8.29.2014

Kirk Tuck's Free Course, Professional Family Portraits, has racked up over 70,000 viewers. That's a lot of people watching a photography class...


I've been concentrating on letting people know about the novel, The Lisbon Portfolio, lately but I was amazed when I went to the Craftsy.com website to see what's new in the photo courses over there. My course, Professional Family Portraits, which is offered for free has already attracted over 70,000 viewers. 

I've sent a large number of friends there because it's a good starting point in just getting comfortable with using lights, arranging and directing people and thinking about portrait photography. You can go to the site and start taking the course right now. You don't have to hand over your credit card and you don't need any special stuff to start. You can go back and watch as often as you want and you can leave questions for the instructor....which I am duty bound to answer.

There are also photography courses by people who are not Kirk. Like small light expert, Neil van Niekirk (whom I featured in my LED book) and Chris Grey who is a masterful studio photographer who shares the same book publisher as me. 

I use Craftsy.com to learn more about food because, invariably, I am also learning more and more about video from watching how the Craftsy pro video term puts the projects together. 


Give the free course a shot. You might find it entertaining. 

Checking in on the whole noise bug-a-boo. Theater style. And some thoughts about current digital offerings.

Legendary Austin actor, Jaston Williams on stage at Zach Theatre.

My wonderful friends in the marketing department at Zach Theatre asked me to come and photograph  a dress rehearsal of Jaston Williams's one man play, Maid Marian and the Stolen Car. I packed up a little bag of toys and headed over on Tues. evening. I shot primarily with two cameras and two lenses. I was sporting the Nikon D7100 camera with the 18-140mm zoom and the Olympus EM-5 (in its natty black finish...) with the 25mm f1.4 Pana/Leica lens. 

The slow zoom pushed me to shoot at 6400 ISO while the much more functional 25mm f1.4 allowed me to stick around ISO 800 with an f-stop around f2.5.

What's my takeaway? While the D7100 is very usable for this kind of work at ISO 6400 the quickly changing light is murder on exposure consistency and the slower feedback loop of shoot/chimp/correct/shoot/chimp/re-correct means far more missed shots than when I use a camera with a good EVF. The feedback loop goes something like: view/correct/shoot/shoot/shoot. 

Yes, the finder on the Nikon is pretty and the sensor is big and gorgeous but I'll trade all that any day for nimble, accurate and fun-to-hold-and-shoot. Yes, we could have used faster lenses on the Nikon but that would have only changed the ISO I ended up setting, not the iterative nature of shooting with a (finely made ) last century paradigm. 

Looking forward here's what I see in camera marketing: The camera company that is most successful with professionals and advanced enthusiasts in the future will be the forward thinking company that incorporates a great APS-C sensor; a wonderful EVF that cuts down on the iteration-chain for more effective, almost intuitive, shooting, great lenses that work well wide open and good video. 

The Olympus system is almost there with the OMD EM-1 but it remains to be seen whether or not they can sustain profitability in the market long enough to continue consumer camera operations. The marketing hurdle with regards to the masses is always going to be the sensor size. It's too bad they haven't found a marketer/advertising agency who can succinctly and movingly explain the inherent advantages of the smaller format. ( I volunteer to give it a whirl. I couldn't do worse....).

Panasonic is in a similar boat but they've made a conscious decision (I think) to cut all the consumer crap out of their line and focus on the higher end products that we enjoy. The GH4 is 95% of the way there. A bit more work on the Jpeg processing and the EVF quality and they have a good shot of staying in the marketplace and adding market share.

Nikon had a good idea with the V system but destroyed whatever advantages they had when they screwed around with the formula and went gunning for rank consumer markets instead of forward thinking pros and competent amateurs. For Nikon to truly compete going forward they desperately need to create a camera with a sensor as good as the one in the D7100 but with a mirror less configuration that features a wonderful EVF and lightning fast response.  Screw the idea of making a faux rangefinder. It's not the size that matters to most shooters, it's the tight feedback loop of full information we get in the EVF finders!

They have to get that figured out. If they do they can introduce cameras like the D810, the D610 and the D7100 but with brilliant EVFs instead of last century optical finders. Keep the same kinds of lenses, keep the big, hearty bodies. Fix the damn feedback loop! Oly shooters come for the size (supposedly) but they stay because of the finders. Make the finders nearly universal and a major advantage of m4:3 goes by the wayside.

I think Nikon will finally get it because they have little to fall back upon. It's morph or die. It's adapt or shrink into irrelevance. If they want to hedge their bets they can keep a few OVFs in the pipeline during the inevitable transition. That will make the traditionalists (over 50's) happier.  But if they want to provide cameras for the post digital age they need to figure out that once we have almost automatic visual feedback and control we're never, ever going back. And that includes people like Michael Reichmann who only a few years ago pissed on EVFs as not viable. Now he's dumped all his Nikon stuff for a Sony A7r system---- partially because of the size difference but, in my opinion, his brain finally accepted the idea that seeing the final image before you pushed the button was------revolutionary, not evolutionary. 

Good luck to you, Nikon. I hope you see the light and I hope it's coming through a small, wonderful eye level screen instead of dead glass....

But onward to everyone's current "golden boy", Canon. The mantra is that they will survive because they've got the momentum. They'll keep making the traditional DSLR cameras because they own so much of the market. And the other line I always hear is, "They have the resources to compete in mirror less any time they want."  I maintain that they may of the resources but they lack the will and the foresight or the EOS-M would never have been such a cynically terrible camera. Deep down I'm starting to believe that they are the Japanese Kodak and they are so sure of their internal research and direction that they don't see the bullet train heading toward them on the same track.

The sad thing for all these guys is that the entire market is changing. Cameras in general are going away. They are being incorporated into all kinds of other products. They are being relentlessly de-valued by smart phones and combo computer products like tablets. If I ran Canon right now I'd jump in and start eating my own babies by making a line of incredible mirror less cameras in the full frame and APS-C spaces that required all new lenses and all new attachments and were the first line to implement the new generation of sensors that we've heard is coming down the line.  And just wait until Apple successfully incorporates a great camera into a beautiful wrist watch that automatically loads the images to your iPhone....

My advice to Canon? Make a mirror free product that's demonstrably better than any mirror less product out there. Three models: good, better, best. Launch with a full line of lenses: extremely wide zooms, fast primes and small but high performing long zooms. And toss the lion's share of marketing into their promotion. They can "halo" the existing products. They can cannibalize sales from all the competitors. Canon has the overwhelming share of name recognition. They have the deep pockets. If they don't follow through I'll be waiting for their Kodak moment with their camera division. 

But wait. Isn't there already a company out there that hits all the main criteria I've been pounding away at? Yep. And it's the only company whose recent products I haven't used. It's Fuji. And it's just right now that they got all their shit together in a meaningful way with the XT-1. Previous to that they had their share of software and firmware issues, zany non-compatible raw file issues, slow focusing issues and even the idiocy of launching a flagship product (the X Pro-1) without an adjustable diopter on the finder. A small point for most but their are still behind on the video front...

But to their credit they've kept improving and now they offer pretty much the golden triangle of good sensor, good (feedback loop) EVF and by most accounts, great lenses. It remains to be seen if they will act on their temporary supremacy and cement some increasing market share by advertising what they have to a wider market. Right now they seem to be the player with the mix. If Canon and Nikon want to aim at a competitor I suggest that they study Fuji and then take their best shots. It would be a waste of capital to aim at Olympus and Panasonic. 

But really, this is all a discussion about marketing trends and the future of cameras as we know them. It's relatively inconsequential to me and you in the short run because I really do believe that nearly every good prosumer and above camera in the current market is more than good enough to serve as an optical-mechanical conduit to my own vision. But your mileage may vary. 

I suggest that we have a bumper crop of choices in the stores right now. Enjoy it as I think the crop will hit some marked declines in the near future.  There are no "permanent" players in the camera industry and now, just like the professional photographers they serve, the companies will only be as popular as their last round of products. 

Other than that how did you enjoy the theatre Mr. Tuck? The play was hilarious and touching at the same time.... favorite camera? That was the EM5.

8.28.2014

Putting Product Selection to the test. Did I make the right decision for my event camera?

U.S. Representative, Lloyd Doggett, Speaking at the opening of the 
new Austin Community College campus at Highland Mall. 

Texas State representative, Dawnna Dukes at the same event.

I recently tested cameras with flashes and came to realize that, for me the camera and flash combinations available for the GH4 weren't adequate for my use in event work (notice that I've said, "my use." I'm sure many readers are more adept at finding the right combinations of products and settings to make the m4:3 options successful. Just not working for me...).

I bought the Nikon D7100 based on reviews, previous experiences with Nikon flash systems and actual, hands-on experimentation. I bought an iTTL Metz flash instead of the Nikon brand because it tested just as well and was half the price. But the final test is always the use of the equipment in the field because everything seems to work well in my studio....

The two images above are classic examples of times I need good flash. The speakers are under the cover of a tent while the building in the background is in full daylight. The difference between the background and the speaker in the foreground is at least three and a half stops! I followed directions: I put the camera into matrix metering mode, S-AF, center focus point and focused on my primary subject. The images came out looking just like this. This is not a situation where it was possible to pre-light anything. I had several hundred people in the audience behind me and I was surrounded by six or seven other working photographers all trying to get the same decent shots. I would love to have bounced the flash off the white ceiling of the tent but I couldn't spare the flash power to get the right exposure and match that bright background. 

I could have used manual camera exposure and manual flash exposure but who wants to chimp, chimp, chimp through a fast moving assignment with lots of speakers and the need to also get audience reaction shots on the fly?

I haven't done any post processing to the shots. In fact, you can look at the two sides of the frame and see the obvious geometric distortion provided by the 18-140mm zoom lens. I am very happy with the results. I'll straighten the lines but at least I'm starting out with a well balanced frame that will work well for my client's public relations needs. It's a lot easier to straight a frame than to fix an unbalanced foreground/background lighting error. 

I am happy with all the image quality aspects of the camera/sensor/flash. The files are detailed, well white balanced and tonally happy. My only real complaint is how much I miss being able to chimp in the finder of an EVF camera to see if I got what I needed while I still have the camera up at my eye level. 

After I used this camera and lens for an event in the morning yesterday I spent time shooting the Panasonic GH4 and the 35-100mm for corporate portraits in the afternoon. We were shooting in continuous light and it was so wonderful and fluid to shoot that way. The images looked incredibly good as well. In the same ballpark for sharpness and smooth tonality as the Nikon. The only differences really showed up in basic handling differences. 

To round out my day I shot a rehearsal of THE KING AND I over at Zach Theatre. That job was done almost entirely with the Olympus OMD EM-5 and the 25mm f1.4 Pana/Leica lens. It was fast, did a great job automatically color balancing under weirdly mixed lights and was both sonically and visually unobtrusive. 

Not every camera works perfectly for every imaginable scenario. Yes, you can press most modern cameras into doing everything competently. But isn't it a privilege to work with the best tools for the project in front of you? I could have made the GH4 work with manual flash at the press event but it would have added several layers of complexity and required much more fine tuning and equipment supervision. How nice to have that done for you automatically. 

I could have used the D7100 for the theatre images but it's so much easier and nicer to pre-chimp fast moving and unpredictable rehearsals so you know what you are getting while you are getting it. It's more efficient. And the smaller camera is more pleasant to use. 

Best compromise so far? The GH4. Fast focusing. Fast flash sync and great finder. The files are also wonderful. Now if they would just put out a flash system that works like the Nikon....



AUSBOOM!!! It's all happening in Austin, Texas.

The new "Math Accelerator" at the newly re-purposed Highland Mall. 
Highland Mall was the first regional shopping mall in central 
Texas. It's been more or less mothballed for a little while but 
Austin Community College (which I serve as an advisor to 
the arts programs) bought the facility and are renovating it with
the help of a stellar architectural firm.

Detail of math lab shot with the Panasonic 7-14mm lens on a
GH3. Why the GH3? Looked like the GH4 while I was 
packing in the early morning....


Austin is in another of its regular booms. This time the expansion dwarfs all previous booms. The number of fine dining restaurants has nearly doubled in four years. We have thousands and thousands of high end condominiums coming online each month and the sale of new homes over a million dollars has skyrocketed. Every time the phone rings it's a new start-up company that just moved to central Texas and needs video and photography----right now. 

What a contrast with 2008 and 2009 when everything slowed down to a crawl and photographers were boiling their leather camera straps to make soup.

So how has this impacted or improved the lives of the city's photographers and photo community? Well, of course, everything has changed with the democratization of digital imaging. There is a huge bottom to the the triangular hierarchy now with zillions of "no pay," "low pay," and "won't this look great in your portfolio: you should be paying us for the opportunity" types of jobs to be had but the pyramid thins out quickly as one goes up the scale into jobs that require skill, taste, lighting and a deeper understanding of production. 

There will be, for the foreseeable future, a number of projects that require nuanced lighting and at least a decent inventory of lighting tools and professional modifiers. CEOs still need to be handled well. Juxtapositions of foreground and background still need to be handled gracefully. And the photography based on an idea or good concept or even good cheer instead of a transient technique is always in style with someone out there who still has a budget. 

My take right now is that at least in Austin the pendulum has swung back to benefit tried and true photographic artists and away from the possible cost savings of the untried guy in shipping. The reason is that the movers and shakers who are driving the client side of the market have nearly unlimited budgets and they are in a hurry. A big hurry. They might have used a less expensive, unknown in the past but now they don't have the time. They need guaranteed delivery of very good product and while they might have the budgets to do things over and over again they have neither the patience nor the schedule flex to do iterative sourcing any more. They think of it as "opportunity loss/cost."

My gut feeling is that we get hired for two main reasons: 1. We have done a the thing our clients want done, or a near variation of it, thousands and thousands of times, successfully. All of our learning curves are in the dim, dark past and they were paid for long ago. According to the marketplace we are a "safe bet." Need it done now? We can deliver it every time. Track record. Experience. Now viewed as a cost saving attribute, not baggage.

And 2. Photography can be wonderful and complex and there really are learning curves to things like lighting and portrait/subject rapport and straightforward production. How to get the models your client needs. How to find the right locations. How to put together a crew and how to make sure they work smoothly and on a schedule. How to choose just the right light and lighting device to make the photograph turn out exactly the way the client wanted/envisioned it. Without wasting everyone's time desperately trying to figure it all out with a line of people waiting for you. Oh, I guess that's still just experience. 

And I am re-discovering for the ten thousandth time.....people will pay what it costs to work with someone that they like and trust. It's not enough to know how everything works, you have to bring some joy to getting their job done. You can make a successful photograph and still be a sociopathic nightmare---but you can't be a sociopathic nightmare and count on return clients. Ah, the stories I hear....

At any rate, the  market here is booming but all markets have a parabola. The faster the rise the faster the fall. I think of local economies like sine waves. There's always a peak and it's always followed by a trough. There's no real way to time it but there are clues. When I hear, "This time it's different. This time there won't be a bust!" I start stocking in the canned food and put more money into savings. I've been on this ride before.