5.27.2015

Returning to my roots as a minimalist lighting expert. I did write the book about it, after all.

Stuff to put into the Think Tank Airport Security case tonight for tomorrow's shoot. 
Two Yongnuo flashes, one Cactus RF60 flash, one Metz flash, 
three Cactus V6 Transceivers, lots of rechargeable batteries and (top left)
my trusty Sekonic light meter. 

Out of the blue, about a month ago, I got a nice note from someone at the company that makes Cactus products and he offered to send me some of their products to test. I thought about it for a couple of days because I've found extended loans of cameras for the purpose of reviewing has the effect of making me subconsciously feel that I should alter my approach to photography by learning a new, different, weird interface or menu or handling characteristic. Also, when testing cameras you tend to become locked into whatever lens the camera company might send you. Would I enjoy testing an Olympus camera if the company was hellbent on sending me only a 14-42mm kit lens? No! I would not. Did I enjoy working with the Samsung NX-1 and the lesser kit lens? Not really. So the camera you use is an essential driver. Do I feel the same way about lighting? No really. I think of flashes as more or less interchangeable as far as the light they put out and the way they handle. For most work I am a manual setting user and not a TTL geek user. I don't spend a lot of time figuring out every little way a flash could work and I don't like to leave the metering of multiple light set ups to the camera or flash's discretion. A flash is a flash is a flash. If they put out the same power and they recycle quickly then I'm pretty happy.

I decided that I could compartmentalize the way I work with lights and I decided not to try and press the test gear into every shoot. And I further promised myself that I wouldn't change the way I work just to investigate features that I might never want to use in real life. With that all in mind I sent back an e-mail and agreed to accept and test the gear.

A couple weeks later I got a box from Fed Ex that came all the way from Hong Kong. Inside the box, and beautifully packaged, were three Cactus V6 Wireless Flash Transceivers and one Cactus RF60 Wireless flash. I pulled out the user manuals and started reading. The transceivers are radio triggers; they can be used on camera as a master to trigger other transceivers or they can be used as slaves to trigger attached flashes. The transceivers are set up with 16 channels and four groups. A master can control certain flashes by changing their power levels. The transceivers are programmed with some of the most popular Nikon and Canon flash profiles and they control the flash power levels through hotshoe contact communication. You can change power levels separately for each group of flashes and transceivers. So far so good.

For my uses I can stop right there. I can put one of the V6's on the camera and use the other two V6's to trigger attached flashes. I can also trigger the RF60 flash with a V6 on the camera. And that's mostly the way I end up using my flashes for most work. I am so old school with this stuff. I want to set the levels on the flashes and make a test frame---then adjust. But the V6s can do more. You can assign each V6 a channel and you can enable or disable each channel or any combination of channels from the master in the hot shoe. Wanna see what one set of lights looks like? Turn off the other channels and blaze away.

With approved flashes (Nikon users will find SB-800, SB-900 and SB-910s on the list) you can increase or decrease the manual power level for each group. That mean if I use the RF60 flash as a master and hook up three compatible flashes on three V6s, and then assign  different channel for every V6 I can, from camera, control the power levels of all three slaved flashes from the camera location individually. Nice.

If you are using a compatible TTL flash (say an SB-900) you can put the SB-900 in the V6's flash shoe and take advantage of their TTL "passthrough." Your flash will communicate directly with the camera in the normal TTL mode with all the usual stuff and you will still be able to trigger and control flashes connected to other V6s remotely.

There's one more thing about the V6s that's pretty cool but I haven't played with yet and that's the ability of the transceivers to "learn" new flashes. Someday soon I'll get around to writing about it but for right now I'll just extol the virtues of the V6s. They work. They are easy to set up. The flash shoe on the unit is a great flash interface. I like that the V6s take two double A batteries. I used the V6s as triggers pretty extensively while I was shooting the annual report project for a public utility back in April. I used them indoors in industrial spaces, and outdoors in electrical substations and they never failed to trigger.

Using the battery powered flashes and the transceivers on several recent jobs that required moving quickly and setting up and tearing down just enough stuff to get the job done reminded me that I've been so intrigued by new technologies like LEDs that I'd skirted using the tried and true tech like flash for too long. Practically speaking, this is the stuff we learned on and it's like riding a bicycle--you really don't forget how to set up and execute with flash.

I'm packing up to do a shoot tomorrow and I was looking through the light inventory trying to decide what to use. My first thoughts were about LED panels because there is a certain charm in continuous lighting but then I thought about how easy the job would be with a Think Tank rolling case full of shoe mount flashes and I decided to go all in on that methodology.

I'm only taking four flash units. Two are inexpensive Yongnuo flashes, one is the Cactus RF60 and the third is a Metz flash. The Yongnuo flashes have built in optical slaves while the Cactus and the Metz require external triggers. I'll take along a bunch of Eneloop batteries, a small softbox and a few collapsible Westcott umbrellas and I should be set. We're going to attempt to make portraits on location with very, very shallow depth of field. I can't use the ambient light. I scouted it yesterday and it's not photograpy friendly. It's all ceiling fixtures with florescent tubes. Not pretty tubes either.

I want to bring lights to leverage the ability to create light direction and light quality as well as color purity. I chose the flashes over LEDs in case I want to shoot with windows in the background. A couple of stout flashes and some sunscreens over the windows gives me more than a fighting chance at overpowering or matching existing exterior light. Especially with the cloudy weather we're having lately. The beauty of this plan is that everything; cameras and flashes, will fit in one case with wheels. A bag of small, light stands is the only other luggage I'll need to get through an entire day or portrait shooting.

But it's not like this is all new to me. I did actually write a bestselling book about lighting with small lights. It's a bit dated now but I think it's still a good read and the foundational concepts are still right on the money even if the gear has changed a bit. Here's a link to my very first technical book on photography:  Minimalist Lighting.

And yes, it's still in print!

5.25.2015

Crazy Weather in Austin. Five inches of rain in four hours at my studio. (and some in my studio....)

It's another shop vac day in the neighborhood. We live up in the hills so nothing is ever going to be underwater (unless it's the end days) but with lots of elevations and grades along with super saturated soil the floors were not immune. We've had 23 days of good rain in a row, effectively curtailing the worst of the severe drought (for now).

I've spent hours today vacuuming up water and dumping it outside the studio. Nothing was damaged or destroyed inside. We have everything up on shelves and the foam mats on the floor are very helpful. All the cameras are snug in their cabinets and far from the floor.

In the downtown Austin area entire businesses are flooded and the recovery from the wide spread water damage will take time.

We're safe and sound here. My prayers go out to all the Austinites who live around Shoal Creek and other flood prone areas. I hope the worst we get is property damage and that no lives are lost.

Staying dry. Hope you are too.

A Reader Asked to See How I Was Rigging My Video Gear Around the Camera. Here's My Set-up.



This is the way I have my camera set up for shooting video on a tripod. If someone else was handling the sound it would less cluttered. If I was shooting solo I probably wouldn't use the monitor either...

This is the set up I used to shoot the video I talked about in the previous blog post. The box on the top left is the Beachtek DXA-2T which is a passive microphone mixer. I can combine both channels into one or keep the signals in separate channels. The important thing is that the Beachtek box allows me to control audio levels as needed. Always going down, never up; because there are no active preamplifiers in the box. But it also does a great job of impedance matching between the professional XLR connected microphones and the consumer level, mini-plug inputs.

Next to the blue Beachtek box is a Sennheiser receiver which is one half of the wireless microphone support set. Note that its output is connected into the mixer. 

I can add more utility shoes to the top bar of this "cage" in order to add more stuff but at a certain point more stuff makes the whole rig top heavy, plus it's already starting to look messy.... Don't try this with a little weanie tripod and head!


The Marshall monitor is a cheap one but it does a nice job. People can watch what I'm shooting without breathing down my neck and I can click on the focus peaking and see if what I'm shooting is really in focus or not. The headphones serve the same purpose only for ears. I will need to add a little hook to one of the tripod legs to hand the headphones on when we're between takes.




If I'm going to use a tripod it's really nice to have all the stuff I need right there, clustered around the camera. These are all simple and effective tools but they make a difference in the shooting. You can imagine that on bigger sets with multiple monitors and digital recorders sucking information out of the camera's HDMI socket and with the camera rigged with a follow focus mechanism and a matte box things get complex, crowded and more and more unwieldy. 

When I shoot with the Olympus stuff I don't want to wire it up like so. I want to shoot with them handheld and use the EVF finder. The D810 doesn't seem to mind the add-ons. 

Cost of stuff: The Beachtek box is about $170, the Sennheiser system, with lavaliere microphone is $700, The monitor is $349 and the grippy/cagey thing was a little less than $100. Not bad at all for stuff you can really use to make video projects work.



The Giddy Excitement of Getting Something Just Right. A video project for the theater.

A screen grab from my video project at Zach Theatre.

I have a really, really fun job and it amazes me that I can still get excited about things like getting the lighting on a subject just right, or getting the audio perfect. You would think after almost thirty years in the business that one would get a bit jaded. A bit complacent. In a short length of time yesterday, in the early evening, I had the wonderful feeling that I lined up everything correctly. Please let me share.

Zach Theatre is doing a play called, Mothers and Sons, and they cast Michael Learned in one of the starring roles. For those of you who don't know Ms. Learned she is the actress who played Olivia Walton (the Walton's mom) in the Waltons. She has been in numerous movies, is very active on the stage and has won four Emmy's for Best Actress. You've often heard people talk about someone who lights up a room by just walking in? That would be Ms. Learned.  

The production team at Zach wanted to do a thirty second TV spot featuring Ms. Learned against black, in character, for the upcoming play. The team got in touch and asked me to do the project. I immediately went into pre-production mode and got as many details as I could. We would be shooting the principal part of the spot with Ms. Learned against a black background. She would be speaking directly into camera and the audio was critical. They wanted the lighting to be natural and non-clinical. I would need to be totally set and tested by the time Ms. Learned appeared on our set as we would only have a limited amount of time to get what we needed before she had to get to another commitment. 

The first thing I needed to lock down was a black background. I checked pricing for a roll of black seamless background paper, nine feet wide. It would be $55. I checked on getting a black muslin in a 10 by12 foot size and at Amazon it was $29. Since I pay for the Prime service shipping to my studio door was free. I went with the muslin option and it was delivered in the pouring rain on Friday; just in time.

I experimented with lighting and devised a different way of lighting this video than I had used before. I also went back in time and selected one lighting instrument from antiquity that acquitted itself very well. 

I wanted a soft light that was directional so I used a 72 inch, soft white (with black backing) Fotodiox umbrella as my main light, just to the left of the camera. I lit up the umbrella with an old (very old) Lowell Tota-Light that a friend had given me years ago. When the whole combination was used as close as I wanted it to my subject to get the right balance of softness and detail I got the exposure I was looking for into the bargain. A 750 watt tungsten light is still (relatively speaking) a powerful source. 

Just to my subject's left (right hand side of the frame) I put up a very big white reflector. It's just out of camera range but it tamed the lighting ratio and added additional softness and fill to the overall image. The final piece of lighting was the chameleon in my case; the Fiilex P360 LED light. I dialed the color temperature dial all the way to tungsten (to match the main light) and used it high up and about twenty feet behind the subject, on her left side. The Fiilex makes a great backlight and is one of the few, very high quality LED products that can be used as a spot. 

In order to assess the effects of the lighting set up as we worked, my producer, Michael Ferstenfeld, acted as the stand in and was very patient as I moved lights around and finessed the subject to camera to background distances. 

I used the Nikon D810 as my video camera setting the camera to its highest quality setting and, after consultation with my editor, set the rig to 29.97 fps. The exposure was 1/60th of a second with my 85mm f1.8 G Nikon lens set at f4.0. The ISO was 320. Since the entire set was illuminated by tungsten halogen bulbs (of the equivalent) I was able to use the tungsten preset for WB. 

I had the D810 hooked up to my 7 inch Marshall monitor, via HDMI, to provide focus peaking during  set up and shooting and to provide a big monitor for the artistic director and the producer to watch as I filmed. The bigger screen, in combination with focus peaking made it easy to manually focus the 85mm and I paid close attention to both the screen and the subject's relationship to her mark on the floor while I was shooting. 

The final step was to get the audio set up and zero'd in. I wanted to use two microphones on this set up, just to cover myself. The primary unit was a Sennheiser wireless rig and you can see the mic placement on the subject in the screen grab above. This is a great wireless mic set up and one we use all the time but every once in a while an actor will get carried away and get loud enough to blast out of the safe levels and distort the audio. I wanted a second "safety" channel with a different mic set about 12 db down from the main microphone; just in case. 

As a back-up I chose the Rode NTG-2 shotgun microphone. I wired it up with an XLR cable and put it on a Gitzo microphone boom and secured that to a stout light stand. The microphone is about 18 inches above and in front of Ms. Learned. Both microphones were running through a small, passive mixer and into the camera's audio input. I use the mixer because it gives me physical knobs to twist for each channel. After we do several rehearsal takes with our actor I can quickly set the levels that work best without having to menu dive or get finger-traction on a small, rear screen. The difference between the channels ended up being about 6db as I dialed down the input from the main microphone by a bit during rehearsal. I always wear headphones when shooting speaking parts in video so I can hear anything that make make the recorded sound unusable. 

Ms. Learned came in trailed by the costumer and the theater's make-up person. She instantly memorized her lines and walked over to the mark. We shot six or seven takes but honestly, she nailed it on the very first take, everything else was just in case. Her whole time investment on set was a bit less than 15 minutes. We all reviewed the product, couldn't figure out a single way to improve it and so we wrapped up and started packing. 

The editor was on set so as soon as my gear was packed and stowed in the car I handed him the SD memory card and he downloaded the files to his laptop. I mentioned that he would have 24 hours to make back ups but I was (mostly) kidding. I'll back up anything I liked shooting....

I played the segments on my computer for the first time this morning and got that warm and happy feeling of having nailed something as well as I possibly could. Another step forward.


5.24.2015

My Ongoing learning process with Video and the Olympus OMD EM5.2. Caution: Video programming included.

EM5.2 Video Test 2 from Kirk Tuck on Vimeo.
This video is about Untitled Project

Click through to Vimeo using the links above if you want to see the test video at full res. The embedded version is limited to 800 pixels wide.

I bought the Olympus EM5.2 cameras because I am convinced that the image stabilization in those cameras will really work well with the way I like to shoot video. While some people may be able to sit down, read a review on the web or watch a YouTube video and hit the ground running, getting perfect video every time, I am not so lucky. I seem to have to work through a camera and try it in every setting before I really understand how the camera will give up its best images for me.

The EM5.2 is a classic case in point. It's a great still cameras that is both blessed and cursed with ultimately flexible configuration possibilities. But for everyone who likes to shoot video there might be a combination that makes their work look better than any other collage of settings. For me it's all about rejecting what doesn't work and focusing on what does.

My first experiments with the camera weren't bad, they just weren't as good as what I was getting out other cameras, like the Panasonic GH4 and the Nikon D810, and I had an inkling that I could do better.

The video above is my attempt to tune in my camera and make it work of the primary task I envisioned; walking around with the camera and getting wonderfully smooth, handheld footage with good sharpness and detail.

I am happy now to say that I am finally very happy with the video in the EM5.2. In the experiment above I can see lots and lots of detail in my face and hair and the overall appearance of sharpness is just right. That's a good thing. But how did I get there?

I set up the camera to record in the All-I setting. This means every frame contains the full image file and this makes editing easier even though it increases the size of the in-camera video files. It's the highest quality in-camera setting but you can get even more serious and buy an external recorder and take a clean, uncompressed video file from the HDMI port if you really need more quality and control.

My camera was set up to do 1080p video at its highest quality ISO, which is 200. The frame rate was set at 24 fps and the shutter speed was 1/50th of a second. Finally, the aperture on the 45mm f1.8 lens was set to f3.2 which should be in the optimum range of apertures for that lens. I metered myself with a Sekonic light meter which has a cine scale and used the meter's recommended settings.

Here's where I changed direction (happily) and where I think I was able get footage I liked today. I had the feeling that the noise reduction in the camera was just too strong and was killing fine detail so I set it to "off." That was one step too far and I could see noise in the mid-tones when I played test footage back on my desktop monitor. I stepped back one step and set the noise reduction to "low" and that seemed