11.01.2020

Nearly four year old GH5 versus Nearly new Lumix S1H. Which is the more useful video camera? Well, I guess that all depends on what you're shooting...

Yeah. I know. You got a spreadsheet. You can prove you made the right choice.
But what if you get to make more than one choice?

I think it's so... cute... that many video content creators are forever searching for the "perfect" camera. You know, the ONE camera what will do EVERYTHING for them, and do all the stuff at the highest level. Of course those folks also presume that they can get all that for around $3,000. Maybe less. And off they'll go shooting miraculous stuff which they hope will buy them notoriety and/or fame on YouTube. Gosh, I wish life were so simple.

It seems to me that life and video both require a diverse collection of skills and gear with which to navigate well. Lately I am struck between my divided regard for two different cameras from the same company; the old GH5 and the newly arrived S1H camera, both from Panasonic.

You've read it everywhere before but the main differences between cameras with smaller, micro four thirds imaging sensors and full frame sensor cameras are these features: state of the art image stabilization, smaller size, lower weight, and (best of all) smaller and lighter lenses. The "smaller and lighter lenses" also means that the small sensor cameras are easier to design and build long lenses for. 

The full frame cameras feature: bigger sensors, the benefits of which are bigger pixels/lower noise at high ISOs, more control over depth of field (in one direction < blur) and more surface area on the bodies on which to put more and better physical contact and control points. 

Since the Lumix S1H is newer and higher priced camera it offers more state of the art, video-centric features; but not so many as to render the older camera totally obsolete. You have nicer screens and better EVFs on the S1H but in video a good external monitor quickly levels that playing field. Most of the improvements are in the realm of greater and greater flexibility for settings and codecs. The S1H has a full-fledged, professional V-Log codec while the GH5 has Panasonic's V-Log lite. 

I really like the S1H and use it in a lot of controlled interview shoots and in situations where I know we'll be working at ISO 3200 to 6400. That's the sweet spot in which the newer camera starts to show its advantages over the smaller, older tech sensor. The S1H also has a nicer set of audio features and more "dynamic range" in the sound output. Along with more audio controls.

The S1H is a camera I'll grow into. The GH5 is a camera I'll leverage to the max right now. 

Case in point. The S1H, and the entire Panasonic S1 system doesn't have a native lens longer than 200mm. I'm sure they'll get there but when they do it's going to be expensive. Maybe frightfully so. But with the GH5 there are two or three lenses right out of the gate that can get me the reach I sometimes need along with the quality I think I want. 

I've spent two Saturdays now trying to use the S1H as a higher magnification, follow camera for night time concerts at Zach Theatre. I like using native lenses on the cameras because I can set the camera to deliver linear focus and I can also choose the total angle of rotation for the focusing ring that works best when I'm manually focusing. I'm finding that the physical operation, in this instance, is much, much more important that that mythic last ounce of quality in the files. If the footage is jittery, out of focus, and hard to focus then all the magic of 4K and high data throughput is meaningless. Especially so to the viewer.

I'm set up in a fixed position at these outdoor concerts because I need to cover two areas with one follow camera. I can get great wide and medium shots with stationary cameras but I'd really like to get tight coverage as well. When I hit the limits of the 200mm long end of the lens on the S1H I have to switch to an APS-C crop from full frame to get some extra reach. Now instead of using the full frame I'm using a crop in the middle of the frame. If I want to get closer still I can switch to the pixel to pixel setting which gives me a 2X crop but when shooting in 4K the lens is basically reading the same area as a GH5 would but the GH5 is sampling from all 20 megapixels instead of 8. Lenses created for smaller format cameras are optimized to provide more resolution and performance than the lenses  designed to cover full frame sensors so, at least in theory, not only is the GH5 downsampling to 4K which should give us less noise but it's also delivering details to the pixels by way of a much higher resolving lens (if we're buying the good stuff from the lens offerings...). 

(I started writing this before I left the office to go and shoot video last night... what follows this sentence was written this morning...)

I have two previous weeks of data and observation to call on for an even tighter comparison between the hands-on video performance of the two cameras. Last night I used the GH5 as my main video camera. It's the one I operate during the entire show, following whichever performer is the soloist at the time and on whichever stage he or she happens to wonder off to. I used the 50-200mm f4.0 (which is a full frame angle of view equivalent of 100-400mm at f4). I immediately observed that the additional depth of field of the smaller sensor made fine focusing much more forgiving. Even without access to linear focusing or more generous lens throws I was easily able to use the lens with manual focusing; checking the results in real time on the Atomos Ninja V monitor. 

While I found myself, earlier in the week, needing some extra ISO for stills that's a function of the need to use shutter speeds that can do a better job at freezing action. With photographs that tends to be in the range of 1/200th to 1/250th of a second. Even with the f4.0 lenses used wide open the need for more ISO is evident.

But it's not at all the same when shooting video. My theater client (and editor) likes to work in 24 fps which means we're setting the cameras for 1/48th of a second shutter speeds (180°). Some will do the exact frame rate while others need to be set to 1/50th of a second because that's the closest we can get. But that's still two or two and a half stops slower than our required photographic shutter speeds so I'm able to use the camera, when shooting video, at around ISO 800, a setting which is easily handled by any of our front line camera units. 

While the 70-200mm f4.0 S-Pro is a great performer, wide open, on a full frame camera; and a very able performer on APS-C video, by the time I have to crop down to a pixel-to-pixel magnification it's no great shakes. The 50-200mm lens for the m4:3 format is using the full frame at the same magnification and benefits from both the downsampling benefits and also having a design optimized to deliver great results with the small pixels.

Here's another thing I noticed when comparing my experience with both systems used in the same set up: The first week I was a sucker and bought into the "wisdom of the web" and turned off the image stabilization because the camera and lens were mounted on a tripod. What that really meant at the highest magnification was that I was giving up a lot of quality when actually handling the camera to make focus or zoom changes. While you might get artifacts when using the image stabilization with still photographs at certain shutter speeds the issues don't necessarily translate to tripod mounted cameras used in video mode. 

Last week I turned on the lens and body image stabilization and was rewarded with much less camera jitter in those times when I had to handle the camera or lens. And the stabilization in the S1H worked well. But the dual stabilization in the GH5 is better! And when you add in the e-stabilization you can get away with a lot more camera handling without obvious penalties. You will go through batteries quicker but even with all the I.S. engaged I finished up the hour and fifteen minutes of performance with two bars out of five left on the battery indicator on the GH5. For comparison, I used an S1 with all the extra features turned off, as a stationary camera, and at the end of the same time period the battery indicator in that camera read 57% remaining. Nice. 

If I were to base my video-oriented camera preferences solely on how well they shoot high magnification, moving performers from a stand-off distance I'd choose the GH5. Even more so when you calculate that you could buy three of them for the price of one S1H; and with the idea that creative content, in this instance, is even more important than any small difference in overall quality. Having three cameras gives you the chance to shoot three angles of events simultaneously which will make a lot of difference, in a nice way, when you sit down to edit the project.

But you knew a caveat was coming so here it is: While the GH5 is still totally relevant today (Yes, you can shoot high quality 60 fps at high data rates with no crop) the S1H has the potential to deliver higher quality content. The audio pre-amplifiers are cleaner, nicer to listen to and have more dynamic range. With the right subject matter the full frame video is sharper, cleaner and has more dynamic range. I also like the colors right out of the S1H better than those from the GH5 which I believe is the result of a new generation of color science versus the last gen. The version of V-Log in the S1H is better. The EVF and rear screen on the S1H are much better. And all of the setting features, meters and professional tools in the newer camera make it easier to get great results with. It's the camera I'd always bring to do corporate interviews or project on which the video footage has to be as good as I can get it. 

And now the S1H has a bigger quality differentiator in the ability to shoot Pro Res Raw video in conjunction with the Atomos Ninja V. We've tested the footage shot that way and while it sucks up memory space it has the potential to be really, really good. Especially on those times when I've slowed down enough to get my initial settings right. In the best of both worlds I'd have at least one of each camera so I could match them to the kinds of project on which they would excel. And since we live in the best of both worlds that's pretty much what I've done. 

But be aware that this is a moving target and my calculations might change if I test the Sigma 100-400 and find that it's great. Or, even better, Panasonic comes out with a long, fast native zoom for the S1 system. But for now I'll choose the GH5 and the 50-200mm lens for all the stuff that needs to be shot at a standoff distance and pull out the S1H when I can take complete control of the shooting parameters.

So, what kind of craziness did I engineer last night?

I was getting bored just shooting the Saturday concerts (a different cast and theme each week) with only three cameras so I added a forth one. I had one camera on a tripod with a long lens that could pan and cover the whole complex of stages. I had a second camera directly in front of the main stage and set to 35mm to cover the main action. I had a third camera on the "B" stage. That stages gets about 15% of the total play time that the main stage does but we need a camera there for wide coverage. Then, I added a fourth camera off at an angle to the main stage fitted with 16mm lens (32mm ff, eq.).  Here they are in their configurations.

This was my main/follow camera. It's the GH5 outfitted with the new (to me)
50-200mm Panasonic/Leica lens, the Panasonic audio interface with 
a feed from the main sound board, and an Atomos Ninja V monitor
which allows me to punch in to 1:1 or 2:1 while shooting to 
fine tune focus. Something you can't do on the camera's own monitors.
A project saving accessory. And yes, it works with stills.

This is my camera used looking straight into the main stage. It's an S1 (with the upgrade) outfitted 
with a Sigma 35mm Art lens and sitting on a Sirui tripod.
Do you see all the white tape everywhere?  It's on the tripod, lens, on the camera and 
on the lens hood That's so crew doesn't miss seeing the camera 
as they move through the set and run into it. The camera is parked next to a railing 
but you can never be too careful.  

This little pup is a Panasonic GX8.
I've outfitted it with a Sigma 16mm f1.4 lens 
used at f5.6. It's sitting on a Leica table top tripod
and that's sitting on the ground just next to a wall. On the far side of the wall
is the audience area. In front of the camera, at a 45° angle, is 
the main stage. I just wanted something a bit different
and when I discovered that the "old" GX8 could 
shoot 4K (in M4P) for an unlimited time I pressed it into service.
The files actually look great!!!

Finally, I'm using the S1H with a 24-105mm S lens as 
the wide camera for the secondary stage area. 
This camera got demoted when I discovered how good 
the GH5+50-200mm lens could be. 

It did a great job though.

Sitting on top of an old Gitzo tripod and a Manfrotto ball head. 

One thing I did differently last night: There had been a lot of lighting changes since I last shot the show here but unlike a highly rehearsed and practiced stage show the lighting doesn't change during an individual performance of these smaller productions. I remembered to take along a favorite incident light meter and I carefully measured the actual light in the areas covered by all three of the fixed position cameras and then set them very exactly. The result is a bunch of technically better files to work with today. 

On the main/follow camera I fine-tuned the exposure with a waveform reading on the screen of the Ninja, setting darker skin tone to 45-50%. It also produced technically perfect files for our use. The meter was much better than eye-balling stuff. And I can't remember the last time I saw a professional whip out a meter and use it. I bet I looked so cool. (That's a joke --- a program note for visitors from the humorless site). 

So, "No good deed goes unpunished." Yep, we finally nailed the technical aspects of perfectly shooting a live stage show. The theater uses the finished, edited videos to make some extra cash by offering them behind a paywall on Vimeo. This should have been the video for this particular production. But, as fate would have it, the female performer was having some issues with her voice and two of her songs were scrubbed at the last minute. The creative team punted by adding a song each for the two male performers. I'm sure though that the artistic director had/has the original playlist burned into his brain and we'll be shooting this show again in two weeks when they hold it over for a three week run before Thanksgiving. Dammit. I was so close.

Funny. We say that cameras are just tools. But then we expect one camera to do everything. Like hammering framing nails with a Swiss Army knife. I really do believe that cameras are visual construction tools and like every other endeavor we do need different tools for different applications. Few people would be obtuse enough to try and put a four by five inch, technical view camera onto a drone. You might not want to shoot highly detailed material destined for monster big enlargements with an iPhone 5S camera. The fun thing about doing artistic work is that you get to choose the tools (plural) with which you'd like to work. And you aren't limited to having only one. 

On the other hand, last night sure would have been interesting if all four of the camera had been GH5s...





 

10.30.2020

My mini-review of a lens that's been around for years. The Panasonic/Leica 50-200mm f2.8-4.0. It's one of those micro four thirds lenses...


I tried to work with an older, used lens to get both a long reach and adequate sharpness. It was the Panasonic Lumix 45-200mm lens. It was clearly designed for a time in the camera universe when 10 megapixels was hot shit and lens technology followed suit. I guess the designers couldn't imagine a time in which 20 megapixels would be baseline normal. The lens was okay at f8.0 but who wants a slow, single aperture lens?

I shot with the used lens at an outdoor concert on Wednesday and felt the need to return it to my local, bricks-and-mortar retailer this morning. They understood and cheerfully refunded my purchase. I think that was a good move on their part because I was in yesterday dropping $1500 on a much better lens. It's the lens I should have bought in the first place. It's the Panasonic/Leica 50-200mm f2.8-f4.0. 

But before I got all cozy with the 50-200mm I needed to take it out for some exercise and make sure that it's really the improvement I imagined it would be. I put it on the front of a G9 camera body and headed out for a late afternoon walk through a sun-drenched city that was settling in to Friday afternoon with clear, bright skies and high temperatures around 70°. 

My big use for the lens is for all those times when I have to be in a stationary position but need to cover a long range populated with moving actors and singers. My 70-200mm S-Pro lens is right on the cusp of being highly useful when used in an APS-C mode, which gives me an equivalent focal length (compared to full frame cameras) of 300mm. But I found myself consistently wanting the flexibility of that last 100mm of stretch. 

Here's what B&H Photo has to say about the new, 50-200mm f2.8-4.0 lens (a quick and dirty way to cover the specs...):

"the Leica DG Vario-Elmarit 50-200mm f/2.8-4 ASPH. POWER O.I.S. Lens from Panasonic is a 100-400mm equivalent zoom designed in collaboration with Leica for Micro Four Thirds cameras. The long reach is complemented by a bright f/2.8-4 maximum aperture range, which benefits working in low-light conditions and also affords control over depth of field for isolating subjects. The optical design incorporates several low dispersion elements, two aspherical elements, and an ultra-high refractive index element to control both chromatic and spherical aberrations for improved clarity and sharpness. A Nano Surface Coating has also been applied to limit flare and ghosting for increased contrast and color fidelity when working in strong lighting conditions.

Benefitting both stills shooting and video recording, a 240 fps high-speed AF motor offers quick, quiet, and precise autofocus performance. Also, a POWER Optical Image Stabilizer will compensate for camera shake and works with Panasonic's Dual I.S. and Dual I.S. 2.0 in-camera stabilization functions to minimize the appearance of camera shake. Additionally, the physical design of the lens is dust- and moisture-resistant, as well as freeze-proof, for use in inclement shooting conditions.

With a 100-400mm equivalent focal length range on Micro Four Thirds cameras, this telephoto prime is well suited to working with distant subject matter.
Bright f/2.8-4 maximum aperture range excels when working in difficult lighting conditions and provides increased control over depth of field.
Two ultra extra-low dispersion elements and two extra-low dispersion elements minimize various aberrations in order to produce a high degree of clarity, sharpness, and color accuracy.
Two aspherical elements and one ultra high refractive index element help to reduce distortion and spherical aberrations for improved sharpness and accurate rendering throughout the zoom range.
Nano Surface Coating has been applied to individual elements to reduce flare and ghosting for improved contrast and color neutrality.
POWER Optical Image Stabilizer minimizes the appearance of camera shake for sharper handheld shooting, and also supports the Dual I.S. and Dual I.S. 2.0 functions for increased stabilization performance.
A 240 fps AF motor offers fast, precise, and near-silent focusing performance to benefit both stills shooting and video recording applications.
Splash, dust, and freezeproof design benefits working in inclement weather conditions down to -14°F."
I want it for two reasons. First, I want to use the lens when I do still photography of shows where I can't approach the stage so I can get tighter shots on individual performers. Secondly, I want the additional reach so I can pan with moving performers as they move from one stage that's 50 feet away to another stage that's 70 feet away. But...I want the images to be sharp and the image stabilization to work almost as well as a current gimbal. 

On my walk today I concentrated on objects that I could shoot at the full 400mm extension of the lens while having the aperture set at f4.0. The images above and below are the result. I'm happy with the optical performance of the lens but I need to spend more time tomorrow practicing the manual focusing of the lens. That will be critical for my video use. 

So far, I'm finding the lens to be very sharp; even wide open. At the long end it does not lose sharpness or contrast like so many lesser lenses. If it passes my manual focusing tests I will have found my new, favorite long lens. It will also be part of my traveling kit. 

I learned when I was in Iceland in 2018 just how great the G9 and some of the m4:3 lenses really are. My "small camera" kit now includes the G9 along with the 12-60mm Panasonic/Leica lens and, hopefully, this lens as well. I bring along a GH5 as a back-up/companion body. Both cameras take the same battery and both, obviously, take the same lenses. It's all a match made in heaven.

Browse through the photos and let me know what you think. The adore-or-return test starts tomorrow at sundown on the plaza at Zach Theatre. I'll post more after that. 



From all the way across the wide river.


You've heard about crop circles, how about crop squares?












A quick test shot at the theater. Just making sure it's the right combination for tomorrow's video.

Who is my favorite YouTube personality when it comes to learning technical stuff about video?

 That would be Gerald Undone. He's smart, fun, informed and makes great videos about lots of different technical stuff in which I am keenly interesting. 

Need to know the best way to set up an Atomos Ninja V monitor/recorder? He's on it. 

Want to learn how to dodge common V-Log editing pitfalls? Yeah. Covered. 

A good, deep dive into LED lights for video? Saw it. Liked it and made a buying decision based on the info. Guess what? That light is now one of my favorites.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC09qASY4ixFS-KXIH6Nw0rg

He won't waste your time with a lot of useless fluff in the openers and he's face paced. Best of all? A table of contents by time. Go straight to what you think you need to know...

That's my recommendation for anyone interested in diving deeper into video. At least it's my recommendation for today.

Disclaimer: I have no association with Mr. Undone. No affiliation whatsoever. Just a fan who has learned a great deal from his content. 

Also, he's Canadian, so there's no drama......

10.29.2020

So much work got done in the last two days. Where to start???

Judy Arnold singing at Zach Theatre's "Songs Under the Stars."

We finished up a job for Jaston Williams ( a wonderful stage actor and playwright) yesterday afternoon and I immediately fell into post processing mode. We'd shot in a temporary studio set-up back stage at Zach Theatre's MainStage. But this shoot wasn't done for Zach it was completed for Jaston's own production company. We were just renting space at our favorite theater. 

We spent two days with a gifted make-up artist, a director, a costume designer, a lighting designer and Jaston creating photographs of characters that will appear in a multi-media production of Jaston's next big show. 

But after we finished photographing and my assistant and I wrapped all the gear (a mountain of gear!) getting it all safely back to the studio I needed to re-pack and turn around pretty quickly. I did take time download all the big, juicy raw files from that day's adventure but I was out the door an hour later, heading back to the theater to photograph the evening concert series the theater is calling, "Songs Under the Stars." 

I tossed in a little twist this time. Since I can't physically block the stage from the audience I've been shooting with longer lenses. But the longest lens I have for the Lumix S1 series cameras is the 70-200mm f4.0. In fact, I don't think Panasonic has delivered a longer lens for the S1x system yet! I've been using it on the S1R with the camera in the "teleconverter" mode which is basically a 1.4X crop that yields a 23.5 megapixel file (the full frame file being 47 megapixels...). That at least gives me a 300mm equivalent to work with.

I'm always looking for a longer focal length for these productions and last week I picked up an old, used lens for the micro-four-thirds cameras. It's an early 45-200mm f4.0 - 5.6 Panasonic lens. I covered the concert with the tried and true, full frame camera first but then I stuck the 45-200mm onto a G9 and started to blaze away. Even with dual I.S. it's damn hard to get lots of keepers with a 400mm equivalent lens. I tried a bunch of steadying techniques and even put the rig on a monopod but I wasn't able to get enough satisfyingly sharp images until I got the shutter speed up above 1/200th. And that required me to ramp up the ISO to 6400. Yes. 6400 on a "cropped frame" camera. Astounding. Impossible. Inadvisable. Etc. 

The saving grace of modern cameras is to shoot them in Jpeg mode when you go from the sane settings to the weird and over the top settings. The idea is that the camera and its engineers have probably figured out a better noise reduction technique that I will have done in the post processing of raw files. And I think it worked on about 2 out of every 10 shots. The one above was shot two thirds of stop lower than wide open, and the ISO was 6400. 

The image is certainly usable for social media, etc. but the keeper rate from the lens is far too low. It's partly because the image stabilization in the lens is very much first or second generation while we are now in a time of 8th or 10th generation I.S. I also think that the lens is not really as sharp as I'd like when used at its longest focal length, especially while the lens aperture is at or near its maximum. 

I liked the reach but I decided that we'd need a much higher quality optic to make this bold experiment in the use of smaller sensor cameras work. What better solution for a self-inflicted problem than some immediate retail therapy? I decided I liked shooting at 400mm and I'd like it even better with a faster lens that was also razor sharp wide open. I decided to add a 50-200mm f2.8-4.0 Panasonic/Leica zoom to the studio mix. I picked it up this morning after scouting a location for a third client in far north Austin. Thankfully this lens is currently on sale at $200 off the usual price.

I'll have to put up some comparison photos next Wednesday or Thursday, after I've had a chance to shoot the next show in the same lighting. It should be interesting. 

Pandemic safe meetings. I had a meeting with a client this afternoon to discuss an upcoming project. Since it was with a person I've known for years and years I thought she would be open to a new meeting venue. I proposed that we meet in the vast, central city park (Zilker Park). We each sourced our own coffee and met under the trees there. I brought two lightweight, Adirondack-style chairs with me and we set them up so our legs were in the sun but our faces were shaded by the leaves of a friendly tree. 

It was 61° and bright this afternoon. There were wind gusts but it was, altogether, very pleasant. We chattered away about concept and design of a campaign for the better part of an hour. I took a few notes. At the end we were both relaxed and the thought crossed my mind that perhaps business meetings could produce better results if we did more of them in nature; weather permitting. The chairs were comfortable and there were no fellow associates to interrupt my client. No ringing telephones (we left them in our cars). And across the street we could see the happy-go-lucky younger adults playing rounds of Frisbee golf. Maybe happiness is contagious. At least it felt like it.

With a bit of distancing, some clever chair positioning to make sure we weren't breathing towards one another, and lots and lots of fresh, cool air I think it was easily the safest (quasi-) face-to-face meeting I've had since we learned about Covid-19. I realize it's not optimal for people living in the northern regions but on the odd day when the weather is warmer than it should be it might be a good idea to bundle up a little and go exterior. 

I have a meeting tomorrow morning with an agency creative director, I think we'll try another version of the meeting in the park. Could be a trend.

I have to admit, I wasn't expecting the Apple Watch 6 to be as good as it is! Yes, I got the watch for my birthday and I've been getting up to speed on it, day by day. I haven't been able to get the death ray to work yet but that might not even be a real thing. I'm loving checking my vitals. I love that it tells me when I've got a call and gives me a quick way to ignore said call. And I like changing my watch face throughout the day (currently using Mickey Mouse...). I love the heart rate monitor and I value the loud noise warnings.

My watch was very concerned yesterday since the amplified concert I photographed was way too loud, and lasted for over an hour. I tried and tried to tell the watch that I was definitely using earplugs --- because I always use earplugs at concerts, but the watch wasn't getting that point. Interesting to see though just how much loud sound people willingly subject themselves to. Little wonder so many become hard of hearing as they age...

The only depressing thing about the Watch, both yesterday and today, is how easy it becomes to check the current value of one's investments. Just like the other suggestions, like breathing more, the Watch should admonish me for checking stock prices too often....Especially when values are dropping like rocks.

No big work tomorrow. Just one happy meeting and then a relaxing day. I'm looking forward to chilling out a bit.

 

10.27.2020

A wonderful birthday gift from the universe. A photo job that goes perfectly.

 Singing in the Rain. from a few years back. 

I guess as we go through life we get cynical. Stuff always goes wrong. Even really good projects usually have rough edges or misfires along the way. We get hardened to it. Maybe we start making little excuses as we go along just to blunt the blow when we realize something could have been really good but now, because of little flaws it's all just "good enough." 

Sometimes, when I work on projects with lots of collaborators, lots of moving parts and lots of "gray space" I find myself tensing up and getting ready for some moldy shoe to drop or some critical prop or piece of gear to fail. I steel myself because I'll have to do a work around but also because I realize how good a project could have been if not for.......whatever. 

And even when we figure out how to fix a deal breaking failure we end up against a running clock that occasionally runs out before we can fix whatever it is that needed fixed. The disappointment wears you down. 

But not today. I got to collaborate with one of my favorite Texas playwrights, Jaston Williams. He was one half of the acting and writing team that created "Tuna Texas" and followed up with "Greater Tuna" and most recently, "A Tuna Christmas." All are plays about a mythical (but very real) small town in Texas and the amazing characters that inhabit it. 

Jaston's newest work is still in production so I can't go into detail about it but I can say that he plays a dozen different characters from a small town and he takes a deep dive into each character. 

A few weeks ago his agent from L.A. called to see if I would shoot "portraits" of Jaston in each costume and character. Could I shoot them against white in "Your Richard Avedon" style. 

Today was the first of two shooting days. We rented the main stage at Zach Theatre for the project. We had Jaston as our talent. We also had a genius of a make-up artist, a brilliant costume and prop designer, a bright and very cooperative director and even a videographer shooting behind the scenes. 

I've worked with Jaston on ten or twelve projects in the past. We have a trust and camaraderie that's pretty cool. No one from the producer on down stepped into my creative space to tell me how they wanted the images done. My only brief was: They need to be shot on white and, they need to be full body shots - head to toe.

I got to the theater an hour before everyone arrived so I could set up and take my time to tweak. I was shooting with LED lights and I brought a bunch with me. Two for the background. One main. One fill. One background light. Two accent lights. I worked with a big, soft light as the main light. I like strong, hard shadows on the other side but I put a little bit of soft fill light into the mix. 

We shot five different costume and character changes today. I was blown away by how deeply and authentically Jaston immersed himself in each of the characters. If his character was "old Texas mechanic" he had it down to the accent, the posture and even the weathered skin tone. 

I just finished doing post production for today and was compelled to write this because it's one of my recent jobs in which everything went exactly as it was supposed to. The color and exposures are perfect. The detail from the S1R is breathtaking. The images themselves aren't "work" images; they feel like "art" to me. 

As I've worked through the 860 image I shot today I was trying to dissect the shoot or understand what I might have done to make this work so well. I finally decided that it was because I didn't try too little but I also didn't try too hard. I tried just in the middle of a big comfort zone. 

If every shoot could be like this I'd work seven days a week with a smile on my face.

Usually it's the client who brings most of the roadblocks and unhappy accidents. There's something special about working with a consummate artist. They have a vested interest in my success because we're making art that they'll use to leverage their work. That, and the fact that they respect our process in a way that most commercial clients rarely even understand exists. They understand. 

It was a wonderful way to spend a birthday and I get to go back and finish the project tomorrow. 

I just wanted to thank them for the gift of giving me the space to make art. And to help Jaston make his art. 

I'm guessing that's why a lot of us got into this discipline. Not just to make money but to make beautiful and evocative work. 



Also from "Singing in the Rain." That happy feeling when stuff just works.
 

65.

It's 42°. Up and out for swim practice. Hope they have the pool heaters on....


 

10.26.2020

One of the least talked about parts of commercial photography is just the logistics of getting everything you need where you need it when you need it.

A trimmed down "follow" camera from Saturday's video shoot. 

 I woke up this morning knowing that I was finished with Saturday's live concert video project. I'd double-checked the video footage from all three cameras we'd shot with then, archived it across a couple of HDs and prepped a third HD for my client to pick up from the studio yesterday. So, all done. Feeling of satisfaction. Stuff taken off my plate. 

But the feeling of completion was short-lived. As soon as my brain registered that job "complete" it started working away on the next one. And, as I drove home from picking up more supplies this morning it dawned on me that, looking back over decades, the second most important thing we do on projects; after getting the assignment, is logistics.

Assembling the right gear is critical to commercial success. But that nearly always means more than just camera, lenses, batteries. And it's more than lights, and models. And assembling the gear is pretty much meaningless unless you also have a plan to deliver it to the right place. On time.

I realized in a flash this morning that for every minute I've actually spent with a camera in my hands, photographing a commercial jobs, I've spent at least an hour getting ready. It's odd to realize that you've spent much more time as a furniture mover and supply buyer than you will have ever spent actually making the art. 

Today is a perfect snapshot of that. Tomorrow I start a two day shoot with one of my favorite national acting talents, Jaston Williams. He's producing a new play and his agent from L.A. reached out to offer me the job of photographing Jaston in a wide range of costumes and make-up. The photos will be used as content in the production and also for marketing. His production company has rented a large stage at one of the local theaters and we'll be shooting everything against white so we can drop out the background in post. 

I wish I was a "famous" photographer with a devoted entourage and I could task someone else with all the stuff we need to do to get ready for a relatively straightforward series of photo sessions. But I guess I never developed the personality that would allow me to lounge about on the set with a martini in my hand while others do the work. Some day, maybe, but it hasn't jelled yet.

So, off my brain goes on the next game of "Be Prepared." 

I start from the back of a set and work/plan my way up. We need to shoot on a white seamless paper background. I checked our current roll. It's tattered and has only a few yards of life left. I need a new roll. I head to the camera store and grab the last roll of "Super White" nine foot wide seamless and head for the counter. Then it dawns on me that this might be the first time I've stuck a long roll of white seamless in the new car. Will it fit? Yes. On the way home I start making a list of all the stuff I need just to make the background paper work. 

I'll need to tighten the levers that lock in the sections on the background stands. That takes a Phillips head screw driver and a wrench. I need to pack two clamps to keep the paper from unrolling as we loft it. I need a roll of white duct tape to tape the front of the paper to the stage floor. I need a small knife to cut the paper out of its box and then out of its protective plastic bag. Also to slice off used paper if we decide to roll out more.  I need two, white, shiny Formica panels to put on top of the seamless so the talent can stand on them without destroying the paper underneath. The panels are also easy to clean. Remember to bring shop towels and spray cleaner. All that stuff gets added to the inventory list. 

Once the background gets figured out I work on the lighting. How will I light this so the background goes away but Jaston looks fantastic? Do I use flash or continuous lights? Well, we'll have a videographer in tow shooting BTS and also web content so flash is out. That means I need to bring a bunch of LED lighting to get the levels high enough to freeze action. I'll need four lighting instruments to make the background even and bright. I'll need four stands for those lighting instruments. I'll need some clamps and some Black Wrap to control light spill. I'll need reflectors and barn doors for those fixtures. I'll need an electrical cable for each unit and a "master" extension cable for the back four lights. With a splitter. Okay. Then I'll need a case to make transporting the lights and stands more efficient. 

What about the front of the set? We'll need to light that as well.. I'll use a big, Godox SL200 Wii, as the main light, firing into a 48 inch octabox. That requires a stout light stand, a power cable, the actual octabox and access to yet another long extension cord. Oh, and a 30 pound sandbag. I'll also want to backlight Jaston so we'll need a heavy duty stand to hold a boom arm with a smaller light firing into a small, 32 by 32 inch soft box. We'll need a power cable for that as well as a speed ring for the soft box and....the soft box. 

To even out the front light from top to bottom in the frame I'll want to put a shiny reflector on the floor in front of Jaston and aim a light into that. I'm not looking for a 1:1 fill from the bottom source but enough added light so that the costuming doesn't go too dark near the bottom. Add in another light, another stand (a short one), another speed ring, another small soft box, another electrical cable and a big, shiny reflector. 

Since I'll be using the main light 45° to one side and 45° tilted down I'll want to have a fill light to boost exposure on the shadow side of Jaston. That means one more light, one more stand, one more cable, and one more modifier. To keep it simple I'll bring a medium sized, shoot through umbrella. 

To wrangle all that light we'll need our light meter. I think I'll bring the Spectra Cine Pro 1800 meter, just for grins. It's the perfect solution for continuous-only metering. No flash mumbo-jumbo to get in the way.

The second set of lights (the front of scene lights) will also need a case for transporting as well as an additional stand case for the four other light stands and the boom arm. (I bet you already forgot about the boom arm....).

And that gets us to cameras. We'll keep this simple. We need high resolution and more resolution so we'll pack a Lumix S1R along with another S1R as a back up camera. Each camera travels with two batteries and each camera is loaded with a 128 GB SD card and a 128 GB CFexpress card. We'll bring the 24-70mm f2.8 S-Pro lens, the 70-200mm f4.0 S-Pro lens and also toss in the Panasonic 24-105mm S lens as a back up for both of the other lenses. Remembering to pack a bulb blower for dust on the sensor, lens cleaner, a micro cloth or two, and, of course, a case to hold the cameras lenses and accessories. 

I'm thinking, given the large size of the stage, the lack of any close by electrical outlets, etc. that it's probably prudent to bring along four 50 foot, heavy duty extension cords along with splitter boxes for each. We have a  box for those. 

Finally, I need to bring along out cart to get all this stuff in and out of the building. No sense making a dozen trips in and out to the car if we can do it in two or three trips.

Logistics. After we unload the car I have to set all the stuff up and test it. Then, on Wednesday afternoon, after our two day project is wrapped at the location I'll pack all that stuff back in boxes and cases, cart it out to the car, drive it home and carry it back into the studio. We'll check all the lights, meters and cameras to see if anything needs batteries or maintenance and then start on the post processing part of the job. 

Once I've got a handle on post processing I'll start pulling stuff out of travel cases and putting it back on the shelves and in the cabinets where it mostly lives. 

At every step of the way it's the logistics of moving things in and out, remembering the little accessories that attach or power the bigger stuff, having the right materials, etc. I'm lucky on this job in that they have their own, dedicated make-up person and their own costume and wardrobe manager. There's a P.A. on set and, since the main production company is very professional there will be coffee. 

I'll have Ben or another assistant travel to the theater in a separate car and help with with the load in and then again the next day with the load out. But I sure don't need an assistant to hang out with me all day long. Especially since I anticipate a lot of downtime for costume and make-up changes. 

We'll have a tight turnaround on Weds. We finish shooting at 4 pm and start packing and moving gear to the car. I anticipate being back at the studio by five or five-thirty where we'll unload and then grab a different set of cameras (2 x S1s) repack the same lenses, and head back to the theater complex to photography that evening's show of "Songs Under the Stars." That's the outdoor concert series I've working on. The rest of the week is dedicated to post production with a little break for a location scout out at Luminex. But the Luminex shoot doesn't happen until the following week so I haven't starting worrying about the logistics on that one just yet. One at a time. I think that's the best way to handle stuff. 

Looking back over 30 years or so I'm fascinated with just how much of my career has involved the logistics of packing and moving stuff. We did a project in Russia in 1995 that required cases full of Hasselblad cameras and lenses, cases of film and Polaroid and cases of lights and stands. We spent a couple of weeks shooting the Catherine Palace and the Alexander Palace and it was a quick reminder that handicap access was not on the radar at that time in St. Petersburg or Puskin. Just more layers to logistics. 

It's all about packing and gear handling. Many times I dreamed of being a photojournalist instead. One Domke bag full of gear and some strange khaki vest with pockets. That and a passport. 

But I think commercial work turned out to be more financially productive....

Life. All about regrets, lost opportunities and logistics. Always logistics. 

Dammit. I forgot about the tripod. Now I've added that to the list....

Somewhere in there I'll make time for a 65th birthday celebration and a couple of swim workouts. Staying busy is energizing. Feels just like the old days.

10.25.2020

Several things I did last night that made my video much, much better. And nicer to watch.


 If you read the manual hard enough you can actually learn stuff with benefits. And if you pay attention to physics you can be steadier as well. 

We've been shooting live, outdoor concerts for Zach Theatre. Last week was our first foray into doing a three camera show documentation and while the client was pleased I saw lots and lots of room for technical improvements with our long lens, follow camera. The one from which we'll pull 85-90% of the imagery.

I won't get too far in the weeds but I'll admit some humbling observations. 

First off, last week I used my Atomos Ninja V monitor on top of the camera cage which put the center of gravity for everything sitting on top of the tripod head much further up than it could have been. With that much weight sitting up so high it accentuated every vibration from touching the camera or lens (and it hurt to crane my neck up to look at the monitor for an hour and a half). 

The biggest issues came when I needed to loosen the tilt control to tilt up or down when compensating for a performer changing position. The top heavy camera and monitor would answer the calls of gravity quickly and gracelessly and I wasn't always able to adequately dampen the movements. Partially, this was because the load on the head was poorly balanced but mostly because the monitor and its battery became a long lever for the forces of physics to exert themselves.

I started over from scratch this week and my first step was to put the video tripod head on the biggest, heaviest and strongest tripod I own. The second thing I did was to move the monitor from the top of the cage off the tripod head assemblage altogether. I used a clamp and a stand adapter to attach the monitor to one of the tripod legs so I could operate the touch screen without any vibration to the camera rig. That was a major good move in the right direction. It was also much more comfortable to look at. 

Next I gave very close attention to balancing the camera and lens on the tripod head. I moved the tripod mount on the lens forward and backward in the quick release until I hit a neutral point where the whole set-up would balance without me having to lock down the tilt controls. To say it made a big improvement over an hour and a half of hands-on operation is a profound understatement. 

Next I fixed a major issue with focusing. I was so impressed that my L series S-Pro lens have a clutch that allows manual focusing with hard stops at both infinity and the close focus point that I felt compelled on the previous week to use them. But that was just stupid. It would have been great if I was looking for rehearsed repeatability but the manual focusing rings is non-linear and has a relatively short throw. That meant that fine focusing the lens when used wide open and racked all the way out to 300mm (APS-C mode) was a nightmare. The short throw made it almost impossible to nail very specific point. I had to rack the focusing ring back and forth to get an exact and satisfying fine focus point. The barest touch would put you in front or behind the point of highest sharpness. It was a frustrating evening.

I could see the focus point go in and out on the monitor. It was very obvious where the focus "should" have been but the short throw just made the process endlessly glitchy. 

A more thorough study of the S1H camera manual reminded me that all of the S1 cameras allow one to choose how they want the electronic focusing ring to work (not the manual ring!). You can choose between a linear or a non-linear focus throw and you definitely want a linear throw for video! Then you can select how many degrees of rotation you'd like between the closest focusing of the lens and the infinity focus. 90° is too short. Even 180° feels short with a long lens. I settled in at 270 degrees ant this generous amount of throw gave me much more controllable discrimination in focusing. Things didn't "jump" into sharp focus, instead you could see a long smooth transition into sharp focus. It made hitting the mark so much easier and the technique so much less obvious to any audience. It felt like you were given 10 times the control of the manual focusing process. And it was all right there in the camera. 

Finally, with a bright set of stage lights and a very dark background it's not always obvious how to set exposure. Waveforms are great on controlled shoots but when people are moving in an out of lights it's great to have a different method of figuring out if you have faces exposed correctly. I started using "false color" on the shoot last night. Each tonality on a scale is given a different color. On the Atomos monitors average flesh tones/skin values fall into a green color. This is something you can see in real time if you are referencing an external monitor. 

Last night was a bit of a triumph for me. I conquered my long lens focus glitches (while shooting video) and took 99% of the camera bounciness out of the shoot. My exposures were tighter and more accurate. In all, I count a week's worth of study and trial and error to be successful. 

Some of you seasoned video pros are probably chuckling at this having long ago conquered most of these impediments to good production. But I would counter that, at least, I have the thrill of learning it all for the first time. 

so, how did the cameras perform? All three of the cameras (S1H, S1 and GH5) ran without any issues or glitches. No thermal warnings. No dropped frames. All were running in 4K, 10 bit, 4:2:2, Long Gop. All ran for an hour and fifteen minutes. While I didn't bother to check the GH5 I did notice that both of the S1 series cameras had over 50% battery power left at the end of the long session. It was interesting since the S1 had image stabilization turned off while the S1H has I.S. turned on. The battery life at the end point was indentical. I guess I.S. on a tripod isn't as much of a "battery suck" as I imagined. 

I just finished transferring files to my hard drives and the made a copy on a third HD to deliver to the client. 300+ Gigabytes of content seems like a good night's work. And, bonus! I don't have to edit it. 

Happy Sunday! 

the GH5. Last night's "set it and forget it" champion. 
That's the Meike 12mm lens on the front.



10.24.2020

The best way to drive is to look out through the windshield in the direction you want to go. Too much time spent looking in the rearview mirrors is dangerous and may cause one to loose situational awareness in the moment.

Until we invent time machines you'll just have to let the past go and focus 
on everything in front of you. 

If you ask my friends and family they would most likely tell you that I'm not one to dwell on the past. I like to keep moving forward....like a shark. In writing the blog over the years I occasionally dip into the past; telling photo related stories and waxing nostalgic about cameras that I enjoyed using but my main focus is to stay anchored to the present and to flow with the rhythm and currents of ongoing change. It's also why I like to upgrade cameras and try out new systems. While I am not the most avant-garde of photographers, technically, I'm most certainly not a believer that all the good stuff in photography happened decades ago in the age of medium format cameras, film and darkroom work. I actually believe in leveraging the present instead of (metaphorically) sitting on a deck chair, a plaid wool blanket over my legs, going on and on about all the glories of yesteryear.

I get that not everyone feels that way and there is a propensity for people to associate what they did successfully in the past with a high point in their chosen craft, or even culture. I suppose it's even comforting for people who've allowed themselves to get stuck in certain time periods to dredge up the way we did stuff in the good old days and try to resurrect the original feelings of mastery and competence they felt after having learned something cool for the first time. I can go on for hours and hours about my first 100 jobs with a 4x5 view camera and I can regale (bored) young people with stories about my battles in the darkroom to get the perfect tray development methods for "souping" black and white film but other than signifying the length of my tenure in this particular craft I can't see how it moves the blog, or my progress as a photographer, forward. Unless my goal is to stop all forward momentum and make myself into a museum dedicated to my photographic past. Something I personally would find overly introspective and boring. 

I wrote something once about how life is like a fast moving river with strong currents. If you can never get to the side and exit the river you have to learn how to navigate it. We swim with the current until we get too tired and then we find a convenient rock to cling to. If you never let go of the rock to continue swimming your fellow swimmers (your generation?) swim on and leave you behind. Eventually your whole world becomes that lone rock in the middle of the river. You cling to it and it anchors you. It both saves you (temporarily) and dooms you by narrowing your vision. Once you start to live in the past you lose the ability to embrace the current and move on. And then you die (at least creatively). 

If your aim is a retrospective show then you've already given up. If your goal is to find the next great shot then you are still swimming (and dodging rocks). When I meet people who are morose I generally find them glorifying the past and moaning about the perceived meanness of the present. When I meet people older than me who are happy it's because they are curious, willing to constantly experiment, and they are engaged. 

Creating photographs seems to me to be more like performance art than painting. The activity of actually doing the work is what an artist craves. Interpreting and dissecting the art seems to be a job for someone other than the artist who created it. But once all the focus is on the work from the past and the tools, techniques and artists of the past it's at that point that the artist has gotten tired of swimming with the current, going with the flow, and has effectively given up and found their rock to cling to. 

At 64.99 years old I feel like I'm still 18. I love making new images. The cameras are largely immaterial. They are secondary to the process of seeing new images and capturing them. And then saying, "Look What I Just Saw!!!

From time to time I have a recurrent fantasy of just hiring someone to back a truck up to the studio door and having them take every scrap out. Every camera, lens, light, computer, stand, umbrella, etc. And then, the next day, I would wake up and figure out in which direction to go now. 

In many ways we are like writers. At our best we are story tellers. Our images weave an instant narrative. But imagine if writers spent most of their time inventing and perfecting ever more expensive machines with which to tell their stories. What if the lore about the machines dominated the discussion of writing the way cameras seem to now dominate our discussions about photography? Would the stories get better or would they languish as writers waited for hardware and software upgrades to the ever-growing writing machines?

I think we are all a bit guilty of presuming that we have to use certain cameras and lenses to legitimately share the stories we want to tell. We build legends about lenses. We transfer part of our power as artists into the belief that some new camera will give us more potential imaging power than an existing one. We embrace the magic of machines to a greater and greater extent while at the same time using the new technology to replicate what we did with the older technology. It's easier now and that bothers people. But, like a writer, our machines are wholly secondary to our stories. Only now our dependence on both the visual constraints of our past, and the desire to overlay those constraints onto new working methods, keeps us from experimenting with any new storytelling. 

Eventually, if you want to move your art forward, you need to burn down the past rather than wallowing in it. You don't need to actually put all your prints, negs, digital files on a nice, toasty bonfire. You can archive them in any way you want. But at some point, in order to do good, new work (rather than just repeating the greatest hits...) you'll need to slip off the anchors of the past and resume your swim. It's the only way. 

Rocks are alluring. Rocks are comforting. At some point you'll master the rock. And it will master you.  Letting go and moving forward takes effort and faith. But aren't you curious to see what's around the next bend?




 


Taking the Sigma 56mm f1.4 DC DN lens in the M4:3 mount out for a spin. Nice and small.


Ben turned 25 this week. I'm stunned how fast time sprints. The kid is doing great. Looking at a new job as a writer for a cutting edge tech company and generally staying fit and centered. I'm always happy when he drops by the office in running apparel and tells me he's heading off for a long run around the lake. He's so, so much faster than me but I guess that's to be expected, given our 40 year age difference... 

We had dinner with him last night and I took a few photographs of him with the new lens. 

I picked up the new lens on Thursday. I meant to get a used camera but I started psycho-analyzing myself on the drive out and decided that my desire to buy new cameras right now must be a reflexive reaction to not being able to go any place or shoot anything exciting. I thought maybe a lens would be a less Jungian trope.

I'd been thinking about this lens for a couple of weeks. I wasn't paying attention when it was first announced but Sigma's Contemporary lens line has mostly been surprisingly good. The current line up, consisting of the 16mm f1.4, the 30mm f1.4 and the 56mm f1.4, is really superb considering the moderate cost. They offer the lenses in the Sony E mount, the M4:3 mount, the Fuji mount and now the L mount. All three lenses are designed to cover APS-C sized sensors, and smaller. I can't see the logic of me getting an L mount version since I have so many "normal" lens options for the Panasonic S1 cameras and the Sigma fp. So it was a pretty straightforward choice to opt for the M4:3 mount.

The Sigma 56mm f1.4 has an extremely sharp center area; even wide open. It's a great, longer lens for a small sensor system if you routinely want to photograph under low light conditions and you don't need expansive depth of field. The lens body is much smaller than that of the 16mm f1.4 and the front filter diameter is a very useful 55mm. The lens doesn't not include image stabilization and I think that helps keep the size and weight down. 

Just like the new 85mm f1.4 Sigma Art lens (v2) the 56mm was designed with compromises that are largely meant to be fixed by automatic, in-camera correction software. Both the lenses feature exhibit a relatively high degree of pincushion distortion and both have appreciable vignetting when used wide open. Used on a Lumix GH5, G9 or GX8 the system seems to do a good behind the scenes job making everything look great. 

I pulled the lens out of its box yesterday, put it on a G9 body and headed out for a walk through downtown. The focus was quick, precise and accurate. I'm happy with the optical performance and I've put a selection of images down below so you can see for yourself. Be sure to click on them to see them larger. 

My birthday comes up next week and I think I'll use the opportunity to spend more time swimming and less time thinking about what new gear to buy. Seems like more of a New Year's Resolution than a birthday thought but there you have it.

We're having our first "cold" snap here. My Calgary Friend, Eric, will laugh at this but it got all the way down to 52° Fahrenheit last night and I got to wear a light jacket this morning. After swim practice I bought a coffee and an egg sandwich and went to my favorite park to sit at a concrete picnic table to eat, drink coffee and watch the millennials play Frisbee Golf. Nice to just do normal things and watch happy activities in a year so fraught and disturbing. Be sure to turn off the news from time to time and watch people play and laugh and have fun. It's a reminder that we're meant to be good and to have fun. But sometimes we have to work at it.

I had coffee with a friend who is, politically, my polar opposite this last week. We skirted political conversations. We spent a lot of time discussing video. When we left we promised each other that no matter who wins the election we'll take a few days to recover and then, as usual, we'll meet for coffee. That made me feel good. 

I just can't pass up those multi-paned, reflective windows when I've got a camera in my hands.

We started out our day with the usual heat and humidity and then the winds blew in 
from the north, sucked the humidity out and dropped the temperatures quickly. Sweet.

There was never a reason for valet parking to exist in Austin when I came here to go to the University. The city was sparsely populated. You could park anywhere. The parking meters cost a dime for six hours.
Now that our economy is adapting and recovering the valet parking is roaring back.
It all seems so strange to me. It always has.










Fun to watch the wind gusts blow the trees over a bridge. It felt like the first day of Fall. 

An odd business concept. 

An electric boat on Lady Bird Lake. All selfies all the time...


String. Blowing in the cool wind.