4.28.2015

Upcoming field trip to the great north. Traveling for fun.

Studio Dog puts her foot down and demands we organize a party to "fetch" our 
young college student back home. She is tired of having her own room and having 
to scratch her own belly. "Bring me the boy!" she growled. 


So next Wednesday I'm heading up to Saratoga Springs, NY, by way of Albany to help Ben pack up his winter gear, have dinner and coffees with my friend, Fred, and generally take a three day break from the constant stress and responsibility of being a Texas artist. I am sure Ben can hardly wait to leave his enchanted enclave at Skidmore College, trade the bracing freshness of 60 degree days for the 95+ with bountiful humidity of his home town, and rush to the chaffing, unfathomable boundaries of once again living at home with his parents after almost a year of freedom. 


I have only been to Saratoga Springs once before and that was last Fall. The leaves were turning colors and there was already a briskness to the air. It seemed like a foreign country to me. But I quickly came to love the small town, it's great restaurant scene, the community feeling of the Uncommon Grounds coffee house and the ten minute walk through a majestic neighborhood that connects the college with the town proper. 


There is one perplexing decision to make for this trip....Which camera and which (one) lens should I bring? The front runner at the moment is the Olympus EM5.2 with the Panasonic 12-35mm lens but I do have a line on a Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art lens and I may just be a big enough sucker for new gear to snag that and slap it on the front of my Nikon D610. I'll decide the night before. 


While I am excited about the trip and also the prospect of having boy around for the Summer I once thought of buying a place up in Saratoga Spring to use as a Summer home. Then I woke up from my Disney-like dream sequence and remembered that I am still a freelance photographer and am lucky to own one home. But I will make the most of my three days unencumbered by the hard work of making photographs so I can have fun making photographs. It's all very confusing but I think I know what I mean. 

That's Weds. through Friday of next week. If you read the blog and you happen to see me at Uncommon Grounds don't hesitate to drop by and say hello. If you seem nice I might even buy you a cup of coffee.

Kirk buys a seven inch Marshall Electronics video monitor and uses it all day on a still photography shoot. What the hell?


There I was with my big Nikon D810 on top of the Manfrotto cinema ballhead ready to shoot some incredibly cool video content of super-superstar vocalist, Jennifer Holliday, for my friends at Zach Theatre. The four big florescent light fixtures were slamming around electro-luminescent craziness and I had a Sennheiser lavaliere microphone clamped to Ms. Holliday's collar ready to record every ounce of perfect conversation that got uttered.

I had carefully focused my 85mm lens, marked a spot on the floor for Ms. Holliday and then stopped down to f5.6 to give me enough depth of field (or so I thought) to cover small amounts of talent movement. It all started out in the just right category. The voice through my headphones was wonderful and the image playing across the 3.2 inch screen on my camera looked just like the footage I saw earlier this year on the Academy Awards.

And then Ms. Holliday became a bit more animated and my day started falling apart. She took a step forward and I knew she would be out of the sharp range of focus. I went to manually focus only to be thwarted by a combination of eyes that have long since lost their perfect performance coupled with a camera screen that's great for composition but sucks for trying to achieve sharp focus. At some point I switched out of video mode and refocused. Thanks goodness for the off camera interviewer's interjection... But for a few minutes I was praying for focus peaking.

While Nikon may, at some distant time in the future, add focus peaking to the D810 I'm sure not counting on it. But then I remembered that a lot of video field monitors have focus peaking as a feature. I started looking around. I wanted to be prepared for the next session. I wanted to re-master sharp focus.

I made pilgrimage to Precision Camera and looked at their monitor selection. The one that made sense was the Marshall Electronics M-CT710. The screen looked pretty good, the controls are pretty straightforward and it has focus peaking. It also came with two batteries, a charger, an A/C adapter, a sunshade and two different HDMI cables. The batteries are copies of the Nikon EN-EL 15 batteries I use in my two Nikon cameras and one of the HDMI cables, the HDMI standard to HDMI mini fit my two cameras. At that point I made a note of the price, $345, and decided I'd wait and buy the unit the very next time I got booked to shoot video for a client. The very next time....

Miraculously, I exited Precision Camera without making a single purchase. Not even a lens cleaning cloth or a battery!!!

I got into my car and, in accordance with Austin's new hands free cellphone ordinance, decided to check my e-mails and texts on my phone before firing up the automobile. There was a message from the client that I will be working with all week long. We're working on an annual report project and she wanted to know if I had a monitor or laptop we could bring along to really look at the shots as we went along.

Now I hate shooting tethered to a laptop outside of the studio. Just hate it. It's ponderous and plodding and the big screens are hard to shield from bright, ambient light, and if your battery runs out in the middle of a field there's really nothing you can do----Apple Macbook Pros now "feature" non-changeable batteries (really, it's a good thing?). But I don't mind being hooked up to an HDMI monitor.

After I read the message I returned to the store and pulled out my wallet. That part where I talk about being a good steward of the family's money? That's over. Again. But I do have a snazzy, new 7 inch field monitor.

I charged the two batteries last night and spent time going through every control until I knew how the new monitor worked with the D810. I packed extra batteries and an extra HDMI cable and tossed a little Pelican case full of video capability into the car.

This morning we were shooting in a huge water chiller facility in a medical center. The "heros" of the shot were a rep from the company I am shooting for and his customer/counterpart at the medical center. I set up the camera and comped in the shot. A nice, wide one that showed off big, industrial gear and featured the two guys right in the middle, talking shop and looking at an iPad.

I set up a couple of background lights to keep the back wall and area from going too dark. It's a nice way to add depth and make sure the image fits into a usable tonal range. I used a large light as a main key and a fourth light as a back lit to subtly rim my human subjects. All of the lights were battery powered electronic flashes being triggered by a brand new set of Cactus V6 transceiver/receiver units. I was also using a new Cactus flash as a master unit to trigger everything else.

When I got the lighting set up and dialed in I added a  super clamp to the leg of the tripod and a Magic Arm to the clamp. At the other end of the Magic Arm I attached the new monitor and fired it up. Then I put the sun shade on it to make it look even cooler. All at once my client and I could see the live view image up big and personal. The color was fine (we were shooting raw but still making custom white balances as we went) but the cool thing was being able to see the image so big.  The client was able to see the composition clearly and quickly let me know how to fine tune it. I could "punch in" on the image and see the level of detail.

When I switched from a wide angle zoom to a manual focusing 85mm f1.4 I was able to call up the focus peaking feature on the monitor and see, very clearly, exactly what was (and wasn't) in sharp focus.

I left the monitor attached for the entire shoot and it gave my client additional piece of mind while allowing me to dodge the burden of a bigger, heavier (and more flare prone) laptop and all the inefficiencies of actually shooting tethered. We're charging the batteries now for tomorrow's shoot and we'll be bringing it along.

While I bought the monitor ostensibly for video it seems to serve a useful purpose for still imaging as well.

One more addition to the gear list for those shoots where clients are adamant about assessing the images before, during and after we shoot. I've decided to like it.

Thanks for reading.

The Luminance Conundrum. Why some video might look off.


Engineers know that you can't optimize for everything. Something in the triangle or dodecahedron of choices has to give in order for something more important to spread its wings. The people who design cameras must be plagued with issues like this all the time. Questions like: Do I make the chassis big enough to conduct heat away from the circuitry or do I limit clock speed of processors in order to keep the components cool enough? How many screws do I need to put into the lens mount in order to make sure big lenses don't cause problems? How simple do I have to make the image processing in order to have the camera shoot fast enough for the marketing people? Do I vent for heat or give in to the mania for "weather proofing"? Should the lens be fast or sharp or small? --- I can't have all three.

I've written before about my misgivings concerning the Olympus EM5.2 video but I'm starting to mellow as I dig into the files and come up with some workarounds to the standard shooting set ups. I was frustrated that a camera with some of the prettiest files I've ever seen (as still images) seemed to have issues with detail and sharpness when shooting video. I used the neutral color profile and turned various settings like contrast and saturation down to keep the files from seeming too thick. What I was getting was files with bigger sharpening interfaces that I wanted. It was as if the camera was set to use bigger radius settings in sharpening for video rather than using small radius settings and a higher percentage of sharpening. I wanted the files to be more subtle and more detailed---or at least as detailed as 1080p video files could look. My reference standard is the GH4 but I would be satisfied if the EM5.2 came close. In its standard set-up the files looked as though they were not as well sharpened as they could be and then had a layer of noise reduction over-layed on to them.

I had a little epiphanal insight about the whole mess this week. I was playing around with the camera and switched the profile to monotone (green filter setting) to make some black and white images. The camera went from sharp (in color) to ultrasharp (in monotone). I sat down along a babbling brook to meditate on what might be the deal when it dawned on me that Olympus's engineers must be doing most of their image sharpening in the luminance channel so they could prevent excess noise in the chrominance (color) channels. This would give them good sharpness with low chroma noise when people make images in color and in Jpeg (although I am sure somewhat the same choices are being made in raw).

While they have mastered this technique for still images where there is ample processor time to make everything match up video works in a different way. In the long GOP files noise in color is probably being handled as a median, homogenous setting that requires less speed from the processing engines. And, in fact, when I shoot black and white video, which throws away the chrominance channels I find the video to be sharply detailed and nearly immune from aliasing. Something is happening when the color is applied.

I went back into the menus and made a few changes that helped me produce video files that I am happier with. To wit, I have started using the muted color profile, leaving the saturation and contrast sub controls zero'ed and then bringing down the sharpening to its minimum level. Of course I am using the image stabilization without digital manipulation (mode 2) and I have tried to be very careful not to under or over expose. The final step is to go to the custom curves setting and flatten out the profile just a little bit more; raising the dark part of the curve and lowering the higher tones.

When used this way the camera delivers a flat file that can be messed with in post processing to bring back the contrast and saturation I am looking for. Minimizing the sharpness in the shooting portion of our program is helpful but there is still some sharpening going on. I can live with it.

With the help of these settings the Olympus EM5.2 is quickly becoming my "go-to" camera for any situation that requires me to go "off tripod" and follow something or someone around. It's a great little ENG (electronic news gathering) camera and the constant movement largely masks some of the shortcomings I was seeing earlier in my ownership.

When using the camera in this way I have also found that the best files come from my slower FPS settings. I am happiest with the files (color and sharpening) that I am getting at 24 fps. I would also say that lens selection is helpful. While someone from Olympus suggested that I would get the best quality from their branded lenses it's not really the case. I'm getting my best files (not over sharpened...) with older, legacy Nikon lenses as well as manual focus lenses made for the ancient Olympus half frame series of cameras. These lenses don't seem to have the clinical sharpness of the newest glass but their "rounded" quality and lower contrast seems to help when the camera translates stuff into video. Yes, the newest Olympus glass, like the 75mm f1.8 and the 45mm f1.8 are nifty sharp in still imaging but they are a bit too sharp for video rendering that I prefer.

Every time I get better results I get closer to thinking that the EM5.2 could be the best all around camera on the market today. It's clearly the most fun to shoot with, if it fits in your hands.....

Perhaps the engineers at Olympus decided not to have a separate sharpening protocol for video and depend on the sharpening for full, 16 megapixel files, the result being the over bearing sharpening characteristic when the frames are down sampled to a bit less than 2K for video. I don't know. I've never been a software/firmware guy. But I do know that they understand the issue. Whether or not it's cost effective to fix it is another matter. At this point I am very comfortable shooting good video with these work arounds. I'm glad I spent the time to "zero in" the cameras for the way I want them to look because I think the image stabilization is a big evolutionary step in shooting video.

My favorite rigging is to use the uber-sharp Panasonic 12-35mm f2.8 on the camera, a set of Apple earbuds plugged into the headphone jack on the HLD-8G grip and a small, Azden shotgun mic secured to a tripod socket mounted accessory bar. The camera focuses quickly, the lens renders things in a nice way and the Azden mic is a surprisingly good little shotgun microphone for under $100.

Yes, I have better headphones. Yes, I have better microphones. Yes, I have a fluid head tripod. But the whole idea is to come up with something that is small, light, agile and capable. I think of my rig as the video counterpart to Henri Cartier-Bresson's little screw mount Leicas with collapsable lenses---ready and infinitely available. It's a new age for videographers and these smaller cameras are a bridge between accessibility and ultimate quality. For me it's an engineering compromise I am now ready to say "works for me."  Thanks for reading.