3.26.2013

To Boston and Back. A Parenting Journey.

Our room at the Taj Hotel, just off the park. Boston is so nicely compact,
it seems you can get anywhere in just a few minutes.

I've been in Boston for the past week. Now I am back in Austin, Texas. My small crew was doing something traditional that, no doubt, many of you have been through, and some more than once. We were visiting colleges during our child's Spring Break. For now, at least, I know that Ben did not spend his week frolicking on the beach in Daytona with a beer bong and a group of young women whose judgement has been impaired by alcohol...

We visited the big name schools and the not so big name schools. Our parenting mission was to get the ball rolling so that the kid would start to narrow down his preferences. Big school? Intimate school? Urban or bucolic? Ivy league or desert quaint? We'd love to think that our little darling is so bright that every school will lavish money upon him but we're pessimistic enough to know we'll all be selling plasma at the blood bank before this is all over with. 

Ah well, many of you have already experienced the pain and far be if from me to push you into reliving it. I will say this: I love Boston. And I was thrilled with the tiny camera system I took along with me. I knew I wouldn't have a lot of time to go out shooting in the streets but then again, I am married to a benevolent goddess and she does make allowances for my street shooting addictions. I took a single, very small Tenba backpack. One that I wrote about this last summer.
I took two cameras because only a rank amateur travels without some sort of back up. I took three lenses because in my estimation that's all anyone really needs. 

I left all flashes, tripods, lights and light stands at home and traveled photo naked. If I couldn't shoot with the image stabilization and ISO 1600 I really didn't need the shot. 

Since I wanted to travel light I took the lightest system I have ever owned. Two Sony Nex 7 camera bodies, the 50mm 1.8 OSS Sony lens and the two new Sigmas; the 19mm and 30mm 2.8's. I shoved a 16 gig card into each camera, added one battery charger and four extra batteries and that's it. Did I pine for more? Naw, I have a weird brain. If the basics are covered I spend my time figuring out how to maximize what's in the bag rather than aimlessly wishing for something else.

The Nex 7 is an amazing camera. It's small and lightweight but it packs an imaging punch high above its weight class. For all but low light applications I'd put the Sony Nex 7 24 megapixel sensor up against full frame cameras where resolution and sharpness are the driving metrics. Sure, the bigger sensor cameras will out score it in high ISO noise but what do I care? I shoot in normal situations, mostly. 

The Nex 7 has three well known faults when it comes to intense, daylong use. And two of the faults are interrelated. Fault number one is the fact that the system launched with a bare handful of lenses and an even sparser collection of really good lenses.  The Zeiss 24mm, the new 35mm 1.8, the 50mm OSS 1.8 and one or two others are quite good but some of the early entries are mediocre at best. Most maligned, on the Nex 7, is the 16mm lens. Some of the others are just the run of the mill, slow kit lenses. And it's really sad because the sensor coupled with the right glass is capable of really good images. The saving grace in this regard is the increased introduction of third party lens makers like Sigma. Their cheap and plain 19mm and 30mm 2.8's are very sharp, even wide open. At f5.6 the 19mm is a stunner little performer and I can imagine that the m4:3's version brings a bunch of extra bite to the really good sensor in the OMD as well.

The second major fault of the Nex 7 is all about power management versus start up speed and awake from sleep times. If you want any battery life you need to implement the power management controls and set the sleep time to a few minutes, at most. The problem is that the camera takes five or six seconds from a dead stop to fully functional. And about three seconds from sleepy time to hello, I'm engaged, let's shoot. When I'm in a visual target rich area I give a minute massage of the shutter button on a regular interval so the camera doesn't go to sleep and it's ready when I am. Still, you have to expect that if you want a battery to last all day you must turn the camera off when you are not using it.

The only other real fault of the camera (number 3) is the short battery life. This is of course all tied up with power management and the implementation of two backlit screens as well as the smaller form factor of the camera. When I shoot diligently (as opposed to casually and sporadically) I tend to go into the menu and turn off the sleep time which means the camera is on all the time. This sucks power from the battery but ensures that the camera is ready to shoot the moment I am. My work around is to carry four or five batteries for a full day's shooting and change as needed. I've got three chargers so on a day of shooting out of town I generally put three on the charger before we head out for dinner and then put the other two on before bed. Works fine. I've been using Wasabi Power batteries as my second layer of batteries and so far they work as well as the originals.

I generally used two cameras on the trip, one with the 50mm and the other with the 19mm. It was a very efficient and straightforward way to work.

Over the next week I'll be blogging about my Boston experiences and about my wonderful, behind the scenes tour of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts photo department tour, where they do magic. We'll also talk about shooting while doing family trips.

Once I experienced how good the images could be and how little a great camera can weigh (not to mention how little space they take up) I can't imagine ever traveling with a bigger camera system again. The a99 will travel when it is contingent on me charging my regular fees to a brand picky client. Until then it's mirrorless Sony all the way.
Coming back from an early morning session of shooting and the acquisition of personal 
coffee. I took a break to shoot the mirror image.
We missed the snow by a day or two but we had our share of 
cold and rainy nights.
My collection of sweatshirts and set gloves certainly came in handy.

Is it my imagination or are there really a Starbucks and a Dunkin Donuts on every single street corner in Boston?

Ben's top choice at the moment (subject to quick change) is Brandeis...

I finally took Andy's advice and tried a file conversion in Aperture.

Shot with LED Light Panels for Zachary Scott Theatre.
Camera: Sony a99 with 70-200mm 2.8 G lens.

I don't want to start a war about which RAW converter is best. God knows, there are more than enough religions out there already, but I wanted to share that some files work better in RAW converters we might not have been using in our own workflows. Since I switched to Sony cameras I've felt that Lightroom 4.4 was just about as good as anything out there for conversions so I didn't look around much. I mean, Adobe Camera Raw is considered by most image workers as the standard of the industry.

But recently I picked up a Sony a850 camera (more about that whole deal on another day) and I shot a bunch of portraits with it. The images looked great on the LCD screen on the back of the camera and there wasn't anything really challenging about the lighting or the subjects, but once I pulled the raw files into Lightroom my stomach kind of tightened up. The images were contrasty and for some reason LR wanted to add 12 to 15 points of magenta to the faces in my portraits. Well actually the default seemed to be, "the more magenta everywhere, the better!"

I worked and worked on the files but I was not happy. So I opened Capture One and messed around with 7.0. Better but still not in the "happy camper" ballpark. A quick and disastrous detour through Sony's primitive program didn't help my mood at all. Frankly, I was ready to go back to film and throw the whole mess at a lab. Right....

Then I remembered that my friend, Andy, swears by Apple's Aperture. And his images always look great to me. Great contrast, believable sharpness and great color. And he swears he uses nothing but Aperture. For $79 bucks and a quick download I'll bite.

I re-learned (I'd tried the 1.0 demo a few years back) everything I needed to do the job at hand in about an hour. I tweaked the images and they fell into place without the slightest glitch, color cast or posterization in the shadows. The sharpening worked better and the color controls made the flesh tones....perfect. I batched them and they're spitting into a folder as I write this.

But then I started wondering about the image above. I posted a version earlier that started life in LR and I wasn't totally happy with the contrast and the overall look of the image. Since Aperture is a multi-thread application I tossed this image file into the program and started playing with it. To my eye it's a totally different image now. I could see a big difference in the way the program made the initial conversion and how well it works with Sony files.

I'm not saying that your Nikon or Canon or Olympus camera will necessarily see the same kinds of improvements that I saw in the files from two different full frame Sony cameras but if you are using an Apple machine it may be worth your while. Particularly if you feel less than thrilled with the stuff that's coming out of your current workflow.  Just a thought.

ed note: look what popped up this morning over at DP Review: review.com/articles/8219582047/raw-converter-showdown-capture-one-pro-7-dxo-optics-pro-8-and-lightroom-4

Mad Beat Hip & Gone.

Erin. Actor in Mad Beat Hip & Gone.

Live theater has been going through a technological evolution just like most other arts. At Zach Scott Theatre directors and stage designers are incorporating more and more video projection in their work and, as in other arenas, the projections are dependent on the quality of the content. 

I got a call from the video designer at Zach, Colin Lowry, a week ago and he asked if I'd be interesting in helping to create both still images and video that could be incorporated into the play Mad Beat Hip & Gone via a large, rear projection screen. And by large I mean something like 16 feet by 24 feet. I jumped at the chance to do the work and to collaborate with Colin. He's very talented and working with talented people always makes you look good.

Since we would be jumping back and forth from still photography to full motion capture we needed to use lights that worked in both directions. All of our shots would be close up or medium length shots and movement in stills wasn't really an issue so I chose to work with our basic selection of LED panels. The image above tells most of the story. I used two 1,000 bulb Fotodiox panels aimed through a one stop diffusion screen for the front light. I used a small (14x14 inch square of white material as a fill card to the shadow side of my actor's faces, one 500 bulb panel on the background and, for most set ups, on diffused 500 bulb panel as a back light. The background was a roll of standard, gray seamless paper.

I chose to use the LEDs because they emit little heat and are most comfortable to work with. I decided to dispense with the adding of magenta filters to the light sources to cope with the small, green spike and just rely on the custom white balance from my camera. A slight gamble since I was also shooting in Jpeg and would have more limited options for color correction in post processing. As you can see from the sample above the color balance worked out just fine. Very little nudging was required to make the color file I've included at the top of the blog.

When I first heard about the size which these images would be projected I had the kneejerk reaction of thinking that I should shoot at the highest resolution possible. But Colin reminded me that the best projectors out there for this kind of work were limited to a fraction of the capabilities of the cameras these days and, that the distance from screen to audience would be at least 100 feet. In the end I shot everything at the maximum res of the camera so we'd have big files in case we wanted to use any of the images on posters for the marquees or in the Duratrans blow ups that are feature on the street facing wall of the Theatre.

Someone recently asked me if LEDs were up to the task of providing complete light for a portrait. I hope this blog answers that.

Erin. Actor from Mad Beat Hip & Gone.

Most of the images we took of four different actors will be used in black and white and will be projected during active parts of the performances. We had discussions about the conversion from digital color to black and white and in the end Colin and I agreed that the black and white setting of the camera I was using was a pleasing rendition and it rivaled what we thought we could get out of a program like Silver FX pro so we decided to tweak the parameters of the camera's monochrome present and shoot all the black and white images and video that way. It would save production time later on.

Erin. Actor from Mad Beat Hip & Gone.

We used exactly the same preset parameters when shooting video. It's nice to be able to do that because now the tonality of the video and the stills will match without a lot of time spent grading the video to match the stills.  And that's important since we'll be using some of the content from both media in simultaneous projections.  We also used the same lighting design in video and still production for much the same reason.  I am enthralled with the way the video turned out. We were going for a specific effect. We wanted our actor to slow down her action so that the audience would have to look twice to get that it was full motion video and not a still moving across the screen.

During the shoot we both kept a careful eye on the rear LCD monitor of the camera but it was great to toss the footage and the images onto a new Apple MacBook Pro with a 15 inch Retina screen and really dig into the images to access our success. I downloaded my memory card directly onto Colin's production machine's hard drive minutes after we wrapped the shoot.

More than any other play this year Mad Beat Hip & Gone is the one I've wanted to see. I love the time period, loved the ethos of books like Jack Kerouac's On The Road and Dharma Bums, and I love the jazz of that era as well. I expect it will be one of the coolest plays around this year and I hope the work that Colin and I did in the service of the world premier will be valuable. I think Steven Dietz has another winner on his hands. And I think Zach Scott is just the play to debut it.

I used a Sony a99 camera and the Sony 70-200mm f2.8 zoom lens to shoot everything. The camera is a chameleon and able to go between media effortlessly. Couple that with fun lights and it makes generating creative content that much easier.



This is a good book. I'd be happy if you bought one. Or two. Or more.


See the details here:  Lighting Equipment in print.

Buy the book here:  Kirk's In Depth Book on Lighting Equipment

Why you might want a copy:  This is the fourth book that I wrote and I decided to write it because so many people kept asking me about what's available (lighting equipment and grip equipment) out in the photography market and what should they buy. Well, everyone's approach to photography is different and there wasn't a single answer that worked for everyone. In this book I created an overview of lighting tools from big studio flashes to little LED lights. From Florescent lights to tungsten. We also cover how to modify lights, what to put them on and some basic safety information.

I like to think that it's a fun read but you'll have to be the judge of that. If you've been thinking about a lighting gear and wondering what's out in the market besides battery operated cheap strobes from China then this book might be for you.

I'd say it's also great literature and that it will leave you exhausted from crying during the sad parts and laughing hysterically in the many funny parts, but it would not be true. It's just a book about lighting.

Take a few minutes to read the reviews: Amazon Reviews

Complete your collection of Kirk Tuck Writing.




End of random commercial for one of my books.  Back to our regularly scheduled program.