12.27.2016

And now we start talking about audio for video. Yikes, there's a lot to learn.

The very first thing I taught Ben about audio for video was about PROXIMITY. The need to get the microphone into the physical sweet spot for which it was designed. Everything else about using microphones flows from there.

My first real experiences with professional audio happened when I was a creative director at Avanti Advertising and Design. We had a number of clients for whom radio was an important part of their marketing mix. We wrote a fair number of commercials; some very straightforward and some with valiant attempts at humor. The common denominator was either a person narrating or persons playing roles. Since radio commercials are staged and highly directed all the production work was done in a studio. We used a studio called, Tim Stanton Audio, and we relied on Tim Stanton's deep experience to pull off productions that ranged from simple to highly complex, multi-character, mini-shows.

Tim had a collection of microphones and he would select them the way a sommelier would select various wines to match with the different courses of a fine meal. Tim sat behind a giant sound board controlling levels, etc. while I directed the talent, which meant, asking them to read with a different inflection, more or less energy, and always with an eye on the stop watch so we could fit the read into the time constraints of the commercial. Fifteen, thirty, sixty and one hundred and twenty seconds.

I learned a fair amount. I learned from Tim that every room has its own acoustic character which can be controlled with sound absorbing materials and even thick blankets. I learned to watch the meters and not overload the inputs for the recording devices. I learned that multiple "takes" helped us narrow in on our creative "target" and I learned that (optimal) proximity of the person speaking to the microphone is everything.

We're currently living in a time when we have tons and tons of information at our fingertips and most of it is either too condensed to be worthwhile, factually wrong, or just too shallow in scope to be useful. A lot of the information is driven by marketing. I see a lot of ads for "shotgun" microphones where the videographer has the microphone mounted on his camera but the actors are across the room. Clearly, the marketing people never got the text about proximity.

The reason why many, many people are so happy with the sound they get from lavaliere microphones comes from how they are employed. No one sticks their lavaliere mic on the top of their camera, shoots from across a room and expects to get anything worthwhile. Everyone knows that the "lav" gets positioned on a talent's tie, shirt placket or collar at about 12 inches from the talent's mouth. There are other, more creative locations for lavs but they are all on the body and in close proximity to the talent's mouth. So, even with the least expensive of lavalieres we get decent sound. It's because we are using them correctly (usually).

The truth is that in many cases the sound from a decent shotgun style (hyper-cardioid) can be better than the sound from most lavalieres if it is positioned correctly. The bigger microphones seem to reproduce lower frequencies more accurately and many of the relatively inexpensive ($150-$300) shotgun mics have very decent responses through the frequencies.

The best place for shotgun microphones is just above or below the talent's mouth and about 18 inches away from them. The dance that sound people on movie and TV sets do is to aim the microphone at the actor from the correct distance while staying just out of the video frame. If you have a dedicated sound person they can put the shotgun microphone at the end of a boom pole and continually fine-tune the placement by compensating for the actor's movement. This maintains the level and sound quality. If you are working alone you'll need the client to restrict their movements but it's still important to get the microphone off the camera and close to the actor. If I'm shooting solo I take along a stout light stand and a special bracket that holds my boom pole. I get the actor on their mark and carefully position the microphone before we get started. If the shot calls for walking and talking I give up and put a wireless microphone on them. With a sound person along short walk-and-talks can still be handled with a shotgun microphone on a boom pole.

The bottom line, always, is proximity. Unless you need to be ultimately mobile....

If I am out snapshotting video (solo, all gear attached to camera, nothing scripted, no actors) and I think I'll want to catch audio or even grab an impromptu street interview for my own personal work I'll default to a microphone on camera. Generally the one I reach for is not a shotgun mic but a stereo cardioid (heart shaped front sound pick up pattern) model that I can put in the hotshoe of my camera.
I'll leave it on to record ambient sounds and general audio tone, for the most part. But every once in a while I'll find someone who I'd like to interview spontaneously.

The need to get decent sound always triggers an "alert" in my brain. The alert is... Proximity. I need to get that microphone, which is on top of the camera, as close to the interviewee as possible to get decent audio and to diminish the effect of background noise at any given location. The trick is to use the wide angle setting of your camera's lens and get in close to the person. If I can get into a zone about three feet away I have some assurance that the resulting audio with at least be usable.

While it seems like a shotgun mic would be just right for this they can be too focused and require too much effort to aim them. Again, if you have a helper you could take the microphone off camera and allow the sound person to aim it correctly... but we don't always have that luxury. In fact, if you are shooting for yourself you probably won't.

The microphone I've been using on the camera for the last few years is a Rode SVM, which stands for "Stereo Video Mic." It's not very long but it has two microphone capsules behind its wire screen. Used close in it has very good sound quality, and the stereo nature of it means that I can often stick two people in a tight frame and get good sound from both. It's probably not the best microphone for this kind of work but it's the one I thought I could afford at the time. It cost me about $200 and it's come in handy a number of times. (I'm linking to the current model as the one I have has been discontinued).

The quieter the environment the easier it is to use an "all purpose" microphone like this to get good results....as long as you get it close enough.

Along these lines; meaning run-and-gun video versus controlled video, I've come to also appreciate the standard "reporter's microphone." You've seen them forever on the news shows. It's the classic microphone that reporters stick in front of their faces to do their remote, location "stand ups" in front of the news cameras. When they interview the crooked politician or the man on the street they alternate pointing the microphone at their own mouth when asking questions and then aim it at the person they are interviewing when they answer (usually from about 12-18 inches away....). These microphones (reporter mics) are counter-intuitive for many people. It would seem that a shotgun microphone would be more useable because we have the idea that the shotguns zero in on what we point them towards. It would seem that a reporter microphone, with its omni-directional pick-up pattern would pick up EVERYTHING!

But being wise photographers we understand that sound and microphones are subject to the inverse square law and, that the closer we have the microphone to the source of the sound the quicker audio "falls off" as we increase the distance from the other sources of sound. If we get the microphone close to the subject then everything else is relatively further away and much quieter. This is how someone with a reporter's mic can get decent audio even when surrounded by screaming fans at the end of a sports competition or political rally. It's also why people have more luck a lot of the time with lavaliere microphones (which are generally omni-directional). The sources of the main audio is much, much closer than the distracting background sounds which quickly "fall off."

I like the way shotguns microphones sound. The can be very, very good. I have a case full. But we have come to love them because most commercial production is done in rooms insulated from air conditioning noise, with appliances turned off, with reflective surfaces covered and microphone to subject distances (and angles) optimized. This is where they shine. But they are not "Swiss Army Knives" of the sound world. I reach for my reporter's mic when I know we'll be moving fast and working in uncontrollable environments. If I'm not working on a tripod and don't have a hand free I default to something like the Rode SVM, on camera.

It's good to understand the how the environment and the use dictates the right microphone. As long as you remember the primary rule = proximity = you'll come away with cleaner and less distracting sound. Get close. Even in the studio getting close means less necessary gain and less noise.

So, next up let's talk about lavaliere microphones and I'll show you the two options I use.





12.26.2016

A modest and short list of the three most useful interchangeable lenses I used in 2016.

Sony 18-105mm f4.0 G lens.

 Hot cameras and fast, fast glass seem to get all the attention but I wanted to talk about the two top lenses that I used this year and what makes them special. They aren't sexy or fast and in both cases the web-based reviews are quite mixed. Don't just read mine, if you are in the market for one of these either shoot it and test it yourself or, at least, read a bunch of different reviewers and decide which ones you trust most. 

My top award for usefulness and profit-enabling is the middle of the road, Sony 18-105mm f4.0 G lens (which is also the "kit" lens for the Sony FS-5 video camera...).  It's not a small lens but it is much lighter than its bulk might suggest. It's part of a new generation of lenses that are pretty sharp but designed with (seemingly) no regard for actual, optical distortions. But, it's also of the generation of lenses that is designed from the ground up to be corrected by in camera and in software lens correction magic. My copy is nicely sharp in the middle and more than adequate on the edges. The optimal stop for balancing most of the parameters and giving good performance, is f5.6. I routinely shoot it wide open for both stills and videos with no ill effects. Most of what I shoot has a subject in the center part of the frame and background stuff on the edges. Unless I'm willing to shoot everything at f16 the background of nearly all my images is going to be somewhat out of focus anyway, making discussions about edge sharpness a bit silly. 

If you need a lens with which to shoot perfect brick walls or test charts with straight lines to the absolute edges of the frames this is NOT the lens for you. If you need a very versatile lens that covers a wide range of focal lengths well this might make you happy. I like it because it has a nice, variable response power zoom for video, it focuses silently, and the image stabilizations works as well as anybody else's stabilized lenses. Another nice feature (mostly for video but still shooters who use manual exposure will like it as well) is the fact that it's a constant aperture zoom lens. The f-stop doesn't change as you zoom. A downside for some videographers is the focus-by-wire nature of this lens. You won't be using this with a follow focus rig. That's okay, we have other lenses for those uses.

For about $550 it's, I think, one of the bargain lenses in the Sony APS-C lineup. I'd buy it again and, for paying work, it seems to stay glued to the a6300. It's a great combination for shoulder mounted and handheld video. It's probably my most used Sony lens in 2016. The one issue I have? It's not full frame....

Sony/Zeiss 24-70mm f4.0 lens.

My second choice, based on the amount of use it gets and the amount of billing it helped to engender, is the 24-70mm f4.0. When I first bought it I'll admit to rushing into the system and not reading enough about the Sony lenses. In retrospect, I am happy it turned out that way because if I had read the reviews of this lens I probably would never have bought it. The biggest strike against it was, again, the edge sharpness. Probably not the optimum choice for shooting flat documentation of circuit boards....

A common, negative refrain was that it just didn't have the overall performance to demand the high price... What I found in day-to-day use was a good, medium range, standard zoom lens that created very nice images. It is, again, a lens from the new generation of firmware tweaking and software corrected systems. But it's nicely sharp (instead of clinically sharp) and seems to be a well behaved lens for photographing people and events. I've used it as the primary lens (along with the A7Rii) on eight multi-day advertising shoots and have never found it wanting. But again, I'm not shooting flat, perfectly rectilinear test charts, I'm photographing lifestyle images that have depth to them. 

The one stop difference in aperture between this and the new G Master lens means that this lens weighs less than half as much, is much smaller overall, and, according to DXO is about one point off the performance of the faster, fatter and heavier G Master f2.8 version. You get to spend about $1,000 more to get a very, very small amount of improved performance. The f2.8 might have been vital in the days of 400 ISO being the top sensitivity you'd be willing to use in digital imaging but now? With the amazing cameras we routinely shoot with the difference is a rounding error. 

The benefits of our lens is that it can be handheld for a lot longer because it doesn't make your (smallish) Sony camera too front heavy, the OSS (image stabilization) is very good and, you'll probably need to start at f4.0 and go to smaller apertures if you want to get enough in focus to satisfy most clients. It's as sharp as I've ever needed, even when photographing product in the studio, by the time I get to f8.0. The final point is that it's a congenial lens to carry along with you as a daily walk around lens. Not something I would ever say about its faster sibling...

Again, on the "con" side, the focus is focus-by-wire and that's always dispiriting and I'd love the lens even more if it was $895 (there I go, slagging it on price with the other reviewers....) but the reality is that you only pay for it once and you'll soon forget the premium you paid if it gets you the kind of images you need to make your clients happy. It's primary advantage over the 18-105mm is that the 24-70mm covers the full frame of full frame...

And, YES, I would buy it again (but I'd try to find a mint copy, used...). 

And that brings me to my "runner up." This is a lens I've been using more and more for portrait work. I use it instead of all the nice manual focus Rokinons and Contax Zeiss lenses for one simple reason: It works well with eye autofocus on the A7Rii and the a6300. Every frame with a person is tack sharp exactly where I want it; right on the eyes. 

But there are many more reasons to like this lens. It has very good image stabilization. The f4.0 max aperture keeps it from being too heavy and too big. Sorry, I just won't carry a 70-200mm f2.8 around anymore. There's no optical advantage and nothing but a cluster of handling issues. According to DXO, this is the sharpest zoom lens in Sony's entire lineup. Amazingly sharp for me, even at f4.0. And it's off white like the groovy lenses that Canon makes and I'm certain this gives comfort to my clients as they think they are getting something on par with the Canon lenses (dripping sarcasm...). 

The only reason this is not my first or second choice is that I've only started using it a lot recently. Given the results I've gotten I know I'll press it into service a lot more frequently in the year to come. As far as I can discern it has NO flaws at all. Not even the price. The only reason I can think of not to buy one is if you don't shoot with Sony cameras....

One more note about this lens; I don't have anything longer than 200mm for my full frame camera precisely because I have this lens and the amazing sensor in the a6300. The combination gives me great 300mm equivalent files with good, dense details as a result of the resolution of the sensor. It's the perfect combination of the strengths of full frame and APS-C, used across the system. Much like the combination of something like the Nikon D500 and the D5. Nearly equal image quality but with more reach on the smaller format. 

Sony 70-200mm f4.0 G lens.

These are the lenses that have been getting my attention this year. Not nearly in consensus with the majority of other users and reviewers but that's part of the rich stew of subjectivity. A lens is more than just sharp it is. Usability, color, contrast and, of course, NANO-Acuity are also vital features.
We could all be shooting with an 85mm Otus lens but the overall handling would cause us to end up hating photography and taking up some other passion. Not everything Zeiss makes is designed to really be used in the field. At least from my point of view....

Curious to know what your favorites are. If you have a moment, let us know.

12.24.2016

The Sony a6300 as a premier low light video camera. Amazing.

I like to go over to Zilker Park, in the very center of Austin, Texas, at least once during the holiday season to look at the giant "tree" (a moon light tower festooned with lights) and to savor the carnival atmosphere that has evolved over the years. Under the tree are tacky vendors galore, hawking funnel cakes, turkey legs, kettle corn, corn dogs and other weird, Texas festival foods.

Across the street but still in the park is the TRAIL OF LIGHTS!!!! It's a series of Christmas tableaux with lights and Potemkin scenery. The whole affair used to be put on by the city of Austin, and local business footed the bill for creating the myriad "Santa's Villages" and "A Power Ranger Christmas" scenes in exchange for tasteful little signs; along the lines of "brought to you by the folks at H.E.B."

In the days before our massive population explosion the two week long event was free to anyone who wanted to attend. There were "special" days when car traffic was prohibited and everyone would actually walk through the quarter mile long set up. Most recent years, and on most days, the reality was an endless line of cars whose inhabitants might wait several hours in a line, perfumed with auto exhaust, in order to drive through, bumper to bumper, and stare out the window at........Christmas lights.

The resulting traffic jams in all the surrounding neighborhoods led local wags to re-name the "Trail of Lights" to "The Trail of Headlights."

The city ran out of money to underwrite the event back in the bleak days of 2008 and 2009 but then the event rose from the dead and fell into the hands of the private sector. Now the park land adjacent to the "tree" and the "Trail of Lights" becomes home to a giant, compacted parking lot for thousands of cars, each of which pays through the nose for the chance to park close. Thousands of newly arrived Austinites ride over on privately chartered school bus services from points downtown and south of town. And everyone gets to pay $3 a piece to stroll through......Christmas lights.....and the much bigger and better lit signs "thanking" the sponsors.

It's now more like "Monster Truck show" meets "Rodeo" meets the Holiday Season.... They have even introduced a Ferris Wheel, and rides.

But, is there a better time to break out a video camera and walk down from my house to see the cultural show unfold before my eyes? I think not. With a happy, new awareness of the secrets of operating Sony still cameras as video cameras I was anxious to go somewhere visual and put what I've learned into practice.

I grabbed a Sony a6300, along with its 18-105mm zoom lens and a Rode StereoMic, and headed on over. The microphone was there to record natural sound and any chance interviews I might create. I put the camera into the manual mode on the mode selector dial and applied the correct shutter speed and aperture along with Auto ISO (ranging from 100-6400) and headed over. I decided to shoot in 4K just to see how the image stabilization worked with my handheld shooting.

Here's my takeaway: The a6300, when shooting in 4K and downsampling in FCPX to 1080p, makes files that handle noise extremely well, show a high degree of sharpness and saturation and look very detailed on my 27 inch screen. Even with assistance from the lens's I.S. I am hardly a paragon of fine handholding technique and wish I had taken a monopod (at least) to provide a more stable shooting platform. If I eschew the movie mode on the selector dial and just initiate my video clips by leaving the camera in the "M" mode I gain the ability to zoom way, way in for fine focusing before I start shooting, which is a major advantage. I lose the ability to see the exact framing before I start rolling the video. The video frame is always smaller... If I switch to the "M" mode, or one of the other PSAM modes instead of the movie icon I also enable automatic level control for my external microphone. Which can be quite useful. If I need to have exact audio level control then I have to venture back into "movie" mode territory.  C'est la vie.

There were many little voyeuristic snippets I caught as I roamed through the crowds with my camera but I'm resistant to putting up "test" nonsense. My final video observation is that the a6300 is a wonderful and truly portable ENG video camera capable of great image quality; even at ISO 6400. Down at ISO 100 it's almost unbelievable. The cage helps balance out accessories and gives me more to grab on to. I have new respect for my tripods...

My final cultural observation is: I am much more comfortable with these kinds of holidays being more private, family or close community oriented events and less comfortable with them being grand spectacles of modern entertainment culture. The long lines, noisy diesel generators, and crowds of people in the middle of what is usually a beautiful park is a painful reminder that society is in a mad rush to make every life event into a mass spectacle thus robbing each event of its power and dignity. A visual that summed up the intrusion of modern culture into the "tree" at Zilker was the addition, just this year, of big, American flags at each corner of the "tree."  If there is a holiday that should be free of blatant nationalism one would think this would be it...  Can't imagine that Santa has the stars and stripes hanging from his sleigh or that the baby Jesus was swaddled in "old glory" in the manger...

We have succeeded in turning our wonderful "central" park into a tacky, outdoor mall and our holiday into a spectacle. Oh cheer!




12.21.2016

SmallRig in use on the Sony A7ii.


Lately, my "go to" camera for doing portrait work in the studio and on location has been the Sony A7 ii. It's the 24 megapixel model and if you look around you might be able to find a lightly used one for around $1,000. The High ISO Whiners would tell you that it's noisy above 3200 but I'd say that if you are really, really picky, and have no idea of how to use the noise reduction features in any of the major post processing programs, you might not even want to use it over 1600. When I put on strong, strong reading glasses and press my noise against my computer screen while diddling the magnification to 100% I can see the noise as clear as day....

But like the fool I am I bought one anyway. And even more foolishly I used it this year to create hundreds of portraits. Which clients happily paid me for. Go figure. I should probably hang my head in shame since none of my full frame cameras focuses faster than I can pull them out of the camera bag. I feel horrible anxiety when "real" pros saunter by with their Nikon D500s since I know I will be unable to photograph my clients (with studio flash) at 10+ frames per second. I hear how great the 153 AF points are but end up wondering why a camera that advanced doesn't have eye auto focus. My A7ii doesn't have it either but the A7rii and the a6300 both do; along with 400+ focusing points... But, once again, I digress. 

I wanted to write about the SmallRig cage I bought for the A7ii and to show you what I meant about holding big lenses stable on tripods while shooting in the vertical orientation. The lens in question is the Rokinon 135mm t2.2 Cine lens. It's pretty front heavy. Sometimes, when I use it on a camera mounted directly to a tripod it droops. And droops can be embarrassing. Especially in the studio. 

After I bought a cage for the a6300 and saw how well it stabilized the camera and transferred the stress of the tripod connection to its own structure I was anxious to try one with the A7ii. This cage fits very tightly and the feel of the construction is just like the cage for the a6300, very high quality. 

The following are a few images from different angles....




So, if you are one of those guys who always handholds cameras, doesn't own a tripod or only uses puny lenses, just ignore all of this and go on doing your craft in the way which you've become accustomed. We're not even grading on a curve here. But if you have a wimpy, little camera and a plump, oversized and front heavy lens you like to use you might consider some sort of "camera prosthesis" to handle tripod work.

While we are on the subject of cages... I did put a XLR mixer and a monitor on the cage on the A7Rii today to record a quick testimonial video for a financial services client. It was great having everything right at hand instead of clamped and cabled away. Can't wait to get the A7 cage set up optimally to be able to move with the camera and watch the image on a 7 inch monitor mounted just above the camera. Should make moving shots just a bit more fun. 


12.20.2016

I had such a good experience using the new "cage" on the Sony a6300 I ordered one for the A7Rii.


I recently wrote about ordering a "cage" for the Sony a6300 camera. It's kind of a video thing. The cheese plate surfaces allow you to add shoes for things like microphones and attachment points for things like digital audio recorders and external monitors. The one I bought for the a6300 was very well made and sturdy. The way the rig is designed it holds the camera in place firmly. I can still access the battery and the memory card. 

But there was a bonus that works well for me as a still photographer as well. By anchoring the camera firmly in place, and then giving me lost of quarter inch female sockets everywhere, I am now able to use the small camera with heavy lenses in the vertical orientation on my tripod. In the past a heavy lens would pull its nose down and I was loath to over tighten the tripod screw for fear of damaging the camera. Now, with the lens on the camera, I can orient the rig to make the camera vertical and the stops on the rig hold the camera and lens in place. No more droop. Sounds like a small thing but it means a lot to me in terms of working vertically with bigger lenses. 

Once I figured this out it just made sense to do the same thing for my bigger, A7Rii and A7ii cameras. I ordered a rig/cage made specifically for those two cameras and it came (as promised) today. Now I have a place to attach a microphone that doesn't let the microphone poke me in the forehead as I use the EVF. 
It more or less completes the "run and gun" configuration for those A7xx cameras when using them as video snapshot cameras.  There is one built in shoe on the right side of the rig as I hold it but I will be adding another shoe to the left side of the rig to hold a small XLR mixer box. 

I like the way the rig bulks up the camera for better handholding as well. Nice when video gear also enhances still photography handling. We'll see how it goes but I'm already thinking of researching to see if they have one designed for the RX10 ii. ... 




12.15.2016

I almost forgot, a lot of video production is effectively moving the camera. Improv here we come.


In order to show the good functioning of a prosthetic knee and lower leg my client needed some interesting footage. They needed our talent/model to walk backward along this smooth, concrete floor so we could show how well the mechanics of the computer controlled joint worked. There might be people who have practiced walking sideways while keeping a video camera completely shake-free but I'll tell you right now that I'm not one of them. When I'm working I'm looking for control and repeatable results. We can't always engineer that but we can channel our best

12.09.2016

Strange things to think about when shooting video. Like wheels.



We have a video shoot next week that skews into the unusual category. At least as far as my typical assignments go. I need to shoot footage of a person walking and the shot needs to be composed mostly to frame our person from about mid-thigh down to the ground. The product is an prosthesis; a lower leg for someone who has had an amputation.

We'll be shooting indoors, on a smooth, concrete floor and I'll need to track along side the person as they walk while shooting in 4K video.

In the best of worlds, with the best of budgets, we'd figure out the exact pathway we'd be traversing and would have a crew lay down dolly track, mount the camera on a Levinson dolly, do a few rehearsals and move on to the next shot. But, as is usual, we won't be operating in that production paradise. I have a small budget and we are not just shooting one pathway but multiple locations all over a large building. It's very much "run and gun" video production.

I've been playing around with options today and remembered a project I did with a film maker named, Steve Mims, back in the 1980's on a music video for Billy Joe Shaver. The opening shot for the music video was a tracking shot of a woman (from the waist down) wearing cowboy boots, carrying a guitar case and walking down the sidewalk on Congress Ave., and then heading into the Continental Club. I modified a Multi-Cart gear cart by bolting a piece of one inch plywood to the bed of the cart, drilling a hole for a large bolt and attaching a fluid tripod head onto it. The fluid head held an Arriflex super 16 camera and a Zeiss 10-100mm lens.

I also used a magic arm to attach a homemade soft box with a 500 watt Lowell Tota-light inside.

Our camera operator laid down on the plywood and ran the camera as one of our grips and I pushed and pulled the cart, matching pace with our talent. It worked very well and an equally fun thing was that our soft light followed along perfectly.

With this in mind I went into the studio and grabbed my Multi-Cart R-10. It's a great cart and has probably saved my lower back a thousand times over. It has nice, fat, pneumatic tires in the back but it has hard, noisy, plastic wheels on casters in the front. It's a piece of cake to rig up a camera mount on one of the rails or the vertical handles on the front and back. But those front wheels.....vexing.

I checked online and found that there is an upgrade wheel available. It's a wide, soft, five or six inch wheel with upgraded casters. I've ordered two of the new wheels and I've started experimenting with camera mounting. I'm using several sets of Super Clamps and Magic Arms. I'll need a rail for the camera and space on the rail for an external video monitor so we can see our composition as we move.

The area we'll be shooting in is well lit but I'll also bring along an extra clamp and arm just in case we want to mount a light out in front to provide a bit more directional pop.

It's fun to play MacGyver on these projects but I've found it's pretty important to practice a few times before the day of the shoot. If for no other reason than to make sure you have all the right parts.

Since all the moving shots are M.O.S. I thought I'd use the little a6300 along with the 18-105mm G lens. It's capable of making really nice video files.  Maybe I'll get a little use out of that new cage after all.

11.19.2016

Saturday Practices. In the water, at the theater.


After months of warm weather it's a seriously refreshing experience to get from the locker rooms to the pool in 40+ degree weather with a gusty wind blowing. It was a long slog through a complicated set this morning. By my count a little over 4,500 yards. I've been practicing one part of my freestyle stroke lately and that's an acceleration of my hand/arm during the last half of each arm pull. It must be working because I've been sore and tired after every practice... Seriously though, changing a stroke takes time and uses one's muscles in a slightly different way. The proof is in either speed or increased endurance or both. My stroke technique is a constant work in progress which improves by plateaus as I practice.

After the swim, and coffee with fellow swimmers, I grabbed a small Husky tool bag filled with small cameras and lenses and headed to the theater to practice a different skill set. I have two lenses that I get great results from --- if I slow down and practice good technique. One is the Rokinon 85mm t-1.5 and the other is the Rokinon 135mm f2.2. Both are manual focus lenses with fairly long throws on the focusing rings. Manual focusing moving subjects in changing light is something that takes consistent practice; even with aids like focus peaking. So, I requested permission to come to a rehearsal of SantaLand Diaries in order to actually get some practice.

With long, manual focus lenses there are things to consider: The closer you are to a subject the harder it is to focus quickly. Stopping down a manual aperture lens on camera (a lens that works at its "taking" aperture) means that a lens shows more depth of field in the finder which makes finding the exact point of sharp focus much harder; and finally, the longer the focal length the shallower the depth of field which means that a close focus subject, moving in low light is a tough target. That's what I was working on today. Meredith McCall (above) and Martin Burke were in full rehearsal mode for a production that opens at the end of next week. They didn't mind having me around, after all, someone has to supply an appropriate laugh track.

I shot three or four hundred shots and used the two lenses in a much different way than I would if I'd been hired to do the shoot, or if the results were mission critical for the theater. I played more with shooting wide open which meant having a much bigger ratio of crap-to-good photography. But that's why it seems to me important to practice. Often. The brain and the eye have to work in concert until the hand movements driving the lens controls become second nature. I think the only way to get there is to do stuff over and over again until it becomes fluid. Until there is a certain flow.

I felt it today with my freestyle. Not all the time but just when I was in a certain groove and not over thinking the mechanics. I started to feel the same way at the end of the rehearsal at the theater. Not all the time but mostly when I trusted my intuition and committed without hesitation to pushing the shutter button. I can only imagine that if I still had the energy to swim four or five hours a day that I'd be able to drive toward textbook technique much more quickly. Never perfect but closer to perfect quicker.

By the same token, I'm sure if I worked on the small stage at Zach Theatre with the same camera and lenses every day, instead of once or twice a month, I might build a fine combination of muscle memory, intuition, and insight into the rhythms of each director and actor and thereby become a much better documentarian of live theater.

All I can do at this point is practice and learn. And there's so much to learn but it seems to be all about how my physical and neural collaborations happen. Nothing about facts and figures, or vital pages in an owner's manual. Practicing on Saturday to be a better swimmer on Sunday. Practicing in rehearsals on Saturday to be more alive and aware in the dress rehearsals next week.

10.27.2016

I wrote about the importance of chairs earlier this week. What an odd topic. No, we won't be starting an affiliate relationship with a furniture store....



A while back I had a walk-up studio in an un-air conditioned hotel in downtown Austin. It was primitive but then so was Austin at the time. There was a couple who shared a space across the hall from me. They converted their studio to a live/work space, which required a level of suffering in the Summer (from the heat) and the Winter (Because the only shower was a cold water hook-up outside in the courtyard at the back of the building. 

Since we were all in the same big building we leaned on each other for artistic support. I would often have them over to my studio when I needed to practice my lighting or work on posing. When I was ready to move on from that space they presented me a with a chair they'd found. The seat had been recovered with several different textures of leather and they had carved "R&P" onto the back. It stood for Robin and Paul.

That was the chair I was referencing in the previous post. I loved that chair and used it for dozens and dozens of portraits. It was just the right size for most people. Sitters seemed to sink in and come to grips with the chair quickly. I hesitate to say it but I think it had some sort of posing magic in it. 

Eventually the chair disappeared. I guess that happens to magic stuff. But I keep my eyes out even today for a replacement. As you can see in the image of Mousumi, above, the chair gives people a resting place for their hands and helps to anchor them in the scene. Most of my favorite, mid-1990's portraits were done with this chair somehow incorporated as a prop or a posing tool. I'm at a loss to explain why I have been unable to find another one to replace it...


On another note someone wrote that they enjoyed seeing the latest stream of portraits EVEN THOUGH they were done on OBSOLETE equipment and with dead processes. Sorry, I don't see it that way. While I know the tools help to drive practice I have to say that changes in my portraiture have more to do with the acceleration of culture that we are living through. 

People seem to be more frenetic and rushed and the idea of settling in for a half an hour or an hour of conversation and experimentation just seems out of most people's mental reach these days. 

I recently watched a movie called, Shakespeare In Love. I've watched it several times before and each time I walk away amazed at the brilliance of the movie and a new idea about life and process. I've come to believe that most of the great art through the ages was created by people who rejected distraction. They worked at a pace determined by the art and the process itself instead of working to external deadlines and irrational and breathless hurry. If Shakespeare was alive today he'd no doubt be rushing from meeting to meeting, from coffee shop to coffee shop and answering messages so often that something would have to give. Probably the Sonnets. And maybe, after the first successful play, he'd be paralyzed by the process of giving profitable playwriting workshops and never write another.... But maybe he was so mindful of his process that he might be one of the few who could turn off the distractions and work without regard for the invitations for interruptions.

Artists seem to work with a mindfulness that's almost entirely missing from the frantic lives so many of us engineer for ourselves. We'd like to write a book or paint a painting or create a body of work but we reflexively answer our phones, send cascades of vapid texts, compulsively check the weather and our stock portfolios on a parade of screens. On iPads, Laptops, phones and even the obnoxious TV screens infiltrating restaurants (like a nasty plague) we are glued to streams of information that are irrelevant to our own best interests and our day to day lives. Everything adds up to keep us from our real work. 

I am amazed at friends and acquaintances that watch sports on TV for hours and hour a week. What a horrible way to bleed down the clock of life. Watching endless newscasts via CNN on a big cellphone is just as bad.  

People's work has changed not because digital cameras are amazingly different tools but because everything conspires to quicken (and cheapen) the basic process of creating work. Instant review robs us of continuing to experiment because we think we have "something decent" in the tank. Post processing has become archly codified and almost automatic. And without sufficient time to sit quietly and ponder the unique flow of our individual lives everything becomes homogenous. The constant pull of the devices in our lives robs us of so much and replaces it with so little. 

I did a portrait of an actor yesterday. He came into the session with the idea that I expected him to be efficient. He was ready with outfits and he was ready to pose. We started talking and sharing life experiences and then we started photographing in drips and drabs and when I finally slowed him down he began to smile and gesture in a genuine and authentic way. When we ended up the session he was amazed at how focused we'd become during the session and how different it turned out to be than the sessions he'd done with photographers recently. 

For me it was a re-learning experience. I re-learned that one of the things I need to control in a portrait sitting is the pace. That's something I do have control over. I also need to create space for a genuine connection. In deference to the idea of mindfulness I left my telephone on the dining room table before getting in my car and traveling to the theater. I didn't even want the pull of the phone from my glove box, quietly coercing me to check messages, check updates, check to see if people still like me, to check and see if I am still "connected." 

It's a subtle thing but having the intention to concentrate is pretty vital to a pure process. Anything  you can do to eliminate distractions from what is right in front of you is a valuable move. It's not enough to turn something off because its very presence and availability is a temptation. A phone in the pocket is an invitation to break concentration during a costume change and change mental gears toward reaffirming something different --- your fear of being left out, or becoming micro-uninformed. 

My exercise in leaving the phone totally behind made a difference to me. Sure, if the actor called to cancel I would not know until I got to the theater and someone gave me a message but I'd already blocked the time and it's not like a client will call in a panic and try to book an emergency shoot...
I might have had car trouble and it might have been good to call to let people know but really, car trouble is rare with modern cars. There really is no reason for us to carry phones all day long. If we keep them in our pockets we're probably giving ourselves butt cancer (if you keep the phone in a back pocket) or we're frying our upper thigh (in the front pocket). But the intention to carry the phone around is an invitation to becoming distracted and fracturing your attention to process. 

Back to cameras. There is some stuff we learned to do with film that created interesting work but none of it is beyond the capabilities of modern cameras, if we are comfortable with shooting images that don't look good on the review screen. By this I mean that one of the many reasons we had unique art in the film days is that people didn't judge the intermediary part of the process. We knew that creating really flat negatives gave us opportunity to control contrast and preserve highlights in a very unique way. We can do the same thing with digital files if we aren't so compulsive about seeing a perfect histogram and a perfect review file on our camera screens. Heck, we could even shoot in one of the video S-Log settings to good effect. But it's the willingness to delay our visualizing gratification and accept processes that might take a number of steps to reach fruition that are important. And it's our acceptance of possible failure that allows us access to make interesting (from a technical point of view) images in the first place. 

The emphasis everywhere now is on perfect files in the camera. Post processing is little more to many than making sure everything is brutally sharp and exposed within conventional parameters. Give me a flat and nasty file that has promise and I'm betting the image will be more interesting. 

If you feel pressed for time to do your work and do your art I suggest you have two paths. One is to give up taking pictures and find something that occurs in smaller portions in order to occupy your time. The second would be to cut off the cable TV, turn off screen devices of all kinds and leave the phone in a drawer when it's time to really think clearly and produce. The distractions are not a positive feature but a insidious tool that creates resistance in nearly everything we try to do. 

More time spent thinking and more time spent experimenting. These things should be our goals. 

Just a thought on my birthday. 

Finally, I do like the old work. But I like the new work I am creating just as much. You might not appreciate it the way I do but that's why you get to do your own work....



10.25.2016

Sarah. Painter. Portrait.

©1995 Kirk Tuck.

Artists are fun to photograph. 

They realize the amount of attention making good images takes. 

They have marvelous smiles.

Kathy K. In the old studio.

Not very hard to guess the camera.

I've been in a bit of a funk lately. Clients keep calling me to do portraits but mostly they want me to shoot against white so they can drop out the background and paste the image of the person into some other background. I get it. I lived in advertising world for years and my spouse still heads into an agency everyday to ply her art direction and design skills. But really....what happened to the idea of a holistic portrait?

Well, I figured I could either sit around a bitch about it or I could do what we have always done; get off my ass and self assign. I sent around some messages to a couple actors I've seen lately and nailed down three portrait shoots this week that should be interesting. Each of the people I've chosen is quite different from the other two. All are wonderfully talented actors. One is from Boston, another from NYC and the third is a person who tours nationally but happens to be in town to rehearse for an upcoming holiday production.

There's no client, just me and my collaborators. We'll attempt to do these portraits exactly the way they should be. I've got my gear picked out and my batteries charged up. One shoot tomorrow, two on Friday. Hope to have images post processed and ready to show next week.

A re-learned lesson: If you have pretensions of being an artist you sure as hell can't wait for people to throw inspiration into your lap...

The image above is of a musician from Austin, circa 1994. She was dating a friend and we arranged a shoot in the studio. The background reminded me of two things: Our studio downtown was huge! We could set up three or four portrait areas at a time, or back up nearly 50 feet from the background to drop everything out of focus. Second, the place was always a mess ---- even when we cleaned it up. There was always a pile in one corner or another that we called "transitional piles." Stuff that we weren't finished with yet...

Some stuff never gets done.

By the way, just listened to Bob Dylan's Album, Blood on the Tracks. The track,  A Simple Twist of Fate, should have been enough to qualify him for that Nobel Prize.

Mr. Tuck will be taking Thurs. off from blogging and rational thoughts ---- he will be writing in the third person only in order to celebrate yet another birthday. My big plan? Ask the swim coach if we can swim 61 X 100 yards on the 1:30 to celebrate. Then nap. Better take my vitamins.

10.23.2016

Portrait of Renae. One large softbox. One grid light on the background. An intense conversation. A practical chair.


One of the nice aspects of being a photographer in the age of film and slower processes was the need to have an assistant more or less full time in order to do our work. During the few slow moments a good assistant made for a great stand-in or a good model with which to experiment with everything from the films we used to the chair in this photograph.

This was taken in the pre-production phase of a project that required (art direction) a dozen or so seated portraits for a university. We were actually experimenting with which chair we would use for comfort, consistency and a more or less anonymous profile. It was a burgundy colored, red leather chair that we found at a nice furniture store. We did end up using it for our assignment and then it became the "take a break, sit down and read a book" chair at the studio until we moved and downsized. I've forgotten what happened to the chair but I know it didn't make the transition with us.

Funny that a chair could have been such a critical feature in a photo-shoot when, in fact, it was more or less hidden by nearly every portrait sitter who participated.

Photographers as a group tend to severely underestimate the visual and posing value of their furniture. I love good, old dining room chairs that aren't big and heavy. They are wonderful for those Texas subjects who like to sit backwards on their chairs and lean their arms on the backs...

Chairs. Good props. But they will never generate the debates and enthusiasm of a good, Nikon vs. Canon or DSLR vs Mirrorless discussion.

Using two lights for portraits is practical.


I laugh at myself when I come across older portraits that I did way back in the prehistoric times of photography. I am certain that, just like now, I searched out the sharpest and most wonderful lenses I could find for my Leica R series cameras. I am equally sure that I focused images with great care, and then I went into the dark room and post processed them with vignetting filters, Pictrols, wax paper and fllters partially covered with Vasoline. I spread out the highlights, killed the super fine detail, distorted the edges of the frame and caused light to bounce around erratically. And then I like the image. Now that it's so much easier to make all kinds of post production "enhancements" it seems that the thrill has dissipated somewhat. I'm working harder on finding a mix that I like.

But I guess my real point is that putting all the upfront emphasis on the "magic" lens or even the "perfect" camera seems a bit nonsensical if the latent image is just a starting point...

This morning's swim. I was right on time for once for the Sunday morning swim practice. I think I was even a bit early. There were five or six cars in the parking lots when I pulled in. I opened up the hatchback of my car and pulled out my swim bag and towel. Then other people started getting out of their cars and we walked over to the front gate. It was locked. Never a good sign.

We milled around and told each other that the coach might just be running late. A few minutes later the tennis pro came over and unlocked the gate. By then there were probably 15 or 20 of us but still no coach. We decided to go in anyway and pull the covers off the pool, get our suits on and get ready. One of our Saturday coaches pulled up. She was coming to workout as a participant and not a coach but she bit the bullet and decided to sub in for our missing person. (Thanks Kristen!!!).

By the time we had the covers off there were close to thirty people heading to their preferred lanes and doing their little rituals with their goggles.

We did an interesting variation for part of the work out today. We usually swim sets with defined distances and defined intervals but today we swam sets with the command line to swim as far as we could go in three minute chunks. If you were fast you might cover 250 yards in three minutes and still have ten seconds rest. We were resigned in my lane to aim for 200 or 225 yards per three minutes in my lane. If you really missed the yardage in the allotted time you dropped 25 yards on the next round.

Just as an aside for fellow swimmers on the blog: I am experimenting with two things which seem to help make me just a little faster. First, I am pulling down deeper after my catch so my arm stroke, overall, goes deeper down in the middle of each stroke. Second, I am trying to hold my hand position more rigidly and with less "give" than I have before. Being mindful about hand and wrist strength seems to make the front end catch and the back portion of the arm stroke more efficient and faster.

I know it's working when I look at the time clock and I am reinforced in that belief when I wake up the next morning and am "muscle sore" as opposed to joint sore.

I stayed in for part of the second workout this morning to work on my butterfly. I will be celebrating a birthday this week and wanted to set some new goals for the upcoming year. I thought I'd take stock of my favorite stroke. I also wanted to get to 5,000 yards this morning. It makes up, a bit, for the swim I had to miss last Thurs.

Older Leicas ruled.

10.22.2016

Portrait of a woman in a hat.

©1994 Kirk Tuck.

Sometimes a hat is just an attractive accessory. 

Modern camera meets ancient lens. It's all good. The Sony a6300+Olympus PenF 25mm f2.8 (Half frame).


I gotta say, I think there is much more of a visual difference between various lenses than there is between camera sensor looks. I see it when I interchange older lenses and newer lenses on the same camera body. A recent, Zeiss 24-70mm f4.0 on the Sony a6300 renders very clean colors with open shadows and, since the camera corrects for lens faults automatically everything seems geometrically rectilinear and sharp. When I put a film era lens on the same camera the shadows tend to block up, the saturation can be much higher and while the resolution isn''t the same the sense of smoother, richer color transitions comes through. There is a heaviness to the older film era lenses that isn't a fault or design flaw but a consciously designed look. Maybe it's a look that is no longer in style but in an age where lens design can sometimes seem in lockstep (output wise) from maker to maker it's delightful to have more choices.

These images come from one afternoon when I got curious about what the a6300 would do with the 25mm f2.8 Pen F Half frame lens from 45+ years ago on the front of it. I expected less. I got more. 
The top image shows what I've come to think of as a classic older lens design look. It's really sharp but not in a high resolution way (there is a difference between apparent sharpness and total resolution. It has to do with the intersection of tones. Think in terms of big radius vs. small radius in sharpening...). The older lens gives a high impression of sharpness but digging in to 100% shows less superfine detail than I might get from a new formulation. 

I think one reason that the lens performs as well as it does in the above image is that I'm using it with the light behind me (no chance of flare or veiling glares) and I'm using the lens at f8.0, an f-stops that's almost guaranteed to make any lens look good. I love shooting this old, manual focusing gem with the new a6300 body because I can punch in to magnify, and even set a hyperfocal distance, and then walk around shooting without having to worry about refocusing as long as I stay in the same camera-to-subject distance parameters (as dictated by depth of field). 

The lens has plenty of barrel distortion which is NOT corrected by the camera but, since it's not a modern lens design (with attendant physically uncorrected compromises) it's a very simple barrel distortion with no "mustache" wavy lines and so it's a quick and easy correction in Lightroom or Photoshop. (See below). 


The lens itself is much smaller than modern lenses and is attached to the a6300 via a very small and inexpensive adapter ring. The lens is 100 % metal body construction and the glass on my copy is clean and sparkly. Remember that the lens DOES NOT cover a full frame sensor and, on an APS-C sensor provides the equivalent field of view as a 37.5mm on a full frame camera. A bit short for me but just right for those folks who swear that they love a 35mm lens on their full frame rig. 


Looking back to 1985 when I bought this lens I am happy to report that I spent a whopping $48 at KEH.com and it came in pristine condition. I still have my collection of Pen lenses and often think of buying one of the new Pen F digital cameras just to use with the collection. It's a novel approach to creating a system. 

But I will say that I do think the ancient lens works very, very well in the new world of high res and well behaved sensors. I think I'll continue to keep it...

10.21.2016

Orphaned systems.


It's odd to make an investment in a system and then have that system go away. The earliest I knew of this was back in the film days when Canon changed their lens mount from the FD mount to the EOS mount. They bit the bullet and made the change because the Canon engineers were convinced that the narrow diameter of their camera's FD mount would restrict their ability to design fast and long lenses. Rather than compromise on optical performance they instead pissed off the legions of photographers who had made vast investments in bodies and lenses. And they gave Nikon (same basic mount for the last 10,000 years) a goldmine filled with marketing ammunition.

In the long run it proved to be a prescient move as it allowed them a free hand in lens design and allowed for a flexible electronic interface that made their transition from film to digital that much easier.

More recently Olympus orphaned their Four Thirds cameras (the ones with traditional moving mirrors) in favor of a Micro Four Thirds mount, a move necessitated by the change in the way the cameras auto focused and the amount of space between the back of the lenses and the actual sensor. I can't imagine you were a happy camper if you had just migrated to the older system right before the switch and had just sunk significant money into a couple of E-5 bodies and some lenses like the 7-14mm f2.8, the 14-35mm f2.0 and the 35-100mm f2.0. All incredibly good lenses that never worked as well (focusing) with adapters and the newer EM cameras.

While the lenses would likely last for decades and give the same ultra high quality performance you would be stuck with whatever the final and most advanced camera in the system might be. In the case of Olympus it was the E-5 with a 12 megapixel sensor and a few glitches, like a penchant for back and front focusing. If you were hellbent on staying with your system I guess your short term workaround would be to go out and buy as many remaindered cameras bodies as you could so you would always have a workable candidate to put behind the lenses. But you would never be able to take advantage of the advances in sensor design that have occurred since that camera's tenure in the market. Still, if you are willing to deal with manually focusing the lens you could upgrade to the EM-1 family and still use the optics in which you've invested. So, not really a totally orphaned system.

I was an enthusiastic Contax user in the film days and when they finally closed out the Contax RTS iii and it was apparent that no further development of that mount would occur I was stuck with the choice of trying to soldier onward or take my losses and change systems (again). It would be nearly a decade and a half later when those gem like Contax, Zeiss lenses could be used once again on a camera. In this case a Sony A7rii. But even before the end of film snuffed out the Contax line they also changed mounts in mid-stream, from the Y/C mount (Yashica/Contax) to the Contax N mount. Another engineering move to a wider diameter mount.

The latest (and I think most egregious) brand abandonment came last year from Samsung. As recently as 2012 they talked about becoming the number one or two best selling camera company in the world. About two years ago they introduced their flagship camera, the NX-1, along with an assortment of lenses aimed squarely at professionals and hard core hobbyists. They induced thousands of people to trade in their existing (working) cameras as partial trade up to the new system. They spoke in terms of fleshing out the line and going after the "big guys." There were a few stumbles with the NX-1. It used a new video codec that was a real computer basher. Had they stuck with a conventional codec it's entirely possible that they could have given Panasonic's GH4 a real run for the money with video people. In the purely still photography realm the camera, by most accounts, was a stellar performer. The sensor was detailed and relatively low noise. It also boasted dynamic range that was close (but not equal ) to the Sony sensors, and delivered higher resolution.

I worked with a previous generation of Samsung cameras and found their best lenses to be rivals to the very best optics from Canon and Nikon. The two lenses that they delivered with the NX1 camera initially were very well reviewed. So, right up until the day they decided to pull the plug on the whole camera system they were pushing hard to get people to convert. Their campaign "Ditch the DSLR" was a call to move to mirrorless.  And then, country by country, they pulled the plug. No more shipments of cameras but at the same time no official announcements. No one outside of Samsung (and perhaps their advertising affiliates) had any idea whether this was just a pause, a retrenchment or what. It turns out that they just made a decision to walk away from the serious camera market and did it in a most disingenuous way. Like a girlfriend of boyfriend who never breaks up with you but never returns your phone calls. Were they kidnapped? Did they perish in a plane crash? Or were they just never that into you?

So, thousands of people bought into the system and invested only to be left at the altar. Now they have a camera which is only useful with proprietary lenses and a group of lenses that is only useful with a proprietary lens mount. I doubt there will be another firmware upgrade for either body or lenses. And all the interchangeable lens bodies below the flagship are also vanishing.

Samsung obviously didn't go out of business. They still sell cellphones and refrigerators and lots of other stuff all over the world. I'm fairly certain that they looked at the trending numbers for the interchangeable lens camera market worldwide and realized that they had just, with much bluster, entered a declining, perhaps dying, market and they made an executive decision to bail early rather than late.

The sad thing is that with the introduction of the NX1 they just seemed to finally get how to make a usable camera. Something ultimately fun to shoot. Of all the events in the last two years that point most vigorously to the death of the camera market overall Samsung's decision to cut and run is probably the most visible.

I understand Samsung's exit. If I could look at all the future marketing numbers and see that in two years the total pie for all interchangeable lens cameras would shrink by over half I think I would also bail, if I weren't one of the two or three front runners. But I think I could have made a much more graceful and less painful exit. And perhaps I would have figured out a way to make the exit less painful for the consumers who had decided to believe in my company and my sales talk.

I was part of an earlier group of Samsung product testers and users in a program called, Imageloggers. I resigned from the program about six months before the NX1 hit the market. I had lost confidence that Samsung understood cameras from a photographer's point of view. Their focus was about interconnectivity ( which should have made one or two other pundits ecstatic....) and less about the traditional attention to haptics and responsiveness that real camera users demand.

Now, they are just another story line about orphaned camera systems. A sad one too. Perhaps the exploding Note 7 phones are just a bit of Karmic revenge...

Refining process in a zany business. Now, how to refine the business model for scalability (as if....)?

You've seen this shot before but it's being re-featured because its illustrated mechanics are a growing part of my tabletop workflow.

I've been writing a bit about tabletop projects lately, which may seem weird for someone who loves shooting portraits, but photographing products is nothing new for my business. It's something I've been doing since the earliest days of my career.  But the way I do it keeps changing as I try to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the process.  When I started out we shot almost every product using a 4x5 inch view camera. The film size delivered image quality while the rises and falls, +tilts and swings, helped keep products square and in focus. But boy-oh-boy did we use a lot of Polaroid test material in the course of every assignment. 

For very demanding images of things, like computer systems with monitors, the ability to distribute focus kept me using those ornery bellows monsters right up until client demands for turnaround and cost control pushed the studio to a total digital workflow, starting around 1999. 

We've recently had a spate of tabletop assignments from medical products developer, Ottobock Healthcare; tech hardware maker, Razberi; the Bob Bullock/Texas History Museum; and a private art collector who specializes in 3-D objects. In some cases we're asked to do a fairly large number of products over the course of a single day. Sometimes we are tasked with making photographs on dark backgrounds but the overwhelming majority are done on white backgrounds, even if they are destined for the clipping path treatment. I have shot several thousand projects on white backgrounds and, at this point in my career, I am finally becoming reasonably competent at it. 

In the past, when using early generation digital cameras, we relied on (slow) firewire or SCSI tethering to see images as we shot. Software was buggy and connections were often lost and images floated off into the ether after we shot them. Re-launching camera and computer software was an extremely annoying part of the mix. Tethering to a stationary computer was okay when we worked at a pace similar to the pace we worked at with film. A long tether to the workstation from the shooting area had us shooting a test shot and then leaving the camera and walking over to judge the resulting image on the monitor. Then back to the camera to make changes and then do the process over again.

We were okay with the pace and the inconveniences of being tied to fixed locations because it was the only way we really had experienced product photography. Laptops were underpowered at the time and I wasn't about to stick a full sized computer and a large monitor on an Ergo Cart and wheel it all around. Cable management could also be a nightmare. 

We stuck to the tethered method until the moment when the LCD screens on the rear of the cameras became practically usable and, to a certain extent, calibrate-able. At the time we were almost always using electronic flash as a primary lighting equipment and there was always a need to check exposure and light balance. I think the Nikon D2Xs was the first camera that had a review screen that I halfway trusted. But the small size and vagaries of mixing with ambient lighting in the review mix still made the process problematic, especially when sharing the images with clients as part of our collaboration on set. 

I stumbled into a new way of shooting by accident.  A couple of years ago I was shooting video for three different clients and it became obvious that we needed a bigger monitor on our sets. We wanted something that could be calibrated for exposure, color and contrast and somthing that would give us the ability to see focus peaking was a big plus. I bought a seven inch Marshall monitor and used it to good effect with video. It takes two standard Nikon EN-EL 15 batteries so it can be used remotely. It was so good on our video shoots that I started bringing it along on still shoots. The process of using a monitor out of the HDMI port on my Sonys is so easy and transparent that I've gotten into the habit of bringing it along even if I'm 90% sure I'm never going to use it. 

I started using the monitor for studio shoots since it is adequate for both clients and me to look at simultaneously but at first I would stick it on a light stand near the camera and we'd do what we learned in the days of tethering to computers; we'd go back and forth from the camera to the monitor. A couple of months ago I started working with an art collector who needed lots and lots of images for a high quality coffee table book. We started with the monitor on a stand next to the camera but we hit a point where the camera was mounted above the shooting table and we were trying to carefully position dozens of objects in one shot. It would be great if we could observe the changes to our layout of objects as we moved them. We grabbed the monitor off the light stand and started handing it back and forth to each other as we made our changes. Being able to hold the monitor in one hand while reaching up to zoom the lens on the camera, just a little bit, while watching the result on the screen, was so seamless and fluid. Sometimes my client would be bent over the table using tweezers to adjust a small object and I could lean in an hold the monitor in such a way that he could just glance away from his set-up and instantly confirm the change without moving out of position. 

Two sets of two batteries lasted us the entire day. It also extended the life of the batteries in the camera. One battery took us through to lunch time and the second camera battery got us all the way through the afternoon. Pretty cool when you consider that the cameras were on all the time. Not having to run the monitors, in-camera, saves an enormous amount of power. 

Now, you could argue that I can replicate this set up with wi-fi and an iPad but raw files tend to be problematic and I find that setting an iPad down for a while in order to re-set the objects we are shooting means that cameras time out and iPads time out and we end up going through the re-engagement dance again and again. I think it's still primitive times for using most digital cameras, along with wi-fi, in high volume, professional applications.

For exacting work we use dedicated macro lenses but lately I've tested and found that most of our f4.0 zoom lenses are more than adequate when they are stopped down to f11 or f16 in practical shoots. Our daylong shoot yesterday was done with a Sony a6300 camera and, for nearly all the images, an 18-105mm f4.0 G lens parked at f8.0. The combination of decent glass, a slow f-stop and in camera image correction results in perfectly sharp images with no discernible distortion. The lens seems to be a good match for the 24 megapixel sensor in the body and the combination rides well on the Gitzo sidearm I use on my tripod to get the camera directly over the top of sets. 

I have the camera set to electronic first curtain (nothing is moving so there is no rolling shutter effect) and the shutter speeds are in the 1/3rd second to 1/15th second range so there are no artifacts from fast shutter settings. I also use a 2 second or 5 second self-timer delay for the shutter actuation so the camera can settle. I added an electronic release lately so I'll probably forgo the delay next time; but old habits die hard. 

With a slap of velcro on the main tripod leg and a corresponding piece of velcro on the top edge of the monitor it's easy to set up a shot with the monitor in my hands, affix the monitor to the tripod and have my hands free to manipulate the camera controls. I could use a bigger monitor but as the size increases the mobility and intimacy of the monitor decreases. And then you are back to the situation you were in when tethered to a big desktop system. 

The rest of the shooting modality is the same as always: We use high output SMD LED lights which don't change color balance and we always start out the shoot with a custom white balancing.  If we are shooting on hard white board (which is highly reflective) I take a spot meter reading for a representative area and put the exposure for that area at 95%. It's not quite white but the Sony sensors are made to be pushed up. Having white at 95% means I don't worry about losing highlight detail but I know the exposure will be high enough so that I rarely have to "lift" the shadows by more than a stop. At ISO 100 this is like changing the ISO to 200 in terms of overall image quality. Not a compromise at all. 

Along the same logic lines I chose the a6300 instead of the A7rii or A7ii because I pick up an extra measure of depth of field ( which can be critical for small object photography ) with no quality loss. Also, I like the 18-105mm f4.0 in this situation for it's well behaved general nature and its zoom/framing flexibility. Testing in raw with camera and software corrections turned off shows me that the lens is at its very best between the focal length range of 28-90mm so, if possible, I try to stay in that sweet spot. If I need to go to the extremes I don't worry about it at f8.0 and I don't see a huge penalty in diffraction induced softness at f11-14. I'll go to f16 if needed, in order to keep everything in focus, but in those cases I know I'll need to pop the sharpness either in camera or in post. 

In almost every job in which we shoot against white the client needs a clipping path in layered files so they can drop the object onto different backgrounds. We used to have to do all clipping paths by hand because automated solutions in PhotoShop, like the magic wand tool,  were not refined enough to do the job well. The edges could be too ragged. Even with the introduction of refine edge we ended up using a pen tool and going point to point, along with careful Bezier curves tossed in. The latest selection tools are much, much better and, if we have hard, defined edges in the images we can use the automated selection tools much more often, which speeds up post production. 

Many have suggested that I look into using some of the companies from India (and here in the U.S.) who advertise low prices for doing clipping paths. I have tried four different companies now; two here in the U.S. and two in India, and in each case I have gotten the files back, been disappointed  and then spent long, lonely nights doing the paths myself under much tighter deadlines. When your reputation is on the line "good enough" can come around and bite you on the the ass. Really. 

Given the trajectory of the economy it's always good to figure out how to become more efficient and more effective. I just wish there was a way to scale what we do into greater quantities. The limitation of a one person business is that scaling generally means just working more hours. 

I love doing the Craftsy.com classes and also having written a number of books. Those are both situations that are the epitome of scaling. Teach once/sell often. Write once/sell often. Too bad proprietary product shoots can't be sold over and over again to different sets of clients. Same with commissioned portraits. If someone out there has a unique way for photographers to effectively scale their businesses without damaging quality assurance I am fairly certain we'd all LOVE to hear about it. Give it your best shot in the comments! 

That's all I have for now. I'm headed downtown to see how Formula One will affect us this year. Every year their footprint in our downtown has shrunken dramatically. It will be interesting to see, this year, if there is any presence at all. ... If there's not then I'll just take a nice walk.