Video and photography have always seemed to be two different camps. One camp is dedicated to freezing the perfect moment while the other camp is equally dedicated to telling stories with moving images. For a long time the intersection between the camps was almost non-existent. Photographers were happy to leave video alone and concentrate on heading out in the world with their "optical butterfly nets" to capture perfect, individual images they hoped would grab the attention of viewers and hold them in the moment. Videographers grudgingly used still photographs in their edits when the topic of their work no longer existed in any other form. Think of the work Ken Burns did with his "Civil War" TV series... an impressive use of photographic archives and collections.
The inclusion of photographs in documentary video has largely limited to historic photographs. Old scenes captured mostly in black and white. Images of 1970's protests caught on slides and negatives but not always on video and certainly not to the same extent.
I've been doing a bunch of editing on my video projects recently and I began to realize how valuable concurrent photography could be as content in my moving picture work. I first started using still images to supplement video content for an interview I did with Dave Jarrott who played the part of J. Edgar Hoover in a play about President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The interview ended up cut down to about six minutes but we had not shot any b-roll and we only used one camera angle for the project. A week or so later I photographed the dress rehearsal of the play and made a point to shoot as many images of Dave Jarrott in his role as I could.
I went back to the original edit (which includes what I felt was just the right content) and started layering in still images. Some of the additions were utilitarian; they covered visible edit points which were jarring but unavoidable. But some images I added because I thought their visual resonance added power to the verbal content Dave was sharing. In the end I mixed in over 50 still images over the six minutes of interview dialog. The dress rehearsal photos were in color and needed to stay that way to convey the feel of the stage lighting and the set design but that led me to convert the color interview footage to black and white which I felt very much enhanced the feel of the project. I shared the finished piece with the theater's artistic director and he was amazed --- and very enthusiastic about reposting the interview.
With this good experience under my belt I headed to Canada to shoot four more videos. This time I made the shooting of still images an important part of my process. I wanted a folder full of relevant images to pepper through the four interviews in order to re-inforce messaging and to help pace the overall presentation. The style guide of the client is to make the videos at least 25% black and white but not more than 50% of the overall video program. This helped nudge me in the opposite direction I had taken in the previous project. Now I was making the still images black and white and the main interview footage color and it seemed to work well for me as well as the client.
With each project I see more and more how I can leverage my still photographer's sense of composition and timing, along with lighting and effective post production to make content that enhances the flow of the videos.
By the time I was ready to interview the star of the "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" production, at Zach Theatre, I had already created still photographs at both the tech and dress rehearsals and had over 1200 still images at my disposal with which to edit. As the project came together I couldn't find a rationale for making some parts black and white and some color so I kept the entire project in color. The images capture emotional high points in the show that couldn't be easily re-created in the course of a quick interview (if at all). I was able to match the emotional feel of the images to the content of the conversation we created. It was remarkable to me to see how much more alive the interview became with the inclusion of the photographs; mostly because they are so precisely aligned with what Chanel is telling us; sentence by sentence.
To do the same thing totally in video might have been possible but not nearly as easy. Shooting photographs in raw allows so much post production enhancement to the images. Flesh tones can be matched and improved, microphones removed from the frames, shadows lightened and defined areas of saturation boosted. I could fine tune noise reduction and increase sharpness at will. In short, I could touch each frame with as much work as it needed to have in a way that would be extraordinarily costly and time consuming in video. All of this adds to the perceived production value of the final piece.
This method can be done by a team such as a videographer working in tandem with a photographer, or you can embrace the philosophy of "One Man Movies" and do what you need to in phases. It's not always easy to switch gears and go between video and stills seamlessly. I needed to shoot the dress and tech rehearsals strictly as still photography to make sure I didn't miss anything that was potentially critical for marketing and advertising. Video during that process would have been a distraction. And when I shot the interviews there was no way to re-light the stage, change costumes and shoot the hundreds and hundreds of different poses and emotional inflections I was able to get in the still images. Doing each separately was good for the process.
I've shown a fairly large number of regular commercial clients the final version of the "Lady Day..." video and they have been very complementary and quite interested in understanding how we can make the technique of mixing photography and video together work for their future projects. In most cases the best way to proceed is to interview first and then catch a combination of photos and video of the subjects covered in the interviews afterward. Some parts will lend themselves to video while some of the more "heroic" images might lend themselves to stills. Photographs that add value by dint of being able to be optimized, layered, composited, etc. are especially valuable because many of the effects one can do to maximize the impact of a still frame are extravagant and costly when done in video.
I'm booked on two more healthcare projects and we just bid on a mixed media project for a utility company. Each of the projects is a good candidate for the intermixing of stills and video and the art directors involved are on board. It's fun for me to make a transition across media without loosening my grasp on the art that's brought me so far along this journey. Just a new way to frame and deliver the photographs I've always loved doing while putting a big smile on the faces of my clients.
That I was able to make the second video (Lady Day...) and shoot the stills with just one $1200 camera continues to amaze me. It's more and more obvious to me that the idea and the production is more important than the actual cameras at every step of the process. No magic bullets, no magic beans; just the joy of doing the work.
I've lately been a bit unconvinced that the Sony a9 is the greatest thing to hit the camera world since through the lens metering. I'm also starting to think that my disregard for that camera grows in proportion to the sheer number of "news" outlets, blogs and review sites participating in the "gush-fest." The all out barrage of reviews and articles, concentrated into a short period of time, seems almost disingenuous. Almost like Sony is trying too hard with their new model. The rush to review it also smells slightly of desperation as well. As if reviewers are so hungry to have a product to tout, and link to, that they've become little more than force multipliers for Sony.
While I am fairly sure that the a9 will be a nice camera and people will enjoy using it I am also fairly certain that it won't make people who buy it better photographers and it won't make their photographs any more interesting. Interesting photography generally only happen when one points a camera at something genuinely interesting. I am certain that the a9 will be an effective tool in aiding Sony's quest to pull more cash from people's credit card accounts. None of this has anything to do with what "pros" need or want. And none of this has to do with how much money it may (or may not) cost to switch systems.
So, this morning when the articles veered into an incomprehensible argument about the financial efficacy of switching entire systems I gave up reading everything and went looking for a camera that met my criteria; a comfortable and friendly camera to carry around. A daily user. A bargain. One that I already owned...
While I am still in awe at the amazingly detailed files achievable from the A7Rii and endlessly impressed with the 4K video performance of the RX10iii (and its remarkable lens) the most comfortable and usable camera in my small collection is my particular copy of the plain vanilla A7ii. It's a camera I bought used for around $1,000. There was some scuffery on the rear LCD panel which made it much less than minty but since I only use the LCD for menu setting it doesn't affect my use of the camera.
The A7ii is the bottom of the rung when it comes to the newer A7xx cameras. The 24 megapixel sensor, while not state of the art, was good enough for those zany folks at DXO to rate it a 90. The body is small and dense, just the way I like my cameras. The finder is adequate and external controls are nicely designed and placed for me. I've even made peace with the menus; in fact, I now find them almost logical.
The camera is the perfect size for me but it also works well with an added battery grip. And sometimes it's nice to go for the grip ... it's great to have a second battery in the mix to allow for more shooting time and less battery monitoring.
The camera does nothing very special at all. It just combines a good, high enough resolution capability with a very usable EVF and a workmanlike 1080p video function.
But it's the lack of perfection or high performance (or high cost) that endears the camera to me. I am not reticent to use it hard, to carry it with me everywhere and to use it on just about any job.
I use the Rii when I need ultimate performance and I use the RX10iii for killer video but I use the A7ii when I want to be comfortable and at home with the camera in my hand.
I've recently and slowly been putting together a pared down travel system based around the full frame A7ii. The first choice was the inexpensive FE 50mm f1.8. It's a really, really good lens with nice performance nearly wide open and excellent performance when it gets to f5.6. The next lens in the plan was one of my all time favorite focal lengths, the FE 85mm f1.8. It's a fabulous 85mm. I think I have a good handle on lenses around this focal length having owned, and extensively used, the original Canon 85mm f1.1.2, several variants of the Nikon 85mm f1.4, the Canon and Nikon 85mm f1.8 lenses, the Zeiss 85mm f1.4 for Nikon and other "mystical" lenses such as the Leica 80mm f1.4 Summilux R and the 90mm Summicron R and M.
The new, $600 Sony FE 85mm f1.8 is just great. Nicely sharp wide open and exquisitely sharp a couple of stops down.
That left only one slot to be filled and that was the focal length range between 24mm and 35mm. I have several zooms that cover those focal lengths but I was looking for a trim little system that would fit well in a small Domke camera bag to take on the road and in my mind that meant finding a small, sharp single focal length lens. A bonus would be a fast maximum aperture.
Sometimes I trust my intuition and sometimes my intuition waffles. I settled on the Sony FE 28mm f2.0 lens but waffled. I read a lot of reviews and then I decided not to procrastinate and I bought a new copy of that lens. It arrived yesterday and I'm smitten. It's small and light, fits well into the travel system, and is fast enough to work in just about any situation, in conjunction with the decent low light performance of the camera.
My initial tests show me that the 28mm is sharp in the focused plane, even wide open, and gets sharper and sharper as I stop it down. By f5.6 it's pretty amazing. It shows off amazing nano-acuity. I know that it has a good amount of distortion but this is 2017 and the camera corrects it in Jpeg files while Lightroom and ACR corrects the distortion easily when working with RAW files.
Now I have a happy system that delivers wonderful technical performance for the kind of impromptu photography I love to do. I have space in that bag for one more thing. I'd like to find a second well used A7ii body to toss into one of the side pockets of the bag, just for a back-up.
I walked with the A7ii+28mm today and I'm very, very happy to have them. They help to make photography fun. Just plain, good fun.
Portrait for a production at Live Oak Theater. Mid-1990s.
There was a weekend "outage" of many recent posts on VSL over the last two days. Don't know what caused it but I have a suspicion that some random server at Google died and it took a while to port the back-up files. Or, I pushed some button and then pushed it back again today, without paying attention.
I've been a little burned out on the photography business lately. It seems to be like the definition of insanity: I do the same (type of) shoots over and over again and when they all turn out competently I am surprised. I keep expecting totally different results and have come to resent the banality of anticipation matching completion. Not that I want to totally mess up someone's project; I just think it would be nice if I "accidentally" shot in the way I generally do but ended up with images that were so amazing that people would weep tears of joy upon viewing them. Probably not going to happen that way...
I could regale you with stories about shooting portraits or products but I think I'll reflect my current state of existence instead. Last week we finished up our federal income taxes and our state sales tax return. I produced a couple of photo assignments and completed the post production, etc. I took Belinda to see the traveling Broadway production of, "The Phantom of the Opera." We went to a dinner party. By the end of the day on Sunday I was just fried. And that brings us to today.
We don't swim on Mondays (the pool is closed for maintenance..) so I started the day with a brisk four mile run on the hike and bike trail that wends and winds its way through downtown Austin, around the slow moving Colorado River. The weather was perfect for a run and, while my elapsed time for the run was mediocre, the trail was packed with pretty people and that helped keep my mind off that stitch in my side and the embarrassment of realizing that I am now slowing down to a ten minute mile pace. A part of the inevitable decline...
When I got back and cleaned myself up I checked messages and found one about an upcoming project that will take place out of state. We got budget and schedule approval to travel and do video and still photographs in the second week of May for a healthcare client. I headed to Southwest Airlines and booked flights that more or less match (arrival times) the flights my client booked for himself on a different airline. I had a trip credit I wanted to use and I also thought to save my client some money on baggage fees. SWA still allows two checked bags (under 50 pounds each) for no additional charges. I considered United Airlines but I don't know Kung Fu, haven't studied "The Iron Fist" technique and feel like I already spend enough on dental work...
I put together a note, with my itinerary, and sent it to my client. I also suggested that we meet for lunch to discuss pre-production. So, pre-production today about pre-production meetings down the road...
Later, I went all "old school" and actually dropped by the local branch of the bank I use for the business to drop off a check/deposit. I dropped off some bill payments at the post office too.
I was in the middle of printing post cards when I got a call from an ad agency asking me to produce a bid. It's a "one from column A, one from column B" sort of bid because they may need one photograph or they may need three. They may need one talent or they may need three. They might also want to add video interviews to each variation. Yes, clients are now routinely asking for a side helping of video with their "main course" of still imaging. Conversely, they may want a still photography "dessert" along with their video "entree." Best to create the "bid matrix" and be prepared for any variation.
I did some quick research and tendered by bid about an hour after receiving the request. It would be a fun project so I have my fingers crossed. And, for all you cynical photographers who believe the industry is declining into a hell-state; my client closed our phone call about the bid request with, "Don't forget to include USAGE in your bid!!!"
In the middle of all this my mind had already started to break the first May project (60% video, 40% photography) into chunks. My brain likes to think about what to pack pretty far in advance. I think it's a dodge to help rationalize timely new purchases. B&H is having a sale on an interesting microphone so I picked one up as a back-up for my favorite shotgun style microphone, the Aputure Diety. Why not be over prepared? The job is mostly interviews and video...
The new microphone, coming with free shipping from B&H, (sorry, no affiliate links for that one) is the Rode NTG 4+. The plus sign at the end of the name denotes that this model has built in electronics and supplies its own phantom power via a 150 hour (rechargeable) lithium ion battery, which is also built in. The NTG4+ is supposed to have an improved microphone capsule when compared with the NTG-2 but the current sale (through the 27th of April) has the new microphone at or near the same price as the still good, but venerable, NTG-2. I look forward to putting it through its paces.
In the same acquisitive vein, I am patiently waiting delivery of a lense that's been bouncing in and out of my mental shopping cart for several weeks now. That would be the Sony FE 28mm f2.0. I decided to forgo the pleasure of yet another long trip to the local camera store and to just click the button on the Amazon website. The pricing is identical and someone (hopefully) will deliver said lens right to my doorstep. Those of you who live in Austin will understand that traveling up or down Mopac Expressway to buy locally could easily eat another hour or two of travel time. Probably not worth it for a lens whose acquisition has already proven to be so arduous...
I'll finish up the pre-production day writing a few more deposit slips and doing yet another test on my Sony A7ii. We're testing to see just how good or bad it is for shooting as a b-camera in 1080P. So far, it doesn't look bad at all.
A few years ago many people were trashing new cameras if they did not come equipped with GPS. I never understood why and I still don't today. Very, very few people really need to have ancillary crap like GPS in their cameras. People have rushed to explain the benefits of location tagging their images but I file that into the same folder as people who keep a meticulous record of every penny they spend in a day, or people who keep notebooks about the calories they've consumed. Meaningless informational crap. Might as well tell me how important it is to keep an Excel spreadsheet of your daily breathing patterns. You know, just for reference....
But this must be how they sell FitBits and "smart" watches that record one's workouts.
Well, the same compulsive and scary people have now decided on a new metric for all new cameras. They've decided that all cameras must now come with dual memory card slots or risk being labelled as major failures. The overwhelming rationale is that they MUST have an in-camera back up files for everything they shoot. Really? Most people who feel this way seem to be the same people who actually use their cameras to photograph their own lunches, their friends drinking coffee, selfies and bad landscapes. Hardly earth shattering reportage that would diminish the quality of life for anyone if the images were lost due to technical glitches... And I can't for the life of me remember which film cameras we had that took double film just in case of lab accidents or mis-loads....
The cold, hard reality is that most memory cards don't experience failures on their own these days. If you follow the best practices of formatting your memory card, in camera, and never erasing images in cameras or when the card is connected to your computer, you will probably never experience a fault with your memory card. The other instances that might lead to failure are: the act of removing your card from the camera without first turning off the camera, or from a card reader without first ejecting the card from your computer.
Simple rules, and easy to follow. But no longer enough for a contingent of people who would rather try to buy their way out of incompetence and poor workflow protocols. They now demand that all cameras be equipped with additional "training wheels" in order to be considered professional, or even proficient. This is the same cohort that must have raw processing built into the camera as well as HDR settings and panorama settings. And all other manner of gimmicky things made possible (cheaply) by excess space on camera microprocessors.
But the very same people who demand all many of glitzy operational crap and unneeded redundancy will bitch and moan about the inclusion of first rate video on the same camera. Go figure.
We had a cold front move through this morning. It dropped the temperature to 61 degrees. There was a slight breeze and the sky was overcast. Not gloomy grey but a sky bordering on a bald white. I drank a cup of hot tea with a half teaspoon of sugar and a little bit of milk in it, grabbed a towel, and headed to the Western Hills Athletic Club pool to join 25 or so like-minded swimmers for our usual Saturday morning masters workout. (For more information about Masters Swimming see the USMS website).
Most of us swim five or six days a week but some of the members alternate running days, biking day and swimming days. Whatever their schedule Saturday mornings are usually a priority. On Saturday and Sunday the workouts are an hour and a half and we try to get in a lot of good, hard yards. There's an early workout of the truly dedicated swimmers and they were exiting as I trudged up to the pool deck with my swim gear in hand. They looked tired, beat up and happy.
I've been trying to get back to a regular five day a week schedule lately and I can see the rewards; I'm swimming better and faster and the waists on my collection of pants feels looser... The benefit is being able to eat almost anything without tipping the bathroom scale in the wrong direction.
I swam in lane four today with Ed and Shannon. They are both a little bit faster than me but I'm able to hang with them on anything shorter than 400 yards. After a bunch of warm up sets our coach, Cheryl, concocted a brutal little set for us as the main entree. The set consisted of three X 50 yards on a forty second interval followed immediately by 4 x 25 yard sprints; halfway under water in each direction. We repeated that set four times. It's basically three fast sprints in a row with little to no rest. We call them, "touch and goes" because, unless you are really fast, you are hitting the wall at the 50, looking at the clock and then going again.
As a warm down after that fun set we did: 2x200's, 2x150s, 2x100's freestyle before starting the next set. It was an ambitious day in the pool. We did a bit more than 4,000 yards in our hour and a half and that seemed to satisfy even the most masochistic and compulsive exercisers in the group.
Following the workout a group of us did what we have done on most Saturdays for the last twenty years. We headed to a local coffee shop to drink coffee, talk about the workout, talk about swimming and just catch up in general. There is a core of swimmers who've been at coffee since the beginning and new ones who cycle in and out. But it's so good to have time to maintain the bonds. As we all grow older we have to make concessions in our training but if we are growing older together it's not as obvious, or as emotionally painful to deal with the toll of time.
I've been swimming with the same masters team five or six days a week since 1996. I love being in the water and have often thought that the five or six seconds after a swimmer pushes off the wall, in a good streamline position, is the closest most humans will ever come to flying without an aircraft. The aerobic fitness that a disciplined group workout conveys is vital to me as a working photographer. With the combination of swimming, walking, running and resistance training I've been able to work at the same physical levels I did in my 30's; with no back or shoulder issues. Staying in good physical shape may, in fact, be the most valuable investment I've made in my career as a working artist.
The wonderful thing about playing within a group of swimmers is the example set by everyone around you. They may be recovering from something dire, like cancer; they may have lost a loved one or had a misfire in their career, but they show up, put on their goggles and push aside the worries of life for an hour spent relishing their fitness and their ability to apply discipline to this part of their lives. And everyone in the pool is there to support them and push them forward.
In every set back I've had in my own life the medicine that worked best to get me back on track was the time I've spent in the water. I think I've always known that using a particular camera is far less important than having the fitness and discipline to use whatever camera you have with you to make your work.
We caught up with the group news while we swilled coffee. One of our group brought along a bag of hazelnuts. the chef in our ranks brought along some banana-chocolate bundt cake, we snacked and re-energized ourselves. An hour later we headed our separate ways. Some heading home to do chores, others heading in to tend to the businesses they own, and still others heading home for a quick nap or lunch with family. We only have coffee together once a week but it's a good bet we'll see most of the same characters at tomorrow morning's swim.