4.24.2017

A day in the life of pre-production. And general laziness.

Portrait for a production at Live Oak Theater. Mid-1990s.

There was a weekend "outage" of many recent posts on VSL over the last two days. Don't know what caused it but I have a suspicion that some random server at Google died and it took a while to port the back-up files. Or, I pushed some button and then pushed it back again today, without paying attention. 

I've been a little burned out on the photography business lately. It seems to be like the definition of insanity: I do the same (type of) shoots over and over again and when they all turn out competently I am surprised. I keep expecting totally different results and have come to resent the banality of anticipation matching completion. Not that I want to totally mess up someone's project; I just think it would be nice if I "accidentally" shot in the way I generally do but ended up with images that were so amazing that people would weep tears of joy upon viewing them. Probably not going to happen that  way...

I could regale you with stories about shooting portraits or products but I think I'll reflect my current state of existence instead. Last week we finished up our federal income taxes and our state sales tax return. I produced a couple of photo assignments and completed the post production, etc. I took Belinda to see the traveling Broadway production of, "The Phantom of the Opera." We went to a dinner party. By the end of the day on Sunday I was just fried. And that brings us to today. 

We don't swim on Mondays (the pool is closed for maintenance..) so I started the day with a brisk four mile run on the hike and bike trail that wends and winds its way through downtown Austin, around the slow moving Colorado River. The weather was perfect for a run and, while my elapsed time for the run was mediocre, the trail was packed with pretty people and that helped keep my mind off that stitch in my side and the embarrassment of realizing that I am now slowing down to a ten minute mile pace. A part of the inevitable decline...

When I got back and cleaned myself up I checked messages and found one about an upcoming project that will take place out of state. We got budget and schedule approval to travel and do video and still photographs in the second week of May for a healthcare client. I headed to Southwest Airlines and booked flights that more or less match (arrival times) the flights my client booked for himself on a different airline. I had a trip credit I wanted to use and I also thought to save my client some money on baggage fees. SWA still allows two checked bags (under 50 pounds each) for no additional charges. I considered United Airlines but I don't know Kung Fu, haven't studied "The Iron Fist" technique and feel like I already spend enough on dental work...

I put together a note, with my itinerary, and sent it to my client. I also suggested that we meet for lunch to discuss pre-production. So, pre-production today about pre-production meetings down the road...

Later, I went all "old school" and actually dropped by the local branch of the bank I use for the business to drop off a check/deposit. I dropped off some bill payments at the post office too. 

I was in the middle of printing post cards when I got a call from an ad agency asking me to produce a bid. It's a "one from column A, one from column B" sort of bid because they may need one photograph or they may need three. They may need one talent or they may need three. They might also want to add video interviews to each variation. Yes, clients are now routinely asking for a side helping of video with their "main course" of still imaging. Conversely, they may want a still photography "dessert" along with their video "entree." Best to create the "bid matrix" and be prepared for any variation.

I did some quick research and tendered by bid about an hour after receiving the request. It would be a fun project so I have my fingers crossed. And, for all you cynical photographers who believe the industry is declining into a hell-state; my client closed our phone call about the bid request with, "Don't forget to include USAGE in your bid!!!"

In the middle of all this my mind had already started to break the first May project (60% video, 40% photography) into chunks. My brain likes to think about what to pack pretty far in advance. I think it's a dodge to help rationalize timely new purchases. B&H is having a sale on an interesting microphone so I picked one up as a back-up for my favorite shotgun style microphone, the Aputure Diety. Why not be over prepared? The job is mostly interviews and video...

The new microphone, coming with free shipping from B&H, (sorry, no affiliate links for that one) is the Rode NTG 4+. The plus sign at the end of the name denotes that this model has built in electronics and supplies its own phantom power via a 150 hour (rechargeable) lithium ion battery, which is also built in. The NTG4+ is supposed to have an improved microphone capsule when compared with the NTG-2 but the current sale (through the 27th of April) has the new microphone at or near the same price as the still good, but venerable, NTG-2. I look forward to putting it through its paces. 

In the same acquisitive vein, I am patiently waiting delivery of a lense that's been bouncing in and out of my mental shopping cart for several weeks now. That would be the Sony FE 28mm f2.0. I decided to forgo the pleasure of yet another long trip to the local camera store and to just click the button on the Amazon website. The pricing is identical and someone (hopefully) will deliver said lens right to my doorstep. Those of you who live in Austin will understand that traveling up or down Mopac Expressway to buy locally could easily eat another hour or two of travel time. Probably not worth it for a lens whose acquisition has already proven to be so arduous...

I'll finish up the pre-production day writing a few more deposit slips and doing yet another test on my Sony A7ii. We're testing to see just how good or bad it is for shooting as a b-camera in 1080P. So far, it doesn't look bad at all. 

Happy Monday.


4.22.2017

The latest "major issues" in the pursuit of photography.....camera insufficiencies! Oh my.


A few years ago many people were trashing new cameras if they did not come equipped with GPS. I never understood why and I still don't today. Very, very few people really need to have ancillary crap like GPS in their cameras.  People have rushed to explain the benefits of location tagging their images but I file that into the same folder as people who keep a meticulous record of every penny they spend in a day, or people who keep notebooks about the calories they've consumed. Meaningless informational crap. Might as well tell me how important it is to keep an Excel spreadsheet of your daily breathing patterns. You know, just for reference....

But this must be how they sell FitBits and "smart" watches that record one's workouts.

Well, the same compulsive and scary people have now decided on a new metric for all new cameras. They've decided that all cameras must now come with dual memory card slots or risk being labelled as major failures. The overwhelming rationale is that they MUST have an in-camera back up files for everything they shoot. Really? Most people who feel this way seem to be the same people who actually use their cameras to photograph their own lunches, their friends drinking coffee, selfies and bad landscapes. Hardly earth shattering reportage that would diminish the quality of life for anyone if the images were lost due to technical glitches...  And I can't for the life of me remember which film cameras we had that took double film just in case of lab accidents or mis-loads....

The cold, hard reality is that most memory cards don't experience failures on their own these days. If you follow the best practices of formatting your memory card, in camera, and never erasing images in cameras or when the card is connected to your computer, you will probably never experience a fault with your memory card. The other instances that might lead to failure are: the act of removing your card from the camera without first turning off the camera, or from a card reader without first ejecting the card from your computer.

Simple rules, and easy to follow. But no longer enough for a contingent of people who would rather try to buy their way out of incompetence and poor workflow protocols. They now demand that all cameras be equipped with additional "training wheels"  in order to be considered professional,  or even proficient. This is the same cohort that must have raw processing built into the camera as well as HDR settings and panorama settings. And all other manner of gimmicky things made possible (cheaply) by excess space on camera microprocessors.

But the very same people who demand all many of glitzy operational crap and unneeded redundancy will bitch and moan about the inclusion of first rate video on the same camera. Go figure.

OT: Saturday morning swim practice.



We had a cold front move through this morning. It dropped the temperature to 61 degrees. There was a slight breeze and the sky was overcast. Not gloomy grey but a sky bordering on a bald white. I drank a cup of hot tea with a half teaspoon of sugar and a little bit of milk in it, grabbed a towel, and headed to the Western Hills Athletic Club pool to join 25 or so like-minded swimmers for our usual Saturday morning masters workout. (For more information about Masters Swimming see the USMS website).

Most of us swim five or six days a week but some of the members alternate running days, biking day and swimming days. Whatever their schedule Saturday mornings are usually a priority. On Saturday and Sunday the workouts are an hour and a half and we try to get in a lot of good, hard yards. There's an early workout of the truly dedicated swimmers and they were exiting as I trudged up to the pool deck with my swim gear in hand. They looked tired, beat up and happy.

I've been trying to get back to a regular five day a week schedule lately and I can see the rewards; I'm swimming better and faster and the waists on my collection of pants feels looser... The benefit is being able to eat almost anything without tipping the bathroom scale in the wrong direction.

I swam in lane four today with Ed and Shannon. They are both a little bit faster than me but I'm able to hang with them on anything shorter than 400 yards. After a bunch of warm up sets our coach, Cheryl, concocted a brutal little set for us as the main entree. The set consisted of three X 50 yards on a forty second interval followed immediately by 4 x 25 yard sprints; halfway under water in each direction. We repeated that set four times. It's basically three fast sprints in a row with little to no rest. We call them, "touch and goes" because, unless you are really fast, you are hitting the wall at the 50, looking at the clock and then going again.

As a warm down after that fun set we did: 2x200's, 2x150s, 2x100's freestyle before starting the next set. It was an ambitious day in the pool. We did a bit more than 4,000 yards in our hour and a half and that seemed to satisfy even the most masochistic and compulsive exercisers in the group.

Following the workout a group of us did what we have done on most Saturdays for the last twenty years. We headed to a local coffee shop to drink coffee, talk about the workout, talk about swimming and just catch up in general. There is a core of swimmers who've been at coffee since the beginning and new ones who cycle in and out. But it's so good to have time to maintain the bonds. As we all grow older we have to make concessions in our training but if we are growing older together it's not as obvious, or as emotionally painful to deal with the toll of time.

I've been swimming with the same masters team five or six days a week since 1996. I love being in the water and have often thought that the five or six seconds after a swimmer pushes off the wall, in a good streamline position, is the closest most humans will ever come to flying without an aircraft. The aerobic fitness that a disciplined group workout conveys is vital to me as a working photographer. With the combination of swimming, walking, running and resistance training I've been able to work at the same physical levels I did in my 30's; with no back or shoulder issues. Staying in good physical shape may, in fact, be the most valuable investment I've made in my career as a working artist.

The wonderful thing about playing within a group of swimmers is the example set by everyone around you. They may be recovering from something dire, like cancer; they may have lost a loved one or had a misfire in their career, but they show up, put on their goggles and push aside the worries of life for an hour spent relishing their fitness and their ability to apply discipline to this part of their lives. And everyone in the pool is there to support them and push them forward.

In every set back I've had in my own life the medicine that worked best to get me back on track was the time I've spent in the water. I think I've always known that using a particular camera is far less important than having the fitness and discipline to use whatever camera you have with you to make your work.

We caught up with the group news while we swilled coffee. One of our group brought along a bag of hazelnuts. the chef in our ranks brought along some banana-chocolate bundt cake, we snacked and re-energized ourselves. An hour later we headed our separate ways. Some heading home to do chores, others heading in to tend to the businesses they own, and still others heading home for a quick nap or lunch with family. We only have coffee together once a week but it's a good bet we'll see most of the same characters at tomorrow morning's swim.


4.21.2017

Flipping the argument. Sports Photographers can now eliminate a major DLSR camera flaw...

(I write this somewhat tongue in cheek. Try not to get too bent out of shape if you are in the wrong camp...).

"I'm sure I would have been a sports photographer and, perhaps a very good one, but I just couldn't bear to grapple with one of the significant shortcomings of the modern DSLR. I'm sure you've experienced it if you've tried tracking a football player with a mirror-encumbered camera. Or perhaps you've lived with the mechanical menace of the DSLR when trying to keep a fast runner well composed.... We all know what the Achille's Heel of generations and generations of DSLR camera is but for some reason we've all chosen to ignore it, or to sweep it under the carpet and make our excuses. 

It's the dreaded MIRROR BLACK OUT. Each time we actuate the shutter the mirror leaps up (alarmingly) and blocks our view of the image we are so intent on capturing. Visualus Interruptus.
The image is there, in front of our eye, and then it's gone and replaced with a visual fluttering of blackness, accompanied by some raucous noise and then a decidedly unsettling vibration. Thwack! Bam! Kapow! Oh sure, it's only a few (or a dozen or a hundred) milliseconds but it interrupts our continuous observation of the objects of our (momentary) desire. The faster the frame rate the longer the overall percentage of time blacked out. The slower the shutter speed the longer the overall percentage of time blacked out. 

It's been there since we gave up our Leica rangefinders in order to use longer telephoto lenses. It's always been a grave compromise as well as a source of indiscreet noise and interrupted concentration. And anyone who ever shot with a Pentax 6x7 camera (the most egregious of the breed) probably deserves restitution for partial hearing loss from the loud shutter/mirror cacophony and for the sheer amount of time spent waiting for the massive mirror to rise and then smash itself back down again. 

I can hear the cheers already from legions of sports photographers, who felt they had no choice but to use Canon 1D series cameras and Nikon Fsomething cameras to capture sports photographs, as the new Sony a9 makes it initial appearance on the market. Imagine, at speeds above 1/125th of a second (the general realm of sports shooters) there is absolutely NO FINDER BLACK OUT AT ALL. NONE. Even at 20 frames per second. 

The EVF shows the image continuously, refreshing the finder image 60 times per second (about twice the speed of human perception). Never again will these beleaguered pros face the humiliation of finder blackout. Never again will they feel the ravaging vibration of the slamming mirror assembly thrashing around in their hands. And, if they choose, then never again will they spook a golfer or diver with their klaxon-like shutter noise. In one low key product introduction Sony has saved the hordes of sports shooters from their own self-inflicted mechanical hell. Oh happy days. "

Ah, but just now I am learning that the new a9 is too small and light to be a serious professional sports shooting tool. Too many chiropractors would be forced out of business...

4.20.2017

A Good, Old Fashion, Event Assignment Updated with a Modern Camera.


After having to wade through all the nonsense about my latest fascination with video I thought I'd give my readers a break and write about a more traditional photographic function = shooting an event for a conventional client. With a photography camera and even a flash!!!

I've shot events many, many times over the last few decades. I started out shooting events at conferences and galas in hotel ballrooms with a Hasselblad 500 C/M camera, a trusty 80mm lens and a big-ass, potato masher flash, complete with a lead-acid battery pack that must have weighed ten pounds and a lot of shoe leather zooming. Over the ensuing years the camera and flash have changed but very little else about events has. 

Yesterday evening saw me covering a corporate event for a non-profit. They were having a poster sale as a fund raiser at a trendy new venue on Congress Ave. Right in the middle of downtown, just a block or two from the state capitol building. The invitation list included a motley mix of attorneys, advertising agency people and, or course, artists. Mostly the artists who did the commissioned posters and their friends. In all about 350 people showed up to see the art, buy the art, and support my client. 
The event was beautifully done, with open bars and

4.19.2017

Preliminary Thoughts about The Newly Announced Sony A9 Camera.

Lou. Studio. One frame at a Time.

When I read about new cameras I  usually get caught up in the excitement about all the new features. 

I wonder what I could do with a camera that could shoot 200 images in a row at
20 frames per second.  Then I wonder which unfortunate photographer  will be required to sit down and edit through 200 nearly identical images in the search for one that may (or may not) have all the right stuff. 

I read about auto focusing sensors that range, densely, almost to the edge of the sensor  and I imagine what it  would be like to just point the camera at a scene and let it decide just where that point of sharpness needed to live. 

I 've been using  cameras with many focusing  points for many years and  I usually disagree with my camera when it decides to pick a point for me. That's why my cameras and I have agreed to mostly stick to using the center AF frame. It's a simple solution but in a way it's very elegant in that I rarely have issues getting important stuff in focus. And I rarely spend time looking at useless frames filled with perfectly sharp backgrounds and oozy foreground subjects. 

I certainly can't fault a camera for having a very high resolution EVF that also refreshes fast enough to seem....seamless. Nothing wrong with that  and certainly something I would like to have on all my cameras. I also like the idea of more external switches; like the little dial that surrounds the dial to the upper leftmost control  as I  hold the camera. I let's me choose the focusing mode. Will I use manual focus? Will I use continuous auto focus? It's easier now to go in either direction because I won't have to dive into the menus and scout around for the right column to find the switch.

Will I enjoy my new found freedom and become empowered by having a battery with twice the mph? Yes, but I'll miss the uniform battery size (and type of battery charger) across the whole Sony camera product line that I own. I'm not a manic shooter so I'm pretty happy glancing, from time to time, at the battery life indicator in the existing cameras and then pulling a battery out of my pocket , as required. Comforting too, to know that I can pull batteries from one camera and put them in another in those moments where necessity steps in and demands a quick solution. 

Who is the new Sony a9 really for? Is it aimed at a portrait shooter like myself? Is it aimed at the casual user who likes to range across cities and look for magic compositions in everyday life? I just don't think so. I'm presuming that this is really a "halo" product that won't sell in great numbers but will start to cement Sony's position in the professional camera neighborhood. By price point and spec it's obviously aimed at sports photographers and ...... well..... sports photographers. I may shoot a swim meet from time to time but I'm quick enough to catch the photos at the point of high action and not nearly patient enough to wade through tens of thousands of images taken in hopes that superior numbers will yield the frame I want. 

The one area of interest for me is video, but even there I don't see any real improvements over what is currently available in the Sony line up. The a6500 also samples the full 6k frame and beautifully downsamples to 4K and other than that and a new finder there isn't much to lure videographers in....especially at such an ambitious price point. 
Perhaps if they'd done one or two more things to the body video would be a consideration but I looked with distress at that same small and fragile micro-HDMI port and just shook my head. 
The Panasonic GH5 might not be having  the smoothest intro right  now (hello focus issues) but it's set the bar for video interfaces just by including a full size HDMI port under the flap. 

For the kind of work I do....that most of us do....I just can't see much advantage over the A7Rii. But the camera I am waiting for from Sony would be the replacement to the A7ii. And all I'd really like to see is 4K video (internal) and the option for a silent shutter. Not to much to ask and I have a piggy bank with about $1995 sitting on the floor next to my desk, just waiting. 

The Sony announcement of the a9 is exciting and fun. The camera looks really good. I'd do an even trade for my A7Rii in a heartbeat. But only because I like that 24 megapixel resolution region. It's nice to make files that don't clog up the processing pipeline or make me a prime customer for Western Digital or Seagate.

If you are a Sony shooter you'll have to make up your own mind. It's a shiny new toy. But is it "my" shiny new toy?

An interview with Michael Rader, the director of ZACH Theatre's, "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill"


Michael Rader directs "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" at ZACH Theatre from Kirk Tuck on Vimeo.

Please click through to Vimeo to see the video in a higher quality format.

This is my second video for the show at ZACH Theatre. The first was the interview of Chanel that I put up earlier this week. This video is an interview with the play's director. The same hardware was used to produce it.

I shot with the Panasonic fz2500 in the 4K mode and edited on a 1080p timeline in Final Cut Pro X. The lighting was a combination of LED panels from Aputure; both the Amaran and the LightStorm lines. The audio was recorded with an Aputure Diety microphone (and I was delighted with the sound on Michael's interview...).

While some of the still images may look familiar I tried my best to find photographs that I had not used before.

The extensive crew for this production consisted of: me.


4.18.2017

The Sucky Thing About Video is Sharing.


I worked hard to get my video to look just right on my precisely calibrated monitor the other day and once I had it just the way I wanted it I rendered it and uploaded it to Vimeo. My client got a clean H.264 file and uploaded that one to YouTube. Oh Dear God! How depressing. While the Vimeo version looked crappy compared to what I was seeing on my monitor the YouTube version was even worse. All the shadows looked muddy and the fine detail had just vanished. I thought I was looking at SD video on a CRT. I guess that if one wants to see their video displayed the way it was intended you just have to bite the bullet and host it on your own server. Which would be a recipe for financial disaster; depending on how many loyal viewers you have looking at your work.

I've gotten into a horrible cycle of uploading to Vimeo and they, after the file is processed on their site, going to review it there and then come back and make changes to every clip (color, contrast, density) and then render and upload again. It's a time consuming process. 

On another note, the Panasonic fz2500 still has a few glitches when it comes to stably keeping the AF sensor where I want it; even with the touch screen turned off, but it's rare enough that I consider the camera usable and have gotten some really great images from it. Where it shines is in shooting video.

Personal note: If I seem a bit removed from the blog this week it's probably because my son is doing a semester abroad at a university in Seoul, S. Korea and the war posturing of the U.S. and N. Korea is a bit unsettling for an already anxious parent. Seems things are quieting down now and I'll focus a bit more on the writing and photography. I'll take that bottle of Xanax back off the desk.....


These images were all done handheld, at ISO 800 and 1600 with the Panasonic fz2500. I like them a  lot.


4.17.2017

The CHANEL interview has been reposted with an accompanying technical note. Please check it out.

https://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2017/04/my-interview-with-chanel-as-billie.html

A still of CHANEL from the tech reshearsal of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill. 
Zach Theatre. ©2017 by Kirk Tuck

Stills and video from the fz2500 camera. 
Amazing performance for the price. 
Oh heck, it's just amazing performance!

4.16.2017

I think I've got the focusing/sharpness issue with the Panasonic fz2500 under control.


I initially had many photos that weren't quite sharp enough when I viewed them at larger sizes. I shot with the camera at a technical rehearsal at Zach Theatre, a few weeks ago, and found that with manual focusing and pin point focusing I was able to get a high percent of medium and long focal length shots in perfect focus. Count the eyelashes focus. 

Since then I've been trying to fine tune my camera settings in order to get highly repeatable results. Today was my day to mess with noise reduction settings. I shot raw and used the Standard profile as my base. I went into the profile parameters and turned the noise control all the way down. I boosted contrast by one notch and then I spent the day shooting. I am using the pin point focus setting with the sensor in the middle selected. I also have the focusing speed set to one notch down.

I spent a couple hours walking around town, shooting everything at ISO 125 and I am happy to report that every frame was perfectly focused and convincingly sharp. No misfires and no misplaced measurements. Now I am happy with the camera as a photography tool. I'm already very happy with it as a 4K video camera. It's nearly perfect in that use. 

The images of the old Cadillac are from the Rainey Street neighborhood. The votive candles are from Mexicarte and the deck plate live somewhere on West Fifth St. All the files sharpen up well and there's very little noise to be seen in spite of the minimal noise reduction setting. 





My Interview with Chanel as Billie Holiday in Zach Theatre's, "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill."

Chanel's Interview at Zach Theatre. Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. from Kirk Tuck on Vimeo.

I recorded this interview at Zach Theatre on April 5th. The still images I used as b-roll as from our dress rehearsal documentation on April 4th. The video footage of rehearsal was recorded on April 2nd. 

Tech notes: The still photographs were taken with a Sony RX10iii camera while all the video content was recorded with the Panasonic FZ2500 camera using its 4K video setting. I lit Chanel's interview with two large, Aputure Amaran 672W LED panels plus two smaller panels from the same company. 

Audio was recorded with an Aputure Diety shotgun microphone. 

My next video is an interview of the production's director. 

(please click through to Vimeo and choose the 1080p, HD version of the video for best quality). 


I decided to film Chanel's interview at Zach Theatre with the fz2500 because my early tests showed me that the color in video was rich and accurate, with little of the overly sharp renditions I'd seen in other, similar cameras. It's incumbent on a videographer to take the time to test the equipment ahead of time to see, personally, how the settings on the camera affect the final results. I was able to see a kinder skin tone rendition with the Panasonic.

I set the camera up to shoot UHD 4K with the idea of downsampling. But, rather than downsample by transcoding on the import of the material I decided to actually work with the original 4K footage in the edit and only apply the transcoding when making the output version into h.264. I thought I would see improvements in overall quality when done in this fashion. When I output the video to the h.264 codec I saw two things: The compression of h.264 exacerbates the noise by a bit (not too troublesome) and it also compresses the tonal range of the middle tones enough to make the overall files slightly darker than they are in Final Cut Pro X, or when played in their native format via QuickTime Pro.

Just to test a bit further and to see where the limitations really hit I also output the file to a Pro Res 422 HQ file. This file had 10 times less compression. The h.264 files weighed in at 695 megabytes while the HQ files tipped the scales at 10 gigabytes. Viewing them side by side makes on more aware of the destruction wrought by compression. The bigger file is much more tonally detailed; the tones are well separated and the tonal transitions are as smooth as they seem in real life. The bigger file also shows less noise in comparison. It's really a moot point for a project like this one which will be used on YouTube by my client. The amount of compression in YouTube's process is at least a whole order of magnitude more destructive than the conversion to h.264 out of Final Cut Pro X. I wish I could show clients, family and friends (and Chanel) just how good the high quality file looks on a calibrated screen in a viewing appropriate room.

I think the secret to getting good video from an $1100 cameras is to pay strict attention to fundamentals. There can be no slop in exposure calculation. If you need to bring up exposure from an underexposed file you'll end up losing precious detail and it will degrade image quality. Don't plan on boosting shadows after the fact; take the time (and light) to fill the shadows to the level you'll want them in the edit before you push the record button. Controlling the range of tones, and the overall dynamic range, is an artistic step as well as a technical process. They are intertwined.

The same applies to color correction. If you've worked with smaller Jpeg files in photography you'll know that they can't be totally corrected if you didn't get it right in camera. Push the blues and you kill the yellows; push the magenta and kill the greens. It's all as interrelated as the Buddhist view of the universe. If you are working with an inexpensive camera you don't have the luxury of endless latitude but, guess what? the DPs I talk to don't believe that their twenty and thirty thousand dollar cameras have latitude to spare either. They get color balance correct in camera. A quick custom white balance at the head of the interview prevents hours of slider jockeying and teeth gnashing later in the process.

If you have the color and exposure nailed into place then the next thing to worry about is shadow and highlight mapping. I use the shadow/highlight tool in FCPX a lot. For this I had a one notch increase in shadow exposure and a one notch decrease in shadow exposure (on an S curve) which helped to open up the shadows and keep highlights from burning out. In the CineLike D profile I used I changed several parameters. I upped the contrast by one notch, upped the sharpness control by one notch and decreased the noise reduced by three notches. In retrospect I should have also reduced saturation by a small amount.

I took the time to light everything. There is a big, soft main light and a big, soft counter-balancing fill light on the opposite side. I have lights on the background and a weak backlight on Chanel. The lights establish the highlight and shadow range and are critical to the way I see video.

The one place I wish I had more control was over the ambient noise in the theater. The theater is a large space and we were just a couple hours away from a full audience show. In Texas it is critical to keep the house at the right temperature and we were unable to turn off the air conditioning. You can hear as a low frequency noise bed. I was torn because a lavaliere microphone might have gotten me a bit less noise but the lower noise would have come at the price of really clean high frequency response and also clarity in the mid-tones. I made the choice and I'll have to live with it when I listen to the final result in a quiet room.

I hope you enjoy the interview. Chanel is a world class singer and actor and, I find, an interview subject who makes her interviewers look more competent. I appreciate the time and expertise she put into helping me tell this story about the her show; and about Billie Holiday.


Read this book and save your creative life.

4.14.2017

My first two jobs with the Sony FE 85mm f1.8. It's a good lens.


I recently purchased the Sony FE 85mm f1.8 lens at the current, full, retail price of $599 from a camera store, here in centralTexas. As I've written before, I really like the 85mm focal length and depend on lenses in the 85mm to 135mm focal range for a large percentage of both my paid and my personal work.

I bought this lens because I have owned the manual focusing 85mm 1.5 Rokinon Cine lens for the last year. I noticed that I was enjoying using that lens for work less and less because it added more steps to the shooting workflow. I had to constantly make sure that the "non-click" aperture ring had not been moved inadvertently while shooting. I had to "punch in" to ensure I was in focus. And the geared focusing ring, while great for using a follow focus mechanism for focusing in video, was a pain in the hand for day long, repetitive use.

I wanted a lens that I could use in conjunction with the face detect AF in my two A7xx cameras. Yes, I've gotten lazy. Or I've gotten too busy to have the patience to nurse the process.

I've owned the 85mm f1.8 lenses from both Nikon and Canon, as well as the 85mm f2.8 for the Sony SLT series cameras. I was hoping this model would be at least as good.

My testing routine is fairly simple: Toss the lens on the front of the camera and then start shooting stuff around the stuff. Put the camera on a tripod, turn off the I.S. in camera and pay attention to the focusing points I'm using. I shoot papers with fine type that are strewn across my desk. I make portraits of the ever patient Studio Dog. I shoot the leaves on the trees outside the windows. Then I grab all the big-ass raw files and put them into Lightroom and start examining them at 1:1. If everything looks good and the focus is accurate then the lens goes into the bag and we're off the to races. If not, the lens goes back to the store and my credit card is once again newly energized with buying potential.

This lens passed with flying colors. It gives me a highly detailed file at f2.8 and higher. It's sharp enough at f1.8 but I don't often find myself making portraits at that f-stop because I find it difficult to keep the tip of a portrait sitter's nose and their hairline near the front of their ears equally in focus. It's that depth of field thing. By f4.0-5.6 this lens is everything you could want in a lens at this focal length. It's sharp, contrasty and brimming with nano-acuity(tm).

The overall design is spare and utilitarian. There are two controls on the body of the lens itself. One is a simple AF/MF switch and the other is a round button which gives you a convenient focus hold. It can apparently be programmed to do other things but I confess I haven't found an application that would be better than a focus lock for a lens mounted button. I guess the eye-AF on function and the depth of field preview functions would both come in handy, depending on the kind of work you do.

The optical formula is more complex than previous generations of 85mm f1.8 lenses I have used. It features nine elements and at least one of them is claimed to be  an ED (extra low dispersion glass). A bonus for all the people who believe a camera should be usable in driving rain = the lens is said to be moisturize and dust resistant. It is also designed with nine aperture blades for a smoother out of focus rendering. Finally, the focusing mechanism used double linear motors which makes focusing fast and noise minimal. This also makes it a good choice for video production.

I spent two days shooting commercial projects with this lens exclusively. The first project was to make eight individual portraits of attorneys, in the studio, against a white background. The lens worked well, the face detection AF worked quickly and with no hunting, and there is no evidence of any flare or veiling as a result of shooting into the white background.

On the second project I was making portraits of several attorney at their downtown high offices. They were environmental portraits which leveraged soft window light and the supporting light of a couple of LED panels shining through large diffusers. I shot at f3.2 for these images. I was happy with the highly accurate focusing (again, using face detect AF on the A7ii) and the overall tonality of the lens. It has an optical quality that I would call "solid." Everything in the scene seems, optically, well locked down and detailed even when viewing the resulting raw files at 100%. There is one thing I did notice in the files shot at f3.2 that might bother other shooters and that is a tendency to vignette. I don't have a profile for this lens loaded into Lightroom yet and I'm sure that would eradicate the vignetting. It's certainly not enough to be disturbing to me and it's easy to fix manually. But it is there.

The lens is small and light. It's a bargain compared to the 85mm f!.4 lenses that people seem compulsively drawn toward. It's less than a third the price of the Nikon or Sony f1.4 versions and far less than half the weight. And more importantly, I am sure that from f2.0 up to f8.0 there is no real, optical quality difference that can be reasonable discerned with the human eye. Caveat Emptor.

Even using my own hard earned cash, I would buy this lens again in a heart beat.



4.13.2017

So, Changing Gears for a Moment. I Want to Talk About a Pitfall of the Portrait Business.

In all the years I have known Belinda she has never complained about her face or seemed to be particularly self-conscious. So this image is here, at the top of the article, because I like it and I won't get sued for using it in conjunction with this topic...

I am in the business of making portraits for people. In order to make money doing this I have to make portraits of people in such a way that they will like the end result. But what do you do when a person just doesn't like the way their face looks? How do you handle the customer who feels that their face is not particularly photographable? Where is the intersection between customer satisfaction and business survival?

I bring this up because last year I'd taken a number of photographs of key executives for a mid-sized company. We created a style for the company and followed through on that style for every portrait. A few weeks after the shoot; and after all the selections had been made, and all the photographs were retouched, one executive got in touch with me and told me that she regretted her choice of blouse. She felt, after seeing it in all of its saturated (almost magenta) glory, that is just didn't match the expectations of her professional culture. I take things like this in stride. The office manager had already gotten in touch and scheduled an additional session for several new hires and, since we'd be on location at their offices, it would be very little additional work to re-shoot our disappointed customer in a better choice of wardrobe. 

She was very happy to have another shot at wardrobe selection and the re-done image was exactly what she wanted. We did not charge a fee for the re-shoot. My philosophy is to make the client happy with their portrait in any way that I can and that includes re-shooting if they are disappointed in any way. It's just good business. 

Recently the office manager got in touch again to schedule a session for another new hire. She also asked what I would charge to shoot another round of portraits for a different executive; one we had photographed in our first session, over a year ago. I told her that I would add the second portrait in when we came to photograph the new hire at no charge. If the executive was unhappy with the original portrait I wanted to fix the situation, and if another try at bat would do the trick I was certainly game. 

But I wanted to know what the person wanted to change; what would be different in the second attempt? Was it another wardrobe issue? No, it turns out that she just isn't at all comfortable with being photographed, doesn't like her smile and could be tough to please. What could I do differently this time?

I arrived at 10am and set up lighting, etc. The new hire was a fun attorney in the same age demographic as me and we developed a more or less instant rapport. We both have a kid in college, we both have spent the last 40+ years in Austin, Texas, our politics are solidly aligned, we both have technical backgrounds that are different from our current vocations. Getting a great expression from him was simple as pie. 

When we finished up sharing hands and exchanging business cards my re-shoot client stepped into the conference room we were using as a temporary studio. After the first client left I asked her to tell me what she didn't like about the last round of portraits and she was very honest. She told me she has always hated the way she looks in portraits. It quickly became apparent that her anxiety about being photographed was creating enough tension so that she was having troubling relaxing and showing her real self. I don't have any magic bullets for dealing with difficult portrait situations but experience tells me that people relax over time. Even making them bored beats photographing someone who is uncomfortable.  Neither of us had pressing business following our session so we starting making a few images, looking at them and then talking through what we wanted to fix. 

But most of the time we talked and got to know each other. She told me stories about her children and I shared stories about Ben. She's an avid golfer so I told my two favorite golf stories; one about getting an inadvertent,  four hour long, private lesson on driving on the 7th tee box of the Barton Creek Country Club's Fazio Course with Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite, and the second one about playing eighteen holes with Sugar Ray Leonard (the boxer), who spent a good part of that time talking about the birth of his youngest child...

At one point, while flowing along in conversation my reticent subject, she said she had an epiphany and realized why she didn't like the look of her face. It was a cathartic moment that cleared out a lot of the tension she felt. The final frame I shot was clearly the best of the batch. We had spent thirty or forty minutes chatting and shooting. It was worth the time.

I'm editing down the number of images I'm putting up in her online gallery (for selection) and I have no idea if she will like the new group of images better than the last ones but I did take the step of retouching several image candidates just to show her what we can do in post processing to change a few of the things she is not particularly fond of. It takes some time to do this but it's my preference not to have single customer/client in my home market who has anything but good reviews for both my work and my commitment to creating work that.... works. For them.

I find that when things aren't going smoothly the power of just slowing down and getting to know your subject is more important than anything technical that you might try. After all, it's rarely a technical glitch that causes someone to have buyer's remorse about their portraiture. The usual culprit is that the session didn't go long enough or deep enough to penetrate the glossy outer layer of a person's defenses and show something real and authentic (and positive) about the subject. The only way around it is to go through the process and find a way to make connections that give clients a pathway to show themselves genuinely to the camera. Same applies to video interviews. You have to get through the protective shields that we all surround ourselves with. The shield is there to keep us from getting hurt but it also keeps the portrait process at a distance. 

Some people are more inclined to make that shield thick and strong. I think the only cure is time, and the shared process of creating a safe space for clients to show their honest selves. 


4.09.2017

Comparing style and technique. They are intertwined.


I can shoot available light as well as anyone but on important assignments (or when I just want stuff to look really good) I bring along lights and I've learned to use them effectively. I have several friends who are full time videographers and they are sometimes at odds with the way I shoot video. They have bought into the idea that "good" video work should be cinematic. But like every term tossed about these days nearly every person with a camera has their own definition of "cinematic."

What I see most often from my "cinematic" friends are very, very flat files with no well defined blacks, not much structure in the shadows, milky and opaque mid-tones, endless highlight tonality and very low color saturation. Much of their work is "available light" which means: "Hey, these cameras are so noise-free I can use them without having to set up lighting. No, I am not looking at their ungraded S-Log files I am looking at their samples and their finished work.

The friends whose work I know best are both fairly accomplished videographers and I understand that they prefer a flatter contrast than I do. They also seem to enjoy files with about half the saturation I want. They also have, in the past, dreaded setting up lighting that I would routinely consider mandatory.  That's all okay. It's style versus style. Taste for taste.

But I recently swapped files with a good friend and he said he struggled to get the same kind of color and contrast out of his dedicated video camera that I've been getting out of my cheaper, all purpose camera. We compared technique and we more or less concluded that lighting a scene, well, made all the difference in the world. Controlling variables is the magic bullet.

So, let's talk about light. Here's the first fact: digital image files look best and are measurably better (meaning they have the highest potential sharpness, lowest overall noise, best dynamic range and most saturation) at their lowest ISO. This is almost always the "native" ISO of a device. You can extend the ISO range of many cameras but the lowest ISO, without extension, is the native ISO of your device. While an A7Sii may be useable at 12,000 or 96,000 ISO there will be a deterioration of all the desirable attributes listed above. It is true of every digital camera sensor.

Here's a second, related fact: Getting good exposure is more than just getting enough photons on a sensor to make an image, it also means getting good balance, from light to dark, in the image file. Yes, most cameras with Sony sensors generate files that can be "pushed" or "pulled" in post processing. But, if you are underexposing because you live in fear of overexposing your highlight tones you will be degrading the tones and information in the shadows of your image and, when you "pull up" your exposure via curves, levels, or just straightforward exposure sliders you are shifting crappy, low information parts of your tonal curves from the shadow areas into the mid-tones. By having fewer bits of information to work with in your mid-tones you are sentencing your mid-range tones to a life in which optimum separation of details and tones never meets its potential.  Want a "better" camera? Buy a meter and learn how to use it. Or really pay attention to all those exposure indications that come bundled with your camera. A balanced file is our initial aim point.

What this all means is that in order to realize your vision of a file full of good information; from shadows to the highest highlights, you need to expose correctly in the first place. If you are "saving" highlights by pulling down curves, or "opening" shadows by pulling up curves, you are losing vital information that is essential to the optimum file integrity you pursue.

If you are videotaping or photographing in a location with low light you have only one real choice if you are to pursue ultimate technical quality (and by extension garner the artistic control you desire) and that is to add light to your scene in order to get closer to the optimum exposure at the native ISO, or to use wider apertures and slower frame rates, or shutter speeds, to get the same exposure results. Since depth of field is generally determined by what you need to keep in focus it makes sense to have lights handy and to know how to use them.....well. Changing depth of field to compensate for not lighting isn't always a workable compromise.

There is a reason that Hollywood blockbuster productions don't scrimp on lighting, or attempt to shoot feature movie files at nosebleed high ISOs. They get the best bang for their production bucks the closer they hover near native ISO for their cameras and the closer they hover to the idea of balanced files. We may have different tastes in the look for files but we can generally agree that most feature productions aim for uniform lighting styles which means most film are well lit and lit well enough to use the cameras the way in which they were designed to excel.

While it's true that there are many fast lenses and that fast lenses will save you if you need the speed and don't mind a very, very narrow depth of field the fact is fast lenses can't do much to help you if the lighting contrast of your scene is out of whack. If you are shooting interior locations and showing some exterior scenery you are playing around with a set of variables. To max the image quality of your still or video camera you have limited options. You must either bring up the level of interior light on your interior subject or bring down the level of exterior light which your camera can see outside --- nothing else is an optimum image quality solution, no matter how badly you want to think you can always fix the problem in post.

If you opt not to light your interior subject you may have to let your exterior burn to white ---- if you want the light on your interior subject to be correct and ample enough not to use up your accurate shadow detail. Just for reference, most of the information in digital files is engineered to be in the mid-range to highlight areas. The nature of the way files are created takes advantage of the fact that our eyes see less tonal variation in shadows and so camera makers don't put as much information in the areas of shadow. The eye is much more capable of detail discrimination in highlights, and when the files are written detail in shadow areas of the files is somewhat compromised, by design, in order to maximize detail in the medium toned and highlight areas; areas where your eyes and brain are most sensitive (it's a "rods and cones" thang). If you choose to "hold" the highlights in your exposure (under expose) and sacrifice the mid-tones with the idea of fixing it all by lifting the shadows in post you'll be pushing up the part of the file with the least bit depth and tonal information and placing it onto the visual curve at a part of the curve where the human eye has much more ability to discern and value the opposite kinds of visual parameters. Pulling shadow mud up into the mid-ranges only gives you mid-ranged mud. Achieving acuity in visually vital parts to the tonal curve requires balanced files.

Let's move on to one more vital part of the whole quality chain. This is color balance. This is most important to still shooters who like to shoot and stay in Jpeg, and to filmmakers who are using any camera file except raw files (and, in the case of Canon, many aspects of what are traditionally expected of raw files are already "baked in" to their cine cameras...).

If you are shooting any of the popular video camera profiles (or Jpeg in still cameras) it really doesn't matter (much) what your camera's bit depth is or how color is written. The basic balance of the color spectrum is locked in when you shoot the file. You may be able to adjust the colors somewhat but making any significant changes to the color results in throwing away valuable spectral information that's a necessary part of a full information file. Shifting color balance after exposure is like working with a light that only puts out partial colors ---- something is missing that needs to be there to make sense to the human brain when looking at a finished representation of a scene. After the fact color balancing on anything but a raw file always involves tossing away information that you need in order to have color that reads as "real."

If you have a file that's too yellow and you change your RGB curves to "add" more blue you may find that what you are really doing is tossing the yellow information altogether which will affect your greens, reds, oranges and their sub-hues. There is no free lunch in post exposure color correction. Except, sometimes, in raw files.

You have choices. You always have choices. If you decide to rescue a scene by placing a subject that should be in the mid-tone range down into the shadow range to later bring it "back to life" in post you'll be "reviving" an image that's already been damaged and lost information. If you add to that the degradation of also having to throw away pixels to color correct you will have thrown away even more valuable information. At some point, without actually going in and painting back color with a brush, you will never be able to get to the aim points that constitute a "good" file, or a file that looks good. There's just not enough magic in the software to save the results of low information files.

Raw is a different story. But raw isn't magic either, the same basic constraints apply, the only difference is that in raw there is a lot more leeway for slop because the raw files start with more native information. You can throw more away before the files look as crappy as baked in files because there is more to through away to begin with. But even raw files have their limits.

I'm a plodding photographer and a more or less novice film maker but I am a creature of habits and most of the habits have survived from the days when files were very fragile and there was very little information in the files to compromise with. I am a stickler for getting things right before I push the shutter button to make a photograph, or push the red button to start making video.

Step one is always exposure. If the exposure is off one way or another then it's not always practical or practicable to get a good, solid custom white balance. There are logical steps to doing the process correctly. In film making and in photography the first step is always exposure. After the right amount of light is falling on the sensor only then can you make a perfectly accurate custom white balance. Anything less than a custom  white balance will require changes in post and those changes will require you to throw away information. Even if you are shooting video in S-Log the two steps to proper file creation are still carved in stone. Exposure and then color balance. Then everything else will fall into place.

Finally, to my friends who are working with inexpensive (+/- $1,000 cameras) to mid-priced (+/- $12,000 cameras) I would council shying away from using S-Log ( or V-Log or C-Log) profiles in any environment except full, high contrast sunlight. The reason is simple, Log files work by shooting super flat and then mapping the resulting files into a fixed gamut. It's hard to do well and requires shoehorning wider data into a smaller gamut space. Some aspect has to be interpolated in order to fit. You may use curves to bring down shadows into a usable and range and visually desirable contrast range but it's rare for me to see files color managed this way that don't have milky, almost opaque mid-range tones and lifeless near shadow tones. Just doesn't look convincing. The only way it really works well is with cameras that shoot at higher bit depth and write color as 4:4:4:4. Those cameras? Sure, use all the Log profiles you want...

I'm a proponent of getting as close to your desired "final look" as you can get while operating your camera and only depending on post production for things that absolutely can't be changed any other way. Is shooting and doing post (laboriously) in S-Log 3 really more desirable than taking time to put up a diffusion scrim on top of your subject to mediate the collimated rays the sun? I think the change in the quality of light speaks for itself, and the scrim gives you added control and uniformity. Sure, you might be able to get a decent file by presenting a flatter file in post but is it in line with our preferred visual references? Don't we want to see deep, rich black? Don't we want to see contrast in our mid-tones? Don't we want to see open and airy highlights?  I contend that we do and that the current style of flat light, vague saturation, and muddy shadows and lower mid-tones is a short-lived style that will soon recede from general practice.

Much like the mania for shooting everything with super narrow depth of field is already looking like a "last century" style because of it's massive overuse. In fact, one could say that these styles are analogous to the constant zooming that amateur film makers did in the 1960's when inexpensive zoom lenses first flooded the market on the front of consumer-accessible Super8 movie cameras. And we tired pretty quickly of that kind of "tromboning."

The bottom line is that if you start your process with a file that needs rescued you will never squeeze out all the imaging potential your camera is capable of. I may make files that are a bit too saturated but it's easier to get rid of excess saturation information in post than it is to add it to a file in which the color was absent because non-linearities in color curves change the look of the file as you add saturation. And the color spectrum shifts. I can start with a perfectly exposed file and throw away information to make the file conform to my vision but it's much harder to take a dark file and make it lighter with the same quality as an optimum file. It's true in reverse as well. If you start too light you might be able to get to a workable file by pulling down the curve to recover highlights but if you start with a file that is right on the money you can shift it with total control to a lighter version.

Pianists practice scales and keyboard exercises so that when the opportunity comes to play real music they will have already mastered the techniques and muscle memory required to play well. Sloppy technique is not a sign or great artistic promise or merit. It is only a signifier that you still have some technique to master and some skills that need practice. In digital imaging style and technique go hand in hand. You master technique in order to master your style. Anything else is just wishful thinking or playtime.

Early Sunday Morning Photo Assignment. Who Schedules a photo session at 8 a.m. on a Sunday?

Leslie for Zach Theatre. ©2017 Kirk Tuck.

"It was the only time we could schedule five different actors, an art director, two artistic directors, a make-up person and a wardrobe person, all at the same day...." -client.

I got up early. Well, early for a Sunday... packed the car with interesting equipment and showed up at the front door of Zach Theatre at eight a.m. We spent all morning, and some of the afternoon, shooting new images for the upcoming show season at Zach Theatre. Everything was shot against a muslin background which will be dropped out to white; but not by me 😂. 

Rona was the art director and, in addition to being a great creative collaborator, she dropped by Austin Java this morning to pick up (really good) coffee, killer muffins and breakfast tacos. I must pause here to say that the black bean, feta cheese and avocado tacos were wonderful. She pulled up with the chow right at 8 a.m. on the money. I was already dragging a cart of gear to the front doors of the theater.

We did this shoot differently than many of my recent shoots. There are two big things I want to talk about. The first is listening enough to bring the right gear for the project. I've been on an LED/Continuous light jag for some time now and generally use the Aputure Lightstorm LED panels for just about everything. But I am cautious. I want to be prepared. So when we shoot at the theater I always ask if we've be doing any shots with motion. Like dancing. Or people twirling around in fancy costumes. Or jumping from the balcony. I'm glad I thought to ask yet again because we had one person who did some big dance moves and another who did big dress twirls. Not to knock the continuous light world but on a shoot like this it just makes sense to go with flash and freeze the frames that need to be stop motion. No horsing around with high ISOs and noise reduction solutions today...

I mostly used two lights. A 500 w/s flash into a 72 inch, white umbrella, and a 500 w/s flash into a 36x48 inch softbox. Simple and straightforward. 

The addition of flash to the mix gave me the chance to "take a risk" and prove to myself once and for all that shooting at the base ISO of just about any camera on the market today would give me very good, very professional images. At the last minute I pulled the A7rii and A7ii out of the camera bag and stuck them back in the drawer. In their places I substituted a Sony RX10iii and a Panasonic fz2500. I was hellbent on testing them together; eliminating as many variables as possible and seeing just how good each camera (and each lens) would be if I zero'ed out the effects of motion blur, camera movement, and high ISO noise reduction blurring. 

I used the Sony for the first three actors and the Panasonic for the last two actors of the day. The lighting stayed pretty much the same with a few little adjustments. Both cameras were set to their lowest ISOs (native) the Panasonic was 125 and the Sony 100. Both lenses were set to f8.0. Both cameras were set to face detection AF. And, in the end both cameras were nearly identical in their results. It's pretty much what I expected. 

We worked hard this morning. The actors were wonderful. The experience was well worth getting out of bed for. The cameras were whimsical, but well behaved. And now I have proven, at least to myself, that, used properly, both cameras are well suited for studio work like this. They both make very nice raw files. Adobe's Lightroom takes care of everything else. 

It's been a long week working on projects for the Theatre. I shot candid b-roll video on the "Billie Holiday" stage a week ago Saturday, followed by a tech rehearsal shoot on Sunday evening and a dress rehearsal shoot on Tues. evening.  Weds. morning was consumed with photographic post processing and the afternoon taken up with video interviews of the "Billie Holiday" director and the lead actor. 

Thurs. and Fri. were taken up, in large part, by video editing for the same production. Yesterday I shot and post processed at kid's play called, J.J.'s Workshop, and finally, today was the all consuming, season brochure project. With the exception of the two non-video "Billie Holiday" shoots all of the projects have been done with the one inch sensor cameras. They've worked out well. Stop worrying about sensor size and make sure you nail the lighting, composition and timing.

Here's a few more from this morning.

This is an approximate 100% crop from the image just below. It started life with the Panasonic camera.

The full frame of the image just above...



don't know what I said to get this much laughter but I wish I'd written it down...

the "over the shoulder" shot is a perennial Zach Theatre favorite. Wigs and tiaras = wow. 

For those who offered condolences about the recently deceased Sony lens: I want to thank you and let you know that the wake for the passing of good glass was cathartic. We raised a few glasses to its memory and vowed to replace it with something virtuous. Thank you!


Click thru and buy something if you have the time and money.
A new lens? A nice shirt? Maybe a new watch. 

Damn it. I just lost money. I was thinking about watches and went to Amazon to see what's what in watches. I ended up buying a demure, little Seiko automatic. It's the same on Ben has. Not too pricey but totally unnecessary. Oh well. It's nice to look at. 



4.08.2017

The Sad and Accidental Destruction of a Lens Earlier Today. It Could Have Been Worse...

 It is with no small degree of sadness that I must announce the passing of a valiant and steadfast lens. While the Sony FE 28-70mm lens was relatively new to the lens cabinet he was a jovial addition and quickly made friends with a diverse group of lenses from several different systems. He'll be remembered for his convenient size and weight as well as his ready wit. Often, he would muse to no one in particular, "Who needs anything wider than twenty-eight. Really?!"

We lost him around 11:30 am, CST, today when he seemed to leap in front of a Sony A7Rii camera and the new 85mm lens in order to save them from an accidental tail wag. The assorted gear was sitting on a shelf about four feet from a (dreaded and obviously dangerous) Saltillo tile floor. The CEO of VSL had lifted his companion, Studio Dog, up off the floor in order to carry her across the way to the studio. One swish of a tail was all it took.

The brave little lens was swept from the countertop with a fair amount of force and hit the floor with gusto, bouncing at least twice. Its companions came to no harm because of his brave intercession.

At first there was hope that 28/70 had survived. There was no "apparent" damage. But a cursory check with the lens on a camera indicated that it had lost the ability to focus and had partially lost the ability to zoom.

It was a sad loss of great potential; the lens had only been out on a few test runs, but we had great hopes that this would be the one to turn the tide and revitalize the entire photographic industry. I thought it might be "the chosen lens" of which the legends speak...

A eulogy will be said by his close friend, Sony 24-70mm f4.0 in a small, private ceremony. The wake begins after supper this evening.

To say I am devastated may be slightly overstating the situation but I will state for the record that this is the last time I'll put loyal and valuable camera gear on the counter next to the front door again. If we can save one other camera or lens from the same tragedy our caution will have been worth it.

We have maintained a safe space for lenses for over 20 years without incident. That sign (which brags of our safety record) gets replaced on Monday and, hopefully, will read = "No lens accidents in over 2 days".

Please....no flowers.

4.07.2017

A new lens purchase. Sometimes nostalgia takes precedence.


In the early days of my time as a photographer I could barely afford three lenses. I made them do everything on every job. There's always been the mythology that to be a "professional" photography one needs a Pelican case full of lenses; every focal length the maker of your camera provides. It's a paralyzing mythology for a lot of young photographers who can't afford all the glamorous glass they've been led to believe they need. But as one progresses in one's career it becomes pretty obvious that there emerge preferences for certain focal lengths and, at some point, the majority of images from some well known photographers end up being made almost exclusively with one favorite lens; one favorite focal length.

When I started out I made some logical decisions (at least I imagined that they were logical...). I bought a nice, used Canon FD 24mm f2.8, an even more used Canon FD 50mm f1.4 and a newish Canon FD 85mm f1.8. I used them mostly with my Canon EF SLR and my ancient back-up camera, a Canon TX, which boasted shutter speeds all the way up to 1/500th of a second!!!

I used the 24mm sparingly, pressing it into service to shoot interiors of new homes for developers and the exteriors of new apartment complexes being built in central Texas. The 50mm was my standard street shooting, new documentarian lens. But the real money maker was the 85mm f1.8. I used it to shoot portrait after portrait, and to build my business. There was a flow for me and it was always toward the medium telephoto focal ranges. Something just clicked in my brain whenever I picked up the lens and aimed it at someone.

Over time I followed in the routine pattern of photographers and decided that lenses of all variety were a vital necessity for a growing imaging business; that I would be letting my clients down if I did not have every focal length from 14mm to 300mm (and beyond), with 10 or 20mm of difference in between each of the primes. Crazy, but that's the way so many people roll ---- they think they need almost overlapping "coverage" even if they must go into deep debt to achieve it. Can't let those clients down, right?

Well, give it thirty years or so, drop 300,000+ photographs into your Lightroom library, and you begin to be able to see a clearer picture of what drives your work, your art. A bit of informal data mining shows me that the vast majority of work I've done was completed with focal lengths between 85mm and 135mm but that the vast majority were done right around 85-90mm.

When Sony came out with their G Master 85mm f1.4 I was momentarily intrigued but then I lifted one up and all my interest vanished. Damn thing is a weighty brick and the price tag must have been calculated by the ounce. I've been making do with a Rokinon Cine 85mm t1.5 but I was getting tired of manually focusing everything and remembering to stop down, etc.

Why not just use the (very sharp) 85mm focal length on the 70-200mm f4.0 G? Because it's too big and unwieldy for an every day, tagalong user. So, I was thrilled when Sony came out with their FE 85mm f1.8. I read some reviews, watched the guys on TheCameraStoreTV compare it with the similar model from Zeiss, and finally decided to pick one up.

I drove out to Precision Camera this morning, dropped my six hundred bucks on the counter and walked out with one in the box. It's utilitarian, manageably small and the front element (67mm) looks very cool. I haven't shot with it yet ---- I'll do that all weekend long on two jobs coming up --- but I like the way it balances on my A7ii.

When it comes to my full frame, working cameras I am very happy to be circling back to the basics. I'm loving the new FE 50mm f1.8, the 85mm holds great promise, and I'm toying with getting a 24mm as well. That will be the last one of the trio I'd buy. I've got a nice, small 24-70mm Zeiss lens that seems to handle that focal length well. At any rate, I'm getting a nice, nostalgic hit of pleasure from my new purchase. And reasonably priced as well.

Now, when will they come out with a new RX 10 series camera, complete with a super fast 85mm equivalent lens? Happiness across formats.

P.S. owning a wide range of lenses is hardly necessary for a working photographer. In retrospect most of the focal lengths I ended up buying I would gladly trade back for the time I spent working for them.....

Full frame versus one inch? Nope; it's not a contest.


One of these images was made with a $1500, one inch sensor, bridge camera while the other was made with a camera most would consider either "the" or "one of" the current state of the art, full frame camera ($3200) coupled with a $1500 lens. If I pull them onto a 27 inch Retina screen and blow them both up I can tell that one is less noisy, a bit more detailed, and has slightly nicer overall tonality (chalk that up to increased dynamic range). Would my client care which camera made which photograph? Hardly. They are looking for the right moment, the right expression, the right composition and the right emotion. The idea of "extreme" technical differences between these cameras would be laughable to them. So, which one is from the RX10iii and which was created by the A7rii? The one on top is the RX while the one on the bottom is the A7xx.

I was thinking about the images I recently shot for Zach Theatre as I drank coffee this morning and read the usual sites. I start with the Washington Post, dabble in the Wall Street Journal and NY Times and sometimes end up seeing what's new over at DP Review. Today, chomping on a waffle, I started reading through the comments on DP Review that readers had left on the Fuji medium format camera review. That inspired me to also read the review.  Given all the hoopla attached to breathless "previews" and "first impressions" looks at the product I presumed that DP Reviewers would find the camera (GFX 50S) to be a very big step up from the full frame contingent from Nikon, Sony and Canon. It was not the case. 

While the reviewers found the camera endearing and brave they also had to admit that the output from the Sony A7rii was, in some cases, very close to the overall quality in comparison and, in some cases, even superior. Add in fast, sharp lenses and great zooms and the review soon devolved into a study of just how far 35mm sized systems have come and how the system really determines how well the various  cameras will work and how high the quality of the output will be. And they mentioned that it would be nice if the two MF cameras focused, you know, more rapidly. And more importantly, will the quality of MF translate into the kind of work you do. 

I laughed at one point when someone on the DPReview staff earnestly wrote that there was a difference of .08th of a stop in some performance aspect of the Fuji MF versus the H-Blad mirrorless MF camera. A pea under the mattress of the reviewer princess, indeed. 

As expected, the comments ran the gamut but the schism was between people who encouraged putting off a final judgement until the MF makers could rush faster lenses to the market in order to match the (mindless) equivalency between the systems, and the people who already knew that this kind of MF camera, coupled with slow lenses, at misguided focal lengths, would render the product only useful to collectors and people anxious to show off their purchasing power (awfully hard to bring your luxe car into the night club with you on the end of a strap...).

Which brings me back to the question of competition between formats and sensor sizes. There are differences but they are aesthetic specific. You need ultra thin depth of field you go one way, you need incredible reach you go another way. But point of view, mastery of lighting, directing and composition mostly trump a lot of technical considerations....at least where clients are concerned. 

I have several full frame cameras but I find myself preferring to shoot most things with a one inch sensor camera. When it comes to producing video I am even more firmly in the one inch camp. Master the techniques of photography and the absolutism of format tyranny fades. It's nice.


While the commenters at DP Review seemed to think that there were never fast lenses for medium format systems I remember owning and using the Zeiss Planar 110mm f2.0 with a Hasselblad 201F for a while. That and the 150mm f2.8 seemed plenty fast to me.