8.28.2014

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

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

Texas State representative, Dawnna Dukes at the same event.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


8.26.2014

Urban Lifestyle Specialist, ATMTX, pens a short (very short) review of the Lisbon Portfolio.

Worst Best Zoom Lens I've Played With Lately.

Oh my. I love/hate this lens so much.

The lens pictured above is the kit lens I selected to go with the Nikon D7100 body I recently purchased. My overarching rationale for its selection still stands firm. It's a camera and lens (and flash) combination to be used to make photographs at dimly lit galas and events. Places where accurate and well controlled flash is a must. In those situations having a wide range of focal lengths in one tidy package is a big plus and, for these things, the lens does well. Even more so because photographing groups of humans is one place where wonky geometric distortions aren't very noticeable. 

The lens sells for around $500 but they had some sort of special Summer pricing and if purchased as a kit the lens came out to around $250. So, let me talk to you about this lens.....

Here are the things it does very well: 

1. The range of focal lengths is custom made for event shooters. At 18mm you've got a 27.5mm equivalent that's perfect for big groups and fun, dramatic juxtapositions. If you are shooting groups with anything wider you've probably noticed that your lens (no matter how superb) is morphing the people next to the left and right (and top and bottoms) of the frame into giant blogs. Head grow like balloon heads in cartoons and hips become wider than billboards. I try not to do groups with anything wider than a 35mm eqiv. but sometimes you need what you need. 

2. This lens is a VR king. Nikon says more than four stops and I am a believer. This lens has almost convinced my photographer friends that all I'm drinking is decaf. Rock solid. It's in the same class as the OMD EM-5's I've been using. We don't need no stinkin tripods.... (But, of course we really do).

3. Can you say "sharp?" In the center two thirds of the frame at nearly any focal length, at maximum aperture, this lens is sharp, sharp. As in looking into the pores sharp. I tested it all the way out to the end and the results were pretty consistent. A bit sharper at the wide end but no slouching at the long end. 

4. For the number of focal lengths this lens replaces it's small. It's a comfortable and nicely designed package and it has both aspheric and ED elements as well as being an internal focus design. For $500 it's a pretty good "go everywhere with one lens" lens and for $250 it's easy to classify as a bargain....unless:

Here are the two things that the lens sucks at but you can only really blame the designers for one....

1. The lens has a slow maximum aperture. It's f3.5 at the wide end and f5.6 at the long end. With enough money and the allowance of enough weight you could design a lens with these focal lengths and an f2.0 constant aperture but no one would be able to buy one. And few photographers would want to carry it. The low max. ap. used to be a deal killer in days of old but now every camera does ISO 25,000 with dignity and aplomb so who really cares (sarcasm). But really, if you consider that f3.5 is less than a half stop over f2.8 and that f5.6 is just two stops over f2.8 and that camera sensors really have improved a lot in the past few years I think we can get by this. Especially for the price and convenience. 

2. And that leaves what, for some, will be a real deal killer.  The lens has the most extreme distortion I've seen in ages. At the 18mm end it's barrel distortion. And I mean a real barrel. Like a beer keg. It requires a minus 7 or minus 8 correction in raw conversion to get it into the ball park and even then it's not perfect. So at the wide apertures you're dealing with expansive lines bowing outward but at around 50mm it goes into a weird inversion and all of a sudden you've got pincushion distortion that's just breathtaking. Not sure if there's a lens profile out there for this one but I'm not seeing an auto correction in D7100 Jpegs or in Photoshop....

I'm keeping mine but if you do architecture or anything else with straight lines don't even ask for the sales guys to take this one down off the shelf for a demo. You'll be wasting everyone's time. I'll do my haphazard corrections and put a note on the lens hood reminding me to "never, never point this puppy at any straight line that I want to keep straight. 

And that's my review of the Nikon 18-140mm lens. Good for fast moving people mania! Horrible for straight lines of any kind. 


Yesterday's Historic Assignment. New camera, old artifacts.

This image of a Berlin street is included solely for blog decoration. 
It has nothing to do with the content below. 
I shot it with the quirky Samsung Galaxy NX camera
and the solid little kit lens.
I like the pretty colors.

I've said recently that we've been busy over the last two weeks. Last Weds. I spent a full day making wonderful available light portraits for a software company in a downtown bank building. I spent most of the next day doing the necessary post production and also having phone meetings about upcoming video production. Yesterday I had the good fortune to spend most of the day on an assignment for the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. It was a straightforward job but one that was almost meditative and very satisfying. 

The museum has a constant influx of artifacts that need to be well documented and I've been providing photographic documentation for them throughout this year. Since nearly every object must be kept on the museum grounds and can usually only be handled by a curator wearing gloves we definitely do each of these assignments on their turf. All of the artifacts are photographed on white backgrounds and during post production I create very detailed clipping paths so they can drop out backgrounds where necessary. 

Yesterday I loaded up the Airport Security case with the Nikon 7100 camera. A 35mm lens, a 50mm lens, a 55mm f2.8 manual focus micro lens and the wild kit zoom. I had a back up battery and, in case of catastrophic system failure, I had a Panasonic GH4 with assorted lenses in reserve. I also brought along a flash meter, gaffer's tape and some black wrap. Always black wrap. As an afterthought I tossed in two Yongnuo slave-able flashes.

In another case I had four Elinchrom moonlights with cables and speed rings and accessories. In the stand bag were a couple of soft boxes, a few umbrellas and my little, Benro tripod. Riding along with no case was a stout, tall C-Stand with an arm. It was joined by a thirty pound sand bag. I also brought along assorted chunks of white foamcore and black foamcore which is wonderful when you need to add or subtract light from a composition. 

I wheeled the case in right at 9am and we got set up with a white background sweep table in one of the big work rooms on the first floor. I used a medium sized (3 feet by 4 feet) soft box on the C-Stand's side arm (using it as a boom) and positioned it directly above the set. I used this light for almost everything, repositioning it and fine tuning it to match the subject matter. 

Occasionally I wanted to supplement the top light with fill from a spot near the camera position. I grabbed a Yongnuo flash, set it to "slave" mode and aimed it into a 42 inch white umbrella with a black cover. Being able to dial the power levels up and down and to not work about radio triggers or cords was efficient. 

As I intended I used the D7100 and the 55 macro lens for just about everything. I wanted to see if the combination of a "known" great lens and the 24 megapixel sensor with no anti-aliasing filter would give my images some sort of extra mojo. Having now imported everything into Lightroom I can see that the images, shot at 100 ISO with the lens at f5.6 to f8.0, are sharper than what I had previously gotten with good lenses on the full frame, 24 megapixel Sony a99 camera. Score one of the APS-C, next generation. 

My working method was to set the camera to the live view mode, zoom in to 8x or so to fine focus and then shoot a single frame, chimp the hell out of it, make whatever course corrections were necessary and then shoot two more frames: one to use and one as a safety. 

This shooting method ameliorates any battery advantages of OVF cameras and, as expected, I ate up 50% of the battery charge getting about 125 shots done over the course of five hours. I was also surprised to see, already, a dust bunny appear when we started veering toward f11.5+ to get more depth of field in shots of really small objects. I haven't seen dust on the sensor of a Panasonic or Olympus camera in.....forever. 

I did take time to shoot several of the images with the Panasonic GH4 and the 12-35mm lens. I wanted a direct comparison I could mull over. Here's what I found: The Nikon D7100 has a resolution advantage and the files seem more color correct right out of camera. If you were going to make huge paper enlargements the judges would immediately side with the bigger sensor-ed camera. But, at our final delivery size the advantages disappear (or are equalized by the common denominator of size).  From a working perspective I will probably switch back to micro four thirds for the next round of artifact documentation at the museum. There is a distinct advantage to the additional depth of field at the same angle of view when you are working in tight with a subject. 

Also, cameras that are designed to be in permanent "live view" via their EVFs are much more facile in operations like this with much faster focusing. Finally, I've gotten spoiled by the touch screens. Being able to touch the screen at the spot at which you'd like to see the focusing point is wonderful.
In DXO, up to the full native resolution of the Panasonic files there are few discernible quality differences. Certainly the trade off between a perceived small increase in shadow noise in the GH4 at 100% is handily offset by its ability to generate files that don't show dust spots....

You read a lot about the "overwhelming" superiority of one system or sensor class over another and even the most level headed among us can succumb to moments of doubt as to whether they've made good equipment choices. That's why I feel it's important to test things out first hand. To see what the reality of a comparison is. The nature of writing and blogging leads writers to exaggerate small differences to provide more exciting contrast in the written content. Nothing sells like bold statements and controversy. But once again I've found that careful lighting and technique are far more important than camera attributes and, that at conventional working sizes, the cameras and their files are less different than the fans and the manufacturers would like you to believe. 

Tonight I'm diving into the Nikon flash system. That may be an area where real differences make themselves known... But we'll see. Objectively. 

Hope you have great day.