11.02.2020

Seen in downtown Austin yesterday.

 They passed the intelligence test.
How can I tell? They're wearing their masks.
They are protecting me while I photograph them. 
It's the opposite of selfish.

also, they are not screaming obscenities at me from the cab of 
a pick-up truck....

 

Zooms Versus Primes All Over Again. But with a 2020 perspective.

Noellia at Zilker Park.
50mm Sony lens on an APS-C Nex7.

 While growing into photography and all through my career I've understood the underlying truth of lenses as being tools subject to a strict divide; that the very best optical results always come from prime/single focal length lenses while zoom lenses are useful for convenience and, while constantly improving, zooms will never, ever be as good as the best primes. The law of lenses was demonstrably true when I started in photography in the 1970s. Today, maybe not so much.

Back then you had three choices: good single focal length lenses, cheap and crappy zoom lenses or expensive and....usable zoom lenses. As zoom lenses improved there was a new thought wrinkle tossed in to appease the hurt feelings of people who really, really want to use zooms. It was a new amendment to the law which postulated that while zooms would never match the performance of the same range of individual prime lenses the shorter the zoom ratio the better your chances were of getting something decent out of your zoom. But the new amendment was always greeted with the sideways look of disdain and the assumption that pros and real artists always pulled a prime lens out of their bags when they were aiming for perfection.

Change comes slow when it's wrapped in unsubstantiated opinion. Somewhere in early 2000's camera makers started producing zoom lenses that gave film era primes a decent run for their money. In particular the optical performance of the more expensive 28-70mm f2.8, 24-70mm 2.8 and 80-200mm f2.8 lenses took a big leap forward. Followed by several extra-wide angle zooms. I remember being surprised and impressed by the first Canon EOS 20-35mm L zoom and then again by Nikon's 14-24mm zoom. For the first time these zooms actually produced better images (in most regards) than some of their contemporary single focal length brethren.

Ten years later the dam burst open and the majority of photographers opted to make the "holy trinity" of zooms (16-35, 24-70 and 70-200, all f2.8) their first choice for professional tools. But in spite of this lens makers continue to design, make and offer ever more complex and performance intensive primes. And some of us keep buying them. It makes me wonder where the truth lies. Or if there are different truths for every user.

In my mind, given the wonderful quality I'm getting from the Panasonic S-Pro zooms, and the great optical quality I see from Canon and Nikon premium zoom lenses, I'm starting to wonder if the only reasons to own prime lenses anymore are for situations that call for very fast apertures (and every new prime seems to be entered into a race for the biggest maximum aperture) to create very, very narrow depth of field or....for bragging rights created by the enduring presupposition that the primes are "always" better.

I sometimes allow myself to be seduced by the promise of almost infinite quality available from some prime lenses. How else to explain the expenditure of $2300 for the Panasonic 50mm f1.4 when I have a perfectly serviceable Sigma 45mm, a Zeiss 50mm f1.7, and a few other adapted 50s; along with two different, high quality zooms that cover the same 50mm focal length. I've never had occasion to use the S-Pro 50mm for any commercial assignment at anywhere near its maximum aperture and while I like the manual focus clutch mechanism it's hardly worth the money I paid for the lens. I understand that if I had a style of photography that was dependent on shooting everything wide open this would be a good solution for that focal length but therein lies the rub.

There are a number of times that I do want to shoot with a fast lens wide open but usually it's not at the focal length of the lens at hand. I might see a shot that would look great at 30mm or 90mm or 75mm or 22mm but which looks boring at 50mm. It's true that I could buy lenses that are approximate to almost every focal length I might want to use but I'd be carrying around a bag (or several bags) with dozens of pounds of lenses in it. And then I'd have to sort through the selection, find the right lens, remove the existing lens from the camera, place the chosen lens on the camera and then watch as whatever subject I was getting ready to photograph exits the area and vanishes altogether. Wholly un-photographed.

Many photographers of my age (plus or minus ten, or even twenty years) point to the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and announce that he did quite well as a photographer and only used his 50mm lens 90% of the time. The implication being that HCB declined to use zooms or even a big range of lenses because he found them unworthy. The reality, I suspect, is two fold: First there were no zooms available in the time period during which he worked, and secondly, he traveled extensively and often declared that he worked best when he packed lightly. He was concerned not with getting the perfect shot but in capturing the perfect moment - which is a much different thing. He was also intent on navigating through public spaces in the most anonymous and discreet way possible. One small camera clutched by his side in one hand so as not to call attention to himself...

I find myself in a quandary created by my own situation of having a foot in each camp; mostly as a result of living through the tumultuous evolution of lenses. From the primacy and availability of single focal length lenses to an age where zooms are ubiquitous, accepted, acknowledged and mostly given parity with primes by all but the most dedicated or deluded photographers and clients. 

How else to explain it?

I raise the question after using a number of zooms over the past few weeks. And most recently after having used the new (to me) Panasonic/Leica 50-200mm f2.8-f4.0 zoom on a GH5. While I have a bunch of random primes for the m4:3 system the two most recent zooms, the 50-200mm and the 12-60mm Panasonic/Leica lenses, are giving me results that are every bit as good or better -- from a photographic standpoint -- than the prime lenses. The only real benefit I get from the primes at this point is the ability to use wider apertures for pictorial effect. But that's profoundly offset by the ability of a zoom to cover so many focal lengths well. 

I laughed to myself the other night. I had a 16mm f1.4 Sigma lens mounted on my GX8 camera and I was using the combo as a fourth video camera for a project. I presumed that I should be using the fastest lens possible until I thought through the process. I would be pre-focusing the lens to cover a range and then turn the camera on and leave it unattended for an hour. It would crank away creating endless 4K video files. But you already see the disconnection here, I'm sure. How on earth would the fast aperture (even if it's crazy sharp) help me keep a fairly wide range of performers in acceptable focus? Of course shooting at f1.4 would be silly. I selected f4.0 instead and focused carefully so the plane of sharpness would start at the closer performer and progressively fall off behind her. But since she was at 18 feet the f4.0 aperture would just about cover both her and the two performers on the other side of her. At f1.4? Not a chance. But at f4.0 the performance, especially for video, would have been equivalent with a zoom.

When I talked to a friend about the same project and about my frustration at not getting great close-up shots of performers (mostly from a compositional point of view) from a long distance he immediately suggested that I needed to get a 300mm or 400mm f2.8 lens for the full frame system and that would take care of my problem. There were a few issues with that solution. Either one of those lenses would cost me half the price of a new car. But that wouldn't matter since neither focal length is available for my system. And either choice would be extremely heavy. I'd need to buy a much more expensive video tripod and head to hold it all. 

Since either lens would have a fixed focal length I'd have absolutely no control over composition as the performers moved closer and further away from my fixed location. Changing lenses during the shoot was a non-starter concept as the performance ran continuously and the video needed to be continuous as well. A fast enough zoom on a smaller format was exactly what I needed and having the ability to go from a mild telephoto point of view to an extreme telephoto one with the turn of a ring was just right. 

Of course, there are times when the fast primes are just what the doctor ordered but those times are quickly getting narrowed down by the ever increasing positive evolution of zooms combined with better and better camera sensors. 

Just thinking here but are primes destined to follow VHS tapes to the trash heaps of history? Will photographers continue to buy expensive, heavy and fast primes after zooms catch up with current prime lens performance? For many of us the real (and embarrassing) question is whether even our current (lack of) technical skills all but mask any current optical advantage of primes over zooms. 

So, hypothetical: If you dropped me into some beautiful city and tasked me to make great images would I rather have a bag full of primes or one really well chosen zoom. Would I go with one body and one lens? Something like an S1 and the 50mm? Or a Leica digital rangefinder and a 35mm? Or would it be something more flexible like the S1R and a wider ranging zoom like the 24-105mm? 

With the primes one might find oneself ignoring anything that didn't fit into the provided frame. With the zoom you'd have more options for composition but fewer options for really low light. 

You can only carry so much. You can only make so many compositional selections. What is the right mix and, are we even asking the right questions? 

I have a foot in both time periods. Both sides of the prejudice. I loved my Leica M3 with the 50mm Summicron. I took one to Paris as an only camera and had a blast not having to make too many choices. But then again, I loved the Sony RX10 3 with it's 24-600mm lens (which was remarkably good!!!) and the opportunity to shoot just about anything. 

I'd be curious to know where readers stand on the issue. Or if there is really an issue or whether I'm just making another mountain out of a mole hill. 

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.