1.31.2015

Camera Talk is Cheap. Show me Some Photos.


I love to believe that there is a camera lurking out there somewhere that really is the "magic bullet" of imaging. But you know what? I can pull out a file full of great images from just about every camera I've ever owned, no matter how ratty or dilapidated the cameras were. No matter what their sensor density or their lineage. At some point everything boils down to lighting and having the right subjects in front of whatever camera you can scrape together. I proved it to myself once again a few nights ago by shooting an Olympus EM-5 the evening after the Nikon D810 love fest/photo shoot. And my favorite portraits of 2013 came right out of a camera that I found difficult to use and slow to warm up to. 

At some point you just have to ignore the pedigree and the current buzz and get down to work and shoot. We could test cameras for the rest of our lives and probably die thinking that the ultimate one is just around the corner. But I'll tell you want, the power of rationalization is stunning. Don't believe me, just read about this (excellent) shooter's agonizing analysis of his latest toy acquisition. http://dedpxl.com/moving-to-motion-pt-02-lumix-gh4/

I went through the same rationalization last year and ended up with the same gear but I have no doubt that eventually both of us will move on to something like the Sony FS7 dedicated video camera by the end of this year. The search (and the rationalization of the interim steps) is timeless and too easy. 

I posted these images because they flowed into the camera for me. The camera was meaningless, it was the process that was all the fun. Zach just reminded me of how good we get at making a case for the stuff we want to buy. Guilty here too. These images make the case for me that none of that really matters.










1.30.2015

Shooting a live performance of the "David Bowie Project 2" performance with a full house of ticket buyers. Stealth?


Yesterday I posted a bunch of black and white images from the Ariel Dance Company's latest work, The David Bowie Project 2.  This is not a traditional play but a multimedia performance piece that combines modern dance, dramatic dialogue, live music and light painting. The Company calls what they are doing, "sound painting" but I think it is more than that. 

Each performance runs 70 minutes and each performance is different. Three people from the company take turns using a sophisticated sign language to cue different music, sound effects and movement. The piece is loosely wrapped around the various dialogs of David Bowie and interspersed with his music and actor delivered quotes attributed to Bowie. 

On the first night, the final rehearsal, I was feeling my way through the piece trying to figure out where to be during each part of the performance. I shot 1200 images between the big Nikon D610 and the tiny Olympus EM-5. I shot the EM-5 entirely in monotone and my experience with it reminded me of what a great shooting tool those smaller cameras could be. Especially small cameras with unmatched image stabilization.

When I went back again last night I packed only the Olympus mini-cams. I took a small Tenba photo backpack housing three EM-5 bodies. I stripped down the bodies so that they were unencumbered with battery grips. I brought one lens for each body. The lenses were the 17mm Olympus f1.8, the Sigma 30mm 2.8 dn lens and the Sigma 60mm f2.8 dn lens (my current favorite for the m4:3 cameras). That and a few extra batteries comprised my entire shooting inventory. 

Since there was a live, paying audience in the house I had to make sure not to call attention to myself or my cameras. Before I left the house I dressed completely in black. Black shoes, black pants and shirt and even a black skullcap to cover my zone 7 silver hair. I was able to shoot from either side of the audience as long as I didn't go past the front row. I could also shoot from the left and right side of the back of the stage. I took care to slow myself down so sudden or quick movement wouldn't catch people's eyes. I also did my best not to make eye contact with either anyone in the audience or the actors.  I didn't worry too much about shutter noise since the music usually masked the noise in all but the quietest moments. At those times I re-upped my gratitude for the EM-5's quiet and low tonal profile shutters. 

Since the performance is all about movement and a lot of the moves and choreography were unknowable to me before they happened I broke with my usual style, put the frame rate for the cameras on high and shot tight, fast bursts of action. The auto focus of the cameras had no problems locking on to the dancers even though the stage was well fogged---which always lowers the overall contrast. With the small backpacked stashed behind stage I wore the cameras instead of trying to maneuver with extraneous holders or bags. The body with the long lens always went over the left shoulder while the body with the 30mm went over the right. I wore the body with the 17mm around my neck. In almost every frame I shot wide open (with both Sigmas) and one stop down with the Olympus 17mm. I needed shutter speed more than I needed deep depth of field and I wanted to keep my ISO at 160o or under. 

At some point I realized that I could get down near the floor with the articulated finder on the rear and I would be able to capture the rays of light falling on one of the "conductors" in a nice way. Then I remembered that I could also use the square aspect ratio. At that point it all fell into place for me and that's the way I shot for the rest of the performance. 

Why didn't I use the Nikon cameras and lenses? I felt like they were too big and with the fog in the atmosphere the benefit of the high resolution would be lost. Why carry a bigger camera with a bigger set of files if the limitation exists under the common denominators of both cameras?  I'd rather work in situations like this with cameras set to manual exposure, using me EVF as a defacto meter. The instant visual feedback loop is a hard (nice) habit to break. (If Canon and Nikon really want to save sales they'd do well to realize that enthusiasts aren't all rushing to mirror-free because of the small size benefit, hordes of us embrace them because the change to EVFs is a paradigm shift that will eventually kill off the OVF cameras. Size differences be damned, it's the feedback loop, stupid).

The combination of the great music and kinetic flow of the dancers pretty much ensured that I was almost totally invisible to the audience (and hopefully to the dancers). I delivered a huge batch of files today and I'm certain that the company will get a ton of them into the hands of the press and event websites before sundown. This is how local art gets marketed. 

One last note: I've always been warned away from shooting video with the EM-5. The experts are not happy with the look for the files or the "brittle-ness of the codec" but last night I decided to thrown caution to the wind and see what the video really looked like. I set the camera to 24 fps, 1/50th, f2.8 and blazed away handheld. The I.S. is a revelation for video. It's amazingly smooth. I loved shooting that way and, in situations where it's warranted shooting handheld with the EM-5 could be a great technique. Seems perfectionism can create roadblocks to creative practice. I can hardly wait for the rumored new EM-5 type 2. It's rumored to have tweaked I.S. as well as a really decent video file implementation. Not perfect but perfectly usable. Count me in!







The above is a link to a new EM-5 but if you go to that page you'll 
be able to navigate to the used EM-5's offered. They start at just 
under $400. Still a bargain the way I see it...

And while you are there deciding that you really do want to take a chance on an older camera model, please pick up a Kindle or Print copy of the Novel to help support VSL's house writer....


Follow me on Twitter? https://twitter.com/KirkTuck

1.29.2015

Totally off the topic of photography but right on target for Kirk.

As many of you know my kid, Ben, went off to college last Fall. He got out of Texas. He got out of the Southwest. He went all the way to Saratoga Springs, NY to attend Skidmore College. He chose the school, visited on his own and made the final decision. Even though it is 1849 miles from Austin we were very pleased with his decision. It's a rigorous school and very selective. And Saratoga Springs is drop dead beautiful.

So, I was waiting for Belinda to meet me at the Blanton Museum after my swim practice this afternoon and I got a text. It was from Ben. He made the Dean's List for last semester. It was his freshman, first semester.

I am very proud of Ben.


Go Ben.

The David Bowie Project. Another shoot at another theater with another production company. Intro.

Prop.

This post isn't really a full fledged post. It's a demi-post written while waiting the files to be ingested into the gaping maw of Lightroom. When we last convened I was just finishing up fine tuning some files for Zach Theatre's production of, "Peter and the Starcatchers." I put 900 images on a sixteen gb stick and delivered them to the marketing folks. We're having a love fest over on Facebook over a small sampling of the images. The pirate is trending well....

So, I finished up the post production on the Zach project and put the cameras back on the chargers. Backed up the images across a couple of hard drives and then wiped the big, fast cards so I could use them later that day. The rest of the afternoon was spent doing droll stuff. I bid on a lifestyle project for a big resort project that's going up down on the Texas coast. The agency had a wish list a mile long and budget we could measure with a short ruler. I sent along a bid with endless detail (I used to shoot advertising for a whole series of resort properties in the Caribbean and Mexico...) of stuff they had overlooked or didn't know about and I thought that I'd pretty much put myself out of the running. Sometimes it's better to decline a job then to stick your foot into a tar pit that just sucks you in and (temporarily) kills your business. My estimate was three times their initial "suggestion." 

A few hours later I heard back and, golly, I'm still in the running but the agency has gone back to the drawing board to figure out just what we might be able to do within their budget. It's one thing to want to drive a Bentley but it a whole other thing to actually pay for one....

I also did a multi-page estimate for a very cutting edge technology company. Many layers of detail. We'll need to shoot so many angles and we'll need to do it with models and without. Then there's the retouching. And the clipping paths. And the logo replacements (same model chassis with different guts).  There was a lot of typing on my part. I hope it all makes sense to our prospective client.

This kind of backend work is tedious and has to be done correctly because the detail in the bids and estimates becomes part of the final agreement, which is binding. I'd hate to promise something we can't deliver or overlook the number of hours that would really be required to make a process work well in imaging. There will be some give and take about the final numbers but that's to be expected. 
Once we have everything nailed down we'll tender an agreement which is our basic contract. When I read a lot blogs about the business of photography few of them talk about contracts and agreements in writing but it really forms the backbone of the process and clients do take them very seriously. Who will get what? What will it all cost? How are the rights licensed? What if something doesn't match up? All vital questions in business. 

Anyway, it was my turn to make dinner and I knew I needed to be downtown for a new performance rehearsal at 7:30. Hello Jason's Deli. A half mufuletta to go. We ate our sandwich and shared news of the day. The boy has not frozen in the arctic wastelands of the northeast; he has survived the blizzard of 2015. 

I did the dishes and headed into the office to pack. One Nikon 610, one Nikon D7100, the 24-85 zoom and an 85mm. Just for happy fun I tossed in an Olympus EM-5 with the Sigma 60mm f2.8 DN Art lens. 

EM-5.

The performance was at the Long Center here in Austin. The production company is headed by Andrea Ariel and the project is called, The David Bowie Project. Andrea calls this kind of integration of music, drama and dance: Sound Painting.  I call it structural improvisation. 

I'm still processing images from last night and I'll share them later but I wanted to explore on thing that came to me in a moment of satori last night. An epiphany.

But first some samples: 













And now for my personal epiphany: I was shooting with the Nikon stuff and they were doing their basic camera stuff very well. They are like guys in suits who can tell you what escrow really means and will explain securitization to you in detail. The color is what the color is and everything is acceptably sharp and detailed. So if you are a linear thinker you might be able to stop right there and endless iterate in a linear fashion. 

But then I picked up my Olympus EM-5. For some reason or another the camera was set up to shoot Jpegs in monotone. Black and white. Grayscale. I went to move it into a color profile but I stopped myself and decided to shoot "just a few" images in black and white to see how it all looked. I shot and I liked. The image on the rear screen looked like a beautiful print from my heyday's with Tri-X. 
I decided to throw caution to the wind and set the camera up to be exactly like the cameras and films of my past. I set the ISO to 400 and the filtration to green (a subset of monotone that emulates the effects of different color filters on panchromatic films). I boosted the contrast a little bit. I turned down the noise reduction a bit. And then I just shot with reckless abandon. 

I was using the 60mm f2.8 Sigma DN Art lens as it was the only one I'd brought along. Just look at the rich tones and also go back and look at frame after frame with powerful stage lights directly in the frames! Look at the rich, noise-free blacks! But mostly, look at those luscious tones! 

In some situations the bigger cameras will give one a technically better file but I don't always want that. Sometimes I want a file that looks like art all on it's own. 

The amazing thing to me is that most of these (all of them?) were shot with the lens wide freakin' open. The shutter speed vacillated in the realm of 1/40th to 1/80th of second with me leaning on timing and the camera's remarkable I.S. performance. 

Once I got engaged in shooting with the Olympus and the monotone setting I was so hooked that the other cameras got tossed onto a theater seat and ignored for the rest of the evening. Oh sure, I had enough color coverage to keep the client happy but this stuff made me happy. It make may them happy to----afterall, they are artists too. 

Many questioned whether I would just abandon the micro four thirds cameras in favor of the full frame Nikons. I've been quiet about it until now but I have to say that there are certainly times for technically perfect images with outrageous amounts of resolution and detail but in my life there are at least as many times when I want images to look not perfect but really evocative and lush. 

My recent Nikon purchase, the D810 is $3300. The last Olympus EM-5 I bought (last Fall) with a battery grip was $395. For work like the stuff above (which may not be your personal cup of tea) I'll take the Olympus EM-5 nearly every time. What a great and transparent camera!

What's my commitment? Well, I've got four of them in the gear cabinet and I've got my eye out for more as the prices continue to drop. What a bargain. And the Sigma 60mm lens? Well, look at the Samples!

Just a few thoughts while watching some avant-garde dance performance. Your mile will surely vary (YMWSV).

Hey, please follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/KirkTuck



1.28.2015

Photographing the Dress Rehearsal of Peter and the Starcatcher with a Nikon D610 and a D810. An evening at Zach Theatre.


One of my favorite parts of my job as a commercial photographer is to go to the dress rehearsals of live theater and make images that are used to market the plays. We do studio shoots far earlier in the season, the images from which are used in subscriber brochures and to announce the season's productions, but the photographs from the dress rehearsal shoots go out to a wide range of social media outlets, are sent to publications and are used extensively on the websites. 

I've shot dress rehearsals for about 23 years now and have used every sort of camera imaginable except for view cameras. I've shot them with everything from Hasselblads to a Sony R1. Over the last year I used a variety of micro four thirds cameras and lenses but for our first production of the new year I thought it might be fun to take a different tack and try using the two new cameras I bought from Nikon.  I loaded up the Nikon D810 and D610 along with an 80-200mm f2.8 and the newish 24-85mm f3.5-4.5. I brought along two extra batteries out of habit. 

Lately, on the bigger productions for Zach Theatre, I've been dropping by for the tech rehearsals that happen a few days earlier. There's no audience at these performances; not even family and friends. I try to attend so I can get a sense for the blocking and the flow of the show. I want to know if there's a cool finalĂ© that plays to one side or another. I want to know if the ensemble hits a pose for a few seconds before the lights drop out for scene change or at the end of an act. In short, I want to see what it's all about so I can be prepared and shoot wisely. 

I watched the tech rehearsal on Sunday evening and came back for the dress rehearsal (with audience) just yesterday. I won't review the play for you but it's astoundingly funny and moves along quickly. 

I set up both cameras the same way: Raw > Compressed > 12 bit > auto WB > Manual Exposure > ISO 3200. On the D810 I used group mode AF concentrated on the center while on the less complex D610 I used S-AF on the center sensor. Each camera wrote to a 64gb SDXC U3 card that writes at 60 mbs. I estimated exposures and looked for feedback from the camera.  The sweet spot was f4, 1/400th. I used the "quiet mode" on both cameras. Quick note: The quiet mode on the D810 is much more pleasant than the quiet mode on the D610. 

I started out thinking I'd go back and forth between the cameras as needed, as dictated by the angle of view needed. I quickly realized that most of the play; at least 95% of it, could be well shot just using the 80-200mm. So I shot with the D610 during the first act and then switched and shot with the D810 for the second half. 

I guess you can make some assumptions by looking at the rear screen of the cameras and reviewing the images but that seems kind of futile to me. I prefer to load everything into Lightroom and look at the images on the 27 inch monitor. That's the high speed litmus test. The real test would be a large print....

One interesting point I observed is that the finder of the D810 is brighter than the finder of the D610. For some reason I thought they would be identical. 

When I got back home I loaded both cards into Lightroom and left the computer rendering standard previews. I woke up early this morning and settled in with a cup of coffee and started looking and editing in earnest. I narrowed down the take from 1200 images to about 900 images. I did a couple passes of sync'd settings. I could tell that I wanted to tell Lightroom to use the neutral color profile instead of standard (which is too contrasty for this work) and I knew I wanted to add 30 positive clicks to shadow recovery and another 20 clicks to the clarity slider. I overlaid those settings over everything. If I found frames where this was overkill I could always hit "reset" for those frames. 

Then I went through and made as many batched corrections as I could. Since I was shooting in manual if I shot 12 frames of a scene I was pretty much assured that all 12 would correct in exactly the same way. That makes life easier.  I'm always nervous, when shooting, about blowing out highlights so I end up always needing to add about half a stop to the exposure when I get around to post processing. 

Some frames were underexposed by a bit more. Some needed as much as a stop and a half boost to be  just right and I was amazed at how well the tones recovered when pulling up so much exposure. But there was a real difference between the two cameras as far as noise is concerned. 

With the D610 I got the nice, small, regular black grain pattern (at 100%) that I am used to seeing on cameras like the Panasonic GH4. If I underexposed too much on the D810 and did the same amount of recovery I ended up getting a sea of tiny white speckles in the dark areas of the frame at 100%. If I reduce the file down to a usable size it's no problem but if I had to shoot in such an extreme way and then print large I would definitely reach for the D610 first.  Since I rarely miss by that much in terms of exposure I'm not going to consider it a flaw of the camera but it's instructive to know that its superpowers live at the other end of the ISO scale. ISO 64 is flawless and wonderful. ISO 3200 (underexposed), not so much. But even with the speckles the detail across the D810 frames stayed nice and sharp. 

I probably won't use the Nikon D810 for available light theater work again. Even though the vast majority of files were beautiful the size of the files is beyond crazy. When I finished making all the corrections to the files and went to convert them to Jpegs for normal, P.R. and marketing consumption it took well over an hour to process them all.  And that's with an i7 processor and 32 gigabytes of RAM with the files writing on and off a 7200 rpm hard drive. That's a lot of processing time.

There were a number of stars in the mix last night. Most were on stage but the ones I had with me were definitely the ultra well behaved D610 and the antiquated but very sharp and easy to handle 80-200mm f2.8. With the camera at ISO 3200 in Raw and the lens at f4.0 it was hard to miss. 

I pulled the D610 out of the bag right before lunch so I could bring it along for happenstance. I reflexively checked the battery and would have replaced it if needed. But after shooting nearly five hundred raw images with the camera the battery info told me we were still at 94%. 

My last shoot done with micro four thirds cameras is still fresh in my mind and while the absolute image quality of the Nikon full frame cameras is pretty unassailable they would not necessarily be my first choice for the next show. I missed the EVFs because I rely on them to cut down on my need to chimp. If I can pre-chimp I can correct in real time without filling up the memory cards with garbage frames. The two Nikons and the two lenses weighed considerably more that four of my EM-5s and a lens for each one of them. And none of my lenses for the smaller format is anywhere near as imposing and scary as the big, Nikon zoom. 

On the flip side the larger sensors, in conjunction with fast apertures, are really good at dropping out focus in the backgrounds which creates a better feeling of depth in those images. That being said I'm sure if I bought the faster glass for the smaller format system I could come close to matching that aspect of the overall look. 

Let's face it. There is one right camera. That's the camera you most enjoy shooting with. Everything else can have better specs and better laboratory behavior but if you don't like holding it and shooting it then who cares? 

This seems funny to me but I've attached a lot of samples from the show. It's funny because the files are 24 and 36 megapixel in their native size and here I'm showing them as 2000 pixel wide Jpegs that are compressed at 8 out of 10 possible. Now they're 8 bits instead of 12 and now were looking at them on computer screens. Does it really matter in the long run which camera you use? It all seems a bit silly to use a camera that generates 36 megapixel images that are invariably downsized for use on the web.... At any rate here's a selection of images to evaluate. My favorite tool of the evening? That rum and Coke with a slice of fresh lime I got at intermission...
















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