Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Adventures in 85mm

I purchased my Sigma 85 1.4 lens second hand. At the time I wasn't doing much auto focusing, especially with tele lenses, due to to my specific cinematic style. Because of that I'm not sure if when I got it the AF was already broken or if it got that way later on.
So for a long time I was using it only in manual mode, but it fast became my go-to lens. I spend a LOT of money to buy Zeiss 50mm 1.4 and used it practically for everything but soon after getting the 85mm I found myself more and more drawn to using it. As I mostly shoot people the 85mm seemed like a great solution for weddings in small to medium venues, producing "beauty" shots without the hassle that comes with shooting with the 200mm in a room with a large crowd. The 85nn just seemed perfect for isolating a person while still retaining a sense of the room that person is in and the people next to that person.
I still use the 50mm if I want a few people in the shot and for formals. I also use the 20mm lens but RARELY.
Even shooting in nature, where I know the 200mm is popular I would rather use the 85mm because I feel that I can get more of the actual nature rather than just a blur a person floats in.
That said, since I got the A99ii I started experimenting with Eye-AF options. While not as great as in the latest Sony A7/9 models it is still worth using. However, it requires a working AF, so I waited for the right time to send my lens to Sigma.
As I am a working photographer, I decided to get a loaner lens courtesy of Sony PRO services. It actually comes from
At first they told me that due to their Kando 2.0 event that I wouldn't be able to get a loaner at the time I wanted it, but a few e-mails later they realized that they didn't actually need any A-Mount lenses so I could actually get the loaner. Sometimes it pays to be the underdog I guess. So I got the Sony Zeiss 85mm 1.4 lens that week and sent my Sigma 85 1.4 lens to Kurt's Camera Repair In San Diego, an authorized service center of Sigma, after confirming with them that they can fix it.
Once it got there they realized that they didn't have the right equipment to fix A-Mount lenses. I guess sometimes it doesn't pay to be the underdog. So they sent it to the main Sigma lab in upstate NY.  As to be expected it took a while for it to be shipped there and back so my two weeks with the loaner were over so I get left without the 85mm and had to to a family photoshoot with just the 50mm and 200mm lenses.
The good news was that though I had no proof of purchase whatsoever Sigma decided to fix my lens for free. So I only had to pay around 60$ for shipment which was cool.
The Sony Zeiss 85mm 1.4 was okay, and did the job on a small wedding where I used it extensively.

That said without and scientific or even extensive testing I find the Zeiss lens to be a kind of bland lens when compared to the Sigma lens that has better colors and bokeh as far as I could tell.
So I was happy to finally, after three and a half weeks to get my Sigma lens back which I plan to use on Sunday for my next fire dancing photoshoot.

Monday, March 26, 2018

It's Video Time!

I haven't done a lot video projects since I got the A99ii so I was excited to make this video for the non-profit bike shop Bikes for Humanity, promoting bike maintenance and use in the community.
Sometimes the bike shop can be a bit hectic, busy with volunteers fixing bikes and having fun, so initially I thought that would be a good style for the promotional video, explaining about how they were moving next door. So I did an hour or so of test shooting using the auto-focus options of the A99ii, because I needed to also ask questions in the interview while handholding the camera and moving it around. I figured that manual focusing while doing all that would be a bit much. As you might now by now if you own the camera, it goes into P mode and locks the aperture to 3.5. It's not too bad if the lighting is okay but can be quite bothersome and inflexible in some scenarios. Auto focusing seem to work well at times, but miss the mark at other times, switching from a person's face to the computer monitor in front of him for example. Also i had some bike mechanics show me some equipment, bringing it forward, but the camera would not lock on it, always seemingly preferring a face.
I realized that style wasn't really doing it for me, especially considering the limitations on the A99ii. So instead I decided to switch to a completely different style, inspired by the film director Wes Anderson.
That involved putting the camera on a tripod and shooting very static shots. I also decided not to have the main shop operator talk to the camera but add his voice as narration which simplified both production and the post process. 
The movie was planned to be edited in 1080p but I did shoot the opening exterior shots with the new 4K capabilities. That allowed me to stand at the opposite side of the street, shooting two storefronts and having Andrew, the Bikes for Humanity administrator, walk from one storefront to the other while the "camera" is tracking him. Without 4K I would have had to rent an expensive dolly and spend a lot of time trying to make the movement perfect. Instead I just zoomed into the footage and did pan and scan instead in Premiere Pro CC2018, changing the position of the footage.
This kind of trick shows the advantages of new technology. Sure, you could have made the same shot 40 years ago, but it would have been much more costly, requiring a crew of at least 6 people. Instead I could do this for no cost with just me and Andrew.
For the rest of the shoot I really utilized focus peaking to manage how much of the frame is in focus and where it is. I set it to medium and the color to red, a color that really pops out, shooting in 1080p 60p, except for one shot that had a bike spinning where I used S & Q slow motion in 120p. I also took some drone shots with a non-Sony camera :)
The trickiest shot for me was the one for the end credits. I wanted the feel of a dolly but didn't have one. So I used the Minolta 200mm 2.8 and just panned across the mural. I adjusted in post by scaling the shot a little bit and rotating it to compensate for the changing horizon.  Pans are tricky shots, especially if you plan to add text in post by tracking the shot. I ended up shooting in 1080 120pfs with a shutter speed of 1/250. This meant I had double the amount of frames I needed to edit in 60p for smooth tracking which I did with Imagineer Mocha and After Effects. After tracking the movement (using the full 120fps) and attaching the text, I slowed the footage down. The important thing to remember is NOT to use frame blending or any other optical frame estimation in either After Effects or any software you might use. Your footage should already have extra frames to allow for smooth slow motion.
I like the video in the A99ii much better than the so-so video that the A99 had. It is much cleaner with a better codec and improved bitrate. Though I wasn't really using the recorded sound, the internal microphone provided much better clearer usable sound than the original sound did in the indoor scene
That said, the new specs on the Sony e-mount camera makes me wish I had one so that I could have things like video eye-AF, AF in M mode and higher frame rate slow motion.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Ring Shots

Weddings are typically a high paced event. However, sometimes you have some free time on your hand because the makeup/hair process is late or let's say the same six people dance on the floor while you are waiting for the end of the party to do the sendoff.
So what do you do with your spare time? You can rest, that is a valid option but frowned upon in some circles. You can take photos of details, signs, food, etc, or you can take photos of the rings.
My specialization is portraits, and that is the main reason for why I get hired, but that said when approaching the rings I wanted to do the best I could, because I didn't want to be limited by what I am naturally good at.
I got this recommendation to put the rings on a mirror, but I couldn't find one and didn't bring one with me. Luckily for me I brought a shiny dress to do this, a dress I used before on an artistic photoshoot because I liked how it looked when using a shallow depth of field in the sun.

I also brought with me a Tamron Macro 90 2.8 lens and a portable light tripod. For the lighting I had an assistant hold  a Westcott IceLight for me. I put the ring on the dress, set the aperture to 8.0 or more and took the photos. It is important to know that you use a much more closed aperture setting that you would use for let's say closeup shots of a face if you want the rings to be in focus. A good tripod definitely would come handy here as you can set your shutter speed to a slow exposure so you wouldn't have to use high ISO for these shots.
I used the same technique to create the couple's save-the-date video using a different more velvety dress to create a more subtle in-camera effect.
The into the light effect is simply done by having my assistant wave the IceLight on top of the objects including the ring.
I decided to use a different backdrop for my last rings photoshoot. My assistant brought her tablet with her and we placed the rings on it. At first i used a black background.

 It kind of looks like a mirror. Then we switched to a white background.

I did like the IceLight reflection on the tablet and decided to use it.

Then we loaded some photos from the client's Facebook page to serve as a background.

It's important the clean the tablet before placing the rings, and also have something to wipe it between background changes because tablets are notorious for attracting fingerprints.
You could probably also use a phone, especially if it has a large screen, and even your laptop, especially if it is as flexible as my HP Envy x360. Potentially you can also do this without a Tripod as long as your hands are stable, your shutter speed is around 1/200, your camera or lens has a good stabilizer and your camera handles high ISO well.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Using technology to make different stylistic choice

The A99ii is a very impressive camera, lots of pixels, good ISO and nice AF.
My recent client was really impressed at the photos I was able to pull of a crowd in a corporate lecture, sitting mostly in the dark.
I was using two remote flashes, using my latest favorite style of having a backlight and a side backlight to light people.

The dynamic range of the A99ii allows me to pull of this shots in a dark huge room.
Then again, that is probably the style I would use with the original A99. Sometimes incremental changes can make a good technique in to a terrific technique.
However, current Sony cameras are not just nice cameras, like the A900 was, with nice warm colors and good lenses. They also allow you to do things otherwise almost impossible in other cameras.
The eye auto focus is a good example. While hardly as good an implementation as in the latest e-mount mirrorless cameras, it still allows you to create a unique style of photography that I tried for the first time for this event, but it might be relevant for weddings.
Having good ISO (set to auto) for event photography means I can allow myself to shoot with a fast shutter and an aperture of 4.0-5.6 when shooting groups of people talking. I mostly use the great Zeiss 50mm 1.4  lens for that, knowing I'll get sharp and pleasant photos where people will not look all of a sudden wider if they stand at the edge of the frame as happens with most wider lenses.

This way I don't have to worry about people being out of focus or blurry hands when people talk with their hands or make a sharp movement for any reason.
However, that limits you to a very specific style of photography. I did use this "safe" style for a while and then I got bored with it and decided to experiment with Eye-AF and the aperture set at 1.4. As this lens is phenomenal I knew my photos would still be sharp where focused, especially with the lower ISO.

As you can see this way of shooting goes a long way to create a blurred background in situations where you have to think quickly and still hit the perfect focus. I hope to use this style in an upcoming wedding when I come back from my upcoming vacation.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Tips for Weddings and other major events

I am still evaluating my brand new A99ii, but thought it was a good time to stop with all the technical information and give some of my tips to doing weddings. These tips can also be useful in other events or photography genres.

1. Arrive an hour before the event starts. Yes, you are not getting paid for it, but that doesn't matter in the long run. It's good to have time to plug in your batteries, get a feel of the venue, catch some extra behind the scenes photos. I will probably repeat this but I always try to give my clients some extras. I know that the money doesn't matter as much as repeat clients and clients who will give you good reviews and recommend you to their friends and family.
2. Dress sharply! It makes feel better and on many occasions I shared shirts, jackets and more with my male clients. In general, I try to feel less like a caterer (I know some photographers dress like that) and more like a party guest. I try to be close to my clients and get excited for them on their special day. Also , my last groom forgot to pack his dress shirt, so that definitely saved the day.

I love this photo of a cute couple and my own jacket :)

3.  Know things about your clients, ask them about their hobbies, what they like to do in their spare time, what is their job, etc. You never know when that will come in handy.
4. Tell your clients to do everything slowly, especially ring exchanges and cutting of cake, but also the walk down the isle. Politicians know this, they pose for ever and ever, shaking hands for a couple of minutes, Your bride and groom will probably not know this and being nervous will probably do things on overdrive unless told in advance.

5. Make sure there's enough time for posed shots, in a nice location. Tell them if they just want to do it in the hotel parking lot, or the ugly park nearby, they might regret it.

6. Never argue with the client. If they want a little more photo manipulation, do it. If they say there are not enough photos of anything, even if it's not your fault, agree and try to fix it as much as you can. Sometimes out of focus photos can be salvaged, photos can be cropped to fit a person and you should definitely get the videographer's info, as you might use a photo-shopped video still of some obscure aunt that you might have missed, to save the day.
7. Photoshop is your friend. As a photographer I do wish all my photos were perfect. However, they are not, especially in group photos, where sometimes a person would blink, look aside or lose an adorable smile. Young children and babies are notorious for doing their own thing while everybody else is obediently smiling at the camera. A lot of the times I combine parts of different photos of the same shot.
8. That said you should always strive to make the group photos better. Always make sure that people are looking at the camera. You would be surprised at how many times, even grownups who know what they are there for will stand there with all their friends and family and just look aside, looking lost at thought. I typically just look at the people before putting my eyes on the viewfinder or LCD and make sure everybody realizes what they should be doing.
9. Even if you are testing some people's patience, try to take most photos at different aperture and exposures if possible. I set my aperture at 4 for most shots, cranking it to 5.6 when I have a group of people. Sure, some shots of a single person, or two people when one is out of focus could look very nice at 2.8 or even 1.4 and the shallow depth of field style has been proven quite popular, but I always try to take backup photos at more closed aperture, because there is nothing more annoying than a good shot that is somewhat out of focus, or a shot of more than one person where someone is out of focus.
10. Have fun! Any job in my mind is not worth doing if you don't enjoy it, if you don't like it. Sure, holding a camera and running around might be stressful, even painful at times. The only way in my mind to justify such a vocation is not only liking the results but also enjoying the process, being with people, talking to people, experiencing emotions together with people you don't know and finding the uniqueness in each person. 
11. Talk to your clients about alcohol consumption. It's okay if they want to get hammered on their special day but I would recommend to lay off the booze until after the formals or any other posed photos. It makes it incredibly difficult for people to follow even the simplest instruction when they are intoxicated, especially trying to get a lot of people to stand without casting shadows on each other and looking at a camera. Also, some people, especially men gets flustered and their faces turn purple or red. Some people make faces that are decidedly not photogenic.

Friday, May 19, 2017

ISO 6400 is the new ISO 3200

I think by now I've used the A99ii on two events where the low-light capabilities were tested. On the last event, a local election night coverage,  I set it to Auto ISO but soon discovered that all the shots were in ISO 6400, so I set it manually to 6400.  You can set the maximum and minimum ISO like this:

It doesn't go in smaller increments, so over 6400 you get 12800 rather than 8000.

 The good news is that images look really great at ISO6400.
Color is nice, noise is barely noticeable. I did use some flashes this time to supplement the light coming from the window and the venue's brown lights. The lights were set to 1/16 or 1/32 so as to blend well with the ambience.

That said, as soon I went over 6400 ISO, photos were visibly degraded. Color was smudged and brownish. Also, the pixel count does not really matter at that point. I wish the camera would just decrease the number of pixels at that point, to save on disk space.
Due to compression you might not be able to tell but there is just no point for this photo to be 42.4MP. I have to admit that these photos are still usable, even though I might personally not like their quality very much. Sometimes your clients just want a documentation of what's happening.
There are some good news though. The photos would look better in high ISO if the light is between 3200K and 5600K. It will look better if the contrast is good. Also, if you left the high ISO on by mistake, as in the A99 in a lot of cases the photo will NOT be overexposed. The camera will figure out that it has enough light for the pixels and will compensate.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Good news and Bad news

I had a little more time and real life experience to check the A99ii. The good news: high ISO as expected is much improved. This makes the A99ii in low light and even regular room situation a totally different camera than the A99. For the first time shooting inside a room that I didn't use ANY flashes and put the ISO to auto without worrying.

I also took one photo in real high ISO 16,000 and the results were so so.
The photo looks kind of okay as long as you don't look to closely realizing the woman's face isn't really all there. So I guess that is reasonable. The A99ii is NOT the A7s, but as long as your eyes can see something, the camera will also be able to see it well. That was definitely NOT the case with the first A99. Here is another sample from a church wedding, still no flashes employed, even though I had them with me.
I actually m now using the flashes more for outside shoots than for low-light shoots. The rationale as I mention in previous post is that I want to put my clients in the shade so they will squint less.

Now for some bad news: The inner RAW viewer on the A99ii probably creates a jpeg version of the photo taken that does not represent the final output really well. I wasn't really sure that the photo about of the bride in tears was in focus until I get home and offloaded the photos. Even zooming all in, I wasn't really sure. I guess I could have used Wifi to take a better look, perhaps I will try it next time. I am pretty sure now that I can't rely on the internal viewer, even when zoomed in, to tell me how good the photo would look later on. I do hope Sony will fix that, but I am not holding my breath as the previous A99 model didn't receive any update except for accommodating some lenses.