11.15.2017

The Three Graces. Louvre. 1986.

©1986 Kirk Tuck

People keep asking me where the Sony cameras got off to. And why they seem to have vacated the premises...

Sigmund Freud is credited with saying: "But really, how can you actually know which camera you like best if you have not used all of the available cameras? Now, what would your mother say? What do your dreams tell us?"

I woke up one morning and there was a stack of one hundred dollar bills bunched up under my pillow, along with a note from the Camera Fairy. The note read, "You seem less enthused about that big pile of Sony cameras and lenses than you used to be before you bought that Panasonic GH5 and that Olympus 12-100mm Pro lens. Just like my cousin, the Tooth Fairy, does with old teeth I've taken it upon myself to remove the no longer cherished cameras and replace them with cold, hard cash. Good luck!"

We're a month and a half shy from closing out 2017 and it's been a year of interesting changes. I've gone from a business model that was based almost entirely on making photographs for businesses to a totally different sort of undertaking. This year will mark the first year in which the majority (just a bit more than half) of my income has been derived from producing, writing, shooting and editing video. In nearly every instance the companies I created video for approached me directly or I approached them, and this will mark the first year in which the vast majority of my engagements were directly with the final client and not finagled or funneled through a third party, such as an advertising agency or public relations firm. Those are big, huge, changes. I believe that these changes are a reflection of the greater market shifting---
---but that's a subject for a much lengthier and more analytic post.

What changed in regards to cameras? My ownership of the Sony cameras (and the Nikons before them) was based on the idea that I'd continue doing my business with a traditional photography workflow and that I'd be called upon to create high resolution images for print and trade show use. I bought cameras like the A7Rii and the Nikon D810 for the same reason people buy all kinds of stuff. It was the tradition, of a sort, in my industry. Everywhere you look people who purport to make a living with photography are sporting around big Sonys, big Nikons and big Canons. They all seem to love big lenses as well. But unless they have aimed themselves at the retail side of photography (weddings, babies and family portraits) I believe they are gearing themselves up for a business model they've been seeing in the rear view mirror of time. A working model from the past that's diminishing year by year. With the new awareness of a business model that's shifting (for me) into video and rejecting traditional printed photographs, the requirements for the cameras I want to work with have shifted away from the idea of "ultimate image quality at any cost" toward something less gear rigorous and more thought intensive.

I bought the first Panasonic GH5 on the strength of investigatory work I'd done with its less expensive sibling, the G85. Once I started using the GH5 with really good lenses, like the Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 Pro, I was hooked. The video quality; especially flesh tone rendering, was a clear step above what I had been able to squeeze out of the Sony cameras. All models of the Sony line create video that's amazingly sharp and detailed but I wasn't feeling the love for the color palette the cameras delivered. Where color grading or correction was a struggle when making video with the Sony cameras, it has been very simple and straightforward when using GH5 files. 

I also knew that I wanted to be able to offer my clients technically sophisticated video files that would conform to broadcast quality standards, where needed. I wanted to offer things like the ability to do 4:2:2 color for work with green screens; more tonal separation via 10 bits of information, and All-I files that would tame subject motion artifacts or camera motion artifacts. Finally, for very demanding clients I wanted to be able to offer files with lots of information, like the 400 mb/s, All-I files now available in the GH5. When I combined these features with a wonderful EVF and batteries with stamina I was more or less sold. 

I kept both camera systems until I was able to test out the "goodies" that got delivered in firmware 2.0 of the Panasonic camera and then, when completely satisfied, I dumped the Sony stuff into the used market to help pay for the fun stuff I wanted for the new system. 

I'm not particularly dense so I do understand that the bigger sensor in the Sony cameras will provide some extra quality at high ISOs, but having done several illumination-challenged jobs with the Panasonic FZ2500, with a much smaller sensor that the m4:3 cameras, I'm pretty confident that this won't be an issue for the way I shoot. We also keep a healthy inventory of lighting gear around here which means that most of the stuff we produce that can be lit can be controlled and shot at lower ISOs --- where all cameras look great. 

The other parameter where full frame cameras such as the Sony A7ii and A7Rii have had traditional advantages has been in depth of field control. Or, more precisely, being able to easily put the backgrounds of photographs out of focus by using wider apertures. I'm clearly concerned about being able to continue to do this as it's a look I use in my environmental portraits a lot. 

In this regard I am confident that I'll find equivalent control with the new generation of Pro lenses that are coming on line from Olympus. I have the 45mm f1.2 Pro on order; I am considering picking up one of the 25mm Pros (though my experiences with the Panasonic 25mm f1.7 and the 7 Artisans 25mm f1.7 are both quite satisfactory), and I have had much satisfaction using the very, very good Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 Pro lens at it's wide open aperture. 

In short I'm finding that the fewer different menus (and families of menus) I must recall on the spot the happier and more secure I am in executing my assignments. I have now (for the first time ever!!!!!) winnowed down my collection of photographic toys to the point where two of the cameras (the GH5s) are identical and the other two are from the same basic generation  and have very similar menus to navigate through. Whether I am picking up the one inch sensor FZ2500 or the m4:3 GH5 all the basic menu items are pretty much the same and all the nomenclature now makes sense to me. 

Add to this the smaller footprint and lighter weight of the holistic system and I feel lean and ready to engage in the actual work.

None of this is intended to paint the Sony cameras as a "bad choice" or an ineffective imaging solution. On the contrary, I think that for people who are engaged solely in traditional still photography the Sony family is a great choice. Especially with the new A9, and A7Riii and the RX10iv. I was just looking for a different set of parameters and I believe I've found a system that's closer to my multiple uses than anything else on the market. I mean really, who else gives you waveform monitors and vector scopes in a camera at this price point? Nobody. 

At some point I'm sure I'll hear the siren call of bigger formats and less detail in my backgrounds. I can hardly wait to start shopping for a Fuji or Hasselblad medium format (pixie medium format) camera system but it will be a while before I circle back around to the more conventional choices. 

None of the images here were made with either the Sony or the Panasonic cameras. You can do decent work with just about anything. Make you job easier if you can. Or if you want to....

If it doesn't have an EVF I don't want to shoot with it...












Don't be too literal about guidelines. There are exceptions to everything.

It's hard to stop two young women on a scooter speeding through Rome to ask permission to photograph them as they speed by at XX kilometers per hour... Sometimes you need to shoot first if you are to get a shot at all.

I ran eight miles to catch them and ask permission but lost them on the Apian Way. (sarcasm).

Photos from Downtown San Antonio. With Renae.



11.14.2017

One step closer to "perfection." The DMW-XLR1 for the Panasonic GH5.


We're shooting a project on Friday and Saturday that calls for a bunch of interview footage and we've decided to use a couple of GH5s and one G85 for our production cameras. While my partner and I both have standalone digital audio recorders, and we both have pre-amplifier interfaces of various types, I decided to bite the bullet and buy the audio interface that Panasonic made exactly for their flagship m4:3 video camera. It arrived last week and I put it through its paces in anticipation of the upcoming project.

What the hell is this thing? It's an audio interface and pre-amplifier which adds the capability of using all kinds of professional microphones, which require connection via balanced XLR plugs, with your GH5.

This means that it works with pretty much every professional microphone you'd want to use; with one small caveat.  It works with my Aputure Diety shotgun microphone, all manner of Rode shotgun microphones, my hyper-cardioids, the Sennheiser radio mics and many more. Where it falls down, in terms of universal compatibility, is with less sensitive dynamic microphones. It's fine with my Rode Reporter microphone (a handheld dynamic) but my dynamic, side address microphone, the Audio Technica AT2035, requires lots and lots of gain and that pushes up the noise. It's fine for me but some clients are really sensitive to audio noise so --- approach with caution if you are dead set on pairing up the Panasonic DMW-XLR1 with non-condenser/dynamic microphones.

This unit allows XLR cables from two different microphones to be plugged in, supplied with phantom power, if your microphone requires it, provides precisely controllable gain, even high pass filters, and sends the resulting signals to the GH5 directly through the hot shoe connections. It's small, sturdy and light.

The unit is not self-powered but depends on power from the camera, supplied through the same hot shoe contacts. There is a green light on the rear of the unit (where you'll have a hard time not seeing it...) that lets you know your unit is powered up. I haven't measured the run time of the unit + camera shooting at 4K and also providing phantom power to two microphones, but Curtiss Judd has and he found it to be about 2 hours and 15 minutes. Coming from the tiny Sony camera batteries this performance seems miraculous.

Why are we shooting with GH5s instead of an (available) Sony FS7 video camera? Pretty straightforward answer, I think.  We want the files coming out of camera to be "final look" in case we need to hand them off to the client's people for editing (over which we might have no control) so we'd like to get them as close to what we want to end up with as possible, right in camera. Experience tells us that we'll have an easier time getting the flesh tone and general look we're shooting for with the Panasonic cameras. We're sporting light meters as well as in camera scopes so we're pretty sure we're going to nail exposure. We're lighting our important interior scenes so were almost certain to manufacture lighting that matches the dynamic range of the (non-Log) camera files and, we're both going to carry Lastolite white/gray targets so we're hoping to keep white balance between our three cameras close.

Also, we don't have access to two more Sony FS7s, dedicated batteries, etc. and want to make sure that all our sources have the same basic family color science --- in case we wind up doing the edit.  Just to make it easier on ourselves...

This is also why we're using a DMW-XLR1 audio unit to capture main audio from Sennheiser wireless microphones. Recording primary sound to an external recorder would add a step of potential failure for some other editor. If we deliver good, clean audio right on the SD cards, bundled with the video, it's once less thing someone needs to sync up in post production.

That's the reason for the DMW-XLR1's use on this week's job.

We have another project coming up in early December that will require me to video document a stage presentation  by a celebrity in the medical field. I've been asked to capture the presentation. I'll be able to use the DMW-XLR1 via its "line in" setting to record the audio for the event directly from the sound board at the venue while also running a wireless microphone, attached to the speaker, as a safety. All in one unit that won't require extensive cabling or extra batteries. Since the GH5 will run as long as the internal battery and memory card allow I should be able to record the hour long presentation with no sweat.

Fun when a product pays for itself in one or two days of shooting....


Be sure to order fun camera equipment for yourself and your loved ones for Thanksgiving. 
Use the link above to get to Amazon.com and then search for the perfect self gift. 
I'll be as happy as you that you did...




11.12.2017

As money burns a hole in my pocket I re-think the portrait lens scenario with an old, adapted Zeiss 50.


Everything starts over coffee. I spent some time one morning reading about three lenses from Olympus while drinking a cup of Illy brand coffee I'd made and suddenly it seemed like the most brilliant and obvious idea would be to run out and drop $3,600 on three Olympus Pro primes. Primes that are  already well covered in my camera bag by state-of-the-art zooms from the titans of the micro-four thirds camp. I thought I wanted the new 17mm, 25mm and, of course, the 45mm. They are all f1.2 lenses so I had visions of super shallow depth of field and high sharpness. The coffee was very, very good too. I may still pursue this course of action because I am, admittedly, a bit eccentric...

But, in the course of ruminating over the consequences of spending even more money that I really didn't need to spend, I thought I'd convince myself of just how badly needed the new lenses were by putting on the front of my little Panasonic G85 body one of the Contax C/Y Zeiss lenses I have rolling around on the edge of my desktop, here in the palatial world headquarters of the VSL...

It's a 50mm f1.7. At the time of its peak popularity it was merely the "kit" lens that came, de facto, on the front of Contax film cameras. I bought it a few years back as an afterthought. Perhaps a momentary salve for the stinging, grand price of the Sony 55mm f1.8... I used it a few times and remembered it to be a fine performer on a full frame Sony camera but now I wondered just how well it would acquit itself on the diminutive m4:3 format cameras. Would it have the contrast and resolution needed to compensate for the Lilliputian geometry of the image sensor?

I put the Contax Zeiss C/Y 50mm f1.7 on a no-name adapter and we sped downtown at dusk. A torture test for sensor and lens. The test started with a cup of coffee and a vegan, lemon and hazelnut scone from Whole Foods. Just a little something to tide me over during the rigorous testing procedures I anticipated. 

The light dropped quick as I walked toward the new city library and the new arched bridge over Second St. I used the camera with the lens mostly set at f2.0 and shutter speeds around 1/125th of a second. Pretty soon I found myself down in the 3200 ISO territory we small sensor masochists fear so much...

I found that the Zeiss lens seems very sharp at f2.0. Even sharper at the several shots I took at f5.6. This 100mm equivalent lens is a good choice for portraits. Maybe as good as the Olympus 45mm Pro would be. But if I am to be truthful the fabulous marketing of the new 45mm will carry the day and I'll end up with a little less in my retirement account this year than I could have had....

Ah well.

After looking through the images taken with the 30 year old, bargain lens I just have to say once again that there's no magic bullet. No miracle optic that will make one a better photographer; a better artist. The 50mm is one of the perfectly sorted lenses that will find its way into my video equipment package every single time...










I'm still looking for the flare when shooting wide open. 
But this is like "Where's Waldo?" I just can't seem to find it...






11.10.2017

The battle between two inexpensive, highly portable, big battery powered electronic flash units. Who wins?





Flashes started to be fun again when normal sized, shoe-mount flashes started sporting rechargeable lithium-ion battery packs and providing great performance for what would once have been considered to be pocket change. I bought a small selection of Godox and Neewer branded flashes to make a thoroughly reliable and professional, barebones flash system for those times when my subjects have to be lit but I have to be able to carry everything into the shoot in a backpack. Coupled with great triggers those flashes do their part and even serve extra duty by working as additional background lighters in shoots that call for full white backgrounds. The lithium batteries go a long way toward making convenient lights packed with the power to go through hour long shoots with aplomb. 

But just when I settled down and accepted that there would still be times when I might need the 500 watt seconds put out by my "plug in the wall" Photogenic monolights, or my remaining Elinchrom 500 watt second monolights, I happened to come across the Godox AD200 (a model sold under a handful of different company names...). Here was, seemingly, the best of both worlds. It's a flash that kicks out 200 watt seconds of power and comes with a fun accessory; an interchangeable bare bulb head. Why should you like a bare bulb head? It's probably the perfect way to evenly fill a big softbox.

The AD200 is just a little bit bigger than a conventional hot shoe flash and it's also a bit weightier. It can be used across multiple systems with dedicated remotes for each camera system. The remotes deliver TTL control and high speed sync capabilities. If you venture across multiple systems you can pick up remote  radio triggers for each of the major camera systems for about $50 each. If you use the conventional flash head, which resembles a typical camera mounted flash, you can even make use of a built-in LED modeling light. It's not incredibly powerful but it beats working in the dark....

The benefits of the AD200 are that it packs a lot of power into a small package. That, and the use of a big, robust rechargeable battery pack, convinced me to pick one up for the princely sum of $300. I still think it's a good deal and it's joined my extreme portable flash system as the main light, which I use in a big Phottix 47 inch octabox. 

After using it on a number of projects (We're currently gearing up for job #86 for the year....and we've got a lot booked between now and the end of the year...) I was ready to take the plunge and buy one or two more with the idea of finally getting rid of the plug in the wall dinosaurs. Side note: there is profound pleasure, after years of taping down electrical cables for safety, at not having to find a wall socket and run extension cords in order to put a flash somewhere. Trust me, it's a big deal. 

As I was getting ready to order I glanced around the consumerverse at Amazon just to see what else was available. It was then that I came across the second flash in this review, the Neewer Vision 4. 

This flash is configured and sized like a conventional, traditional mono light with a Bowens mount for reflectors and speed rings. It's got a nice LCD panel on the back along with rational controls and is easy as pie to set up and understand. It comes with its own Bowens mount, standard reflector and a small, dedicated flash trigger. Nothing fancy on the trigger --- it's totally binary; put it on your camera and it will trigger the flash when your camera fires. It does have four groups so you can use multiple Vision 4 flashes and fire them on four different channels. Or you can put them all on the same channel and fire them at the same time. There's no TTL control and no power ratio control on the remote. The flash doesn't feature TTL mode either but that hardly matters to me. We've been using manually set flashes for nearly 40 years now and we finally know our way around the use of a flash meter....

The Neewer unit (spell check hates that extra "e".....) weighs in at four pounds and has a removable lithium ion battery that fits into the body of the flash in what I think is a very nicely done design. The flash unit is being touted in their online advertising as having been: "Designed in Germany." And I do find it more elegant and solid than most of the lower priced flashes. This unit also uses a low powered LED as a modeling light. 

Attention: As is the case with most battery powered units the modeling light on this unit only stays lit for approximately 30 seconds. If you want to see it again you have to hit the modeling light switch. This is the single flaw in what would otherwise be a perfect, low cost studio light!!! There must be a way around it....

So, when it comes right down to it which flash wins? Right off the bat I'll say that if you don't need to relentlessly miniaturize the stuff in your life I'd go with the Neewer unit, hands down. Using the Godox AD200 with a softbox or octabox requires a second stand adapter with its own speed ring adapter to mount up everything. The unit is commendably compact and so far has proven to be reliable but that smaller form factor means less effective heat dissipation, and every now and then the flash pauses to recover from overhead (we're talking about brief, one or two minute pauses after over 100 quick, half power flashes; it's less heat sensitive with the bare bulb head mounted. But there it is....). Also, the mounting accessory to put the Godox AD200 on a light stand needs a lock washer between the mounting stud and the flash body to keep the flash from unintentionally swiveling on its mount. Finally, while you gain some automation in the form of TTL and high speed sync the LCD panel is smaller and much less intuitive.

But here's the big deal: When I bought the AD200 I thought it was fairly priced for the amount of power and flexibility one received. It was $300. I spent an additional $25 on dedicated reflectors and diffusers as well as another $20 on a soft box adapter. 

When I bought my first Neewer Vision 4 unit it came with a very robust, integrated stand connector which can also double as an "off-stand hand grip" if you wanted to have an assistant hand hold the rig and position it for you as you shoot this is perfect. It also came with the standard Bowens type reflector. And the remote trigger. The total price at the time was $259. After using it to do a number of headshots last night with a big octabox I decided, finally, that I liked it so much that I actually would replace all of the last century A/C powered mono lights I've accumulated and use two of these as my main lights and the AD200 as a background or accent light. When I went to order another unit I discovered that the current price is, right now, an amazing $219

I'm honestly a bit astounded. I've paid much more for much, much worse flashes. I paid nearly $600 for a recent Nikon flash (model number repressed by my memory of its horrible-ness) that overheated if you shot more than 10 full power flashes in a row. It would shut down completely and you had to remove the batteries and let the unit cool for ten full minutes before it recovered from it's diva swoon. 
Try using a piece of sh*t like that for a critical client event...

Then there was a similar Sony equivalent made around the time of the original a99. It was a complete stinker as well. And equally expensive. 

So, to be able to buy a much more powerful flash, the battery of which will deliver up to 700 full power flashes at 300 watt seconds before the need for a recharge, with no dramatic, mid-shoot swooning or sissy behavior, for a mere $219 is amazing to me. I have cables that cost more. The performance, pricing and power of the Neewer Vision 4 makes it an incredible bargain. 

I did purchase a second unit. I clicked the link yesterday evening and should see it arrive on Monday. I'll charge the battery and put the new flash through its paces but I'm confident it will be a real winner. 

Given the choice between these two units I would always pick the bigger Vision 4 unit. The one exception would be times were I need to carry everything by myself ---- for long distances --- then I think I'd consider bringing along the AD200 as a main light. But I might just default to one of the many fine, smaller, but no less capable units I own, like the one at the bottom of the page. It delivered the goods at last week's gala. The light was sweet. 




Stunned by a price drop to $219. A reflection of people having too many choices?
Or not enough advertising on the part of the vendor?
No bad reviews.....except one person who could not be bothered to read the specs....