12.16.2017

Saturday Afternoon Field Notes. Boy Arrival Imminent. Computer Replacements. Video Package.



I'll start with the fun stuff first. The kid is heading home from College for the Holiday Break. I just got a text from my friend, Fred, in Saratoga Springs a few minute ago. He successfully deposited young Mr. Tuck at the Albany airport for the first leg of his trip back to Austin. If I have been slow to post things on the blog lately it's largely because Ben's mom has me washing Studio Dog, cleaning the "boy's" bathroom, shopping for his favorite foods and other errands. She clearly doesn't get the priority hierarchy of my schedule...

We'll both be incredibly happy to see the boy again for all the reasons that most parents would list. On a more pragmatic level I will be happy to see him around the house for the next month because he is a much better cinematography director and editor than I am and has more experience doing it than me. We've got a Zach Theatre project that I just know he'll be delighted to help me with before Christmas..
In computer news I've finally heard about a machine that may meet all my parameters for replacing my current, high performance laptop (see above).

12.14.2017

Sometimes we know what a job will entail. Sometimes we just wing it. But if you are going to "wing it" you might as well come prepared.

A view looking straight up. A ceiling detail from the 
Alexander Palace in Pushkin, Russia.
Camera: Hasselblad Superwide.

I didn't think I needed the Hasselblad SWC/M (the Superwide camera with the fixed 38mm Zeiss Biogon lens) for my assignment in Russia many years ago but my friend, Paul, insisted I take one along, so I did. It turns out that the fixed lens camera was useful for just about every situation. Many times, just like a cinematographer, I'd want a wide, establishing shot to go along with all the detail documentations I was doing for the Worlds Monument Fund. During the course of a couple weeks on the ground there I probably put 40 or 50 rolls of film through that camera. (zone focus only, frames hand cranked, twelve on a roll. No automatic modes, no built in meter, no raw file butt saving in raw).

Before I left on this particular mid-winter trip I did a bunch of research. I researched the weather and eventually bought the U.S. Army Ranger's book on cold weather survival; along with lots of layers of Polartec and down. I took to heart the three main pieces of advice: 1. You can't do your job if you are physically compromised. 2. If you keep your feet warm everything will follow from there. 3. Don't get wet, and if you do get wet get dry ASAP! I still have the insulated, Vasque hiking boots and a box full of wool socks.

The other bit of research I did was about

12.13.2017

Living in the present. Just getting the job done. Moving toward the holidays and thinking about what worked this year and what didn't.



It's 5:05 in the afternoon and I'm sitting at my desk, sometimes glancing out the window at the end of a gray and chilly day. I've got a bag of grocery store popcorn propped up in my left hand desk drawer for easy access and, when I look across the office, strewn with bits and pieces of photo gear arranged in a chaotic collage on the floor, I see three little green lights telling me that the lithium batteries for the three Vision 4 monolights I used in this morning's portrait shoots have recycled and are ready and waiting for the two shoots we have booked for tomorrow afternoon. 

Over by the equipment case there are four more little green light arrays telling me we've almost topped up the lithium batteries for the Godox flashes that will illuminate the white background that's on the assignment schedule.

I've spent the last few hours editing down the take from this morning. After a night of mostly illusive sleep (thanks to a big possum and a territorial Studio Dog) I was up this morning before the rest of the creative population brewing coffee and making a breakfast taco with scrambled eggs, sausage and cheese. At 7:15 I pulled on a jacket and walked into the studio to grab the gear I packed last night and load it into the car. Once again I cursed the bane of working on

12.09.2017

Which camera have I enjoyed using the most in 2017? That's easy...

 Panasonic's cute, cuddly and capable G85.

There are some cameras that are extremely capable but aren't much fun to shoot and then there are cameras that just beg you to keep their strap over your shoulder and take them everywhere. They are like a perfect traveling companion; unassuming, quiet (especially the shutter), compliant, collaborative and easy to get along with. Over the many years in which I have plied my trade as a professional photographer, and have satisfied my yearnings as a devout and committed hobbyist, I've owned plenty of both kinds of camera. 

I put up with five pounds of the Kodak DCS 760, and it's voracious appetite for batteries, only because it was capable (within a tight operational window) of producing some of the absolute best images of its day. I put up with all the foibles of the Nikon D2x for much the same reason.

Over the years digital cameras have become operationally better but there is still some combination of handling characteristics, design decisions on the part of their creators, and their innate affability that makes certain cameras gloriously fun and effortless to enjoy. The Leica M3 is one. The Nikon FM is another. What Nikon user didn't like the F100? How about the Canon 7D? Or the Olympus OMD EM-1? All cameras that bring a smile to the face of most users. All cameras that make the pursuit of photographs a bit more fun.

And then there are all the cameras whose files were technically perfect but

12.07.2017

Timing can be important for swimming...

The Rollingwood Pool in the middle of Summer.

It's so easy to do easy stuff. It's easy to swim in a pool filled with nice, warm water. Even easier to swim in a nice, warm pool when it's sunny and warm outdoors. But then there are those days that push you right up to the point of defeat. Days that test your discipline. Days that make you want to stay at home and eat cookies and drink coffee and sit on the couch, wrapped up in a blanket, and watch movies on Netflix. Those are the days when the temperatures drop into the upper 30's and your comfortable, heated pool is closed (for months now) for repairs and your best swimming option is the 69 degree water at the (outdoor, unheated) Deep Eddy Pool. 

Today was just such a day. I started out slow, drinking a perfect cup of Illy coffee (thank you! most generous reader, Michael Matthews!!!) and reading the typically depressing news on the laptop that sometimes lounges at my end of the dining room table. Studio Dog was sitting next to my chair and looked a bit cold so I tossed my old, worn down jacket on the floor and she curled into it with a smile on her perfect face. 

I put off swimming as long as I could today, I even went to the Blanton Museum to see the new show. (See previous posts). At some point I realized that left to the tyranny of my subconscious I would skip the swim altogether and rationalize it all away. In my brain's defense, it may drop into the high 30's, midday, in your neck of the woods but it rarely does in our little corner of Texas. The wind was whipping a cold, steady rain around in a sadistic, staccato pattern and leaves were falling all over the place. The sky was steely gray. Everything was working against my resolve.

Then I remembered that my friend, Emmett, had asked about swimming today and, in a fit of hubris, I had assured him (days ago) that I'd be at the pool and ready to swim promptly at 2 pm. Now, when I promised this the sun was shining, the birds chirping and the cute young people were in shorts and t-shirts taking advantage of the mid-80 degree day. But, a scheduled swim is somewhat sacred so I grabbed my stuff and headed off to the car.

I looked back over my shoulder to see Studio Dog in her down bed by the front door just shaking her head....

When I got to the pool the person at the front desk (an open air front desk....) was in a big, fluffy jacket and also had a blanket wrapped around himself. He smiled and said that the water was great. I should have known it was a lie.

I walked into the open courtyard that is the men's changing area (open to the top but not on the sides....modestly. I mean we're swimmers for God's sake, not politicians or actors...) and changed quickly into a Speedo Endurance Jammer suit, grabbed my goggles and (slightly) insulated swim cap, wrapped myself up in a towel, stuck my already freezing feet into a pair of Croc's for the long hike down the stairs to the water, and headed out.

There is a moment, when your teeth are chattering, your large muscles are involuntarily shivering, and you can feel the icy wind cut through your thin towel, that you pause and think, "OMG, what the hell was I thinking?" Maybe you look around, through  your cloudy old goggles, to see if anyone actually saw you come down to the pool edge. Maybe, you think, it's not too late to retreat. But then you realize that if you back away this time it will be harder the next time and you may be triggering a series of surrenders that will haunt you, and make you fat and lazy. 

So, I tossed my towel onto the stone wall five feet from the pool, slipped off the Crocs and crept to the absolute edge. It's the moment of truth. I stop thinking. I take a deep breath and commit. The cold water instantly hits every square inch of your once warm body and you know you better start swimming before your resolve (and the heat of your inner core) give out. I lunge into the water and start swimming. Each lap gets a little less .... uncomfortable. And then you pass a certain point (at about the half mile mark) where you are actually warmed up and enjoying the feel of the water, the swim, the adjacency to the weather, and the way in which you feel strong and invincible. Unbeaten.

If I'm lucky that feeling stays with me through the next mile and a half. By that time I've swum for about an hour and I'm starting to think of other things I need to be doing. But now I don't want to stop because I know I'll have to get out, dripping wet, and make my way down the walk way to the long flight of stairs as the wind whips at me like practical joker snapping a towel at swim practice. 

But if you stay in the cold water too long then hypothermia kicks in and that requires many cups of coffee to cure.

I look with scorn at the ladder and pull myself up onto the deck. It's a mark of shame in our family to put a knee down on the deck when exiting the pool so you have to save just enough energy to pull yourself all the way up on the edge and into a standing position while looking as graceful as you can. I manage it once again. By the skin of my teeth.

I make it up to the locker room when I remember that Emmett never showed. So much for the sacred nature of scheduled swims...

As I walk to the car carrying my wet towel and suit I notice the first snowflake flutter down and melt on the asphalt and I smile. I got that swim in just in time.

 Winter in Paris. 1994.


The Pared Down Video Rig. For those times when you must work hand held and want to travel light.


I recently worked on a project (as a second shooter and equipment renter) with a good friend who is a veteran videographer. While the project had one component that called for a three camera, two subject interview, with all three cameras on tripods and everything well lit, the rest of the project was classic reportage. We were tossed into unfamiliar interior and exterior locations and tasked with shooting unscripted documentations of diverse groups of people, along with on-the-spot, unrehearsed  interviews with people we were pulling from the locations.

It's one thing to shoot video when you have time to meticulously treat a room for good audio, and when you can spend a couple hours pre-lighting for an interview situation in a conference room, but it's a whole other thing to work on a windy day outdoors with difficult subjects (as well as people (non-subjects) in the vicinity who could have been dangerous and were very vocal about their distaste for any and all media presence) as the sun comes in and out of the clouds.

For me it was a two day crash course in how to most efficiently and effectively use a Panasonic GH5 as an ENG (electronic news gathering) camera.

Here's the rig (photo above) I've distilled down from my experience and the feedback of my boss, the director and producer (who was also shooting exclusively with a GH5...instead of his more familiar Sony FS-7).

The main thing is to work to the camera's strengths. This camera (GH5) does a couple of things really well. It's got great image stabilization (otherwise there's no way we could have gotten the smooth footage we did without tripods....). While it's very good at stabilizing the video image with any lens on the front it's even better with a Panasonic dual system AF lens on it. We used an Olympus 12-100mm on one camera and the inexpensive Panasonic 12-60mm  3.5-5.6 lens on the other camera. Both systems worked very well but the native Panasonic lens, in conjunction with the video stabilization in-body, was almost like using a perfectly balanced gimbal system.

I'm happy working with the Olympus Pro lens because I like how sharp it is, how much range it has and how easy it is to switch to, and use, manual focusing. If you are working in uncontrolled and quickly changing environments a lens that goes from the 35mm equivalent of 24mm to 200mm is great to have. In most situations I just didn't see how I would have had the time to change from one prime lens to a different prime lens...and still gotten some of the fast breaking opportunities.

The way I used the camera and lens combination most effectively (as far as focusing goes) is to turn off the "continuous AF" in the movie menu and to put the external camera switch setting at S-AF. I would line up a shot and then do a half push on the shutter button to get the camera swiftly lock in focus. Once I got the "in focus" confirmation light I could either push the shutter button all the way down or take my finger off the shutter button altogether and start the video recording by pushing the red, dedicated video button. Focusing was never an issue on this project. In S-AF, with center points selected, the AF just snapped into play and locked on in 100% of the situations I encountered.

Another strength of the GH5 is its small profile vis-a-vis a traditional professional video camera. We chose not to couple the cameras to Atomos external monitors/recorders (even though we did bring them along with us in the cars...) in order to keep the overall profile of the camera systems as non-intimidating as possible.

But losing the big monitors doesn't create much pain with the GH5s. The things you need in order to operate are still there: A perfect EVF and a full complement of video meters --- vector scope, waveform meter, histogram, audio level meters, etc. If we were working without the need to capture sound, as one might when trying to get b-roll for a project, we could have done without the audio adapter and the cage, but....

...the audio adapter is a low cost, high quality way to get professional sound into the camera. It's light and fairly low profile while providing clean pre-amps for professional microphones. My camera is set up with the adapter cabled to an Aputure Diety short shotgun microphone. The only thing missing from the photo above is a set of closed back headphones I use to monitor sound. With the switch of a cable I could have the microphone on a boom pole in less than a minute. Very versatile.

The final strength of the GH5 is its ability to shoot very, very clean 4K video into the camera at high bit and overall data rates. The stuff we ended up with was incredibly detailed and, using hand-tuned profiles, it was easy to color grade and match, camera to camera, in post.

Take the rig off the tripod, add a cool looking side grip to the left of the camera and you are ready to head onto the street, into a remote location, and have a chance at coming back with good material. In most instances I felt that I was the limiting factor. That's the way it should be..

Christmas Comes Early for Austin Photographers, Art Lovers and Photo Enthusiasts. It's the New Show at the Blanton Museum: "The Open Road. Photography and the American Road Trip."


I've been waiting for a free morning to go over to the Blanton Museum and see the new show they hung in the big, downstairs gallery spaces. It was worth the wait!!! If you love the work of Robert Frank, Garry Winograd, Lee Friedlander, Eli Reed, Ryan McGinley, Ed Ruscha, William Eggleston and many more working art photographers, you will absolutely love this show. It's a fabulous assemblage of images (and curation) that more or less explains the theory and raison d'ĂȘtre of what we are now more or less calling "Street Photography." 

If you live within a hundred miles of Austin then get in that giant Chevy Suburban, enormous dually pick-up truck or on your carbon fiber Bianchi Oltre XR2 bicycle and get in here. The work is beautifully displayed and, in the Texas tradition of wide open spaces the gallery is uncrowded; the work is given space to breathe.

I love the idea of "The American Road Trip" and actually was approached to do a book about road trips and photography in 2010. The project fell apart in a bizarre series of very one sided negotiations with a giant publisher but that did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for the wider subject matter.

There were a number of pieces in this show by rather famous photographers that, in seeing them in person and writ large, changed my mind (to a more positive appreciation) about several represented artists who worked in color in the last century. I can now understand their work better for having seen it as it was intended to be viewed.

Toss that old Leica M3 over your shoulder and head over to see the show. Remember that Thursdays are free and, if you are much older than me, you will be entitled to a senior discount on all the other days. 

Wow, a chance to see beautifully done, large prints by great artists/photographers rather than just another opportunity to pontificate about tiny, compressed Jpegs on the web. Who would have thought it?










12.06.2017

A quick and anecdotal note about choosing mirrorless cameras or DSLR cameras. What do the people who sell them buy?

Image from this year's Eeyore's Birthday Party in Austin, Texas

I was at our local community college for an advisory board meeting today at which we discussed the state of photographic education as it relates to our school. We looked at short term plans, the architectural drawings for a vast new studio complex that will open to students and faculty in two years, and much more. The photo program is one of the biggest and best in the country for two year associate degrees, it's well funded and well equipped. They've been at the forefront of the technology side in photographic educations for quite a while... but still also teach traditional photographic techniques and even printmaking.

As part of our annual meeting we advisors also pull out our crystal balls and try to predict the future, based on current trends. The overall consensus is that the market for photographers, both commercially and direct to consumers, is improving and that in the future the photographers who will be most successful, financially, will be the ones who are able to incorporate video, motion graphics and graphic design into their business offerings. No miraculous insight there; we've been saying that in the blog since 2010. 

After we covered all the agenda items we moved on to lunch and a less structured and more social give and take. 

The subject of camera technology came up and we looked to our fellow advisory board member, the professional representative from the biggest camera store between Los Angeles and New York City. We were curious what trends he is now seeing in the retail sector vis-a-vis camera sales. More specifically, what's selling now and which market segment is doing better: DSLRs or Mirrorless (or, as I say, "mirror-free")?

He smiled and said, "This should sum it up for you. We have 14 sales associates who work the counters at the store. Of the 14 there are 13 who have gotten rid of other systems in order to move totally to mirrorless camera offerings. There's one person left who still shoots with a DSLR."

So, the take away from this small discussion was pretty straightforward. The people whose full time jobs are to counsel and sell cameras to the general public are themselves strong proponents of the newer technology. Or at least 13 out of 14. 

It's interesting to hear this point of view since what we see on the big sites is a stalwart defense of the traditional camera companies and a minimization of the obvious shift in the markets. 

Discuss?