2.26.2017

In "Sony Time" it seem like we're getting close to a refresh of the RX10 series. What would I like to see?

The Sony RX10iii in a Camvate cage topped with a Zoom H5 audio recorder equipped with an SSH-6 stereo/shotgun microphone. 

I'm a huge fan of the Sony RX10 series of cameras but I am not blind to their shortcomings. I get a sense that we'll be seeing another RX10 (or two) in the next few months and I'm hoping that Sony makes a few tweaks to the RX10iii product to make it even better. At the same time I'm hoping they introduce a new, more niche-y variant which I'll flesh out below.

The original Sony RX10 was a breakthrough product; a highly capable video camera, wrapped up in a high performance, one inch sensor photography camera. The two things that made the original such an important camera (for me) were the introduction of a really good sensor, at an interesting size, as well as a remarkably good zoom lens with a range I found to be just about perfect.

The original camera had a mediocre video codec but this was remedied in a firmware update which elevated the camera from having an AVCHD video file system that capped out at 28 mbs to a more advanced XAVC-S video file system that delivered 50 mbs; which delivered more detailed video images.

The next generation; the RX10ii kept the lens and body pretty much the same but delivered UHD 4K video and a much improved (higher resolution) EVF. Along with the UHD implementation the camera also offered faster fps settings in 1080p.

The current generation; the RX10iii, more of less blew the lid off

2.23.2017

First Walk Around Downtown in Weeks. Took my favorite "trash camera" the A7ii.



I worked on editing video all weekend and right up until the middle of Tues. When I felt like I had a fairly solid "rough cut" I uploaded a copy to Vimeo to share with my clients. I'd been "nose down" on the project for several weeks and felt overdue for a little photographic downtime. I also realized that I hadn't been in downtown Austin is a couple of weeks; and a lot can change in 14 days.

Yesterday started out at a chilly 51 degrees but by the time I got out the door it was in the 80s and headed for a (late February!!!) high of 91 (f). We went from jacket weather to shorts and flip-flop weather in a matter of hours. 

Being a traditionalist I took along the Sony A7ii camera and the new-ish FE 50mm 1.8 lens. It's a nice, small combination. I like using it the way we used older cameras. I keep the exposure setting to manual, pretend I'm using Kodachrome 64 by setting that ISO, and then setting the white balance to generic daylight. Of course, I am cheating because I have the camera set to generate raw files. 

The walk was non eventful. Austin is in a quiet lull. The calm before the storm that we call, SXSW. 
The restaurants looked a bit empty and the streets were strangely almost clear of traffic. In the first five minutes of my walk I passed by five different 30+ story building projects that will add more class A office space and high end residential capacity to the central business district. The next part of my walk was around Congress Ave. heading towards the City Convention Center -  ground zero for SXSW. All over this area crews were working to clean the chewing gum (and worse) off the sidewalks, putting up new food trailers, getting signage ready, finishing street projects in order to have open traffic lanes for the estimated 100 million people who will be escaping here from the frozen North to listen to bands, listen to panels about the future of social media and to either get drunk or overdose on coffee. 

The most interesting stuff I found in my walk was, again, wall murals. The one just above is more or less an advertisement for how to reduce your consumer footprint/impact. But I'm a sucker for "exploding balloon" graphic design so I just had to document. The entire wall was fun but I didn't feel like standing in the middle of a four lane street to try and get it all in. Just note taking here. 

If you are keeping score then you should know that I had a blast doing the latest video project. After our last project the biggest thing on my to-do list for the current project was to do a much deeper dive into pre-production. I wanted to have all my ducks in a row before I even pulled a camera out of the bag. I wrote a detailed scripting outline (our project was composed of unscripted interviews but I still wanted to concept the structure and direction as a map to lead the interviews....) a two page shot list and a "look and feel" statement (just for me). 

I asked for the names of the people we would be interviewing in Canada and took time to call each of them and do a phone pre-interview so that the interviewees and I knew something about each other, shared some stories, and didn't have to fire up an interview cold. That was a huge help!

I know we tend to spend a lot of time talking about gear but it's generally the least of my worries on projects like this. The big concern is whether or not you'll be able to create the right emotional space for the person on the other side of the camera to share their story in a way that will work for the whole of the video program. So much rides on the way you ask questions. You also have to create a physical space that makes people comfortable opening up and sharing. 

I could have used any number of cameras or microphones and gotten into the same rings of the target, technically. If the content seems transparent and the story keeps your attention then you have more or less gotten the hard stuff done. 

It's no different than photography in the sense that pre-production and having a plan makes for a much more efficient and light hearted shoot than just waiting for the client to show up at the door with a grab bag of stuff to shoot. 

Sometimes I feel like I ask too many questions when we begin discussing even the simplest shoot but, knowing that we'll be shooting chrome against white, or interviewing someone who has had a recent trauma, means we can be ready with dulling spray (for the chrome) or a quieter, more sympathetic demeanor for our interviewee. It's like scouting. A walk through of your primary shooting location before the actual day of the shoot gives you a mental map of the best locations in which to shoot along with understanding the location challenges for which you need to come prepared. 

Is the perfect room, visually, a bouncy, echo-y room, as far as audio goes? Knowing this in advance means you can prepare and treat the room with sound blankets and padded furniture to subdue acoustic problems. Is the interviewee prone to forehead/nose shiny-ness? Maybe bring along a make up person. Is the HVAC noisy and old? Find out who can help you turn it off for a half hour so you can get good audio. Heading out to shoot exteriors in the snow? Bring great gloves and shoes.

In the hierarchy of tools I guess I'd have to say pre-production, scouting and familiarity with the subjects, are much more important than which type of camera you'll use, or what brand of microphone you'll hang out in front of your subjects.

As I write this I know that it's a lot more boring to discuss pre-production than talking about which lens we might get if we decide to buy the new Fuji medium format camera, but --- the real mission of this blog is to share real information about what I do for a living in.....the real world. All the organizational stuff is really where the "rubber" of the businesses of photography and video production meet the road. 

The amount of time shooting or recording is about 5% of most projects. The rest is selling the project, casting, getting props, figuring out the logistics of getting there and getting back, archiving, editing and post production. Camera in hand? A couple hours a day. When working. Everything else? Days. Weeks. 

note on boy: Ben made it safely to Seoul (a bit jet lagged), he's having a blast. I am relieved. 



2.22.2017

The purchase of a "bargain priced" video tripod. For no good reason at all.

75mm ball socket for quick leveling of the tripod head. 

Some people love camera bodies, some love lenses and others are hellbent on collecting small flashes and radio triggers. Me? I'm partial to tripods. And tripod heads. I've owned enough tripods to outfit an entire workshop full of handholding camera buffs with their own "sticks." But somehow there always seems to be one that I "need" for some specific photo or video adventure. 

When I headed up to Canada to shoot video I bought a smaller set of Benro "legs" that would pack into one of my duffle cases. I wrapped a big Manfrotto head separately from the tripod, and I was impressed with my ability to pack so efficiently. I was less impressed when I actually got on site, put a camera, the heavy head and a weighty monitor on top of the new legs. When I panned the tripod you could see s little flex at the beginning and end of the move. You could also see that the top-heavy nature of the camera, combined with the seven inch monitor, created some vibrations when touching the camera that a heavier rig might have done a better job cancelling out. Next time, I vowed,

2.21.2017

I was consulting for a client this month and I recommended a camera to them. I'm sure the camera I recommended will surprise you.

Shooting by the shores of Lake Ontario. Warm as toast. Photo: Courtesy ODL-Design.
4K video for a project, courtesy Sony RX10iii. 

I'm a big fan of mirrorless cameras and an even bigger fan of cameras like the RX10iii which seem to be able to handle just about everything. But when a good client came to me and asked me to consult for their company about equipping a warehouse with an imaging system I made what might seem to be a contrary recommendation.

Here's the backstory: The client is a medical device manufacturer with offices on several continents. They have a wide range of products and an even wider range of replacement parts. Their warehouse needed a photographic solution that would allow them to shoot small to medium (smaller than a shoe box) products and parts on a shadowless, white background. The images would be uploaded and used on websites, and they wanted a solution that would not require post processing.

I researched and sourced a self contained light box. It's a box that's 30 x30 x30 inches in size, black on the outside and silver on the inside. There are two stripes of (quite good) LEDs across the top of the interior of the box and one can insert a white, plastic material as a cyc. There is a round opening in the front of the box that allows you to poke a lens through and shoot. It's a bigger and better version of the pop-up white light tents that some people use to shoot products destined for sale on Ebay.

The box is pretty much fool proof. We tested it today and the light, softened by a diffuser, is even and bright.

We also sourced a very inexpensive, Manfrotto tripod with a two axis head. It's not a big, carbon fiber Gitzo but it's adequate to hold the camera steady and, if handled with care, should last for a while.

Finally we come to the camera. Since we were working within a tight budget, and we needed a camera that was easy to operate and has straightforward menu, I opted to recommend the Canon T6. It's an inexpensive choice which, along with the 18-55mm kit lens, sells on Amazon for around $425-$450, depending on which sales and rebates are on offer. 

The camera is decidedly unsexy. But....it has an extremely uncomplicated menu system. It features 18 megapixels of resolution. It has a decent live view implementation. The kit lens is very decent and focuses down fairly close. It's very easy to train someone to use. And it's cheap.

Sometimes we forget that not every imaging situation demands an elegant and state-of-the-art solution. My client will dedicated this camera to the backroom of a warehouse in a city in a different state. We'll make a step-by-step chart for its use. It won't be seeing kids' soccer games, fast breaking Olympic sprint finals or fashion locations that feature Stygian darkness. It will spend it's life looking down on Flugal Joints and Bristom Arches; as well as mounting screws and radiation deflectors. Sitting happily on top of it's companion tripod, peeking furtively through the round window, onto the small white stage.

When someone calls and there is confusion about a product someone else will be able to put it into the box, turn on the camera and take an 8 or 4 megapixel Jpeg, and send a reasonably good and detailed photograph to the original someone to confirm that the part is or isn't what said someone requested.

My client spent about $700 for a complete imaging solution, carefully selected for ease of use, image quality and budget constraints. In this case the Canon camera was the wise choice. It is reliable, a good imager and has about 1/8th the number of menu items found in the typical Olympus or Sony camera. It's not difficult to see why people on tight budgets gravitate toward these cameras. They fill a need without the added encumbrance of pretentious spec-manship.

Would I own one? If my budget was under $500 for a good camera and lens system? You bet I would. And it would probably deliver images that would be fine for most work. Am I planning on minimizing my photo footprint to this distilled level of gear? Not on your life.

2.19.2017

A Year Without New Cameras. A New VSL Record.

Shooting the RX10iii on a freezing day in Burlington, Ontario.
Photo courtesy: ODL-Designs

For many years I was known as "one of those photographers who changes camera systems as often as he changes his socks!" I bounced around from one system to the other looking for the magic mix of features and handling that would create a shooting tool box that got me the results I wanted, in the way I wanted them. But looking at my current inventory I am surprised to see that my last camera purchase was almost a year ago, and it was not a wholesale system change but just an addition of one more camera from the same brand of cameras as all the others in my collection.

At my age I'm pretty sure I haven't somehow changed my stripes and somehow become more careful and measured in my proclivity for reckless change, and avaricious acquisition urges, so something else must be in play.

Could it be that a major camera company helped me to check all the boxes pertaining to the way I use cameras? Across six models from the same maker.... I am inclined to say, "yes."

One of the big reasons I switched from Nikon to Sony was my belief that conventional photography would continue to evolve as an ever diminishing business opportunity and that video would be the ascendant tangent for visual content creation. Video will continue to rise in popularity amongst clients while photography will continue its change from needed craft to utter ubiquity. (Commercial) Photography is quickly following the path that typesetting did so many years ago. Typesetting tumbled from being a poorly understood craft that required experts and dedicated machines to something that everyone can do (not always well....) with their word processors. Very few typesetters still exist. Graphic designers can do a better job (mostly) making type look good than can the general population but most people just crank out their written work and the idea of typesetting becomes as automatic as getting coffee. Maybe even more so. 

I believe that the vast majority of photography used in fleeting commercial applications will come from employees' smart phone cameras, sometimes aided by the gentle nudge of a canned "enhancement" filter or two. Most other still imaging will be purchased for pennies from the Stock Photography Walmarts of the world. 

I don't think the role of professional photographer will completely disappear. Perfect product shots (that are not just skinned CAD renderings) will still be desired, as will images that desperately need to be lit. Or perfectly styled. Or used enormously large. Or fill needs for a specialty market. But I do think the role of the generalist photographer is dying quickly and, along with photojournalists, will end up represented only in small niches for declining pay.

As with most trends things will change quicker in some locations than others. I'm not particularly pessimistic about my ability to make a living at traditional photography but I know I'll have to spend more time and effort marketing in the future to return the same income I earn now. I'm riding out the (hopefully) long tail of the decline. 

So the cameras I was looking for, and ended up choosing, needed to be as strong on the video side as they were on the photographic side. That necessary combination was the main driver of my 2015-16 camera change. I hedged my bets by getting a Sony A7Rii which is still regarded as one of the strongest still image making cameras on the market. It's a camera I can pull out when we are engaged in a traditional still imaging project that requires a highly competitive set of image quality parameters. 

Since its only weak point is the continuous focus performance required for shooting sports it is more or less the perfect camera with which to shoot traditional portraits, studio still life and general lifestyle advertising project. It routinely delivers very high resolution files with state of the art dynamic range and (with the tweaking made possible by a highly flexible profile interface) the color response is very pleasing. 

I also filled in some gaps with other cameras from the same maker. A fast shooting a6300. A cheap but effective "daily shooter" in the form of an A7ii, and a few "do everything" cameras from the RX family.

But the camera that more or less put a cap on new acquisitions was the RX10iii. If your idea of the future of imaging is based on the idea that photography and video will be intermixed and interchangeable; and that it is almost entirely made for display and distribution on screens, then the RX10iii represents a kind of camera possessed of a feature set that neatly checks nearly every box on the checklist. 

I believe it is the most subversive camera on the market today. Subversive in that it challenges the hierarchy of camera types that we've been conditioned, by experience and marketing, to expect for each application. 

The 20 megapixel sensor is more than adequate for almost everything we use cameras for commercially. The 4K video out of the camera is competitive with dedicated video cameras ranging anywhere from 2X to 5X the price of the RX10iii. The 1080p video is wonderful and detailed. 
The camera is highly flexible. Need better audio than you might get through the 3.5mm stereo mic inputs? Sony has an XLR unit that plugs right into the multi-interface hot shoe. Nice and clean. 

Need to shoot wide? The camera gives you a 24mm equivalent focal range with pristine software corrections of geometric distortions and other optical flaws. Need to shoot long? The camera gives you the equivalent of a 600mm super telephoto. Need a remote? Open up your cellphone and launch the free camera control software. Need to shoot fast? How is 12 fps? 

It's not just that the RX10iii has many features it's the fact that Sony made so many of the features to such a high level of performance and quality.

Why have I kept the system for so long (relative to my past experiences)? Because nothing out there currently matches or exceeds (in any real, discernible way) what I already have in my hands. If I need ultimate image quality (short of the nose bleed, rarified level of the 100 MP medium format cameras) I have that well covered by the A7Rii. If I need 4K video with great low light performance and fast, accurate AF, then the Sony a6300 camera is my choice. If I need a great, all around performer for video and stills, with ultimate flexibility, then I select the RX10iii. What else could I buy?

In a few years Nikon and Canon might catch up. They would need to embrace EVFs to even begin to make my curiosity twitch. I could never willingly go back to a DSLR with an optical viewfinder. It would be like going from a 60 inch 4K flat screen TV to a 21 inch CRT. Just not going to happen. 

A few of my friends have asked about my interest in the Fuji medium format camera but they misunderstand the needs of most video producers. Our goal is to get the people we interview into focus, not to chase after the thinnest, most vaporous pane of sharp focus imaginable. 

We've reached an intersection of sorts. The business in general no longer returns the large and easy money we saw in the 1990s and the earlier part of this century. Like most industries photography is continually being flattened out. The costs are being reduced. There's less margin per hour. What this means in an existential sense is that the old mantra that: pro's can afford to buy the most expensive gear because they can depreciate it and it "makes" them money, is becoming less and less true with every round of flattening and budget "normalization." 

For a smart business person this means we no longer want to chase ephemeral and minute potential enhancements to image quality that might be delivered by something like a medium format system. It all becomes a drastic case of overkill and creates an over-rich equipment inventory chasing an under-capitalized business model.

So, the flattening of photographer income nicely coincided with the maturity of the camera market, which means that once we find gear we love to work with we have the luxury to coast along with it into the foreseeable future because we are already bringing the equivalent of 50 caliber machine guns to a carnival target shooting booth. 

There is a downside to the diminishing of camera lust = lower readership for a photography blog. But I'm okay with that. (#NikonversusCanon: The Death Match!!!!)(#WhatIsTheUltimateLens????).

There is an operational calmness that comes from being satisfied with your current selection of cameras and lenses. If they deliver the results you want it frees you to think about different investments and different issues that impact image quality or profitability.  Would the $6500 you were thinking about dropping into that new medium format camera be better as an addition to your retirement account? Would it be more fun turned into a pair of plane tickets to see someplace on the other side of the world that you've always wanted to see? Would it buy you the time off you wanted in order to finish your short film, your novel, or your first person research on napping in the afternoons? 

To be truly happy with your cameras means knowing them better and better. There is some sort of bargain my mind has made with the Sony cameras. You may need a different set of parameters for the work you do. You might need the features that another brand does better. But we've all reached this technology plateau together and I don't think we'll spend our way to any radically better cameras any time soon. 

In other news.  We all got up at the crack of dawn today to take the kid to the airport. He's not flying back to his college in the northeast U.S., rather, he is embarking on an exciting adventure: A semester abroad. He's been inoculated, vaccinated, visa'd, etc. He applied spend the Spring and early Summer at one of the top research universities in S. Korea and he should be rolling into the airport in Seoul in about 18 hours. 

He's taken three years of Korean language and is enrolled in an intensive, six credit hour Korean language course this semester as well. He's got a full roster of other classes as well. 

As a parent I will miss him almost as much as his dog will miss him. As a video producer I am in the depths of depression because, with his exit, I lose my editing lifeguard. Ben is one of the best video editors I've worked with. I've been preparing for this event by binge-watching all the editing tutorials on the learning site, Lynda.com. It takes time to learn this stuff, but Ben didn't leave me empty handed. He gave me short list of alternate resources....just in case. 

I'm sure all you parents out there with grown kids have been through this same sort of thing. You want your kiddos to sprout wings and fly well. You want them to gain independence and have fun experiences but you sure do miss them when they are off somewhere else in the world....