7.26.2016

On the general nature of traveling for business.


Assignments that require travel sometimes go awry. We're on hold at our hotel right now, waiting for our "hero" product to show up. It was supposed to be delivered yesterday. And then today. But weather, etc. have pushed everything to tomorrow. This, of course, adds to the client's stress and plays havoc with our schedules. We're hopeful that we'll be shooting tomorrow morning and afternoon and still able to make a late flight back home to Austin. Worst case scenario? We fly back on Thurs. morning and eat another day. But Thursday is a "drop dead" date because we're booked with another client all day Friday. A long day of exacting, macro work. 

The waiting around is frustrating but the real dissatisfaction I have with jobs that involve travel, in general, is the stuff you have to leave at home. I'm traveling with my son, Ben, so I'm lucky. I have someone to room with that I like and someone to hang-out with while we wait. But there are some things I really miss from my usual routine in Austin, Texas. There is the unconditional love and exuberance of Studio Dog. I heard there was thunder and lightning in Austin last night and I feel a bit guilty that I wasn't there to reassure her. I'd love to bring her on every assignment but she's a true terrier and has no patience for travel and downtime. Even riding to San Antonio in the car makes her forlorn and moody. 


Then, of course, I miss the Western Hills Athletic Club pool and my daily masters swim workout. How could you not miss something so routinely perfect? Clear, clean water. A bunch of happy, optimistic swimmers who defy aging and gravity. A chance to stretch out and go hard first thing in the morning. It's a wonderful thing. And hard work in the pool provides the perfect rationalization for a good coffee and maybe even a warm croissant afterwards. I'm sure the people in lanes three or four were wondering where I was this morning... 

Trips away from home on business also remind of how much I depend on my lifelong partner/spouse Belinda. She's the driving force in the boy and I eating well and healthily. After a lackluster dinner last night I'm actually missing the perfectly prepared fish, roasted cauliflower and fresh kale and cranberry salad of Sunday evening. That, and the stinging spiritual course correction that she occasionally delivers so effectively. 


And, finally, this project has convinced me that I really have an extremely short attention span when it comes to equipment. On Sunday, while packing, I was convinced that the two cameras and two lenses (three, if you include an all purpose back up...) were exactly what I wanted to shoot with. Today I am pining for other toys. I shoulda, I shoulda. We have a down day to spend in the city and I'd love to have the RX10iii. I'm anxious to play with the new lenses. I wish I'd driven here because now I'm thinking I'd love to have some C-Stands....

The beauty of photographing close to home is that you can go for a swim, pack some gear, change your mind and swing by for more gear, wrap the job, play with the dog, eat a healthy dinner and end up in your own bed. Luxury. 



On a totally different note I am quickly becoming a fan of variable neutral density lenses; not just for video (where they are a necessity) but also for still photography. I used to think of them as an adjunct for syncing up fill flash but now I find myself using the to shoot in the sweet spots of my taking lenses. Love the look of Sony A7ii and A7Rii files shot at ISO 100 and some sweet f-stop like f2.8 or f4.0. Pretty pictures that way.

7.24.2016

New Lenses = Kid in a candy store. Packing for an out of town trip = Kid in Time Out.


I'm grateful to have good work, but part of that good work is the occasional shoot out of town. When I am in my studio I can turn around and grab another C-Stand. I can choose three different thicknesses of net material to bring down a pesky highlight and I can browse through the equipment case to find just the right lens. If I need more power it's at my fingertips --- more or less. But there is a comfort to working on your home turf that can rarely be beat. 

Now, if the out of town shoot is someplace like Johnson City, or Wimberley, Texas; or even San Antonio, it's not very far from my comfort zone. Having grown up in Texas and spent considerable time here I like going places in my car. The car means I can bring a very healthy subset of the studio's equipment bounty, including things like sandbags, ten extra stands, the biggest soft boxes and even a couple of computers. Lights? We can probably get most of them situated for a road trip if we put the back seats down in the Honda CRV. 

The situation in which everything falls apart for me is the airplane journey. Yikes. You really, really have to think through what you're going to shoot and distill down what you take, but there is really only so much you can cut till you get to the bone. 

Ben and I are heading out of town tomorrow. We'll be at that wonderful Austin airport at around 6 a.m. in the morning for an 8 a.m. flight to Baton Rouge. We'll be gone for three days and we'll be shooting outside in what may be the three hottest days of Summer 2016. Hello high pressure dome!

I'm not worried about Ben. He's been running the trail around Lady Bird Lake at 2 or 3 in the afternoon lately. If he can run in a straight 102 degrees for a few miles I think he'll be fine standing in the shade handing me lenses and such. But what I am worried about (perennially) is just what to pack. 

We'll be shooting two lifestyle set ups with a single person in each, and one hero shot with two people. I'm bringing along scrims with white diffusion to put over the tops of my subjects to tame the direct sun and we'll buy some one gallon water jugs to use as improvised "sandbags" to hold them in place. I'm bringing a big umbrella which can do double duty as a shoot through or as another light blocker/diffuser. I never go anywhere without a tripod either. 

We've got three battery powered flashes and a bunch of radio triggers and every lens has a companion 3 stop neutral density filter to tame the ambient light in order to make fill flash practical. We've got two checked bags and two carry ons. It's bare bones. But that's the nature of having to fly on smaller, regional jets....

I thought about driving to Baton Rouge but it's nine and a half hours of solid driving and I just couldn't get excited about trudging through southern highways in high heat season. Someone's tire fragments are always headed for my windshield, even on cool days. We'll make it through and if we forgot anything we'll improvise at the closest Home Depot. But gosh golly, it takes me all day to pack for one of these because it's a bitter process of eliminating layers of safety nets...

I hope everyone is up to date on the new TSA policies for lithium batteries. When they are as tiny as the batteries for the Sony A7 series cameras you can bring as many as you want but they have to travel in your carry-on luggage; not in checked!!!  Apparently, they want the batteries readily available in case the batteries spontaneously burst into flame and need to be extinguished before imperiling the aircraft. You are limited to two bigger batteries but it shouldn't be a show stopped for most camera users. Now, my video buddies with their huge Anton Bauer batteries may have to devise some new work-arounds. Just thought I'd give you a heads up. Google the specifics. Or Bing them if you are some sort of Google conspiracy theorist. 

Packing sucks because your constant two thoughts (at least mine) are: Will the airline destroy my gear? And, Will I have to gate check that bag full of cameras? Either way you'll be scrambling to make your assignment work....  But, on to the light side...


Some people like nice Bordeaux wines and some people love fine chocolate but I have a soft spot (a sweet tooth?) for new lenses. I won't walk away from chocolate or wine either but the lenses are generally the bright spot for me. 

I asked about Rokinon lenses in my last post and I got some good replies. In my brief hiatus between the last post and now I managed to order a new lens from Amazon.com and also pick up a lens on my list (used) from Precision Camera here in Austin. 

So, what's new in the ole camera bag? Well, first I should say that neither of the two new arrivals will be going with me to Baton Rouge. They are too heavy and too "single-use-y" to make the distillation/packing cut, and besides, I'd already figured out my packing strategy for cameras and lenses before the new lenses arrived. 

The first in the door was the Rokinon 135mm t2.2 Cine lens. A couple reader comments sparked my interest and when I started looking around a mint specimen turned up on 14 miles from the front door of the studio. I drove out yesterday and picked it up and then spent an hour aiming it at various things and snapping away. On first blush I have to say that it's pretty darn sharp wide open and, used fairly close, the depth of field thing that this lens does is outrageous. Almost like one side of a hair I focused on was in focus but the other side wasn't (hyperbole alert). Seriously though it's a  keeper and I was happy to find the cine version since it's a good choice for me to use as an interview lens. 

It's big and bulky and should have a tripod mount when used with the pixie Sony cameras but that's my only gripe. I'm sure you'll start to see endless portraits here on the VSL blog that have been shot with this lens. A good expenditure of $450. 

The second lens arrived today, right in the middle of the stress-filled packing drama. I put the box aside until about an hour ago (hopefully just before dinner...) When I finally had time to open the box and take a peek. It's the Sony E mount version of the Rokinon 100mm f2.8 Macro lens. I wanted one to shoot a job that's coming up on Friday; a full day of photographing teeny, tiny glass ampoules. With even teenier-tinier labels affixed to them. It's similar to a job I shot two years ago and, at the time, I was laboring along with a 50mm macro lens and desperately wishing I had a longer macro for a bit more stand off from the product. You know, in order to really get the lighting right....

The Rokinon clicked all the boxes. When I finally had time to play with it I was impressed at the build quality but much more impressed by the sample images I started shooting (locked down on a stout tripod....). The websites always like to moan and groan about wide open sharpness and wide open corner stuff but I have to say that I don't think I'll use this lens at anything but f11 or f16 on this job. That's what is needed to get enough depth of field to keep things in focus. We can't all be shooting glamorous, wide open shots all the time....

I'll do a bit more testing when I get back into the studio on Thurs. but so far it looks like another winner. 

The two new additions should keep me interested for a bit longer.... 

anyway, I'll be out for three days and I'm probably NOT going to take an iPad or a computer. I'll just focus on the job and a little HDMI monitor. I'll catch up on Weds. evening. Hope you stay cool and have a great start to your week!



7.23.2016

Making Photos at Esther's Follies. The comedy and magic theater of Austin.

Austin's reigning wizard of stage magic and special effects, Ray Anderson is locked into a box. 

The talented crew at Esther's Follies, on Sixth St. have been making Austinites laugh for over thirty years. The local politicians on both sides of the aisle do enough absolutely crazy stuff, day in and day out, to provide a never boring source of material that gets woven into every show. But national election years are like a bumper crop of fun political insanity to parody and play with. 

Ben and I headed downtown to grab some shots on Weds. afternoon. We mostly shot with the stage lights but we set up two mono-lights with umbrellas and used them for some of the photographs. After a morning of photographing carbon fiber wheelchairs for a healthcare client the zany crew at Esther's made me feel like we had ventured into an alternate universe.

I guess that's one of the charming aspects of being a photographer: two theater gigs in the same week as two corporate gigs and an advertising shoot for medical equipment. Toss in a couple  doctor portraits and you've got an interesting five days.


Bernie Sanders = Yoda??? Political satire is an Esther's speciality. 

Between shots.

"Red State Gals."

The first shots were all done with a handheld Sony A7r2 and the Sony/Zeiss 24-70mm f4.0. The bottom shot was lit with two Photogenic mono-lights, each with a big (60 inch) white umbrella. 

If you come to Austin there are three things you should not miss: Eating great Tex-Mex food (every local will give you a different restaurant recommendation. All will conflict.). Swimming in the heat of the Summer at Barton Springs Pool. And, seeing a show at Esther's Follies on Sixth St. 


I'm curious to hear what VSL readers think of the various lenses made by Samyang (Rokinon). Do you use them? What has been your experience?

From Zach Theatre's production of "Mary Poppins." 
(Taken with a Sony lens)

I'll go first. I bought my first Rokinon lens a few years back when I was using the Sony a99 cameras. It was the 85mm t1.5 Cine lens. As I understand it the first cine style lenses were optically the same as the contemporaneous non-cine lenses and the only benefit, besides the marginal benefit of the "unclicked" aperture ring, was the addition of geared rings for aperture and focus. The gearing allows for the use of follow focus mechanisms and aperture shift mechanisms popular with video camera operators. 

I'm a sucker for a good, fast 85mm lens and, for the price at the time, my attitude was that if the lens isn't great it's not a big deal. But, in fact, the 85mm lens I got was very good and I did lots of work with it even though I owned Sony's Alpha 85mm lens as well. I got such good results that I eventually bought the Rokinon 35mm t1.5 Cine lens as a compliment to it. And that lens was a good performer as well. 

The other lens that intrigued me was the 14mm t3.1 Cine lens. It's the same as the 14mm f2.8 lens but with the added cine paraphernalia. Once I found a good profile for geometric corrections in Lightroom and Photoshop I was also quite happy with this one as well; even though I find that my style of shooting rarely calls for much extreme wide angle work. Still, for around $300 it's nice to have the option to shoot crazy wide...

All of those lenses were purged during the shift to the Nikon system but I had come to value the utility of the 14mm and the 85mm so much that I bought them again, but in the Nikon dedicated mount. Even though I have shifted to the Sony mirrorless cameras now I have kept these lenses and have been using them with adapters. A few days ago I found an 85mm cine lens in an E mount for a small price (used) and bought it as well. I shot with it during an assignment to photograph the chancellor of a major university system in Texas and was again reminded of just how good the optics of that particular lens is. Very sharp and very easy to nail focus with using the focus peaking and focus magnification systems of the A7ii camera. 

So, next week I have an assignment that will call for shooting small products (less than two inches on a long end) on a white, tabletop background and I started looking for a good macro solution. I have a basic solution that consists of a Nikon 55mm f2.8 Macro lens, along with a macro bellows, if needed, but I was interested in getting a bit more working distance and so started looking around at 100-105mm macro lenses from various makers. 

The logical one would be the Sony 90mm  f2.8 OSS FE lens which features image stabilization and AF but I generally use lenses like this on tripods and nearly always use manual focusing. I also stumbled a bit at the $1200 price tag. That led me to the Rokinon 100mm f2.8 macro. The optical formula looks interesting and the reviews are sparse, but that's never really stopped me from at least giving the unknown a try. 

I ordered one from Amazon and it should arrive tomorrow. It will be here in time for the shoot next week. I'll test it out tomorrow and make big assessments and, if it passes the general tests, I'll take it with me next week along with the Nikon Macro as a known safety. 

I would curious to know if you have used any of the Rokinon/Samyang lenses and what your opinions are. I am also interested in the 50mm f1.2 - which I understand is only for the cropped frame cameras. The next big thing on my list would be the 50mm f1.4 for the full frame cameras so let me know your experiences with that one too.

Another fun week over, another fun week coming up. I'm really enjoying having the boy along as an assistant. It's a fringe benefit of being the boss. 

7.21.2016

Photographing "Mary Poppins" for Zach Theatre. Battle of the A7Rii versus the RX10iii. Sorry, no smackdown.


I was packing up my bag to go to Zach Theatre and photograph the dress rehearsal of Mary Poppins. I knew I'd want to have my Sony A7Rii handy because it has the cool, silent mode and the files are outrageously good, even at ISO 6400, but I was conflicted about the second camera. I'd take a back up, of course, but what did I really, really want to try out on this show that I hadn't used for theatre photography before? Oh yes, it was the RX10iii. I've learned to trust this camera in so many other situations I just had to give it a try in the theater. 

I shot part of the show with a Sony A7R2 because it's a known commodity for this kind of work. Equipped with the 70-200mm f4.0 G series lens, and set to "silent" mode, this camera is just about perfect for theater work. It's very clean and saturated at ISO 6400 and the focus, in conjunction with the 70/200, if fast and very sure. Add to that a hybrid image stabilization system that uses both the I.S. in the lens as well as the I.B.I.S. and you've got a pretty bulletproof system for handholding and quick shooting, even in low light situations.

So, why would I bring along a one inch sensor camera (the RX10iii) and proceed to shoot at least two thirds of the dress rehearsal with it? One reason is my continuing fascination that a "bridge" camera can do such a great job with so many kinds of photography but secondly it has to do with a certain practicality. Here's the deal: Since we built the new, state-of-the-art Topfer Theatre it's become more expensive to produce shows. We don't always have the luxury of getting a dedicated performance with full costumes and effects, just for marketing photography. We end up "sharing" the dress rehearsal with a full audience of "friends and families" as well as a video crew who record the performance on a wide camera and a follow camera. That limits where I can shoot from. I don't want to cross in front of the cameras and I don't want to interfere with our "test" audience's experience of the show.

This puts me in the middle of the theater, on the crossover aisle. So now I'm generally a lot further from the stage than I was when shooting dress rehearsals in the other two (smaller) theaters. That means I have to bridge the space by leaning on longer focal length lenses. I've pretty much ruled out single focal length lenses because the composition of actors, etc. is a constantly changing target and there is no time (in most shows) to keep changing lenses. A 70-200mm on a full frame camera works for a lot of stuff but there are many instances when we need a series of wide shots to show big scenes, mixed with a need to get even closer than the 200mm focal length will allow. I had been juggling two cameras and going back and forth from the 70-200mm to a 24-70mm but I'm always on the search for an easier and more gap free way to do this kind of work. 

That leads me to the RX10iii. I was scared of the smaller sensor but too fascinated by the 600mm equivalent focal length not to try it. Here's how I used the smaller sensor camera at Tuesday evening's shoot for Mary Poppins: I set the camera for super fine Jpegs in a 3:2 ratio at the full camera resolution of 20 megapixels. Standard profile. I used manual exposure and gauged the correct exposure by evaluating the EVF image and by employing "zebras" set to become visible in areas that exceeded 100% (255). I used the center AF point and used single AF. I set the aperture to f4.0 and, except for specific wide angle work I consider this an f4.0 camera and use f4.0 as my maximum aperture. In that way there is no exposure shift as I zoom through the focal length range. People who bitch about the variable aperture would do well to study more and just always default to the slowest of the maximum apertures if they don't want to see exposure changes during zooming. 

I have the zoom control set to "fast" and the tracking sensitivity set to "high." Working with the zoom ring was frustrating a few months ago but, like almost everything else, all it takes in order to become proficient with its operation is some solid practice. Used with a light touch the zoom-by-wire is actually quite good. I set my base white balance at 3800K and it worked well with the base lighting and the follow spots. The follow spots are LEDs and seem to be balance to hit about halfway between a tungsten and a daylight balance. 3800 might be just a tad blue but very workable if I need to do slight corrections in post. 

I've tested this camera quite a bit and have found that it's ISO range is usable to a real 3200 if a scene is well lit and can be exposed exactly right. I'm not a perfect technician so I know I am pretty safe if I go with 1600 instead. On Tues. I was adventurous and roamed around in the 2000 and 2500 ISO range. I was not bitten by my enthusiasm; the images turned out well...

The important thing to do with this camera is to let the AF and the I.S. settle before clicking the shutter button. The contrast AF is very good, even at the long focal lengths but you need to be patient and not hurry it. At this point some knucklehead will point out that his Nikon D4s or his Canon 1Dx mlxxx can nail focus in a microsecond and, as a former owner of both systems, I'll just say that might be so but I'd much prefer to have the locked in point actually in focus....

With the aperture pretty much locked at f4.0 and the ISO limited to 2500 the one variable that changes as we go through is shutter speed. I've gotten used to using my thumb with the back dial to change shutter speeds quickly, up or down. With the camera set up to shoot this way, and with high ISO noise reduction set to standard, I get the best results shooting tight. That's why I still grabbed the A7R2 from time to time during the show. As I get quicker though, I could drop the ISO to 800 for static group shots and come away with fine images from the RX10 as well.  Here's some of the work. 


before the start of the play, some last run throughs. A maximum focal length image of actor, Tyler Jones on stage. RX10iii

Medium shot which informs the tight shot below. RX10iii.

Actors Anderson Zoll and Scarlet Craig as Michael and Jane Banks.  Tight close up from 
mid-way up the audience using the maximum focal length on the RX10iii -- handheld.

Actor Jill Blackwood as Mary Poppins. 

Very happy with the focusing capabilities of the RX10iii under lower light levels. 

Another shot that shows a general part of the scene at a fairly long focal length setting complimented below by a shot from the same camera position but at the 600mm equivalent focal length. Again, handheld. (See just below).









This group shot and the one directly below are fro the A7R2. While pixel peeping immediately informs one that the quality of the bigger camera is much more impressive, the reality is that at most of the smaller sizes, including the full 27 inch screen slide show I just looked at, the differences are nearly invisible in most use scenarios. 

One more RX10iii sample---just for fun.

After examining over 1900 files on Tues. night I can say with some certainty that I'll definitely be pressing the RX10iii into service for more and more theater work in the large space. The reach is just too nice to pass up. And the ability to go from a wide shot of the full stage to a tight shot of a single face is just an amazing testament to the design and production of the lens and the low noise of the BSI sensor. I wouldn't care about the mechanics if I wasn't getting something new and different by using them. Thought you might be interested.