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.
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...
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...
"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.
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.
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......
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.
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.
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.