7.23.2016

Making Photos at Esther's Follies. The comedy and magic theater of Austin.

Austin's reigning wizard of stage magic and special effects, Ray Anderson is locked into a box. 

The talented crew at Esther's Follies, on Sixth St. have been making Austinites laugh for over thirty years. The local politicians on both sides of the aisle do enough absolutely crazy stuff, day in and day out, to provide a never boring source of material that gets woven into every show. But national election years are like a bumper crop of fun political insanity to parody and play with. 

Ben and I headed downtown to grab some shots on Weds. afternoon. We mostly shot with the stage lights but we set up two mono-lights with umbrellas and used them for some of the photographs. After a morning of photographing carbon fiber wheelchairs for a healthcare client the zany crew at Esther's made me feel like we had ventured into an alternate universe.

I guess that's one of the charming aspects of being a photographer: two theater gigs in the same week as two corporate gigs and an advertising shoot for medical equipment. Toss in a couple  doctor portraits and you've got an interesting five days.


Bernie Sanders = Yoda??? Political satire is an Esther's speciality. 

Between shots.

"Red State Gals."

The first shots were all done with a handheld Sony A7r2 and the Sony/Zeiss 24-70mm f4.0. The bottom shot was lit with two Photogenic mono-lights, each with a big (60 inch) white umbrella. 

If you come to Austin there are three things you should not miss: Eating great Tex-Mex food (every local will give you a different restaurant recommendation. All will conflict.). Swimming in the heat of the Summer at Barton Springs Pool. And, seeing a show at Esther's Follies on Sixth St. 


I'm curious to hear what VSL readers think of the various lenses made by Samyang (Rokinon). Do you use them? What has been your experience?

From Zach Theatre's production of "Mary Poppins." 
(Taken with a Sony lens)

I'll go first. I bought my first Rokinon lens a few years back when I was using the Sony a99 cameras. It was the 85mm t1.5 Cine lens. As I understand it the first cine style lenses were optically the same as the contemporaneous non-cine lenses and the only benefit, besides the marginal benefit of the "unclicked" aperture ring, was the addition of geared rings for aperture and focus. The gearing allows for the use of follow focus mechanisms and aperture shift mechanisms popular with video camera operators. 

I'm a sucker for a good, fast 85mm lens and, for the price at the time, my attitude was that if the lens isn't great it's not a big deal. But, in fact, the 85mm lens I got was very good and I did lots of work with it even though I owned Sony's Alpha 85mm lens as well. I got such good results that I eventually bought the Rokinon 35mm t1.5 Cine lens as a compliment to it. And that lens was a good performer as well. 

The other lens that intrigued me was the 14mm t3.1 Cine lens. It's the same as the 14mm f2.8 lens but with the added cine paraphernalia. Once I found a good profile for geometric corrections in Lightroom and Photoshop I was also quite happy with this one as well; even though I find that my style of shooting rarely calls for much extreme wide angle work. Still, for around $300 it's nice to have the option to shoot crazy wide...

All of those lenses were purged during the shift to the Nikon system but I had come to value the utility of the 14mm and the 85mm so much that I bought them again, but in the Nikon dedicated mount. Even though I have shifted to the Sony mirrorless cameras now I have kept these lenses and have been using them with adapters. A few days ago I found an 85mm cine lens in an E mount for a small price (used) and bought it as well. I shot with it during an assignment to photograph the chancellor of a major university system in Texas and was again reminded of just how good the optics of that particular lens is. Very sharp and very easy to nail focus with using the focus peaking and focus magnification systems of the A7ii camera. 

So, next week I have an assignment that will call for shooting small products (less than two inches on a long end) on a white, tabletop background and I started looking for a good macro solution. I have a basic solution that consists of a Nikon 55mm f2.8 Macro lens, along with a macro bellows, if needed, but I was interested in getting a bit more working distance and so started looking around at 100-105mm macro lenses from various makers. 

The logical one would be the Sony 90mm  f2.8 OSS FE lens which features image stabilization and AF but I generally use lenses like this on tripods and nearly always use manual focusing. I also stumbled a bit at the $1200 price tag. That led me to the Rokinon 100mm f2.8 macro. The optical formula looks interesting and the reviews are sparse, but that's never really stopped me from at least giving the unknown a try. 

I ordered one from Amazon and it should arrive tomorrow. It will be here in time for the shoot next week. I'll test it out tomorrow and make big assessments and, if it passes the general tests, I'll take it with me next week along with the Nikon Macro as a known safety. 

I would curious to know if you have used any of the Rokinon/Samyang lenses and what your opinions are. I am also interested in the 50mm f1.2 - which I understand is only for the cropped frame cameras. The next big thing on my list would be the 50mm f1.4 for the full frame cameras so let me know your experiences with that one too.

Another fun week over, another fun week coming up. I'm really enjoying having the boy along as an assistant. It's a fringe benefit of being the boss. 

7.21.2016

Photographing "Mary Poppins" for Zach Theatre. Battle of the A7Rii versus the RX10iii. Sorry, no smackdown.


I was packing up my bag to go to Zach Theatre and photograph the dress rehearsal of Mary Poppins. I knew I'd want to have my Sony A7Rii handy because it has the cool, silent mode and the files are outrageously good, even at ISO 6400, but I was conflicted about the second camera. I'd take a back up, of course, but what did I really, really want to try out on this show that I hadn't used for theatre photography before? Oh yes, it was the RX10iii. I've learned to trust this camera in so many other situations I just had to give it a try in the theater. 

I shot part of the show with a Sony A7R2 because it's a known commodity for this kind of work. Equipped with the 70-200mm f4.0 G series lens, and set to "silent" mode, this camera is just about perfect for theater work. It's very clean and saturated at ISO 6400 and the focus, in conjunction with the 70/200, if fast and very sure. Add to that a hybrid image stabilization system that uses both the I.S. in the lens as well as the I.B.I.S. and you've got a pretty bulletproof system for handholding and quick shooting, even in low light situations.

So, why would I bring along a one inch sensor camera (the RX10iii) and proceed to shoot at least two thirds of the dress rehearsal with it? One reason is my continuing fascination that a "bridge" camera can do such a great job with so many kinds of photography but secondly it has to do with a certain practicality. Here's the deal: Since we built the new, state-of-the-art Topfer Theatre it's become more expensive to produce shows. We don't always have the luxury of getting a dedicated performance with full costumes and effects, just for marketing photography. We end up "sharing" the dress rehearsal with a full audience of "friends and families" as well as a video crew who record the performance on a wide camera and a follow camera. That limits where I can shoot from. I don't want to cross in front of the cameras and I don't want to interfere with our "test" audience's experience of the show.

This puts me in the middle of the theater, on the crossover aisle. So now I'm generally a lot further from the stage than I was when shooting dress rehearsals in the other two (smaller) theaters. That means I have to bridge the space by leaning on longer focal length lenses. I've pretty much ruled out single focal length lenses because the composition of actors, etc. is a constantly changing target and there is no time (in most shows) to keep changing lenses. A 70-200mm on a full frame camera works for a lot of stuff but there are many instances when we need a series of wide shots to show big scenes, mixed with a need to get even closer than the 200mm focal length will allow. I had been juggling two cameras and going back and forth from the 70-200mm to a 24-70mm but I'm always on the search for an easier and more gap free way to do this kind of work. 

That leads me to the RX10iii. I was scared of the smaller sensor but too fascinated by the 600mm equivalent focal length not to try it. Here's how I used the smaller sensor camera at Tuesday evening's shoot for Mary Poppins: I set the camera for super fine Jpegs in a 3:2 ratio at the full camera resolution of 20 megapixels. Standard profile. I used manual exposure and gauged the correct exposure by evaluating the EVF image and by employing "zebras" set to become visible in areas that exceeded 100% (255). I used the center AF point and used single AF. I set the aperture to f4.0 and, except for specific wide angle work I consider this an f4.0 camera and use f4.0 as my maximum aperture. In that way there is no exposure shift as I zoom through the focal length range. People who bitch about the variable aperture would do well to study more and just always default to the slowest of the maximum apertures if they don't want to see exposure changes during zooming. 

I have the zoom control set to "fast" and the tracking sensitivity set to "high." Working with the zoom ring was frustrating a few months ago but, like almost everything else, all it takes in order to become proficient with its operation is some solid practice. Used with a light touch the zoom-by-wire is actually quite good. I set my base white balance at 3800K and it worked well with the base lighting and the follow spots. The follow spots are LEDs and seem to be balance to hit about halfway between a tungsten and a daylight balance. 3800 might be just a tad blue but very workable if I need to do slight corrections in post. 

I've tested this camera quite a bit and have found that it's ISO range is usable to a real 3200 if a scene is well lit and can be exposed exactly right. I'm not a perfect technician so I know I am pretty safe if I go with 1600 instead. On Tues. I was adventurous and roamed around in the 2000 and 2500 ISO range. I was not bitten by my enthusiasm; the images turned out well...

The important thing to do with this camera is to let the AF and the I.S. settle before clicking the shutter button. The contrast AF is very good, even at the long focal lengths but you need to be patient and not hurry it. At this point some knucklehead will point out that his Nikon D4s or his Canon 1Dx mlxxx can nail focus in a microsecond and, as a former owner of both systems, I'll just say that might be so but I'd much prefer to have the locked in point actually in focus....

With the aperture pretty much locked at f4.0 and the ISO limited to 2500 the one variable that changes as we go through is shutter speed. I've gotten used to using my thumb with the back dial to change shutter speeds quickly, up or down. With the camera set up to shoot this way, and with high ISO noise reduction set to standard, I get the best results shooting tight. That's why I still grabbed the A7R2 from time to time during the show. As I get quicker though, I could drop the ISO to 800 for static group shots and come away with fine images from the RX10 as well.  Here's some of the work. 


before the start of the play, some last run throughs. A maximum focal length image of actor, Tyler Jones on stage. RX10iii

Medium shot which informs the tight shot below. RX10iii.

Actors Anderson Zoll and Scarlet Craig as Michael and Jane Banks.  Tight close up from 
mid-way up the audience using the maximum focal length on the RX10iii -- handheld.

Actor Jill Blackwood as Mary Poppins. 

Very happy with the focusing capabilities of the RX10iii under lower light levels. 

Another shot that shows a general part of the scene at a fairly long focal length setting complimented below by a shot from the same camera position but at the 600mm equivalent focal length. Again, handheld. (See just below).









This group shot and the one directly below are fro the A7R2. While pixel peeping immediately informs one that the quality of the bigger camera is much more impressive, the reality is that at most of the smaller sizes, including the full 27 inch screen slide show I just looked at, the differences are nearly invisible in most use scenarios. 

One more RX10iii sample---just for fun.

After examining over 1900 files on Tues. night I can say with some certainty that I'll definitely be pressing the RX10iii into service for more and more theater work in the large space. The reach is just too nice to pass up. And the ability to go from a wide shot of the full stage to a tight shot of a single face is just an amazing testament to the design and production of the lens and the low noise of the BSI sensor. I wouldn't care about the mechanics if I wasn't getting something new and different by using them. Thought you might be interested. 


7.19.2016

Those "in between" days. You know; where we get all the boring stuff done so we can do the fun stuff the next day....

I've been treating my Sony RX10iii like a chubby little Hasselblad.
I've got it set to shoot squares and sometimes I go one step further and 
set it to shoot black and white. And it's a camera I nearly always use
in the Jpeg format. So it's more like the old days of film when you
kind of had to more or less nail your shots in the camera.

Studio Dog is waiting for someone to come down the hall, 
exclaim, "Oh my gosh, you are so cute!!!" at which 
point she will manipulate them into giving her yet another 
treat from the little jar on the small kitchen table 
next to the (hardwired) telephone.
It's all retro here.

So, it's Tuesday. Yesterday was my day to get up way too early and drive the hour to Johnson City where we were supposed to shoot some board members for a utility company. I got there at 7 a.m., set up by 7:30 and had my first board member show up, in a rush, at 7:45. I got his photograph taken and waited for the next of the three new people to arrive. At the last minute the schedule changed and everyone went into a board meeting right at 8:15. "Another day." my contact said, "we'll come back and get the other ones on another day." 

I tore down the lights and the soft boxes and the meticulously placed green screen and packed everything carefully back in their cases and bags. Then I headed back to Austin. I'll charge them enough to make the trip worth my time but it seemed empty to travel so much and shoot so little. I came back to the world headquarters of the Visual Science Lab and imported the files into Lightroom, did some rudimentary color correction and converted the selects into Jpegs then put them up on Smugmug.com, in a private little gallery for the client. I spent the rest of the day making airline reservations for next week's assignment in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, sorting out retouching and post production orders from clients and hanging out with my sometimes assistant and full time son, Ben. 

Today is a "limbo" day. Not as in dancing under the limbo stick but as in stuck in limbo. I had a stack of things growing like weeds on the corner of my desk: Sign a contract to get a bunch of work done on my trees. Calculate and pay my state sales taxes. Bill several clients whose jobs I shot last week. Interrupt the billing process to read a book about how to cure procrastination. Get back to billing. Pay some bills online. Pay some bills offline. Have lunch at a little Mexican restaurant on First St. with my friend, Will. And then return to the studio to clean, clean and then clean again. 

If you work as a photographer and you stay pretty busy you are always coming back from somewhere, on a job where you chose to use some assemblage of gear, and you are always getting ready to go somewhere else and, if you are like me, choosing other gear to take on the next job. There never seems to be time to unpack, stow the used gear and get organized so stuff starts to accumulate in little piles. 

Then, all at once, you realize that tomorrow you'll be shooting in the studio with two clients in tow and you need to pretend that you are one of those highly organized photographers who keep their studios looking spare and Swiss. At this point I panic and start trying to do all my organization at once. 

The schedule for the next 24 hours is a little tricky. I'm getting the studio totally set up and ready to shoot still life stuff first thing in the morning. Right now I'm taking a break (procrastinating) after having set up three soft boxes and five, big LED lights. The reason I want everything set is that I am scheduled to go to Zach Theatre tonight at 7:30 pm to photograph the dress rehearsal of Mary Poppins. Since the production goes "live" tomorrow I need to shoot this evening (usually until around 11pm) and then head home to post process the files right after. We need to get them to assorted sites and media tomorrow...

From 11pm till about 2 am I'll be importing, editing, color correcting and outputting. My hope is to start an upload to Smugmug.com as I walk out the door at the end of the night and then be up and going by 6:30 in the morning for the first of two shoots; the still life shoot for the healthcare devices client, followed by another location shoot at a different theater. We're shooting marketing images at a downtown theater and we'll need to set up lights, etc. but not the same lights we'll be using to shoot product...

I'm sure that by the end of the day I'll be toast. I hope to get some sleep on Weds. night so I can hit the post processing for these two jobs right after a dentist appointment (see, I'm having all the fun!).

I've got the shop vac out and my earplugs in. I'm trying to figure out a design-y way to store sandbags. I'm constantly back and forth on e-mail scheduling portraits with doctors who seem to have rampant scheduling issues. Little issues that seem to require a nearly constant fine tuning of appointments. It's largely insane. 

But I am reticent to actually complain about any of this. It's what we wished for all the way through the downturn in 2007-2013 = a Summer of good paying, non-stop photographic work. Now, if I can just get through it all without collapsing from exhaustion. Some down time to nap on the couch with Studio Dog would be wonderful.

Testing a lighting set up before an important shoot (they're all important!).




The business of photograph is mostly about getting good images delivered. Clients don't really give a crap why something "didn't work" they just need photographs they can use. The better the photographs the happier they are to pay on time and hire you again next time. Since guaranteed delivery is essential we try not to leave much to chance and usually will have an assistant step in for some test shots. That way we can fine tune a lot before the clients arrive on the set. 

The test shot above was supposed to be of my assistant. We were going to photograph former president, Bill Clinton, in conjunction with a Dell, Inc. event. The problem in this situation is that, at the last minute, the secret service refused to approve my assistant. They wouldn't give him security clearance to be in the room.  I would be making photographs of the former president, and a big collection of Dell executives and local dignitaries and, all of a sudden, I found myself flying solo. 

Well, that's why camera makers put self-timers on our cameras. Sure, it's a pain in the butt to shoot, then chimp, then shoot and chimp again while walking a circuit from the subject position to the back of the camera but it beats the hell out of noticing that something isn't working in the middle of a non-repeatable assignment. Especially one on an insanely tight time schedule. 

The tension of a last minute change in staff, along with the pressures of the moment probably go a long way toward explaining why I am not smiling my usual endearing smile in this particular image....