9.21.2017

Lighten my load with smaller cameras and lenses? Which dream world do you live in...?

Happy Photographer writes blog about camera size and weight 
versus the need to bring the lights...

Some of us photographers who cross over and do video like to talk about the benefits of "hybrid" shoots where we "light once and then shoot twice." By keeping the lighting instruments the same and using the same cameras for both disciplines the big idea is that we lighten our load of equipment and get multiple kinds of imaging stuff done quicker. And, as far as I can tell, it works pretty well most of the time. But never in this particular proposal of processes have I ever indicated that getting smaller and lighter cameras is an important part of the hybrid equation. I'm not thrilled with the weight savings of smaller, mirrorless cameras any more than I am thrilled by the overweight nature of professional DSLRs. The reason I don't particularly care about the weight or size of cameras is that so much of my work is done using various kinds of lighting equipment. 

I was all excited about shooting a marketing piece for a theater today. We planned on shooting various actors on a white background. I'd mastered lighting a traditional white out background with my Apurture LightStorm LED lights and I was getting ready to pack when my art director e-mailed over so final notes. The actors would be dancing and moving and might be jumping as well. Well, that kills it for the LEDs. I can't freeze someone mid jump and keep them sharp with continuous lights. I got busy packing up the flashes. 

The number of lights is basically the same so I wouldn't mind BUT..... after we shoot the marketing piece for one production, and wrap up the gear at that location, we're breaking for a late lunch and then setting up in a different building to shoot two video interview. Which, of course, do not call for electronic flash. So I'm right back to the requirement of packing two sets of lights. Oh joy!

You can make the cameras as light as you want. You could even put your lights on a diet, but for most of the stuff I shoot we're hauling around a set of background stands and a nine foot roll of background paper, six to eight heavy duty light stands, flags, three or four sand bags, a sturdy cart. apple boxes, a hundred feet of heavy extension cords,  soft boxes, umbrellas and the various hard and semi-hard cases required to keep all the breakable stuff unbroken. Saving two to five pounds on camera gear is a drop in the bucket in the overall equation of a couple hundred pounds of (necessary) lighting gear. 

Today we'll also need to bring along a large duffle filled with sound blankets because the space we're assigned to shoot in is as hot as the hood of a black car in a Texas parking lot. We need to take the edge and echo off the voice recording. By the time we pack white masonite for the floor and another c-stand and fish pool for the microphone we'll just about have the Honda CR-V filled to capacity. 

I know that some of you will chime in and tell me that you do photography strictly for the love of it and I'm happy for you. I'm not sure I chose the right career ---- sometimes it just feels light a combination of logistics and weight-lifting with a few moments of imaging tossed in...

I dream of the day when I can take just a small bag with a camera and a lens or two. But it's the lighting and accessories that make it feel like "work." 

Really should have gotten a couple of assistants for this job. They could be setting up while I get in a noon swim. Now that would be delicious.

With a flurry of back to back jobs the studio is starting to look like a warehouse.
We drop off one set of gear and grab another. The image above is as neat and clean as it's been in months....

The magic ingredient for commercial photography success, besides having a trust fund or a wealthy spouse, is a non-stop stream of coffee. Comes in handy when the client "needs" those shots the next morning and you're still on location wrapping up the shoot at 7:15pm.

Photographers tend to fixate on those "magic" cameras but I think the real 
magic is in bringing the lights and knowing how to use them. 
That, and getting along with people. 

9.17.2017

Texturists versus Contextualists. Camera choice follows individual sensibilities.

New discoveries or the relentless display of craft?

An individual's aesthetic wiring directly relates to their choice of camera types when it comes to photographing what we might call their vision. I would argue that there is a spectrum between pure documentation of the subject matter, divorced from technical considerations of presentation, and the other extreme; the exercise of technical virtuosity which would consist of the highest level of craftsmanship.

At each extreme point of the spectrum either the lack of desire to embrace technology, or the wholesale embrace of technology, becomes an impediment to the most effective presentation of a subject --- or a visual idea.

In less extreme examples we can see how this bifurcation of intention in photography; the pure documentation versus the value of craft over context, drives the choice of tools individual artists embrace in order to bring their vision to fruition.

In thinking about those whose focus is to document an event, a person, a scene, etc. with respect for the content and the energy of the image I would put up as examples photographers such as Willian Klein and Robert Frank. In the opposite camp; those to whom craftsmanship and mastery seem to be more important than subject I would point to landscape photographer, John Sexton and supposed documentarian, Stephen Shore.

In their time both Klein and Frank selected cameras not for their ultimate image quality but for their fluid nature and their transparency in terms of getting an image on film interpreted only by their selection of the moment of capture and the selection of an almost reactive composition. In an age where the standard camera format of commerce was the 4x5 inch camera, and a medium format twin lens camera was considered to be a snapshot camera, these two artists (and others such as Henri-Cartier Bresson) chose to work with the (then) tiny 35mm cameras made by Leica, and then added insult to injury (in the eyes of their generation of photographers) by using fast, grainy, less sharp black and white films.

Their images all have an immediacy that allows us to more directly connect with the objects of their observation. Once the images were captured the images were printed in more or less direct methods. While the printers may have cropped slightly or burned and dodged a bit there was nothing like the wholesale manipulation of images that we routinely see in contemporary post processing where many times the captured image is a vague chimera that will be added to and massaged endlessly by today's oppressively addictive software.

In my past role as a specialist lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin I used to take my advanced photography classes to the Humanities Research Center to see actual prints from the HRC's vast collection. We would don on the white cotton gloves and sit around an expansive wooden table and personally handle and view the quintessential photographic work of the 20th century in its purest guise, as black and white prints (mostly in sizes from 8x10 to, at the largest, 11x14 inches).

I was always left cold by the pristine work of photographers such as Minor White or even Edward Weston while any number of works by Leica toting social documentarians could perk my interest (and appreciation for their clarity and speed of seeing).

In one session we were looking at a portfolio of prints of Henri-Cartier Bresson's work. One print was a larger version of a photograph of the Pope, in Vatican City, in a throng a people. A student pointed out that HCB had missed focus. The Pope was not in razor sharp focus. We all sat back and looked at the print for a while and decided that the moment captured (and the way it was caught) certainly outweighed the technical shortcoming of the camera's operation. To be in the right spot at the right time with a functioning camera was much more important than not having the photo at all. In retrospect I have been considering how that image would have worked in a smaller print. Something like a 6x9 inch image on an 8x10 inch sheet of paper. Would we have even noticed the slight softness of focus on the Pope or would the smaller size render the technical deficiency moot?

This always starts me thinking along the lines of "What if HCB had used a bigger camera with a higher potential image quality?" Having shot with a small Leica, a Rollei twin lens, and 4x5 inch cameras I feel confident in saying that he made the right choice of camera and film for his vision and his immediate circumstances.

When I look at the work of Robert Frank I understand that, with the ability to use the camera almost without conscious thought, and with the discreet profile of the small, handheld camera, Frank was able to capture moments of social documentation that were so unguarded that we feel the emotion of the people in the moment instead of just the study in sociology that most journalism-style photography presents.

While held in high regard by many I can't stomach the lifeless virtuosity of most large format nature photographers. They really tell us nothing about nature or our place within it; they only use their naturalistic subjects as foils for their own clinical vision. Their intention seems to be to find in nature scenes that they can use as a base canvas upon which to showcase their skills and technical mastery of otherworldly tonal control, contrast and arch preservation of detail. When their audiences see the work they respond to the way the artist's control glorifies the experience of viewing replicas of nature by providing an alternative representation of what is generally visually mundane in situ.

One imagines these large format artists marching through the chaos of the woods with a folding view camera, stout tripod and a backpack full of film holders, looking for a vignette that can be forcibly composed into a structure considered "harmonious" by the masses and then stolen from its colorful and chaotic place in nature into a black and white showcase of gloriously rendered detail and order, with all the contrast of a Japanese pen and ink image. There is no impression of timeliness or emotional reaction to their moment of discovery, no AHA!!! instead one feels the plodding nature of a researcher who leisurely sets up a camera and then, in a series of investigations works around the subject more or less begging it to yield some meager measure of intrinsic magic to give even the meanest spark of life to the artist's experiment in technical perfection. As sensual as kissing a porcelain mask.

Since these artists have the time, and additionally live and die by the highest expression of technical mastery, their tools of choice are the 4x5 and 8x10 inch cameras and a selection of films with the finest grain and the highest resolution. The classic representation of detail being more important than the subject itself. But the "seeing" doesn't stop with the rigorous capture of the scenic-ly mundane it continues in the dark room with another bout of arduous perfectionism until the photograph is as much a manipulated reference as a purely photographic print. The value, according to curators, is in the artist's interpretation in the final print of the original scene, not in the power of the original scene itself.

Another way to look at all of this (at least in the eyes of the great audience of every man) is that few people outside the small (and shrinking) world of educated artists and art historians see the value of abstract painting, action painting, and non-representational painting in general. The further paintings diverge from hard core realism the less appreciated they are by most audiences. The masses demand as much verisimilitude to reality in their paintings as can be wedged into them. In this way the virtuoso photo-realistic painters, as well as those painters who just happen to be very compulsive, are publicly adored (and quickly forgotten).

In the current field of photography we seem to have same kind of situation that existed in the 1950's and 1960's. The middle of the curve of photographers seems obsessed with the need for "perfect" digital cameras. They define "perfect" as the cameras that can most accurately reproduce the scene in front of the camera in terms of sharpness, resolution, contrast and overall color correctness. They are willing to spend many multiples more money over less well appointed cameras in order to get these camera attributes so that these photographers can dogmatically pursue the creation of a "perfect image".

While any camera today can make a beautiful, reasonably sized print, there is a mania to have the camera that will make the biggest print with the least noise and the widest dynamic range. The maniacal pursuit of technical perfection blinds many to the charms and virtues of alternate tools. While a Zeiss Otus 85mm lens might be the sharpest lens in the photo cosmos it's just one focal length. If an artist has an elastic (and more interesting)  and expansive personal vision of reality that requires being able to switch angles of view with speed and agility then the Otus becomes an encumbrance to his/her vision. It may be that a camera with an almost endless range of angles of view helps bring his/her vision into existence.

A frail or aging photographer with a lively and unique vision may not be able to physically carry all the bits and pieces of the "perfect system" out in the field. The weight of "perfected progress" might hinder him or her from even leaving their home to engage in their art. But what if their vision could give birth to great work with a smaller, easier to handle camera and a small selection of good lenses? Would their work be less valid? See the work of Jan Saudek https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Saudek

When I look across so many arenas of photo sharing; from Instagram to Google+ and to some of the old standbys like Flickr I am generally much more drawn to images that display immediacy and authenticity than I am to cleverly contrived and technically flawless images that lack any sort of contextual soul. It's rare that an image from a Sony A7Rii or a Nikon D810 is revered in social media for its imaging qualities --- they are almost always "liked" and "favorited" for the angle of composition and insightful  moment at which the subject is captured, or the subject's gesture or expression, not in the way the camera's noiseless purity is displayed. More often, these days, the most interesting work is coming from the least complex of cameras --- iPhones.

There is a giant cult within contemporary photography that ignores the human magic of storytelling and instead concentrates on trying to show the essence of a boring thing because a certain type of subject is a more pliable canvas on which to demonstrate the camera operator's mastery and control of their special tool. Wouldn't it be so much more interesting if they had a story, beyond all their proficiency, to tell?

I would suggest to anyone who really wants to see better to practice actually seeing by putting the A7rii/D810/5Dsr in a drawer and rummaging around to find that old point and shoot from ten years ago. Something like a Canon G9 or some Coolpix or an early Sony RX100xxxxx. Put the camera in "P" mode and go looking for subject matter than interests you for more than just its ability to serve as a canvas for your craftiness. Look for the beautiful smile of sensual person. Look for interesting clouds. React to a sweet expression. Consider a quickly fading gesture. Watch the light play across someone's elegant face. Find a moment that speaks to your sympathy for our shared existence. Reject easy opportunities just to show off your chops.

Turn off the review mechanism of the camera and just point the camera at things as they interest you, bring the camera to your eye and click. You might just be amazed to find that if you stop contemplating perfection and start embracing serendipity, and the honest reactions of your emotional self, you may like the images that arise far more than the sterile work of proving your camera is a better artist than you.

Finally, I write about discovering scenes, gestures, etc. And of technologists also on a search for perfect foils for their art, but there is another way. I consistently look back at the work of "constructionists" like Duane Michals whose work is neither "discovered by happy accident" or the result of hours of arduous manipulation and obsessive control in the the darkroom --- after being captured by the "Best Camera in the World". Instead, he imagines and then directs photographic stories that resonate with so many audiences. His stories bubble up from his life. He constructs a visual narrative but without the artifice of perfectionism. It's a third way of seeing that we don't talk about enough. It's powerful and, reading the story of his career, you can see that the camera, or type of camera he uses, is unimportant. A minuscule part of his act of creation. Seems imagination is one of the most powerful tools of all.
http://www.dcmooregallery.com/artists/duane-michals




9.15.2017

Playing scales. Swimming drills. Filmmaking practice.



When I see someone play the guitar or piano very well they make the process seem so fluid and easy. It's the same when I see an Olympic swimmer repeat graceful one hundred yard repeats under a minute each. As a culture we have a tendency to ascribe mastery to genetics, luck and natural talent and we ignore or discount the reality of the artist's or athlete's years and years of training and practice. But all one needs to do is to read about swimmer, Michael Phelps's training regimen in the decades leading up to his multiple gold medals to know that even those with in-born talent still have to put in the time and energy to excel.

I thought moving from still imaging to video production would be a cakewalk. After all, I've been working with a camera in front of my face for nearly 4 decades and I've studied the science and craft of how the sensors work with light, optics etc. Hell, I've written books about it, but if all that was required to be good at motion pictures was the rote memorization of hundreds of facts and mechanical steps then most professional photographers would be able to step seamlessly into video production, right?

But I'm finding that making moving pictures is a whole different game. In photography you can compose well and then lock your camera down on a tripod and press the shutter button at the decisive moment. If you've trained yourself to see well you'll most likely get a good still image (especially so if the subject looks great...) but the crazy thing about video, especially video with a handheld camera, is that so much really depends on an integration of physical practice combined with seeing well.

In the beginning of my video journey the cameras we used didn't have stabilizers and handheld gimbals were unheard of. I thought my workaround would be to put the camera on a fluid head tripod and that everything would proceed just like still photography. I thought that until I was called on to do my very first very steady pan. Who knew that just panning a tripod head could be so difficult? My moves were jagged-y and inconsistent and the stopping and starting of my pans was just downright embarrassing.

It seems that panning (and tilting) is an acquired skill. Smoothness comes from physical practice. The practice of panning over and over and over again until you figure out how to pace and how to become more continuous in your moves. I continue to practice and agonize over the quality of my pans and am coming to grips with the need to put in more hours just practicing the moves (which also depend on distance to the subject, focal lengths of lenses used, speed of subject travel and so much more). You can buy the best tripod and head in the universe but if you don't routinely practice your pans will never be as smooth as the "talented" camera operators.

The same goes for every facet of video camera operation that requires movement. Camera movement is so much more than hand skills. The best operators use their whole bodies in the process of smoothly moving their cameras. You can't see their best work because their best work has as its goal making the camera and its move invisible. But you can routinely see okay and mediocre and bad camera pans in many TV shows and movies because not every operator has hit the point where their work can become transparent to the viewers.

I imagined that having the new GH5 camera and a stabilized lens would give me a much more solid and smooth platform with which to shoot handheld, and it's true that the camera/lens combo gives me great stabilization but even with stabilization the camera has to move and once you go from stationary to pan or tilt, or even walking with the camera, the lack of practice becomes glaringly obvious.

If I'm to be successful at handholding a moving a video camera it's pretty darn obvious that I'm going to need a lot of practice. A lot of practice. I may even have to give up drinking coffee. Imagine living the life of a monk just to make smooth, handheld video camera moves. Breathtaking in its cruelty...

My sometimes partner in video crime and I just finished estimating and proposing eight video projects for an ad agency. The bulk of each video will consist of handheld b-roll lifestyle scenes. This means getting sharp focus on the fly, moving through groups of people, quickly moving to catch great expressions, etc. While my partner has years of continuing practice (he's a full time video shooter) I've spent way to much time depending on flash to freeze motion and tripods to anchor my non-moving, still photography cameras. As we get closer to the start of the projects I've taken to daily practice moving with my camera.

I headed out yesterday to walk through Zilker Park, past Barton Springs Pool and around the lake with my camera, lens and neutral density filter in hand. Every time I saw something interesting to shoot I practiced regulating exposure by rotating the variable neutral density filter and evaluating zebras in the finder of the camera. I had the camera switched to manual so I could also practice using focus peaking to hit sharp focus. But after getting the settings correct I spent most of my time working to pan with joggers and bikers, following aquatic birds as they skimmed the water and then took flight, and I spent time panning from one object to the next. The most difficult thing to practice it to walk smoothly with the camera and I did that as well.

I was feeling pretty good about my time in practice until I came back home, stuck the SD card into my computer and started looking, full screen, at the practice shots I'd made. They showed how the camera moved with my breathing and how any operation of camera buttons created motion havoc in the frames.
I cringed when I saw how lumpy my pans were; speeding up and slowing down to try and regulate my moves. I got a few takes that were decent and I tried to think back to what I'd done to achieve them.

At the end of the exercise, when I'd looked and looked at the shaky footage on my unrelentingly critical monitor, I dumped the footage in the trash and grabbed the camera up again --- stuck a new battery in it and got ready to practice again. Today, after paper work, dog walking and some swimming I'll be back at it practicing camera moves. It's a race against time. Will I master all the arcane methods of handholding and moving a camera or run out the clock instead? The real answer is that mastery is a classic case of ever diminishing returns but that doesn't mean I should not try for the next twenty to thirty years to become at least good at it.

What I learned this week: When starting a camera move place yourself in the position of least comfort to start and move progressively to the position of comfort by the end.

The real masters of motion picture camera operation have spent as much time with a camera in their hands as most virtuoso musicians have spent with their own instruments in hand. That's what makes both camps great.

Camera, except for its feel in your hand, inconsequential.

9.13.2017

Sony's new RX10 camera just got announced. It's called the Sony RX10IV and it looks like everything I wanted.

This is a photo of the RX10iii, one of the best small sensor cameras I have ever used. 
Actually, one of the best cameras I have ever used....along with its
sibling, the RX10ii. 

I just read the announcement of the launch of the RX10IV on Digital Photography Review. It's the one time I hope DPR just goes insane with their product coverage as this is a product that makes sense and one for which I'll gladly line up to hemorrhage cash. 

There weren't many things I didn't like about the previous generation. The only one I can think of right off the bat would be focusing speed and sure-footed AF lock on to the longer end of the lens. Especially so in video. I haven't checked the specs (extensively) on the new camera but would also love to be able to "punch in" more than the current 5x times magnification in video in order to really nail focus when in manual mode.

The lens is the same 24-600mm equivalent Zeiss lens and the camera continues the full frame read, non-binning 4K video performance. The video is actually down res'd from a 5K capture! I found the handling and post processing performance of both 4K and 1080p video to be class-leading and the combination of all the features and performance metrics of the RX10iii to be superb. If this camera focuses better and locks focus quicker; especially in video, then I'm really to throw down money for my copy. (But I want to try it out at a bricks and mortar store before tossing around that kind of money...).

I saw other features reviewed such as silly fast frame rates for stills but I didn't pay attention to them. The older models shot just as fast as I needed them to... if you really need 24 fps then you need to be shooting video instead...

Why do I like the most recent RX10xx camera models so much? Hmmm. That's easy. The RX10-3 is an amazing still photography camera. The 20 megapixel sensor makes beautiful files when shot at 80, 100, or 200 ISO. Workmanlike files at 1600 and still decent/usable files at 3200. The image stabilization in that camera is rock solid for photography and 1080p video. Not quite in Olympus territory but as good or better than systems costing thousands more... The all encompassing lens is an "as good" or better than decent replacement for a bagful of most interchangeable DSLR lenses and has more useful reach than just about any lens available under $5000 for Nikon or Canon. Or Sony A7 series cameras. And it's foolish to discount the usefulness of a great, built-in lens; not having to change lenses means no dust bunnies, no sensor damage, no fumbling in the dark to effect the change, and much less to carry around.  You know, the difference between two weeks of shoulder battering drudgery or a real vacation.

If that was all there was to the RX10-3 it might seem expensive for a one inch sensor bridge still camera but the camera is capable of so much more. It's one of the best fully capable video cameras/systems you can get under $2,000. It's capable of beautifully detailed 4K files and, unlike other cameras in the Sony line up, I've run the camera for multiple segments of 29 minutes duration, with only seconds of delay between the segments, without any indication of overheating. You might think of bridge cameras as "amateur" but then what other "amateur" video camera comes with a full S-Log codec and a the ability to configure its video files in many more ways (knee, black level, gamma, etc.) than just about any other multi-use camera on the market? So, nearly full frame 4K at 30 fps, complete with S-Log, and the ability to write the 4K files to Pro Res files via a clean output HDMI connection to an external recorder like the Atomos Ninja Flame. Wow. And of course there are still microphone and headphone connectors, and very clean microphone preamplifiers.

I've used the RX10-2 and 3 to make video in downpours, in 100+ plus heat and in the dark of a theater and the camera has never faltered. In 2016 I used the RX10-2 and RX10-3 on enough projects that the jobs I used them on (sometimes exclusively) contributed about 25% of my fee income. So, why would I want to upgrade to the latest model; the RX10-4?

I'd do it for the phase detection AF capability that was added in the new model. Apparently it uses the same processor for AF as the new a9 camera. It focuses twice as fast as the current model and locks in (according to Sony) focus quicker and at lower EV levels. The PD AF has been well proven in the a6300 and a6500 models as well. No more dicey focus at the long end of the lens.

While I often give in to reckless hyperbole when I'm slamming around on the keyboard I believe that this new camera could provide a single tool that would be able to do most of the professional video and photography assignments most photographers will encounter in day-to-day business. Yes, $1800 is expensive if you consider comparing it directly with a larger sensor camera body. But you should really be comparing it with a whole system of lenses, a stand alone, 4K video camera and a super fast camera body. It's a camera that can replace thousands and thousands of additional dollars invested in arcane photo stuff.

I'm not saying anyone else needs to rush out and buy one immediately or their career will come to a grinding halt. This may be only really cogent to my uses. But I'm certain it will be a most useful tool.

The two biggest complaints I'm reading about the new camera model revolve around price and size/weight. It's almost as if there is a wholly uneducated but vociferous group of photographers who feel as though Sony can bend physics to their will. I've seen suggestions that the lens speed be increased to f2.0 while, in the next breath suggesting that the size of the camera be reduced by half. Many insist that, since this is not a "real" DSLR that the price should be around $599 or lower. I'm sure the same people would love a first class airline ticket to Paris for $25 --- and I'm equally sure they'd complain that their glass of Champagne had too many bubbles. That their seat should be the size of the couch at home. And that the plane did not go 2,000 mph. I'm sure these are the same people who believe their Pontiac Aztecs should be able to fly....

The camera is not as big or as heavy as any DSLR anywhere once equipped with an equivalent lens (if there was one....). The price is not just for a camera body with a small sensor but for an entire system that is capable of doing a combination of applications open to no other camera/lens system on the market. If you just broke the price in half and charged $900 for the body and $900 for the lens then perhaps it would be easier for the cognition-challenged to understand the overall value. And, since it only comes in a kit you save a dollar!!!

The RX10IV might not be perfect. It's too big to fit in the front pocket of your ever-tightening Jourdache jeans. The video specs aren't as good as those on the GH5. The dynamic range of the sensor isn't going to go toe-to-toe with the Nikon D850. But if you need to toss some plastic wrap over the top and video tape a raging flood in the middle of a driving rain storm and then walk away with near perfect 4K video, and then turn back around and make a technically great photograph of an electric transformer  blowing up on top of a utility pole one hundred yards away ---- then I think you may have found your camera.

You might not need one. You might not be able to afford one. But that doesn't mean the camera isn't pretty darn amazing. And very useful to people who need what it offers.

Go see reviews from people who bought the IV's predecessor:



9.12.2017

Kid heads off to NY for his senior year of college.


Last lap. Ben's back at school, hitting the books and having fun. This is a photo of him from his grade school years hacking away at an old Mac laptop. He's having an after school snack of grapefruit and blue cheese. 

Time goes so fast. If you still have young ones at home don't ever put the camera away. Shoot even the most mundane stuff. You'll love it later. Believe me.