3.23.2017

An inexpensive light that seems to work pretty well. And which matches my other lights...

Aputure Amaran HR672W. A medium size LED panel that can run on battery power. 

Late last year I decided to upgrade all of my LED lights. I did my research and decided that the price and performance compromise that made the most sense to me was the one offered by Aputure with their LightStorm series of panels. They have turned out to be great lights even though I find their A/C to power brick to panel connections a bit cumbersome. The light quality I am getting from them is quite good, and they seem to be living up to their press as 96+ CRI units. Flesh tones, especially, have been easy to nail in post processing. That's always a good sign. 

When I upgraded I spent a bit over $2,000 to get four units. Two of the LS-1S units (a high output, narrower beam fixture, with barn doors) and two of the LS-1/2 units (a broad beam, high output light that's half the size of the LS-1S). After using them on twenty+ projects I feel comfortable with the workflow involved and I'm pretty darn happy to have them. 

But recently I did a very detailed product shoot against a white background and I stumbled into the truism that every studio photographer knows well: "You always need just one more light for this project...."  With two LS-1/2s lighting up the background that left me only two lights to do the heavy lifting of contouring the product while ensuring I had controllable fill light to the opposite side. A couple of times I wanted a bit of front fill as well and had to resort to a much smaller panel ---the kind you would use mostly mounted on a camera--- in order to get just a bit more fill to the front of a decidedly three dimensional product. One more panel, with more power and surface area, would have been just right. 

At the same time I was also looking for a smaller, less cumbersome panel solution for really quick, one man video interviews. Something I could put batteries on, toss some diffusion in front of and bring up the illumination on a subject who is being mostly lit by ambient light. One concern I had was that I didn't want to spend a lot of money on "one more light." 

Once I did my research I was fairly certain I found the right candidate. It's a light that's also marketed by Aputure and it's the one I'm showing above and below. It's the HR672W. As you can probably discern from the product name it has 672 very color accurate LEDs. The "W" indicates that it has a wide beam spread. And I have no idea what the "HR" means...

I tried to buy one from my local Aputure dealer but it's not a stock item for them. I defaulted to Amazon.com and waited two long days to get my package. When I finally got the box open I was delighted to find a nicely thought out soft case holding the system together. I'm always delighted to get several more Sony NP batteries because there are so many products in the inventory I can use them on.....including my portable monitor. This package comes with two of the husky NP970 batteries. These will run the unit at full power for about one hour and thirty minutes, and at lower power settings for longer periods of time. They charge while connected to the panel via the power brick, which also supplies A/C power to the lights if you opt not to use the batteries. 

The light comes with a neutral diffuser that's good for taking the "edge" off the highly collimated LEDs, as well as a filter that converts the light temperature to match tungsten. A step-less dial on the back can set the output power from 10% to 100%, and your settings are easily repeatable because there is a big panel adjacent to the control that provides a numerical power indication. The panel also provides charging indicators for the batteries. 

The final cool thing that this light can do is that it can be remote controlled with a supplied, wireless remote. It's the same remote that comes with their bigger, more expensive lights. In fact, I can now control all five of the bigger panels with one remote control. I mostly leave the remote in the case and just set the control with my fingers. It gives me time to think about what I really want the light to do. But hey! if you are a tech junkie and love remotes,  then there you go. 

The bottom line on any light purchase is the quality of light that the product delivers. Aputure has done a good job getting the message out that their line of lights provides 95+ CRI; from the smallest model to the top model. In comparing the output of the Amaran HR672W to that of the more expensive lights I previously purchased, I would have to say that they nailed the consistency feature. The lights are all daylight balanced and they all match each other. That makes my job easier and more fun. 

The only downside of this light is the build quality. While the more expensive lights are all metal and have gloriously big heat sinks on them, this model is made mostly of plastic and might not stand up to a lot of wear and tear. If you are a precise and thoughtful person the robustness, or lack of,  is probably not going to be an issue. If you are the kind of person who runs around with cameras slamming together across their chest, and who literally tosses his stuff into cases without a thought for the effects of gravity or inertia, then you'll probably be bitching about stuff breaking in no time. 

The bottom line. Would I buy this product again? Yes. It's a perfectly good compromise between build quality, performance and cost. The price? Around $275. I give it four out of five happy camper awards. The one "camper" deduction is the build quality. I'm good with it.

the business end. 


3.22.2017

I'm speaking to a college class tomorrow evening. The topic is "The Business of Photography." What will I tell them?

The future of the business of photography is all about mixing media. 
My number one piece of business advice for photographers is to become a better writer. How? Practice every day. How about a blog?

BLOG WARNING: THE INTENDED AUDIENCE FOR THIS PARTICULAR BLOG IS THE GROUP OF STUDENTS I'LL BE SPEAKING TO. ESTABLISHED PROFESSIONALS SHOULD FIND THIS BORING.....

I have the lofty responsibility of talking to some advanced students who are near completion of their degrees in commercial photography. I have been asked to speak to them because of my hoary and enormously long tenure in the local photography market. And, probably, in no small part, because I am on the advisory board for their discipline at the college. I've done this every semester for as long as I can remember. Every semester I give a slightly ( or greatly ) different presentation. 

This year I'll be stressing the changing nature of what constitutes the photography industry. I maintain that we've left that traditional and narrow niche behind and that the key to success in the current economy is to embrace the role of "creative content creator" by learning a collections of inter-related skills, like film making, programming and marketing. These are skills that can be bundled for more potency and sold to a wide variety of end users. 

But mostly I'll talk about pure business. Supply and demand. Marketing. Positioning. Even branding. And the place I'll start my talk is about conservation of resources. I submit that most photographers who fail to thrive are victims of ignorance about money. The making of it; and more importantly, the conservation of it. 

The key to success in photography is to: (a) find clients who will pay you what you are worth. (b) do the job. (c) market the mutual success you shared with your client. (d) get paid by the client. (e) find the next client (or better yet, do more jobs for the original client). But the primary key for long term success isn't the photography part at all, it's what you do with the money you get for doing the work. 

I hear over and over again, from younger photographers mostly, that they are re-investing in their own businesses. From what I've distilled, based a life  spent in photography, this may be one of the worst investments you can make. 

Sure, you need to spend some money, regularly,  on marketing; and every once in a while it's probably a good idea to upgrade your camera gear, but the long game calls for a much more disciplined, and much less fun (in the short term) strategy. That strategy would call for putting money in investments that are totally outside  your business. Maybe even outside your industry. 

I have a partner/spouse/mentor who is much smarter than me about the big picture. It's because of her that, many years ago, I started an SEPP (single employee pension plan) and put a set amount of money into it every month. Rain or shine. If you look at the meager balance back in the early years and then look at today's balance you'd think I was a genius but it's just the power of compound interest. And discipline, combined with the knowledge that, as a freelance business owner, no one else is saving up to provide a pension for you. You have to do it yourself.

At the end of every year my freelance friends will tell me that their accountants have counseled them that they need to spend XXXX amount before the end of the fiscal year on equipment. In this way they'll be able to take an accelerated cost recovery (depreciation) and avoid paying taxes on this money. But the weak spot of this argument is that the gear they buy (especially in the digital age) begins a quick and somewhat sickening depreciation in resale value the minute they pull it out of the boxes and charge the batteries. 

My people have always told me that it's best to figure out how much "extra" money you have at the end of the year and to stick that into a tax advantaged retirement account, or to bite the tax bullet and put some of the money into an (after tax) Roth IRA account. After all, once the cameras grow old you can't sell them for much, or eat them, but the money you stick in an SEPP or traditional IRA is money that: A. You get to keep. B. That appreciates in value. and, C. Reduces your total income tax liability for the year in which you save it. OMG!!! You get to keep the money and, if you can keep your hands off of it then it also grows in value. 

My investments seem to follow the basics of investing. Nothing dramatic and nothing too risky. Most experts advise sticking to mutual funds (bundles of stocks) or, at worst, stocks in companies whose products and strategies you really, really understand. For instance, if you have been an Apple Computer user since 1984, and understand their products and their strategic value, then you might want to invest a modest percentage of your savings in that stock. Had you invested in Apple stock back in the late 1980's, say to the tune of about $10,000, you would not be reading this right now because you'd be trying to figure out how to spend the enormous amount of money you've accrued. Hint: It's millions and millions of dollars. What is your stock photography library worth just about now?

The same thing applies to financing your kid's college education. Every other thing I read today is about the impending student loan crisis. But, if the average college educated and professionally employed parent of twenty one years ago started saving about $250 a month in a 529 college savings plan they would have an ample supply of money today to cover the cost of in-state tuition, as well as room and board, for their current college student. Add $100 more per month and you'd pretty much have the $65,000 per year you'll need to pay full pop at a prestigious, private, four year university. 

Sure, sure, this is long term, old guy advice. But what if you are planning to live fast and die young and leave behind a beautiful corpse? Why would you bother to save anything in that scenario? Good question. I'll answer it with another question: When is the last time you felt like you needed to settle for a lower fee and a crappy assignment because you had your back up against the wall to pay rent? How many annoying, low budget clients have you accrued along the way because you couldn't afford the risk of not having their (meager) check by the end of the month to pay bills that you knew were coming? How poorly have you leveraged your artistic freedom (and your free time) by having to service an ever growing debt in your business? 

That new medium format camera sounded like a good idea when you put it on that credit card but it really didn't increase your business much, did it? And you keep making payments on that credit card so you can eventually "own" the camera, and by then you may have paid a quarter to a third more than the original purchase price just in interest. On a depreciating asset which will probably be obsolete by the time you pay it off. Make the minimum payments on that credit card and you may NEVER pay off that camera completely---even long after it's gone. 

The over-riding plan? Earn money, save money, and make the money work for you. If you start early enough, and keep yourself debt free, at some point you'll be able turn down all "stinky" jobs and still sleep well at night because your investments will keep growing and (best case scenario) pay regular dividends that can either be reinvested or enjoyed. You'll get to pick and choose the projects you work on and the clients you work with. You get to set, and stand by, your rates.  By being a disciplined saver you buy back your own freedom and can give yourself the "bonus" of free time to work on your art. Or you can just lie on the couch and read novels. Being a good steward of your money is a smart business strategy. 

Freelance businesses are not for everyone. If I didn't have a smart, frugal and strategic partner I'd be a dead man by now. Or at least dead broke.  Yep, that's what I'm thinking about telling the class of college commercial photography students. 

Glad someone told me. 
Studio Dog can count the treats in the jar on the counter. When we're running low she comes by and scratches me on the leg. I refill the jar. Her investment strategy pays off. 

the lavish bokeh of a micro four thirds camera and a Leica 25mm Summilux lens. 
Expensive gear is meaningless and its value is fleeting. Learn to use good, inexpensive gear.... or rent. 

More good investment advice: If you smoke cigarettes give up the habit for two years and save enough to travel through Europe taking photographs with the proceeds. It's a win/win. 

Always marry someone who is much smarter than you are. 

Don't spend a fortune on a rented space. I was paying $1,800 a month for downtown studio space from 1988 to 1997 then I bought a house and built a studio on the property. My mortgage for the house and the studio space cost less than my previous studio alone. We've done about 2,000 jobs and five book projects out of this 675 square foot space since 1997. And the coffee machine is just through that red door and 12 steps into the house beyond it. 

A total non-sequitur. I just happen to love big scrims. 

It is possible to raise a child,  from infancy to college, with a freelancer's income. If you are disciplined, and not addicted to the unnecessary trappings of a complete consumer lifestyle. Cook at home more. Watch free TV. Always choose necessities over wants.



Surround yourself with people who value art, creativity and camaraderie over trendy, expensive stuff. 

choose wise friends. 

And finally, never go out without your camera.


Have I left anything important out? Chime in and let me know. Class is not until 6 pm, CST, Thursday night.


































3.21.2017

Best Article I've Read on DP Review in Years. A debunking of some MF mythology. A nod to current full frame camera tech.

https://www.dpreview.com/opinion/2341704755/thinking-about-buying-a-fujifilm-gfx-50s-read-this-first

I'm so used to seeing advertorial writing on DPReview that I was a bit amazed to see this reasonably well written article that calls into question whether the investment(?) in a (smaller than) medium format camera, such as the new Fuji, is really going to deliver the things you might think are exclusive to the larger format.

It would be nice to see more writing like this and less gushing about sponsored Canon topics. Give it a read and see if you agree.


How learning about video improves your still photography story-telling. How good portrait lighting translates into more interesting video.


Every time I practice lighting portraits I end up porting that knowledge over into video lighting. After all, what is an interview but a nicely lit portrait that moves and has sound? By the same token, as I learn more about shooting video I learn that there's more than one angle and more than one visual point of view in a photo session. More options give me more choice. And, by being a better interviewer in the video world I've learned how to "lead" a portrait subject into a pose and expression that is more exactly what I am aiming for rather than being a session of endurance; predicated on random connections and fast reflexes.

It goes both ways. In doing both I find I am more prepared for each discipline. The more fluid I get with each practice the better my results get for each. Being able to blend the strengths of the two media is a fun exercise and a real plus. Try doing a great interview and following it quickly with a great portrait in the same set up. You'll already have the rapport on tap.....

3.20.2017

Accidentally passed a landmark. Also came to understand why people think camera preamplifiers are so noisy....

I should have noted that the Visual Science Lab blog hit (and passed) the 3200 post milestone. I did the math, that's millions and millions of words and thousands and thousands of photographs. How do you get to 3200+ posts? One post at a time.

On a different note you may have noticed that I'm diving deeper and deeper into the discipline of recording sound. Every good videography needs to know about audio. It may be the most important component of video and probably the hardest to get just right.

I have one little kernel of opinion that I want to pass on. I've been told for years now that still cameras which feature video capabilities all have very noisy and low quality preamplifiers in them and that the only way to record "professional" sound is to skip using the camera's input and start recording to an external audio recorder which, presumably, has cleaner preamplifier stages.

Hmmm. In theory I'm sure that the good digital audio recorders do have somewhat better circuitry and, perhaps, demonstrably better noise but I also think there is a prejudice floating around that has more to do with noisy headphone amplifiers than noisy camera preamps.

I've noticed for some time now that when I monitor the sound coming into my Sony cameras (including the RX10 series and the A7rii) with headphones I get some low level hiss and noise. It's there whether I've matched the microphone to the camera inputs or not. I always freak out when I hear it but I'm usually on a remote location and don't have another option.

The funny thing is that when I get back to the office, import the video files to my editing software and then listen to the output on my studio headphones I don't hear the same, obvious noise. What I hear is fairly clean and accurate audio. I have a short attention span so I hadn't tested my hypothesis until recently. My hypothesis is that the "dirty" audio is a result of crappy headphone amplifiers; not only in the consumer, all purpose cameras but even in most of the separate digital audio recorders I've worked with.

Recently I bought and received a new microphone. It was a well reviewed Aputure Diety shotgun microphone. I was anxious to test it out and wanted to give it every opportunity to excel. That would mitigate any post cognitive dissonance I might have had about spending yet another $360 on my always expensive occupation.

To that end I ran the microphone into the Zoom H5. It's a portable audio recorder that is well known to have low noise preamplifiers. The Zoom H5 supplied phantom power to the microphone and the recording I did was right in the optimum level area for voice (between minus 6 and minus 12 Db, as shown on the meters). There was no indication of overload and the levels were high enough not to be anywhere near a noise floor.

When I monitored via the headphone jack I heard a similar kind of noise that I often hear with signals coming from the camera headphone jacks. A high frequency hiss that's not terrible but not optimal. I was taken aback. All other owners/reviewers of the H5 were effusive in their praise of this model's low noise. Ditto concerning the noise profile of the microphone.

I moved the audio file to my computer, plugged in some Audio Technica headphones and took a listen to that set up. The noise I was hearing went away. It dawned on me that the real culprit in many cases might not be the camera but the camera's headphone circuitry. How could this be?

Well, I looked no further than to the car industry for an analogous comparison. Takata airbags were defective across a range of manufacturers and models, from Toyota and Honda to BMW and Ford. Seems like one airbag maker supplied a lot of different companies. By the same token the headphone amp is probably a feature on a small chip. Easier to spec a universally used microprocessor than to create a custom one for each camera line. And, an inexpensive product to make and sell.

The engineering/marketing rationale for using a noisy preamplifier chip is probably that, historically, so few people who purchased "hybrid" video/still cameras ever ended up shooting video, and the ones that did probably didn't use external microphones. Few would complain about the sound and, if they did complain then customer service could tell them that while it may affect monitoring it would not have an effect on the sound being recorded. Everyone saves money, no sound quality on the video files gets sabotaged.

But, of course, the product manufacturers omit any caveats about monitoring performance and so the urban legends are born and spread. And the legend in our industry is how awful the audio is on our cameras.

My experience reminds me to test, test, test and not to rely on urban legends.

I'll tell you right now that the audio I get from the Zoom H5 or the Tascam DR60ii is better than the audio I get from the RX10iii but in the same breath we are talking about 88 versus 85 and not 95 versus 42. You can do good work with the built in audio circuits of most current Sony and Panasonic cameras. I had good luck, audio-wise, with my Nikons as well. It's more a question of maximizing every step of technique than it is searching for the one "magic" solution.

Do your own tests. Listen to the output of a good system. Listen to the way it sounds through a set of monitor speakers, or through good headphones plugged into a high quality playback source. Don't blame your camera right off the bat.