10.16.2020

Photographing a "Pandemic Safe" outdoor concert. Our theater figures out a way for "the show to go on."

 


Zach Theatre has a big, beautiful stage with seating for 400. Too bad we can't use it this year for live performances. But creative people tend to be.....creative and so the theater's team got together with health experts and figured out how to use the expansive plaza on the theater's campus to produce a series of live concerts. We had the first one last night and it was a raging success. We did a tech rehearsal the night before and I showed up to shoot promotional photos to kick off the series. 

Between now and November 8th the Zach Theatre is producing a series of live concerts that will run one hour in length and will (weather permitting) be held outdoors in the plaza. Seating is set up in pods. You can get tickets as a socially distanced couple all the way up to a "cabana" with seating for six. All pods are distanced about 10 feet from each other. Even though the concerts are held outside the theater is insisting on staggered arrivals and seating to reduce crowding into and out of the venue. Masks are mandatory. And, sadly, there will be no rushing to the edge of the stage to dance to the. You mostly have to stay in the confines of your pod space. 

But after watching both ticket sales and the reactions of our small, "family and friends" audience two nights ago I think there is so much pent up demand just to see good, live performances that people are happy to put up with any of the small inconveniences foisted upon them by a need (and desire) for group safety.

Each week has a different theme with different performers. This week Matt and Jill sing Broadway Show tunes, backed by a small band. Next week it will be Songs from the 70's. The following week will be Motown and the final week will feature Chanel who will show off the "Tina Turner" performance that won her the starring role of "Tina" in a famous, West End, London production. Shows run Weds. through Sunday. While we aren't going to have anywhere near the 400 person capacity of Zach's interior seating the theater will play host to about 120 people per evening, the production costs are much, much lower than those of a conventional stage show and the theater is able to keep functioning and paying staff and performers. It's a really nice solution. And since the weather people suggest that it will be in the low 70's for the rest of this week it's a perfect time to spend an evening on the plaza with a glass of wine and some great music. 

A "day before opening" rehearsal. Matt and Jill have been doing a "creative pod"
to ensure each other's safety at performances. 

Matt and Jill in performance at tech rehearsal.

I have two jobs for each show. I'll be there for the first show of each week's run to make marketing photos (and photos for the theater's archives) from a position that we just finalized in a strategy session yesterday. We tried a location on Wednesday evening but switched to a new spot yesterday afternoon. I'm using two cameras, shooting with a 70-200mm on one camera and a 24-70mm f2.8 with the second camera. The lighting is not as bright as our usual stage shows so we're working at 1/250th of a second, f4.0 at 4,000 ISO. We could not have used this kind of ISO ten years ago but it's now practically a new, low light normal with the Panasonic S1 cameras. Whatever noise you see in examining the files here was exacerbated by my half stop underexposure and then the lifting of shadows in post production. Sorry, it happens. I haven't hit the files with any noise reduction but I'm sure I can clean up a little noise in the shadows without breaking a sweat. 

The big challenges will come each Saturday as we do a three camera video set up. 

I'll be in one set position with an S1H camera shooting 4K video. I'm not depending on the continuous AF of the camera so I'll have an Atomos Ninja V monitor on top of the camera cage so I can see the bigger image and also so I can punch in 2X while recording to fine tune focus. It's a really nice feature of the Ninja. I'll have that camera on a tripod with a fluid head so I can pan with the two actors as they move from the stage in front of the theater to the long concrete wall and walk way about 50 feet to the right. 

Since my longest lens in the 70-200mm I'll take advantage of the ability of the S1 series cameras to shoot in full frame, APS-C or pixel-to-pixel mode and set it to shooting in APS-C which will give me something approximating 300mm on the long end. Using the lens like that will give me a great range for shots of two people together or waist up tight shots of the individual actors. Works well. No light lost either.

I'll use the Panasonic audio interface to pull in sound from the sound engineer's board since the interface has settings for "line in." 

The second camera will be an unmanned camera right in front of the front door stage. Normally we don't do "un-manned" cameras for theater work because the lighting intensity changes all the time and you'd end up with tons of under and over exposed footage. But since the lighting team is small the stage lights are static for this set of performances. That means I can set up a camera, set the exposure and color balance and start it running five minutes before curtain and then not think about it again until the end.

We'll make that camera an S1 and outfit it with the 24-70mm f2.8 S-Pro lens. 

The third camera will also be un-manned and will sit in front of what's quickly being called "the second stage." It's a long wall with a walkway on top. The artistic director originally created the concerts with just the one front stage but an hour with very little movement, no props and no stage settings gets pretty visually boring and that gave birth to the idea of using the second, contiguous space. 

We'll set up a wide shot for that space using the GH5 coupled with a 12mm wide angle lens and let that one just roll as well. To access that camera for changes we'd have to walk right in front of the audience and that's just not a good look. Fortunately the GH5 will run for over two hours on one battery and get me something like an hour and forty five minutes on a 128 GB SD card. We only need about an hour and ten minutes.


I'm so happy that I get to shoot all this but that I don't have to edit any of it. The files go straight to the theater's in-house editor and he can decide how to cut the whole thing together. 

A quick explanation of why I am happy to pay $1800 and more for some of the Panasonic S-Pro lenses. Since we're working in low light on projects like this one I seem to end up shooting a lot of stuff with my lenses at their longer settings; and also set to their maximum apertures. In the case of the 70-200mm f4.0 I find myself shooting at f4.0 for most shows. If these were like lenses from the past I'd be hesitant to work at such a wide aperture but it seems that Panasonic are taking their lens design cues from Leica. The prevailing philosophy seems to center around making lenses that are so high performing at their maximum apertures that there is little to be gained from stopping down other than to increase depth of field. 

I surfed through 300+ handheld images, shot at the long end of the 70-200mm, with the f-stop at its widest and the lens is sharp and contrasty at those settings. 

Same with the 24-70mm which I use a lot at the 24mm focal length, also wide open. They work well and deliver very sharp files. Sharper than the images I got from nearly all previous systems. Nice.




10.14.2020

Some thoughts on managing entropy.


Jeez, I'm feeling ancient these days. My hair has just about finished turning light grey, I'm slowing down a bit in the pool, and huffing and puffing more when running the hills. I don't hear quite as well in my left ear as I used to. I always feel like taking a nap around 3 in the afternoon. I have less tolerance for people who waste my time and even less patience for unnecessary meetings and phone calls. One glass of wine at dinner and I'm sleepy. I can accurately guess the plot and the ending of any movie after the first ten minutes; which takes all the fun out of watching movies. 

I had a client tentatively book a couple of portraits for today but they never got back to me with times, etc. They called in a panic yesterday afternoon to see if I could still accommodate them today but I assumed, when everything went radio silence that they'd made other plans. So I made other plans. 

They were stunned when we e-mailed today to tell them that our next open day would be November 9th. I don't know what happened to this year. We started out in the Spring with everything cancelled. Nothing stirring. No jobs or projects. And now we're booking a month ahead. 

But the real issue for me is how to gracefully reduce the amount and types of work I've done in the past so I have more time to play before entropy catches up with me and puts caps on the quotient of fun we're allowed. The quantum of joy.

It's a delicate balance between boredom and that feeling of obligation. I think everyone who works at something they are passionate about has mixed feelings about paring down their time commitment. I've started eliminating jobs that I just don't want to do anymore. I'm burned out on studio headshots so I've been declining that kind of work left and right. There are a few clients who I like a lot, personally, and I'll continue with them but I no longer have the emotional bandwidth to sound excited about: "sharpening my pencil" to make a competitive bid for strangers at companies with which I have no history. Especially clients who want boring, safe, normal photos.

I've also been ruthless about turning down the sort of bread and butter commercial work that's stupid, exhausting and which has a half-life of about 3 months. To wit, we no longer accept catalog-type jobs shooting products against white backgrounds. Those icky products would be things like desktop computers, electronics and assorted tech gadgets. 

We just declined to bid on a project to shoot tons and tons of food images in one 8 hour day for a national restaurant chain. It was an unrealistic "ask" and I didn't even want to go through the usual routine of either bidding it high enough to make them go away or default to telling them "we're already booked." I finally, honestly just said that we weren't interested and suggested that there are many hungrier photographers out there who could really use the work. 

This new resistance to work extends to big studio projects for national manufacturers. Someone got in touch to see if they could book two days in December to have me photograph very large metal cabinets filled with servers and electronic stuff, in my studio. The enclosures measure eight feet by nine feet. They would not even fit in the studio door. And we know how those "two day" jobs expand. First there's an endless flurry of phone meetings. That's followed by a few reschedulings. Followed by a request that we be on-hand to receive a couple of multi-ton products a couple days in advance. Followed by two days of unrealistic expectations and those endless: "this was a demo/prototype/loaner/damaged in shipping item. Can you extensively Photoshop it to get rid of all the scratches, uneven paint, broken parts, etc.?" Followed by, "The soonest the freight company can come by and pick up these things taking up all your space is....next week," Ah....two days. We'd like to book a two day shoot that will take over your life like a virus...

So, those jobs are gone. Rejected. Trashed. But I guess it's about time to prune the deadwood of jobs. 

I love taking portraits. Haven't slowed down in the least. But I just want to pick the people I photograph, not the people who get sent over by companies anxious to populate a boring website with their "team." 

Really, I'd love to just keep working on getting better and better at making little movies, and personally interesting photographs of people. Of course, if we weren't in the middle of a raging pandemic I'd want to spend lots and lots of time traveling. And hanging out in cool places with Belinda. 

Things are good within the confines of our little half acre. We've always got personal projects on which yo work. We have our morning walks after my earlier morning swims. We cook meals together and enjoy each other's company. But I've never been so aware of the passage of time. Or the oppressive nature of being bound into one geographical area so tightly. 

I'm assuming so much of what I'm feeling today is a result of dealing with the shock and horror of turning 65 years old this month. I guess this new reticence to do any boring commercial work started around the time I had to figure out Medicare. That was last month. It required me to admit that even though I have the maturity of an 18 year old I really am transitioning to, um, middle age. With only forty or fifty years left in front of me I'm thinking it's past time to concentrate on the stuff I really want to do as opposed to all those projects I used to feel that I had to do. 

I'm guessing the majority of my readers have already figured this out. I used to think it was different for everyone but more stuff is the same than it is different. We get gray. We slow down. We want to stay relevant as long as we can. Ah well, enough complaining. I need to pack. I'm photographing an outdoor concert at Zach Theatre this evening and I want to bring fun toys to experiment with. First concert shoot using the Lumix S1H. The other camera is the S1. It will be interesting to see if they are interchangeable or if they each have their own quirks. But that's a blog for another day.


 

10.13.2020

Exhausting, frustrating but fun workday.


 This image has nothing to do with the post below. I just liked it and wanted something to put at the top of the post. And...dog. 

There is something exhilarating about working in a medium where you are still very much a "student." While I've been feeling that photo assignments have been growing stale for me lately the challenge of working at the very edge of what I know in the video editing world is both daunting and very satisfying. 

My friend, Kenny, is a wonderful singer and he was asked to "cover" a couple of songs from an upcoming, virtual, online holiday party. The client wanted him to have us create two videos of him singing; one for each song, with a bit of comedy at the end of the second video. Kind of a "sign-off" for the evening. 

Kenny and I worked on a bunch of video stuff for Zach Theatre (you saw him in the opening video of the virtual fundraiser last month - the guy sitting on the bench, on the bridge, at the very beginning of the video. He gets up and leads the first group of people towards the camera) so he called me and asked me to produce the video. The budget was minuscule and the resources scant, but it was a chance to try out a few more video techniques in the service of a friend. I jumped at the "opportunity." 

We shot all the footage on Saturday and I started editing last night. The actual files look amazing to me. My edit? Less so. The files have some of the best color I've seen. It actually appears richer and has more apparent depth than the stuff I've shot on much more expensive cameras. I think the secret was shooting 1080p in a high data rate, All-I file. That, and getting a nice white balance at the very beginning of the shoot. 

But yesterday and today reminded me of how much I still need to learn in both planning projects and in editing them. Let me tell you what I learned and re-learned.

I shot Kenny in wide, medium and tight shots with a gimbal mounted camera and got great footage. What I didn't get and what came back to bite me on the butt was b-roll. Or the abject absence of enough b-roll. Even though Kenny has a nice enough face and a warm and engaging personality it gets boring to watch the same person sing a song for three minutes and twenty seven seconds. 

I should have shot more: hands on the keyboard, playing the piano, more fun martini shots, some "grand piano hammers hitting strings" shots, and even some shots of just his hands in close ups. I flubbed the b-roll and paid for it with some painful editing sessions today. Part of the fault lies with my lack of pre-planning and part with rushing through the shoot.

Here's another super-genius thing I learned when I started editing on a big screen: Stuff that looks great and sharp on a tiny, tiny rear LCD on a camera doesn't necessarily always look sharp on my monitor. I updated my camera firmware and the big benefit was supposed to be much better C-AF. And it sure did look good on the pixie screen but sometimes the camera hunted and I'd be in the middle of a nice clip only to have it fall out of focus in the middle. Wouldn't having more b-roll be a nice thing?

I had to scramble to find better shots and figure out how to edit to cover up my camera's grievous errors.  Lesson? If I insist on shooting with those Panasonic cameras I need to make sure I'm using manual focusing instead of relying on the cameras. Sure, go ahead and let me know in the comments just how great those Sony A7Siii focusing features are. I'll read it. 

But the thing that saved me in the edit was the fact that these songs and the overall presentation could be a bit campy and a bit retro so I used some transitions that good taste had previously prevented. Aesthetics go out the window when you need to deflect. And entertain.

I did learn a bunch of new editing techniques that work well for making music videos. Since all the clips of Kenny performing were done with the same sound track playing on them I was able to select all four clips (different angles, different focal lengths) and the soundtrack and have them all synchronized automatically instead of trying to sync up each clip individually. I could lay the four visual tracks on the same timeline as the audio track and then cut back and forth between the takes to make the edit. It was a much faster way of working. Very similar to multi-cam editing.

I also learned that when stuff looks good in Final Cut Pro X but parts don't play back correctly after you export everything the safe fallback is to go back to the timeline you edited, copy the whole assemblage, open a new "project" and then paste everything into the new project. I dodged two bullets that way.

Okay. That's enough about video editing for now. I guess it's time to look forward on the schedule and get ready for tomorrow's live theater photography and then another video project on Saturday. Seems like I'm back in the busy mode. But I really am turning a lot of stuff down. I'm only interested in the fun stuff right now.

New motto: Never Enough B Roll.