10.26.2014

Preferred camera of the day. Olympus OMD EM-5 with the Sigma Art Series 60mm f2.8 lens. Yummy.



It seems like an eternity since I've been downtown for a good Sunday walk through the city. After a nap with Studio Dog I headed to the studio in the early afternoon to go through the ritual of choosing the "camera of the day." We used to think of cameras as precious items that were costly and more or less permanent choices. Now I think of cameras as parts of life that are as interchangeable as your jacket or your favorite pair of pants. You like them but you get bored using them all the time. You crave a little diversity, some spontaneous choice. At least I do. I spent my last weekend with the GH4 camera and the impressive but boringly perfect 12-35mm lens. I pressed the newly re-appreciated Nikon D7100 into service all during the work week. I was ready for a change. A realignment of sorts. 

I pulled the black Olympus OMD EM-5 out of drawer number three and clicked on the Sigma 60mm lens. Nice and long. So different from the wide orientation I played with in Saratoga Springs and, even with the battery grip attached, the camera seemed tiny compared to the "work" camera. 

I had one interesting insight about this camera today. I had the EVF set to high refresh rate on all three of the EM-5 bodies and it reduces "lag" to the point that I can't see it but I realized that it does so by reducing the overall resolution of the screen. Since I don't do a lot of (any) fast moving action with my cameras and I'm not a sports photographer I changed all the cameras back to normal and the big difference in image quality that I'd been seeing lately between the EM-1's I've been playing with and the EM-5 seemed to subside into a much vaguer and subtle difference. Not so much to get all fired up about. 

I dragged the camera all around town and shot sparingly. I met a VSL reader out on Congress Ave. He was sporting a Panasonic GX7 and was obviously having a blast. We chatted for a block or two and then, true to our concept of "Lonely Hunter, Better Hunt" We split up and went our own ways. 
After visiting a pristine small town in the northeast Austin all of a sudden seems so downmarket. So shabby and grungy. Sixth street seem to swell today with drunken football fans lurching from seedy bar to seedy bar while the ever increasing bands of street people seemed more aggressive and pungent. I remind myself that every big city has nice spots and not so nice spots but it's a bit embarrassing that our downtown has become so "low rent" especially so given the high rents...

But I am hardly a social anthropologist so I just looked for things to shoot that seemed interesting to me. 



The building frenzy continues unabated. Condos everywhere. Two of them opening within spitting distance of Barton Springs. But the cranes look so dramatic against the blue sky. 


This is a new, giant condo building across the street from Whole Foods on Sixth and Lamar. Do you think adding several thousand new tenants will increase downtown traffic? At what point does growth strip away everything that made a city special in the first place? Time to head to the next cool spot?



I love street art. I'm so happy someone found this particular spot to put up this particular piece of art. Just in time for the "Day of the Dead." It sits in a window opening on the old Children's Museum building. Nice.


It seemed like the camera and lens could do no wrong today. Everything I pointed the combo at seemed fun to me. And the in body IS makes this particular cheap lens sing. 





Tomorrow is my birthday. I think I'll start out with a swim at Barton Springs followed by coffee and a bowl of Cheerios and walnuts. Maybe a run up to the camera store to see if they have any more used EM-5s. Some strategic future planning with Studio Dog. Coffee with Frank.  And then dinner at Asti Trattoria with Belinda. That should make for a nice day. Especially so if I can bargain for a great price on yet another camera.....

......it never stops.

If it was your birthday and you could rationalize getting another camera for less than $1,000 (and your spouse didn't need to know...) what would you buy?  No lenses please! That's too personal. But I would love to hear what camera has you interested right now.  In this moment. Hypothetically. Just for fun. Go ahead. Post it in the comments. It would be nice to hear from you on my birthday. 



A different look from the same session. How I shoot as an "amateur."


People ask from time to time just how a portrait session progresses for me in the studio. I thought I'd answer that not from a commercial work perspective but from a shooting for the fun of it perspective.

Here's how my session with Fadya time-lined yesterday.

I started cleaning up the studio space right after morning swim practice. It's a routine I seem to do over and over again generally because I sometimes book too many shoots in a row, I'm tired when I get home from a project, and almost never use the same gear for two projects in a row. That means cases and gear tend to get dropped into the middle of the small studio space and stay there until their low priority rises to the top or until someone is coming over to be photographed in the space.

At noon I started setting up the background and lights I'd be using. Two HMIs, four different panels which included four light blockers, one double clothed diffuser, and a small net assemblage for controlling the level of the background light. I selected a tripod and head to work with form the stack and pulled the camera and lens out of one of the bags. Why a particular camera? Most probably because it had completed its cycle from used, ignored and neglected to "hey! isn't that the camera we shot X with? I loved that image." At which point the camera is resurrected or, politically rehabilitated.

I rough out all of the lights; their heights and relative positions, and set my diffusers to the spots they seem to need to be in. Everything will be finally adjusted when Fadya sits down and we get to shooting.

I try my best to be finished fifteen minutes before my subjects walk in because I hate to be fiddling with anything other than a meter when they arrive. I think the busy work of setting up mechanical stuff deflates the "theater" of the encounter.

Fadya came at 1:30 and we hugged and hung up her wardrobe on one of the Metro shelves. Then we went into the house to make her a cup of tea. She likes to calm down and separate from the rest of the day when we do photo sessions and the tea is in service of that. Belinda was home so the three of us talked in the kitchen for a bit. Then we headed out to the studio and started shooting in earnest around 2 pm.

Now, when I'm making portraits for fun I don't push the process quickly. I like to take time and really work on stuff. But the biggest task is for the sitter and the photographer to be on the same wavelength and that takes catching up and sharing stories and listening and hanging out together. The technical considerations of a shoot are almost invisible for the rest of the day. We may take a break and move a light or add a scrim but there's no urgency to it and I never convey that exactness is critical. Lighting should be more like hand grenades than lasers. You just need to be in the general ball park to make it work.

We talk about everything under the sun and I try to be observant and find the tilt of her head, the random expression, the eye-line or small, warm smile that works and to be diligent to look for those things as we proceed down the road of the session. If I see Fadya do something that makes her face light up or look otherwise interesting I'll interrupt our conversation and ask her to re-do that thing and then, when it's photographed, we'll continue.

While it sounds like it might be non-stop chatter in the studio there are many times when we both just feel right and in the flow and we stop talking and just shoot. I'll give short suggestions like, "just rotate your face a tiny bit toward the light." Or, "just tilt your chin up slightly and hold that." And we'll shoot and make tiny changes and improvements to a largely static pose. Working in small increments from a static pose allows me to find overall looks that I like and then to experiment with small adaptations or changes that I think might improve it.

All feedback is encouraging. How could it not be when our shared intention is to make beautiful images together?

All sessions that I've experienced go through a parabola of sorts. You both start out the session rusty and halting and the you progressively slide into a more and more comfortable give and take. At a certain point everything seems to click, the world outside is progressively shut out, and your creative instincts focus down into tighter detail. You're still sharing conversation and you're still making suggestions but you start to notice a softening and deepening of your subject's expression and for a moment or two everything is in perfect balance and you shoot and say, "Yes, that's perfect!" a lot.

After that moment you notice that things start to look like they are repeating. Similar poses, similar expressions and similar exchanges. You try more stuff and move the lights around but you probably both know that you hit a peak during the session and now you are winding it down.

After that, if you are friends and interested in each other's careers and lives, you spend some time with the camera down, just sharing fun information. Learning more about each other so that the next session is even smoother and more revealing. And by revealing I mean that both people work to make an emotionally safe space to share expressions and looks that may be dorky or may be amazing. There's no guarantee.

We shot about 400 big raw images, we drank tea, we talked about our kids and our careers. Fadya is a therapist. She specializes in addictions. She's got lots of interesting psychology information to share. It's stuff I find fascinating. We spent another half hour camera less,  sharing and catching up and aligning our experiences.

It was sometime around five when I walked Fadya up the long drive way to her car. We both had fun. I have enough images to work on to keep my hobbyist side busy for a while. I'll make a gallery for Fadya and when she chooses some images I'll do my best to make them really good. That's how I spend an afternoon in the studio having fun. Photography is a wonderful excuse just to be curious. Friendly portrait sessions are a great time to experiment with new gear and new techniques.

It's a day later and the gear is still all over my studio. The lights are still set up. The camera is on the camera pile and I've moved to the next one in the queue.

Now I'm thinking about how to improve the lighting for next time. One more HMI lighting head will help...




It takes time to get a camera and lens and specific lighting zeroed in. It's not an automatic function. At least not for me...


I love mixing up all the variables and starting from scratch. Move to a new type of light and it brings along its own influence on style. Change camera formats and you see your approach to shooting change. Work with a new lens and for a little while the novel new way of seeing the same subject means you compose a bit differently. 

On recent jobs I've been shooting with zoom lenses on an m4:3rds format. For the last week I've been shooting most things with the D7100 and the 85mm 1.8 lens. It's always fun to stir up the recipes. So, what have I noticed? Well, when shot at base ISO the Nikon has a smoother skin tone rendition than either the EM-5 or the GH4. I can duplicate the effect to a certain extent by using noise reduction sliders in Lightroom while adding some high frequency sharpening. At f2.8 with the 85mm I get backgrounds to go out of focus more quickly. The above image is pretty much out of camera. I did a slight amount of shadow recovery but no tonal changes or work on the background. What I'm seeing is a very nice rendition in the out of focus areas in the background. Also, the background is just eight feet behind Fadya and, at f2.8, is completely out of focus. I'm sure I can accomplish the same thing by shooting my 60mm m4:3 lens at f2.0 or nearly the same effect by shooting the 45mm 1.8 wide open. 

Also interesting to me is how well the above image handled high ISO. When I started my session with Fadya the camera was set to auto ISO with 3200 as the top end and 1/100th at the minimum shutter speed. This was not intentional. There are two different places in the Nikon menu that have to do with ISO and I just changed ISO to 160 in one place without remembering the Auto-ISO implementation. Since we were shooting in ambient light and locked to 1/100 as a minimum the camera defaulted to ISO 3200. I caught my mistake after a number of frames.

I presumed that the frames would be relatively unusable for my needs by decided to do a quick post process just for the heck of it. Apparently, starting with 24 megapixels helps in the grand scheme of things because after introducing a bit of noise reduction (and the noise at 3200 is just like the noise from the GH4 = tight, small black grains with no apparent color sparkles) and a bit of compensatory sharpening I was very happy with the overall quality of the file even at 100%. Interesting for me. 

While Fadya and I were playing around in the studio I did notice how quickly I kept hitting the buffer in the D7100. I'm used to the GH4 which slams out raws with wild abandon. The D7100 is pretty much locked into about seven frames before hitting the wall. I was shooting what I would consider worst case= that means auto distortion correction on, 14 bit file depth enabled and lossless compression set in the menu. While I am mentioning it here and it seemed to be a throw back to me I do have to make two points. The first is that the files are pretty enormous. Not "D810" enormous but the total amount information data tends to cube rather than double as resolution increases. Secondly, after having shot medium format film for years and having shot with four different medium format digital cameras (with one frame per second performance) the reality is that the D7100's pace is totally serviceable for a studio portrait artist. One just has to master one's cadence in shooting. And if you are doing it correctly there is a rhythm to every shoot. You just have to listen for it...

So, nice files with lots and lots of detail and (when the photographer sets the camera correctly) the wide dynamic range of the sensor means lifting shadows and keeping detail in skin highlights is that much easier. But what about my strange choice of lights?

If you've followed the VSL blog for long you'll see that I have an innate prejudice toward shooting portraits with continuous light sources. Until very recently I was pressing LED panels into service where possible. Last year I added four much more powerful fluorescent fixtures to the lighting collection and I've enjoyed using them. It takes a room with controlled lighting to pull the most out of the them because of the color mismatch with daylight and tungsten but as a primary light source for still portraits and video production they are a good addition. But the "holy grail" for continuous lighting buffs is a light source that really kicks out efficient light that's so close to average daylight that it's intermixable without heroic filtration. You want a light that does what the old fashion tungsten movie lights could do. That's to give you the flexibility of shooting with sharp, highly focused light or having enough power to pop the light through big diffusers and still get usable levels. 
In that way you get to choose between hard and soft. Something that's almost impossible to do with fluorescents and requires big expenditures to get with LED.

The lights I used with Fadya were the K5600 200 watt HMIs. Normally when I'm using continuous lighten the studio I block the outside illumination with black foamcore panels over all of the windows. This means there are no unexpected color shifts and it also means a total control over lighting contrast. With the HMIs I left the windows unobstructed. This allowed soft, non-focused light to come through. The HMIs were two or more stops brighter on Fadya but the combination of instrumented light and window glow lowered the overall contrast of the lighting and softened the effect on Fadya's skin. Interesting to me was the fact that the measured color temp. of the HMIs was 5400 + minus 4 green. That's pretty much nailed into accurate color. The percentage of green could be camera to camera variation as much as anything else (I have not had time to do an exhaustive profile of this particular camera yet...). 

Why continuous light instead of industry standard flash? I like the control that the continuous light offers and it is much easier on the subject as well. There's no constant flash to cause the photographer or subject's irises to continually stop down and re-open, which causes most of the fatigue experienced in a session. At slower shutter speeds there's nothing to freeze micro motions induced by breathing and the mobility of facial muscles. This leads to less clinical sharpness but a more realistic depiction of a subject. It's more in step with how we actually see and experience our external world that slices of unnaturally frozen and sharp flash work. Certainly, if you shoot dancers in mid-leap or fast moving children or some aspect of sports that might require (and accept) flash, you'll have different parameters to master. But photographing complicit adults is a whole different thing and one area in which the strengths of accurate revisualization, and lighting that's effectively ignored after a few minutes are good things. As is the slight softening of some details. 

HMIs are interesting to work with. You would think they are exactly like tungsten lights only balanced for daylight. But that's not exactly the case. They don't work by super heating a metal filament. Where tungsten lights (incandescents) work by apply current across a metal filament and heating it up till it glows HMIs work by creating an arc between two tungsten electrodes in a  high pressure atmosphere. They are much more efficient and generate much less heat. 

But they do require a "ballast" which is basically a box filled with electronic components that regulates current and voltage supplied to the electrodes. The ballast makes the whole construct much, much more expensive than conventional lights but the advantages are that you get a more comfortable working environment, daylight balancing, and higher output per watt of energy consumed. All the control of spot lights and other time honored tungsten constructs but with the energy efficiency and lack of heat that makes it a pleasure to work with for all parties. Is it any wonder that movie productions moved to HMIs decades ago? 

When I get my lights set up I turn on the switches on the electronic ballasts and it actually takes times, in fact several minutes, until the lights warm up and the arc becomes fully implemented and ready for shooting. It's novel to watch the warm up process as the lights go through color spectrum changes and go from vague and weak to full ready. 

The set of HMIs that I'm currently playing with are 200 watt fixtures. One is a fresnel spot light and the other is an open face.  Each accepts barn doors and a selection of different front lenses that can change the spread and the effect of the light. By changing the lighting pattern and by controlling spill with the barn doors the lights become very surgical and controlled in use. As I mentioned I used the open face light through a big diffuser for my main light and depended on the daylight coming in behind me and bouncing off the ceiling and walls as general fill. I used the fresnel spot (Alpha 200) as a background light, throwing a tight round pattern with very soft edges onto the dark gray canvas I used eight feet behind Fadya. 

There are differences that flash shooters will notice that take a little time and practice getting used to. The biggest difference is that there are no "level controls" on these lights. You have two settings: On and off. In the set up with Fadya the background light was to powerful compared to the main light. With a flash moonlight you would just turn down the power of the back light. What I had to do is cut the power of the back light using a black net. It took four layers of net to get the level that I wanted. Why didn't I just cover the light with diffusion material? Because it would have changed the spread characteristic of the light and made my tight spot into a broad flood. By using nets or screen material I am able to lower the overall level without changing the spread or the character of the light source. 

You make allowances for the tools you want to work with. I am awaiting the delivery of a third light this coming week. With the extra fixture I'll be able to do more complicated lighting set ups more easily. I'm also laying in a supply of metal screen material for additional level controls. One Tues. one of my good friends is using the lights to do production on some video interviews. It should be interesting to get his take on their performance as he's worked with these kinds of lights almost from the beginning of his career. 

I'm taking two of the lights with my on Thurs. for the start of a four day long assignment with lots of moving pieces. All Thurs. morning we're shooting more executive portraits in areas of flowing daylight. At some point the daylight moves and we need continuity. The HMIs in some giant diffusion should be just what the lighting doctor ordered.

I haven't done very much post processing to the images posted here of Fadya and I'll chalk that up to a busy schedule and re-entry into Austin this past week. But I'm pretty sure that you can see the effects I was working to get: A great smile, perfect eyes and the diminution of extraneous visual junk. 
Continuous lights and a different camera. Things that keep me from getting bored with the technical side of photography...