11.19.2020

The residue of yesterday's stroll through the urban Southwest. GH5S - Style.


The GH5S is such an eccentric camera but maybe that's the way cameras should be. I think it's misguided, both on the part of the makers and the users, to claim that every new camera is potentially a multi-capable, ultra-hybrid that is capable of super high resolution, incredibly low noise, gifted with a minute profile and yet also capable of tossing off the intense heat internally generated by enormous video files while also focusing with radar-quickness --- and all at an affordable price point. 

My little(?) GH5S makes no claims for all around-ness, instead it just does a few things very well. It does those things excellently, if you consider the price. But it's not going to be your uncles do everything toolkit. Especially if your uncle acquires cameras by comparing everything on a specification spreadsheet.  

Here are the things the GH5S does well: It makes very good 4K and 2K video files and does so with a wide range of file types and frame rates. It makes lovely, small raw files. About 10 Megapixels. But it's also the first Panasonic m4:3 camera to make those files with 14 bit raw files -- which is also lovely. The size of the camera, even with a battery grip mounted, is just perfect for my hands. The camera is solid but also not too heavy. It's rarely a burden. I guess if I put an enormously long lens on it I'd start to gripe a bit but then that's true with every system. 

So, if you don't want or need to print really large and you like to make your own cinema it's a practical and very well constructed camera that won't break the bank and which will go a long way on a single battery charge. 

Of course it has it's flaws. Or maybe limitations is a better way to speak about them... The camera doesn't have image stabilization. There are technical reasons for this but it is what it is. You can use stabilized lenses on it but if I use non-AF, non-stabilized lenses on it I'm either looking to shoot in good light (for photographs) or to use a tripod or a gimbal for video. No way around it. This is not a camera for photographers who want to brag about being able to handhold an exposure down to half a second. I only wish the people I want to make candid photos of would also hold still for half seconds at a time.

Some will also find the 10 megapixel size limit to be too far a reach for their style and I get that. It's why I never think of this particular camera as my "everything" "workhorse" camera. It's just not. But if you surrender to the idea that you are happy sharing your work electronically; on websites, sharing sites and blogs, you'll come to love the haptics of the camera and the pristine nature of its mature sensor tech.

If you are ready to vie with David Fincher for the title of "next great cinema master" you'll find that (excuse the hoary phrase...) this camera punches way above its cost and weight. The video files out of the GH5S are pretty sublime. If you get your exposures and color balance correct you'll be amazed at how rich and satisfying the files are. Add the DMW-XLR audio attachment and some thousand dollar microphones and you'll be equally amazed at how good the recorded sound can be. Even the V-Log is better than it should be. 

I use the GH5S, currently, as a walkable notebook. I like the way the files look when I prep them for sharing on the blog and on Instagram. I like the way the video looks when I use the camera on a gimbal, a video monopod or a tripod. One thing that makes it all work for me is the way the menu echoes those found in all my other Panasonic cameras. And, one of my favorite Panasonic Lumix hardware consistencies is the position of the three buttons right next to the shutter button. The same on all six camera models I use most. The left button is for setting white balance, the middle button is for ISO and the right hand button is for setting exposure compensation. With those three buttons and the two setting dials I can do 95% of my shooting (in photography) without ever having to hit a menu. 

While the GH5S is nobody's idea of a perfect solution to shooting everything in the universe it is a calm, happy and transparent camera that is a friendly companion with a well defined feature set. Add the Panasonic/Leica 12-60mm lens and you've got something really special. Just don't imagine that it will rival the resolution of a Sony A7RIV, the tracking AF performance of a Canon R5, or the low noise capabilities of the Lumix S1. You'll be disappointed if you do. 

If you just want a friendly camera for nearly everything you'll want to share electronically then this one is very well sorted. At least for me. 

The perfect m4:3 combo? A three pack. A GH5S for great video. A G9 for great photographs, and a GH5 for the perfect blend. Add very well designed Panasonic/Leica lenses for the win. 

It was a beautiful day for walking yesterday, here in Austin. The sun was bright, the sky was clear and the temperature never crested 80°. I grabbed a taco from Torchy's on 2nd and a coffee from Starbuck's on 3rd street. The rest of the time I spent just looking at buildings and people and working with the 25mm Panasonic/Leica lens on my GH5S. Here's some of what I saw:














I am always baffled by this place on 5th St. Is it a front for some supervillain's 
underground lair. I could be wrong, there could still be dozens and dozens of 
people in desperate need of having their floppy disks repaired. 



 

11.18.2020

I'm on vacation from work. Not on vacation from photography or blogging. There's a distinction to be made.


It was a great day to swim, eat a fajita taco at Torchy's on 2nd St. and to walk around with a funny hat and a earnest camera. 

I'm not working on any more projects for clients this year. It's a bit of burnout and a bit of precaution.

If you are a crazy person, and you truly believe that mainstream news is lying to you all the time, and that the wearing of masks will lead to the emasculation of the USA male population, and the onset of insanity in everyone  around you then all I can do is wish you well and keep my distance. A lot of distance.

But, if are still intellectually functional, and you look at the pandemic numbers and the case increases, you might understand my reticence at going to work with a bunch of people who are essentially strangers. I don't know how many rogue, teenage children they might have living at home who talk a good game but are still enjoying an active, covert nightlife with risky and possibly asymptomatic friends. If you are the marketing director who will be standing near me all day when I shoot "the big job" I'd rather take a pass and wait a while. What's the good of making more money if you aren't going to be around to enjoy it? Or, even worse, what if you live long, long time but with debilitating side effects of a nasty, nasty virus ?

I dropped by Trader Joe's in my neighborhood on the way home. They are still limiting the number of shoppers allowed in the store at any one time. Masks are absolutely mandatory there and have been since March. Everyone was doing a great job at social distancing. It's pleasant to see that a lot of people understand how they can help stop the spread of Covid. And also the flu. 

I needed to stock up on bean dip, chips, Candy Cane Jo-Jo's Cookies and sundries. I can never get out of the store without spending $60. It's worse than Whole Foods. But a lot more fun. But my real reason for turning off the phone and leaving the office was to avoid offers I might not have the fortitude to turn down...

I just wanted to walk. 

My Apple Watch asked me if I wanted to record my walk. I indicated, "yes." 

I walked for three and a half miles and shot about 100 frames with my current camera crush; the Panasonic GH5S. I went for nostalgia where the lens was concerned and popped a 25mm Summilux lens on the front. 

The combo was light, dimensionally agile and comfortable. Almost like achieving neutral buoyancy. 

I've been wearing the hat for a while and I try to remember my sunscreen but got some bad news from my dermatologist anyway. 

I had a biopsy done on a small spot on my face and it turned out to be squamous cell cancer. I have to go in for Mohs surgery the first week of December. That sucks. It's sure to trigger all my medical phobia, plus I'm afraid that any scar will ruin my chances at becoming a late arrival but wildly successful star in Hollywood. Or Bollywood. I'd go either direction depending on my share of the distribution rights....

But seriously, I'm told I'll be out of the pool for a week or two. That's never good. I'm already starting to book up days at the nearby Enchanted Rock Wilderness area. Most likely I'll try to wear out a couple pairs of hiking boots. Guest passes galore. 

I'll let you guys know how it goes. Maybe the beautiful girls will assume any scarring on my face is from my Schl├Ąger matches at the University of Heidelberg. Those Korbschl├Ąger are keen weapons... But maybe my surgeon will be so good and I'll leave without bragging rights. One can hope. 


Unsung heroes of the battle for better photography. No, it's not more dynamic range or faster AF...


 90% of success is just showing up. Over and over again. 

When I first started working as a commercial photographer, after stints as a university lecturer and an advertising agency denizen, there weren't a lot of options when it came to packing and transporting gear. We ALL used small armies of assistants to carry, drag and otherwise move our needed gear from location to location. When I left the warm nest of advertising to venture into the dangerous wild lands of photography we usually (desperately) needed to add light to whatever scene we were trying to shoot because we were locked into using slow, color transparency films with (now almost) fantastical ISOs like: 80. Or 100. And we did so with medium format and large format cameras. 

Getting good, color correct shots without buckshot sized grain made the use of big, electronic flashes more or less a requirement. It was also a time of many soft boxes so it was a rare day that we might have a reason to use direct flash. More power was always welcome.

My main lighting kit consisted of two Norman PD 2000 flash boxes and about six of the heavy metal heads. The weight of each flash generator was about 32 pounds. The heads weighed about eight pounds each and then there was all that heavy duty cabling and even heavier duty extension cords. We moved with all the grace and speed of sedated water buffalos. The idea of moving between, say, three locations in a day was considered either an Olympian endeavor or a fantasy. 

Sure, there were guys strutting around with 35mm cameras and goatees who claimed to be able to do everything with a tripod and some Kodachrome 25 (yes, as in ISO 25) but the advertising agency and corporate clientele I dealt with demanded quite a bit more from their images than the editors of magazines that tolerated and abetted the "small format" shooters. And, of course, the "gold standard" of the day was still the 4x5 inch view camera. 

The missing components in that era were strong and lightweight cases in which to transport all the heavy gear. We were so delighted when companies like Pelican hit the market with their resin cases because they were less than half the weight of the wood and metal Anvil cases that were in wide use. But the Pelican cases weighed multiples more than similar cases available today. We kept our assistants busy back then. And they stayed in good physical shape out of necessity. Loading in to a remote location took hours. Getting stuff set up was a process. And taking it all down and packing it out felt more like punishment than the coda of a successful shoot day.

I thought long and hard about this as I was pulling a Think Tank original "Airport Security" rolling case out of the hatchback of the Subaru a few days ago. Back before we ended our commercial engagements for 2020...

How far we'd come. I still light stuff and it still requires moving gear, but nothing like what we did back in the 1980s, 1990s and even into the new century. The ingredients of the present rolling case, if well packed, can rival  or exceed what our last century gear was capable of delivering when augmented by 400 pounds of heavy support equipment. 

I bought my Airport Security rolling case around the time I was writing my first book about lighting. I'd made a switch from big boxes that plug into the wall to make bright flashes to using Nikon's little hot shoe capable Speedlights. I was amazed enough about how far we'd come with digital gear and efficient lighting to write a book about it. And almost every location we shot on for the book was handled, logistically, by the stuff packed in that one piece of luggage. 

Cameras, multiple flashes and triggers, extra batteries, big lenses; the works. Three compact light stands rode in the front, stretchy pocket and a small Gitzo tripod got strapped to the side. No carts, no assistants, no back strain. It was a shift that changed the face of commercial photography on location. But as much as it was made possible by better and better camera sensors and more controllable and powerful small flashes it was ultimately facilitated by the noble rolling case. 

"Wheels for everything!" became a mantra. 

I have two different Think Tank rolling cases. The biggest is the original (and now travel-battered) Airport Security to which I've added a slightly smaller "Airport Essentials XT" that's also a bit lighter. And I like the fabric better (it's charcoal gray instead of ballistic black) because it looks more au courant. 

I bought the second case for those clients who think they might like to add some video to their mix on what starts out as a predominately "still photography" shoot. The second case carries Atomos monitors, audio recorders and interfaces, microphones, batteries, more batteries and mounting hardware for all the video oriented stuff. 

The advent of good, sturdy rolling cases was pivotal for me. As was the introduction of flashes that could be individually controlled by their cameras. It meant several kinds of freedom for my ways of working. I could do away with assistants for all but the bigger projects. I could pack everything into the back compartment of my vehicles and still have an available backseat. In some cases (domestic, large airplanes) I could wheel all my gear aboard planes and tuck it into luggage compartments instead of having to check cases. I no longer need to find parking close to wheel chair ramps to get my gear into client buildings. And the list goes on. 

I worked with an assistant that I really liked all the way up till 2001. She was great. We carried gear all over the place and depended on a collapsible cart for the heavy stuff. When I was out of the country doing work she freelanced for other photographers. When I came back from an extended trip we met for lunch to catch up and talk about future work. 

She'd spent part of the previous week working with a semi-famous (at least in commercial circles) photographer who flew in from NYC. He arrived at the Austin airport with at least a dozen Anvil cases of lighting and support gear. My assistant found herself in a crew with five others. Their job was, essentially, moving the gear. There was no heavy cart to ease the burden. Apparently the photographer's M.O. was to just hire enough strong help to carry all the cases wherever they needed to go. Through airports to waiting taxis. From the taxis to the client locations and all the way down the long halls of corporate America.

The next time we worked together the assistant arrived and we started loading the much smaller (and better packed) cases from my studio into the car. The cart goes in last. When I brought it out to the car she looked at the cart with an unusual expression. And then I saw a tear roll down her face and she smiled at the cart as if it was an old friend she hadn't seen in years. Our day was nimble and efficient. And I worked with her until she headed to Los Angeles to work in movies. 

I decided, at that juncture that I'd never find another assistant of her caliber again and that's when I started eyeing the rolling cases and the smaller and lighter inventory of photo luggage. 

There are still times when I load out heavy. If we're shooting video on a big set with lots of daylight gushing into our space and the need for lots of light I'll still bring the cart and as much gear as I and an assistant can handle. But over the last decade, out of hundreds and hundreds of location assignments. It's usually just me and a rolling case or two. I like it that way. It helps me maintain the self-delusion that I am, at heart, an introvert who just wants to be left alone. 

I've talked about Think Tank stuff but I'm brand agnostic. If a case packs well, is solidly made and has good wheels and an extendible  handle that's sturdy I'm good with it. If I find stuff that works better under a different label I'm good with that too. 

Now that I'm doing more work with video I have a dream/plan to investigate not bringing my own lighting gear at all but finding a good key grip with a grip truck full of stuff and just having that company show up at our shooting locations to carry in grip gear and lighting and to set it up under my direction. 

I have this fantasy of showing up with just my camera and a few of my favorite lenses, walking into the shooting location and setting up my camera on a tripod that's already been set up and made ready. At the end of the shooting day I would disengage the camera, thank all the crew, and walk out the door --- completely unencumbered. Almost seems like a full circle back to the old days. 

But for now the rolling cases make life easier and much more mobile. They sure beat the crap out of shoulder bags for moving between two disconnected points. 

11.16.2020

So, if full frame cameras are Eldorado then why do I keep passing up the ones I have in the drawer and grabbing the GH series cameras for serious work?

And, of course, I am inconsistent enough to illustrate this particular post with a photo
from a full frame camera.... go figure.

This isn't going to be a long and deeply considered essay on choice but instead just a few observations about my own peccadilloes. Since 2009 I have been unable to let go of micro four thirds cameras no matter how hard I try and no matter how logical that move would be. There's something a bit addictive about the smaller format cameras that keeps me coming back for more. 

I thought we were done when I jumped whole hog into full frame digital cameras with my adoption of the wickedly good Lumix S1 series cameras around this time last year. I still admire them and I still use them on most of my photography assignments. They create big and richly detailed files and that's what I should always be looking for. At least that's the current, popular point of view, but I find myself not especially excited by the "idea" of them. With perfection comes a bit of boredom. 

I started to gravitate back toward the smaller format cameras from Panasonic about the time that digital video started to grab for more and more of my bandwidth. When I focused on making more videos and fewer photographs a few things became very apparent to me. 

The first is that sensor sizes are best taken in the context of your imaging intention. If you are on a quest for narrow depth of field and a noiseless file then a full frame (or bigger) camera is what you want. But if you are making videos and you want to move around while keeping deeper subjects in focus the logic gets slipperier. This is compounded if you'd also like to use your camera and lens on a gimbal. Then you start thinking about weight a lot more carefully.

I've shot with so many cameras and they all have distinct personalities. While most photographers seem to gravitate to cameras based on their imputed performance and their pedigree I've always felt like a bit of a contrarian. 

Have you ever noticed that all those guys who march around and say things like, "It's not the camera! It's the photographer!!!" and "The most important gear you possess is positioned right behind your camera!!!" are fully equipped with the latest, greatest, fastest and most well spec'd cameras and lenses they can lay their hands on? I've been doing this for a while and my anecdotal evidence says that's true.

I like the smaller cameras because they feel right. They've evolved beyond the need for technical supremacy and their reason for existence now is to make images that feel right and look good in the modern media we mostly use now. 

I'm packing to do a video shoot for a friend this evening. I could pack out a bunch of sinisterly good Lumix S-Pro lenses and an S1H with its buddy, the V-Log enabled S1, but my immediate and gestalt packing spasm found me stuffing the rolling case with a GH5, GH5S and a G9. That and a nice assortment of both native and third party lenses. Each one of these cameras has proven itself to be more nimble and graceful on a Ronin-S gimbal and all of them are capable of video that's as good as anything on the market --- at least if I do my job and light each scene well. 

I've been practicing today with a feature in the GH5S called "focus transition." You can use it to set up to three points that you want to rack focus between and the camera will do perfect focus pulls every time. You can set the speed of the transitions and even the start time. You have total control but the camera does the heavy lifting and the precision moves. I'm sure the feature is also somewhere on the S1H but I haven't looked for it. The GH5S just feels so familiar and friendly. 

Ben needed a portrait for work this week so we set up the studio and I found myself grabbing the GH5S and the Sigma 56mm f1.4 because, again, it felt comfortable and transparent in use. I found myself ignoring the camera almost altogether and concentrating on getting a sweet, smart, profound, happy look out of Ben. 

The list goes on and on. I've transitioned in my shooting of the outdoor concerts from using, almost completely, full frame S1x cameras to using nothing but m4:3 cameras to shoot the 4K video. And you know what? If we stick to using ISO 800 or even 1000 there isn't enough difference to justify spending more and hauling more.

I'm spoiled. I'll keep both systems. Someone will always want a 47.5 megapixel file. I might want to play around with near zero depth of field. But more and more the GH5's are the ones on the way to getting their shutters worn out. I can hardly wait to see what Panasonic delivers if they ever roll out a new, GH6!

Off to play. See you tomorrow. 

 

11.15.2020

Cobbling together my own external SSD drives with a little help from Western Digital and StarTech.

I use SSDs in an Atomos Ninja V and a Ninja Flame to record high performance video from most of my cameras. When I buy fast SD cards with high speed ratings,  like the V90s, it seems like I'm paying about 4X as much for the same performance. There are also some features in the newer model cameras that only work when you hook your camera up to an external monitor/recorder. Stuff like 60 fps, 10 bit, 4:2:2 All-I from some cameras. Most cameras can do a cropped version of 60 fps internally but they tend to write them as 8 bit, 4:2:0 files; and once you've edited the good stuff it's hard to go backwards. 

Atomos monitors also enable you to write higher data rate All-I files like Pro Res and DNX when you use their approved drives which bypasses the usual in-camera compression to Long GoP files. Sure, the All-I files are bigger but they are much less complex to edit and they whip through your computers with more ease and elan.

When I bought my first Atomos external monitor/recorder a couple of years ago I also bought two external SSD drives that came pre-loaded in the caddies that fit into a slot on the back of the Atomos recorders and plug into the recording unit with a SATA connection. No wire required.

Both of those units were 256 GB sized drives and they weren't particularly cheap at the time. Now there are a number of units on the market that offer up to 1 TB of fast memory for less money than I paid for each of the 256 units. But that's always the way it goes with any kind of computer memory.

When I bought my Atomos kit it came with three or four plastic caddies one could use to load their own internal-style SSD units into in order to use them with an Atomos. All you had to do was order internal SATA SSD units, put them into the enclosures, then slide them into the SSD slot on the back of your Atomos and you were ready to go. Oh sure, you should probably format the units before use (in the device you'll use them in) but you already know that...

Then, after a long day of shooting video, it dawned on me that I could use the drive I'd just used to capture video to hook to the computer and also edit from. The SSD would offer faster performance than any of the 5400 or 7200 RPM spinning hard drives I'd been using on my desktop and they certainly are a LOT quieter.

All I needed was a SATA to USB-C connecting cable. I started buying WD internal SSD drives in the one terabyte size and putting them in the small, plastic Atomos enclosures then supplying them with $12 StarTach SATA to USB cables and they fire right up. My cost is about $120 per 1 TB drive. I can also disconnect the SATA cable and use each drive, without mods, on the Atomos units. 

Yes, I can buy a Samsung 1 TB external in a pretty metal case already ported to USB-C but that doesn't really buy me any more useable performance and then I have to find a source of USB-C to SATA adapters. 

So far I've put together three of these Frankenstein "external" SSD drives and they all work without flaws on my iMacPro and on both Ninjas. The WD drives I use are only rated to 540 Mb/s but they are fine handling whatever my recorders are dishing out. 

One reason I've stocked up on the SSDs is my desire to shoot my own video work in the latest ProResRaw format. That requires an external drive for for use with all of my ProResRaw capable cameras and I value the larger storage. It's nice not to run out of card space too quickly. 

It's kinda weird to work this way for shooters who came up through the photography ranks. You always find yourself thinking that everything should fit inside the camera, not hang on the outside. But if you've come up through the video pathway you're probably used to and comfortable hanging all kinds of crap off your cameras. Why else would they have invented "cages" for video cameras and not for still cameras?

There seems to be a big jump up in prices from 1 TB to 2 TB where SSDs are involved. I have a feeling my desktop will soon be littered with the smaller storage capacity drives but that's okay because I'm pretty good about labeling them. 

And actually having to handle a screwdriver and put them in cases makes me feel like one of those D-I-Y Windows users who are always going on about cobbling stuff together on some bench somewhere. Sure, the things they "build" sputter and smoke from time to time, and require weeks or years of troubleshooting but I've heard you can save enough extra money in a couple of years by "building" (assembling?) all your own stuff to pay for a workshop with Lloyd Chambers. In five years you'll have saved up enough to buy a Range Rover.

Of course, the minute Apple introduces their own bespoke designed and branded SSDs I'll buy a case of them and never think twice. Sure, they'll cost way too much but that's what it takes sometimes to make something that both works and is really pretty. 

At least I don't have to solder anything. 

11.14.2020

It's fun to waaaay over deliver if you're shooting video; as long as you aren't the one who has to scrub through the footage and edit it...

 

I spread the smaller tripod legs wider to give the camera more support. 
This one was just put down in front of the audience, right between two loudspeakers.
Unobtrusive in the dark.

I love participating in reckless overkill. If one view of a concert is good then two must be better. And three might be excellent. And sometimes the fourth one is a charm. 

Getting assigned to shoot a series of concerts at Zach Theatre gave me an excuse to trot out an inventory of cameras, set them all at the same basic settings and let them rip. With the exception of the one camera I used to track the person performing and render them large and isolated, all the cameras were set up on various tripods, pre-focused and exposure set. I'd just wait until the person from fundraising came to the stage to make a plea for donations and then I'd hop around the plaza, turn on the cameras and hit the red "record" buttons. I'd linger for a moment to make sure each camera was rolling and that the image on the rear screen looked good and then scamper off to the next one. If my timing was good I was back at the main camera putting on my headphones and grabbing the pan handle on my tripod to catch the arrival on the outdoor stage of our gallant troubadours. 

Every time I do one of these events I learn something more. On the last go I learned that I actually could use the autofocus setting in the Panasonic GH5S. No, I don't trust any camera to lock on and maintain a flicker free, pulse free focus using C-AF on a moving singer for an hour and fifteen minutes but I was getting frustrated having to manually focus a long lens over and over again. I took to the web and found a good tutorial on video focusing with GH series cameras and put the new knowledge to good use. 

You probably already know this but if you leave one of the focus controls in the camera checked (continuous AF) the camera will try to focus all the time. Sometimes well and many times less well. And, of course, the camera rarely knows what you want to focus on...

But if you go into the menu and turn off the "continuous AF," set the external control to "S-AF" and enable touch focus control AF in the "touch screen" menu you can take advantage of the camera's ability to do single point AF well and the setting keeps the camera from re-focusing it until you want it to. 

Since my singers were mostly moving perpendicular to the main camera I could get the camera to focus quickly once and then stay in the manual setting until the singer moved to a different stage, or walked from a position in the back of the stage to the front of the stage.

While the singer was making a long move, like walking from the main stage to the secondary stage, I just panned with them and ignored focus until they hit the mark at which they'd remain (hopefully) while singing through their number. When they hit their spot I'd touch the rear screen at exactly the spot where their face was and the camera would hit that focus with authority ten times out of ten. And I would get fine focus confirmation from the focus peaking indicators on the Atomos monitor. Easy and accurate. And any gap of focus could be covered by one of three other views from the stationary cameras. 

It would be great to do one of these shows with a person operating each camera and maybe even add a fifth camera on a gimbal to get some camera movement into the shots. In my theater fantasy we'd have everyone on communication gear and we'd have a show director calling out to each operator to let them know which way to move or what camera adjustments they'd like to see. 

When we actually did shoot a show a few weeks back with four cameras we had each camera set up to shoot 4K video at 10 bits, 4:2;2. The data rate from camera onto the memory cards clocked in at around 150 Mb/s and when I transferred all the content from the memory cards to a hard drive I saw that each camera generated about 80 Gigabytes of files/content. The grand total of information I handed off to the editor was about 320 GBs. And that's just for one show.

I was kind though; I did put each camera's files into separate folders and labelled them with camera position information. I was trying to make it easier for the editor...

When I saw the video cut together and ready to stream I realized that while 80-85% of the footage was from the highly magnified, moving "follow" cam but that each of the other angles, even if used sparingly, gave the project an aura of higher production value. 

But I think I'm getting a little addicted to the possibility of covering the next concert with even more cameras. I'm considering hanging a small camera with a wide lens over the top of the band, etc. I think I'll back away from that a bit and spend a little more time going "old school" and maybe do my next project with just one camera. Can you ever really go back?

this little guy was riding on a Leica tabletop tripod.
The tape is for visibility. While the public doesn't walk through this 
area I wanted to make sure the talent could see this camera and 
lens over to the side and avoid any unfortunate collisions. 
Makes it easier to find for me at the end of the evening too.

The GX8 does nice 4K. And it doesn't have record limits. It only features .M4p instead of . MOV but 
that hardly matters in the big scheme of things. 

The center stage camera was an S1 with a Sigma Art 35mm f1.4.
Just right for a stationary shot of the main stage.
Unmanned and sitting on top of a Sirui tripod.
The footage from this camera was the second most used in the edit.

When the client and I first discussed this project their assumption was that we'd just continue doing what their previous videographer had done and set up two cameras side by side. One with a wide view and the other with a longer lens which could follow the whoever was singing at the time. But they just weren't considering the artistic director's propensity for letting his actors/performers roam the stage(s). I could see from the outset that we'd need more coverage. Good thing we have some depth to the gear inventory. 

I think though that we'd have to limit future camera proliferation to eight cameras per show. Max. If we did more than that I'd either have to start renting gear or pressing Canon G16 point and shoot cameras into service. Probably not very practical. Also, I think it would take too much time to turn everything on and off.

But if you've got them you may as well use them....

Fun to play around. Just glad I don't have to do the edits. I would never have enough patience.


Lenses and memory cards and all the stuff that makes images work. Oh. And cameras. But not as much...

 

I don't know if you were around for the early days of digital cameras but it wasn't always a very pretty experience. Lots of stuff went wrong on a more or less routine basis. I'm remembering shooting one assignment in particular, in a helicopter over some golf course situated right next to Lake Travis, here in central Texas. I don't know what pilots call it when the atmosphere is a bit unstable but I call it "bouncy." 

It was pretty typical around the turn of the century, maybe a little later, to create images of a new real estate development and the almost mandatory, attached golf course, by going up in helicopters and making aerial images of the property. Of course, this part of the advertising process has been almost entirely replaced by drones and that's probably a good thing. Flying around in helicopters is dangerous and, if you have a weak stomach it can quickly get very uncomfortable pretty quickly. 

We mostly flew around in two and four-seater Robinson helicopters which are piston engine machines. I guess they were "affordable" because there seemed to be a lot of them in service. BSD (big swinging dick) commercial real estate guys all seemed to think of the Bell Jet Ranger as being the ultimate aerial status symbol (kind of an airborne Range Rover...)  so we occasionally got to use them to make images of big, industrial projects and of glamorous skylines. 

One time when we were shooting golf courses out by the lake I got into a helicopter owned by what we "affectionately" referred to as a "Dell-ionaire." That's someone who started working in the early years at Dell, Inc. and made a fortune as the stock busted up through the ceiling. It was the first time I had any experience with turbine engine helicopters. If I recall correctly it was a German helicopter and the selling point of the turbine engine was more power...which meant it could climb at some amazing rate; which the owner was thrilled to show off. Don't really get the advantage of shooting aerials at 10,000 feet but what the hell...

The day I remember, with misgivings, was spent in one of the battered Robinsons, along with two Fuji S2 Pro cameras. And some fairly new memory cards...

We were supposed to "capture" the magnificence of yet another golf course community and showcase its proximity to the lake. All from the air. I stuck some peppermint chewing gum in my mouth, got in the flying machine and put on a headset so I could talk to the pilot. I was always careful to buckle up because we were usually flying without a passenger door so I could shoot without restriction. Careful photographers often taped their seatbelt buckles with gaffer tape just to make sure nothing clicked open while leaning out of the door frame. We had a brief pre-flight discussion about what I wanted to get the pilot revved up the engine and we got airborne. 

I was shooting with the aforementioned Fuji cameras and a couple of Nikon zoom lenses and everything was going fine. Well, my equilibrium and digestive track were both unsettled and borderline rebellious from looking one way and flying another --- along with some chop and bounce --- but the photos were pretty much what the client wanted: endless green course next to bright blue water.

After ten minutes or so I got a "card error" message from the camera. I had learned early on with the Fuji S2s that there were several varieties of "gotchas." The cards frequently crashed or became corrupted and the two different battery clusters died quickly and at opposite times from each other. I knew I couldn't fix an errant card while in the air so I grabbed a second camera, changed lenses and got back to work. But I also tried to re-shoot some of the ground we'd already covered in case the card in the first camera was unrecoverable. After about 100 frames the second camera started giving me the same "card error" message, intermittently. I immediately stopped shooting, turned off the camera, took out the batteries (two different sets in a Fuji S2 - not at all compatible with each other) and dropped out the card. I replaced the ailing card with a new one, formatted it in the camera and started shooting again. It worked for about 120 exposures before sounding the alarm. 

By that time we had pretty much finished our flight and, if the cards could be recovered we be okay. I would have had the pilot hit all the important locations again but by this time the bumpy ride, hot morning and sticky humidity were conspiring to prod me into a feeling of deep and accelerating air sickness. I figured that a quick landing might prevent untimely regurgitation so I called for an end to the adventure. 

I was glum on the drive home. I thought about what I'd have to tell the client and I worried that unrecoverable cards would result in my paying for the next helicopter ride out of pocket in order to re-shoot. Three more pieces of gum and some time with my head between my kneess didn't solve the issue with the cards but a $150 piece of software and hours of sweating did the trick. I was able to save nearly all of the images. Only a few were horribly corrupted and unusable. After an hour or so I recovered as well. Mostly.

People ask me why I think I need so much back-up gear and I look at them as if they are insane. You can't sit in a flying helicopter that cost six or eight hundred dollars an hour and futz around with a broken camera. Or a corrupted memory card. Or a lens that's given up. You've got to grab for the next camera and get on with the business. 

I haven't been in a helicopter in nearly eight years and I'm pretty happy about that.  God bless drones. It's obviating the need to risk life and limb in a mobile death trap that makes the pervasive invasion of drones tolerable. I won't use them but I can hire someone who will.

So, that was early days in commercial digital photography. Things broke. Batteries ran dry in a hundred shots. Card's structural data integrity fell apart. Interfaces failed. Computers crashed and SCSI connections were frail. Where are we now?

Cameras, for the most part, are rock solid performers now. I can shoot with any number of cameras and not find anything too difficult to overcome. I've only had one camera failure (catastrophic) in the last five years and that one was replaced under warranty. 

It's been ten years since I've had a card failure. I chalk some of that up to card discipline (always format in camera, keep cards stored in their plastic cases when not in use, and, don't buy cheap cards) and some of that record of success to the fact that bigger and bigger file sizes mandate bigger and bigger memory cards so we end up replacing them mostly before they even have a chance to act up. All the cards I use now are either 64 GB or 128 GB and are either V60 rated or (mostly) V90 rated. Two of my cameras take CF Express or XQD cards and I like them for their structural ruggedness. The 128 GB CF Express card I have is extremely fast and buffers 47.5 megapixel raw files like they are tiny Jpegs.

I hate to say it but I think the real explosion in photo quality (output) isn't necessarily higher and higher resolution or increased dynamic range. I think lenses have actually gotten much, much better than they've ever been before. 

I'm convinced that if I could put a new Nikon 70-200mm or the new 85mm f1.8 on one of those old Fuji S2s I could make photos that blow away the ones we took 18 years ago. Just because the optical performance of the current lenses would be so demonstrably superior. I'm burned out on chasing legacy lenses because, inevitably, while they look good on lower resolution cameras they tend to fall apart on cameras with high pixel count sensors. 

I recently did a job where we shot for a day and a half against a classic white background. The subject was also backlit. I used a Panasonic S-Pro 24-70mm f2.8 zoom, mostly between 35mm and 70mm and I never saw the kind of veiling flare we took for granted with the older lenses. Even with a light shining directly in the lens I didn't see a decrease in contrast or any sort of softening of the images. 

While new, expensive and state of the art lenses would make the older cameras perform better there's nothing they can do to improve the memory card performance of the older cameras. 

In almost every way the new cameras, lenses and memory cards are better, more reliable and easier to use. 

If camera makers were benevolent and generous they might consider updating firmware on cameras that go all the way back to the dawn of professional digital. I guess that's a pipe dream since on-board memory and processor performance play such a big part on the data side of the process. And I guess that would make camera makers seem too much like socialist enterprises. But I sure would love to give those S2s and even the S5s another run for their money with killer lenses and current instruction sets. 

Who knows? Those old sensors might deliver a retro look that all the cool kids adore. 

I think I'll count myself lucky and keep filling out the lens bag with current, top of the line product. Then I'll be the only one in the chain to blame when the images don't meet (unrealistic) expectations. 

Hope you are having a mellow and Covid-free weekend. Keep those masks on tight. We don't need to see your nostrils. It's never a political statement, it's just best practice. 




Jaston Williams in Black and White.

Jaston Williams at the State Theater. November 13, 2020


 

Portrait of Jaston Williams at the State Theater on Congress Ave.


 One of the most interesting artists I've met in the last thirty years has got to be Jaston Williams. He's a writer, playwright and consummate actor. He's starred in so many productions, in Austin and on national stages, that I'd exceed my usual verbose writing limits just listing them. But the thing that makes him both hilarious and captivating is his ability to observe, distill and define the zany characters he finds all over Texas. And to display them with frightening authenticity. 

Since it looks like no one in the USA is going to be producing plays inside theaters for big audiences through at least 2021 he's experimenting with new, hybrid constructs of theater.

I was enlisted to help him with his current production. The project is structured like a cross between a live, one man play, a television show and a movie. The play is about the inhabitants of a small, west Texas town who have seen mysterious lights dancing on the horizon. There are only a handful of people who claim to have seen the lights while everyone else in the town, the people who haven't seen the lights, think those folks are crazy.

Jaston worked with Austin's best theatrical make-up person to create a dozen characters. He plays every single one. While doing a dozen characters in a traditional play, with very complex make-up and costuming, would be nearly impossible (time, time, time...) doing it as a movie is manageable. And better. 

Today he and his crew will be filming him live on the stage at the old State Theater here in Austin. He'll be the on camera narrator for the project. He'll do his one person script in front of a large green screen and during the post production editing process the images I made of him in his various characters will be unveiled in the background, on the green screen. Since we shot several hundred images in each character the editors and director will be able use multiple images of each character in what amounts almost to an animation. 

Once the project is finished the producers intend to work with live theaters around the country to provide them with the "play" as content. The theaters will be able to sell streaming access to their own audiences and they will split the proceeds with the production company and Jaston. This gives theaters in many markets something to offer audiences during the time when live productions aren't possible. They share in the profits and there are no costs to the theaters beyond the split of profits. It's a nice model. I hope it works. 

I've photographed Jaston in so many guises and characters over the years and I had no intention, really, of photographing him yesterday. But I do take a camera with me everywhere and when I went downtown to look at the preparations for today's multi-camera video shoot he answered the door and stepped, just by chance, into a nice looking pool of light. I shot off five or six frames and then we walked into the auditorium. 

The camera I had with me yesterday was a Panasonic GH5S with a Sigma Contemporary 56mm f1.4. I used it at f1.4. 

Interesting time for art in general. Tough times for theater in particular. 

in character from our shoot several weeks ago. On that shoot we photographed against a white background and dropped out the backgrounds in my post production, All were lit with LED lights and photographed using a Panasonic Lumix S1R at its highest resolution, in 14 bit raw. I used the spectacular Lumix 24-70mm f2.8 lens. The detail in the files is nothing short of amazing. Even at ISO 640.


11.12.2020

A work schedule update.

From: A Night With Janis. 
Zach Theatre.

Sony SLT-99 + 70-200mm f2.8 G lens.

As crazy as it may sound I really have decided to take the rest of the year off. I have one small project left to do. It's a one day video with my friend, Kenny, next Monday. After that I've turned down all other client work. The emphasis is on "client." I'll still go out with cameras and play on my own time/dime. 

There are several reasons I've decided to do this. First, my friend Michael Johnston (theonlinephotographer.com) has written so convincingly about the game of pool that I've decided I need to dedicate the rest of my life to learning it. In that way you'll have two dedicated sources of writing about pool and/or snooker for your amusement and education. No. Wait. Strike that! While Michael is an engaging writer I have NOT become enchanted by the game of pool...

But I have become a bit addicted to spending my free time with no scheduled limits. 

The real reason to take a break from commercial work is that it's become....boring. It's starting to feel like the movie, starring Bill Murray: "Groundhog Day." Every job lately has felt too familiar. The glitches too predictable and the client theatrics unchanged over the decades. 

I think, as Ian Fleming did about courage, that patience with clients is a finite store. Each person gets a sum of patience and goodwill to use through their professional life. When the client patience is fully spent one must exit the field of battle and either re-coup, re-direct or surrender. My hope is that a couple of months off will leave me refreshed and ready to re-engage. At best it's a nice trial run for a life of leisure. At worst I'll be chomping at the bit to get back in the race by mid-January. 

But this is not just a temporary "goodbye" to wholly commercial clients. No, non-profits are no less immune to my eccentric idea of temporal personal space. They are on the "no more this year" list as well. 

So, one half of my unemployment resolve is driven by boredom and a sense of endless, grinding deja vu. But the other half is a rational assessment of where the USA is with the Covid-19 Pandemic. The rate of contagion is accelerating. Really accelerating. And while Pfizer announced a successful series of tests for their vaccine it will really be months and months until it becomes initially available. And who knows how long until it's widely available by regular folks like me? Hell. I live in a red state. They may outlaw the vaccines as being witchcraft...

I'm no longer willing to take any chances with the virus that I don't need to. It only takes a brief encounter with one person whose judgement is poor to ruin everything. I think most functioning adults have realized by now that there should not be anything political attached to our collective response. Austin, Texas has a citywide mask mandate now and I think that's a good thing. It will be in place through the end of the year. 

I know that everyone talks a good game when they need to come to work. They wear a mask and, sometimes, even try to distance from each other. But I have no way of knowing if they spent their weekend in a packed choir practice, a mosh pit, or just sitting in a crowded bar somewhere out of town, soaking up the ambiance, and a deadly contagion, and then heading in to work after grabbing their well used face mask out of the ashtray in their car. I can vote with my presence or absence on this one. 

More time to write. More time to swim. More time to have lunch with Ben and Belinda around the dining room table as the leaves fall off the trees and the cold weather makes coffee taste even better.

And, being a contrarian, and just a hint mean, I'm having fun listening to client reactions as I explain to them that I don't think it's prudent to work right now. But thanks anyway. Call me after the vaccine comes out. I'll want to see that note from your doctor...