Portrait Machine Part.
Earlier in the year I got a phone call from the marketing director of a well known and very respected architectural firm here in Austin. I'd done a portrait of one of their principals the year before. They liked the portrait and kept my name on file. Now they were interested in getting a bid to make portraits of their full staff and their partners. The really nice thing for me is that they wanted to do environmental portraits that looked as though they'd been made with available light and they wanted to make the portraits in locations all over their offices. They were not interested in having people stand in front of seamless paper and endure the same light in frame after frame. The second part of the job was to create scenarios of people in the offices working collaboratively on projects. That was not very difficult to set up since they seemed to work collaboratively all day long whether I set them up or not. My main job in this part of the project was just to gently turn them toward the good light.
While we were looking for an available light aesthetic I knew that to make portraits of the quality we all wanted I'd have to supplement the light coming in from the windows and create fill light for the locations that were lit with over head fluorescent lighting. In order to get the look they wanted, which included defocused backgrounds I needed to shoot with very fast optics that were still sharp near their wide open settings and I would need the ability to focus with precision.
At that time in the continuum I had not yet jettisoned the Sony full frame cameras and I had not yet bought the fast zooms for the micro four thirds cameras. I spent an evening weighing each direction and in the end I decided that I was a good enough photographer to work with the cameras that were the most fun so I tossed the Panasonic cameras and Olympus Pen lenses into the snake pit to see if they would walk out alive.
There were three lenses I used for the entire project; these were the 60mm 1.5, the 40mm 1.4 (both older lenses for the manual focus Olympus Pen half frame cameras from the late 1960's and early 1970's) as well as the Panasonic/Leica 25mm 1.4 Summilux, a modern lens. I brought along two Panasonic cameras and a light meter as well. Just to cover myself for impromptu group shots I brought along the much maligned but actually pretty good, Olympus 12-50mm kit lens.
I shot all the images in the raw format. For images mostly illuminated by window light I supplemented the light by filling in with large, white or silvered reflectors. I put theses on stands with adjustable arms so I wouldn't have to have an assistant tagging along in the crowded space. For the images that were predominantly lit by fluorescent lights I used multiples of the Fotodiox 312AS LED panels (with adjustable color balance). By the end of the day I was very proficient in getting reasonably good matches between the panels the artificial light of the fluorescents as well as getting a very good match between the LED panels and the diffuse, open shade, window light. With four LED panels at my disposal and twice as many batteries as units we made it through the day with power to spare.
I probably don't have to tell you that everything I shot started with a camera well anchored to a favorite, old wooden tripod. I know that IS is magical but nothing beats really working in one's composition and having it stay during all the expression permutations of a portrait session. I shot hundreds of frames that day; maybe 650 in all. That might seem like a lot to people who don't photography real people for a living but what it really means is that even with the shyest or most difficult portrait subject I had a number of selections that would work well for the client's end use---marketing.
After a long day of shooting portraits, small work groups, two person teams and an "all hands" working session in a large conference room I headed back to the secret underground processing laboratory of the Visual Science Lab. I ingested the images into Lightroom, did quick edit, then a series of mini-global color and exposure corrections before exporting a folder of images that I burned to a memory stick for delivery to the client. The client is very computer savvy and preferred to have galleries on their system rather than a web gallery.
Not all clients are in a rush and not all clients need their stuff right away so several months passed between the time I delivered the images and the moment at which they sent along an e-mail with their 72 selections. I sat down yesterday morning to continue the process of making and delivering the final files. In between the time shooting and then receiving their selections I added DXO Optics Pro to the workflow. I thought I'd share yesterday's process.
I sat down with the list of images to be delivered and opened Lightroom where I located the images and exported them as original raw files to a folder. I brought that folder into DXO and let the program run automatically for all the files. Then I went through, file by file, to see whether I agreed or disagreed with DXO. Since two of the lenses I used don't have modules all the program could do was assess the original file, coupled with the camera sensor information and make corrections based on that. All of the images were improved in one way or another. I made a few tweaks and changed to a "portrait" profile for some images, not for others. Then I exported .dng files to a new folder.
I opened every file in PhotoShop CC and fine tuned where necessary. Then I sent selected files to Portrait Professional for some light handed retouching. Nothing like what you see in their ads. No giant structural changes to face shapes, no mono-textured plastic skin. Just a little help with rough skin tone, blemishes and small wrinkles. All of these files were output to Tiffs as were the files that didn't need to go through a final step of retouch. I took the folder full of full size Tiff files and, in PhotoShop, used image processor to make a set of high quality, full size Jpegs. The final deliver to the client will be a set of two folders; one with Jpegs and one with Tiffs.
Again, I'll deliver on an eight gigabyte memory stick at a cost of less than $6.
The one thing I wanted to discuss was the color I ended up with. I was struck with how accurate and pleasing the color of the portraits was. There was no global cast or global "feel" to the colors. They seemed separated in a way that I don't always see color from digital cameras. And not always from film cameras either. I don't know how to describe it other than to say that there was not a subliminal cast holding all the colors in a bounded camp. The colors were individually distinguished in a way that added depth to the files. In the moment I was quick to assign the credit to this to the Panasonic GH4 camera, which I've come to respect a great deal. But when looking at the metadata I quickly remembered that this shoot predated the GH4.
Interestingly, the firm I was shooting for added some new employees and hired me to come by again and make portraits in the same fashion to add to the roster. On this outing I used the (new to me) GH4 and mostly the 35-100mm f2.8 X lens. In the course of processing the files alongside the GH3 files I found the same basic, non-globalized, color rendering of the previous camera. The main difference overall in the files was the use of the new lens. It is in the DXO modules and adds another layer of overall correction to the files.
I am on my way out to deliver the images to the client. I am old fashion and still like to deliver the work into their hands and say, "thank you" personally. I may end up having to leave the package with the reception person but I'll be sure to thank her as well.
What I learned in this job is that careful use of known, good lenses and the subsequent use of state of the art processing tools goes a long way to ameliorating any advantage or disadvantage between cameras. While the Sony cameras would have given me a different look it would not necessarily have been a better look. I am of the belief that color accuracy will emerge as the new metric for those of us obsessed with measuring the toys we shoot with. I also believe that Panasonic is doing something very right with their implementation of color. That, and the very sharp, detailed files certainly made my day of post processing pleasant and straightforward and I am sure the client will be pleasantly surprised at just how much better the images look than the proofs we started them out with.