not everyone can afford one. But that doesn't mean Leica shouldn't continue to try to be the best, to be different, to make a product that people who can afford it will love using and appreciate owning. It's like saying everyone should drive cars that cost between $24,000 and $36,000 and that anything outside the top of that range is meaningless, unattainable and wasteful; nothing but a ego purchase. (Don't get me started about MJ's outlier belief that people only buy SUVs because everyone else is driving an SUV...)

As I said, MJ was opaque and I couldn't tell where the honest opinion ended and the sarcasm began. 

Rangefinders are an acquired taste. In a small range of focal lengths rangefinders deliver a bunch of real benefits. They are not good for use with long telephoto lenses and the viewfinders aren't optimal for shorter lenses, but in that typically critical 35-90mm range they totally rock and are incredibly useful. 

Nope. A Leica M is not the camera you want to buy if you want to take tightly composed photos at your kid's soccer game. No, the M is not a great camera with which to do macro work. And, no, it's not good if you are one of those psychopaths who believe they need to shoot everything at 30 frames per second, all the time. But you can't pull stumps with a Miata, can't pull a horse trailer with your Vespa, shouldn't consider going off road with your Ferrari, etc. 

What Mike misses is that true photography, as the gods intended us to practice it, was invented to be done with a German designed 50mm lens on an M body with a nice, big finder magnification and a bright rangefinder. Everything else is just functional heresy. Oh, and having to take the bottom plate off the camera to load film was implemented by design; to give photographers a moment to cool off between shots....

Buy yourself a great, digital Leica M, become disgusted with your inability to learn how to use the rangefinder, sell it while in existential despair so I can buy it from you for a song. 

But not really. I'm waiting for the SL2 to become widely available. It's got all the hallmarks of a cult camera for the moment. That's the one I'm interested in.

That's all the opinionated vitriol I have for you right now. Stay tuned for a booster dose.


3.04.2020

I get it. The Sigma fp is not for everyone. But I can't imagine why the 45mm f2.8 lens isn't... I liked it so much....


I know I'm becoming more eccentric by the minute but I have to confess that while the Panasonic cameras are wonderful professional tools if the studio was burning to the ground and I could only save one camera with which to document the tragic event that camera would be the Sigma fp. 

I know that many of you pride yourselves on being very, very rational human beings. You make decisions based on weighing the features and benefits. You read the spec sheets. You delve into the reviews. And then you go for the most practical product. But that's antithetical to the whole idea of art. And I certainly can't imagine you picked your spouse that way....

Embracing stuff that's imperfect because it's perfectly imperfect is probably the reason you can't explain why you love some stuff and other stuff leaves you blah. I'm a big fan of the Sigma fp precisely because it isn't perfect, it isn't mainstream and it certainly isn't "cookie cutter." I live by the Texas motto that the only thing in the middle of the road is a dead armadillo. 

And this carries over to my love of peculiar and differently abled lenses as well. I was shooting video with the Sigma fp at a fun job last week but also making photographs on the same project with a Panasonic S1. I loved the look and the angle of view I was getting from the Sigma 45mm f2.8 and I wanted the same sharp/soft mix on my S1 but I didn't want to stop and change lenses over and over again. So I defaulted to a 50mm f1.4 on the S1 and finished up the job. As soon as we wrapped I left the painful packing to a perky assistant, jumped in my car and rushed to the camera store to buy a second 45mm Sigma. The idea is that when you find a lens that grabs you by the amygdala and makes you grin like a wild man you should have it on both of your active shooting cameras. 

It also doesn't hurt to lay in a back-up copy of the lens you find yourself using the most. But, of course, that's crazy talk. Most people will be fine with one. Unless you really find yourself smitten.....

Why do I like it? Because the object itself looks gorgeous, it works perfectly, the images coming out of it look different and (to me) better than the more "perfect" lenses around that focal length, and because it's demure. If you shoot with Sony or L-mount you should give it a try. It's not going to win the test chart beauty pageant but is that how we need to be assessing lenses? Or people? Or anything? Naw, you want to equip yourself with things (and people) that bring you joy. This lens is one of those things.

Yes. Of Course. It's got a delightful aperture ring. 
 Third stop clicks come standard.
I took a bag full of Sigma Art lenses and Lumix S Pro lenses to a job today.
The lens I used for the entire morning was the inexpensive 45mm. 


 In the limelight.


Probably more important than the most righteous video codec (at least when it comes to sellable video) is getting your audio just right. Here's some gadgets to help your DSLR or ML camera along the path to better audio.

I worked, far in the past, as a creative director for an advertising agency. When we did commercials back then we used 35mm film and all audio was recorded separately and matched to the visual footage in post production. It was the same about a decade later when I bought a Rolex 16mm camera for personal work. There were crystal sync modules that applied a pilot signal to the audio and film to keep them on the same time lock but stuff like PluralEyes (an automatic audio-to-video matching app) didn't exist. Or, if they did most of us shooting movie film didn't know about them...

When we started working with video in conjunction with DSLR and mirrorless cameras one of the nice things was the ability to record audio right into the camera and have it locked in step to the video. Very nice. Except that early cameras were primitive and aimed at a non-professional market. The audio inputs were not balanced, not set up to work with professional microphones and, worst of all, the early cameras had built-in automatic audio level controls. They just weren't suited to pro work. To compound the problems, up until recently, the pre-amplifiers for microphones that were built into the cameras were kinda crappy. They were noisy and given to fits of unexplained audio rage. 

Eventually many of the early issues were sorted out but one issue dogs many of the cameras that are currently on the market; they have little 3.5mm TRS microphone jacks and they are set up for non-balanced inputs from consumer microphones that have a different output impedance than professional microphones. Trying to use pro microphones with little adapter cables gets the signal to the camera but it's usually a woefully bad signal that's plagued with noise and all kinds of aural issues. 

I think we've all pretty much come to the conclusion that clean, nice, happy audio is at least as important to the creation of pleasant and watchable video programming as is a decent visual file so this mismatch is a clutch point for many. 

A few years back I bought a decent (but not great) shotgun microphone that had its own internal amplification and it was powered by an internal battery. It was supposed to sound okay but it was a disaster if I plugged it into my digital camera by way of a plug adapter. It required a bunch of gain from the camera's pre-amplifiers and the sound was just... off. That's when I decided to do some research and understand what I was missing. It was all about the impedance mismatch. My camera was expecting to see something at one value but my microphone was hellbent on delivering a signal designed for a different, more professional input. Electrically speaking they were never going to be in a happy relationship without some sort of buffer in between them. Also, the balanced, three connector XLR connections, delivered in conjunction with shielded cables were important for reducing noise and intermittent glitches. What was needed was --- translation.

What I needed was not an additional pre-amp so much as a simple device that would use high quality transformers to convert the signal coming in through the XLR connectors to a signal that would make the inputs on my camera happy and more productive. I found that in a small and inconspicuous project from Beachtek called, the DXA-2T.  On one side are two XLR inputs. You can run long cable from your microphones to this box and plug them into real XLR plugs. The innards feature well crafted transformers that convert the signal from "pro" mic to "amateur" camera inputs. 

On the opposite side of the box is a single 3.5mm output that allows for a stereo or dual mono signal to be delivered to your "hybrid" camera's mic in plug. On one end are two click stopped knobs that allow you to pot down the output signals which gives you a certain amount of level control. The device is passive so it won't actively amplify your signals. You can turn stuff down but you can't turn stuff up...

This box allows me to take a signal from a microphone like the Rode NTG 4+ with its built-in in battery and amplifier and route it to my camera after "fixing" the signal to make it compatible with a typical camera input. Perfect for any brand of camera that doesn't offer its own audio interface. (Sony and Panasonic offer "active" adapters for use with some of their cameras....).  The DXA-2T is simple, has no moving parts, requires no maintenance and doesn't require batteries. So, I found the perfect audio interface, right?

Well.......for some stuff......but...
Once I got my camera and pro microphones to speak the same language, via the Beachteck, I was much, much happier with the sound quality I was getting from my system. But being the ever ready consumer I started to wonder if more expensive microphones might provide even better sound quality. This led me to microphones like the Diety from Aputure and the 416 from Sennheiser. Both are short shotgun microphones and both share one other thing, in order to work they require phantom power from an external source. The three wire configuration of XLR cables can provide a 48V from an audio interface or professional video camera which can power one of these microphones (be sure to check whether or not you need phantom power because applying it to a microphone that doesn't need it can fry the microphone's circuits...) but a plug adapter and a DSLR or mirrorless camera's 3.5mm mic input will not.

The DXA-2T also has a line/mic switch for each channel which allows me to bring in a feed from an audio board or mixer which would normally overload a camera input. That alone is worth keeping one of these in your bag.

I bought four different microphones that each has its own super power but all four are dependent on external/phantom power. Now I needed to purchase an adapter that could not only make the electrical matching I needed for pro microphones but I also needed one that could power this growing collection of professional microphones. 

One method is to use a digital audio recorder as the interface. Something like a Zoom HN-4 or a Tascam DR60ii. These have the inputs and outputs needed by also feature internal audio recording with the idea that we'll step back in time and record video to our cameras, audio to a separate device, and then marry the two up in post production. But after using digital audio recorders for a few projects I resented having to take the extra steps to sync up audio, not to mention the burden of having big boxy appliances hanging off the camera rig and also sucking up battery juice. I wanted what I needed and nothing more. I wanted a box that would take balanced XLR cables from microphones, run them through noiseless transformers and output an unbalanced but corrected signal that would make my chosen camera happy. I didn't think it was too much to ask...

I am currently using the Panasonic audio adapter in conjunction with the S1 cameras but I still need one of the audio interface contraptions for my Sigma fp camera which is a powerful video (visual) camera but a really bare bones audio capable camera.

The Beachtek DXA-Micro Pro is one I like for that particular camera. It only offers one XLR input (does have additional 3.5mm inputs) but most of my use with that camera is video street shooting with only one microphone. It can supply phantom power for a microphone that needs it and is also a pre-amplifier which can add gain to a "quiet" or insensitive microphone's signal. But the icing on the cake for me, when using it with the Sigma fp camera, is the headphone jack right there on the box. While being able to monitor exactly what the camera is inputting, at the camera, is optimal that's not an option with the fp. It has no headphone jack. The DXA-Micro Pro has a headphone jack and a volume control for it too. But you have to understand you are only hearing what the DXA-Micro Pro is sending to the camera not what is actually being recorded in the camera.

While I don't use the DXA Micro Pro anywhere near as much as I use the Panasonic dedicated audio interface it's become a job saver for those times when I'm using cameras that don't work with the Panasonic device. It's not too big so I leave it in the video case all the time. Takes one 9V battery and seems to work well with most microphones and cameras.

When I am working with Panasonic cameras like the GH5, the GH5S, and the Lumix S1 I love using the Panasonic DMW-XLR1. It sits in the hot shoe of the camera and connects via contact in the shoe. It accepts two XLR inputs (either line in or microphones) can supply phantom power to the mics that need it and has a wide range of good controls. It can boost weak signals, filter out lower frequencies, record in stereo or dual mono, and it even has automatic level control (ALC) for those times when it just makes life easier. The DMW-XLR1 pulls its power from the battery in the camera so I like using it best with a camera that's got the battery grip attached. 

It's small, elegant, works well and gives me really good audio. Sony has a very similar unit for their A7 series cameras which I have also used and can recommend. 

The only downside of the DMW-XLR1 is that it can only be used with Panasonic cameras. I'd love to be able to use it on a Leica SL2 (if they ever come off back order...) and I'd dearly love to use it with a Sigma fp, but there we are. 

The control side of the DMW-XLR1.

loving the covers for the XLR connectors. Keeps water and trash out off the connectors.

There's one final product I've used to good effect and which was recommended to my by audio expert, Curtis Judd. That's the Saramonic SmartRig+. It's all plastic, and built like a 1960's transistor radio but it delivers twin XLR inputs, dual channel gain controls and a headphone output for anyone who needs a budget option which actually sounds good. The icing on the cake is that you can use this one as an input device for mobile phones. There's a phone ready plug permanently attached and a switch right on the body of the device to make it compatible with most phones. 

The only camera to date that has not worked with the Saramonic SmartRig+ has been the Fuji XH-1 which caused a low level, rhythmic hum cascading whenever I tried to connect the camera to this particular interface. On the other hand it was absolutely great and rock solid with cameras like the Sony RX10 iii and the Panasonic FZ1000. 


Another good work around for audio into consumer/hybrid/non-XLR cameras is to just use wireless microphone systems. I've purchase pricy Sennheiser systems but this Saramonic set gives me two channels into a typical camera's microphone input connection while providing great level controls. I've actually run an Rode NTG 4+ microphone through a Beachtek DXA-2T and into the input of one of the Saramonic transmitters and gotten it to work well as a wireless shotgun microphone. You never know what will work until you try it out. 

I'm going through all the systems today because we have a shoot on Sunday that's split between video and stills. The video consists of several fast paced, newsy style video interviews and I want to make sure my audio is locked down tight. Testing and familiarization is the only course I know of that works 99% of the time. 


I hope everyone is happy and well. 

More to come. 

3.01.2020

Rest in Peace, Studio Dog.

Studio Dog goes into the Great Unknown.
Feb. 29, 2020.

Studio Dog's real name was Tulip. That's the name that came attached to her from the foster parents who nursed her back to health when she was a tiny puppy rescued dog. We fell in love with her immediately. Over the last twelve years she guarded our home, nurtured our son from an unsure pre-teen to a smart and bold adult. She slept with him on his bed every night that he was home, even after college. She lavished him with unconditional love every time she saw him. 

Tulip had a strong amount of terrier in her genes so she was stubborn and opinionated. In all of her twelve years with us she never fought with another dog, never bit anybody and never failed to deliver maximum affection to her small and devoted pack (us). It seems strange to describe her as witty and charming but she was a very, very special dog. People would meet her out in the neighborhood, take one look at her beautiful brown eyes and their hearts would melt.

She saw me through a devastating bout of anxiety years ago by greeting me every time I came home and shepherding me to get out and do things (mostly walks with her) instead of moping around the house. She was the first person I greeted on arriving back home and I always explained to her where I was going and when I would be back if I was leaving the house. She seemed to understand.

Later in life she kept Belinda and I good company as we became empty nesters and Ben went far away to college. She had her place on the couch when we watched movies and she moved one of her beds next to my place at the dining room table just in case a tasty scrap happened to fall on the floor... She parked herself next to my desk in the office and reminded me how important it was to take breaks. After my father died she pushed me to work a bit less and nap a bit more in the afternoon. At every nap she  spent the time with all four paws touching me. Holding me in place.

We discovered several years ago that she had a congenital heart murmur and we had been treating her for that with medication. Recently she started to tire easily on relatively short walks and we consulted with her vet. The vet didn't sugar coat the bad news; Tulip's heart rate was abnormally fast and irregular.  We escalated to a canine cardiologist who did an EKG and a Echocariogram and suggested other medications. She didn't tolerate them well and was declining quickly. Her breathing was labored. Walking, even through her back yard, was a becoming an ever bigger effort.

We spent the last week trying to create a little "heaven on earth" for Tulip. Ben came over to the house daily, for hours at a time and sat with her, played with her and loved on her. Belinda and I cancelled all work and outside plans and doted on her with all of our hearts. 

She stopped being interested in food on Wednesday and by Thursday was refusing everything. I rushed out and bought her the best steaks I could find, cooked them as cleanly and perfectly as I could and chopped them into half inch cubes. She ate them with gusto, and with a tired smile on her face. 

She passed away yesterday with the assistance of a compassionate and wonderful veterinarian. She was at home surrounded all day by the only family she ever knew. She went quietly and comfortably and we each said "goodbye" in our own ways. She was affectionate and calm to the end.

One of my swim buddies knew about our situation and sent me a message. It was this:

"...grieve not, nor speak of me with tears, but laugh and talk of me as if I were beside you. I loved you so--twas Heaven here with you."  -Isla Pachal Richardson.

I think of it every time I start to cry...


2.27.2020

How will the stock market plunge affect photographers in the near term; in 2020?


I was packing my bags for a shoot tomorrow that we're booked to do for a law firm located in the downtown area, when I stopped for a few minutes to look at the financial news on my computer. I noticed that the stock market (the Dow Jones Industrial Average) has dropped nearly 13% this week, effectively wiping out all the gains for this year and much more. The short term retreat of the market is mostly because of the widespread fear/logic that the coronavirus will affect enormous numbers of suppliers based in China and that the short fall of assembled goods, commodities and other cogs that drive industry will be in short supply around the world, which will hamper businesses in every corner of the globe.

As the virus spreads through big markets like the E.U. and north America there is also the realization that fears of the pandemic will cause consumers to snap wallets shut and shelter at home, away from bars, restaurants, shopping malls and events. Travel will be curtailed and the hospitality industry will directly suffer. The slowdown of all the consumer and B-to-B businesses will mean fewer assignments for photographers and lower marketing budgets for everyone.

So, I guess one thing we can expect is a retardation of business engagements and more re-use of old stock imagery by clients. But this slowdown will also have a negative effect on all those folks who like to buy stuff or need to buy necessities; like cameras and lenses. It's true that many of the cameras and lenses we want to buy are still made in Japan but I'm guessing that the vast majority of Japanese branded cameras and lenses are now made and/or assembled in China and neighboring countries. More or less the epicenter of the virus outbreak...

Even in the cases where our favorite products are made in Japan the tsunami a few years ago made it painfully evident that the supply chains for nearly ever electronic product run through China; be it the raw materials, or the tiny resistors that fit on critical circuit boards, the shortage of one part delays an entire shipment and radically disrupts the sales cycle, and plays havoc with consumer demands. 

My take on the equipment side of this new crisis is this: if you are planning a purchase and the product is already on retailer's shelves you may be smart to buy it now because it may be that when supplies on hand dry up getting the next batch into the system might be dramatically delayed. 

Looks like the bubble we've all been watching on Wall St. is in the slow motion beginnings of a wild and scary pop. Guess all we can do is hunker down, try to figure out where the bottom might be and get ready to drop all those bucks we saved up by not buying Leica and Hasselblad gear, or sparkly Bentley automobiles, into equities as they bottom out. If history repeats then we'll all ride the up cycle back to happiness. If history has been permanently disrupted (does happen from time to time) then I hope you've been buying real leather camera straps because I'll be posting a good recipe that uses them to make soup....