Friday, December 30, 2016

Whoa! What happened?!?

How come nothing got posted since July 28th? The answer, of course, is the image above... a new addition to the Walker family.  Evander Ecco Palan Walker arrived on August 17th and that pretty much took care of my postings for a while.  But big changes are afoot for this blog in 2017.  The announcement won't come until February, I suspect, but new directions are in the works that I hope will reinvigorate this blog (and your photography-videography passion).  I am by no stretch of the imagination a newborn photographer (and my hat comes off to all of them), but until then....

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Two Types of B-Roll

Up until this past week I really only thought of B-roll (the non-subject matter footage in a video) one way.  It was a filler meant to add depth-- through contrasting visuals or supportive ones-- to the main footage.  It was a moving snapshot: the fidgeting hands of a speaker, the cut-away to what they're describing.  All of these are shot one way... as snapshots.

But in working on my current project, a promotional video for a local company, I realized that my footage needed to be much more.  It needed to tell a story, too.  To do so, I needed the footage to follow basic shot format: a wide establishing shot followed by close-ups and points of view. The sequence of shots needed to have the same continuity; I couldn't jump from an establishing shot to a close-up of an entirely different moment.  It needed to cut on the action.  The narration was in support of the b-roll, not vice-versa.

Not all B-roll requires this level of structure; often times, the simple "snapshot" does exactly what it's supposed to.  But now I'm on the lookout for times when the b-roll is the narrative, rather than the support.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Editor in Chief - Hilton Worldwid Anniversary Video

Tim from Hilton Worldwide approached me with an unusual project.  Okay, it was unusual in several respects-- first, that an international company based outside of Los Angeles, the film and video capital of the world, would reach out to a small videocompany in Oakland; second was the nature of the video itself.  They wanted to create a 50th anniversary tribute for Greg, one of their vice presidents, utilizing cell phone video greetings from employees all across the U.S.  From the outside it wasn’t so unusual... but lift the hood and you immediately see the problems.  Multiple “videographers,” using a variety of poor equipment, in a wide range of environments, producing a breathtaking spectrum of quality. What videographer could say no?

My first goal was to try and create some consistency in the video itself.  So I created a “best practice” guide for my crew of amateur camera people.  It looked like this:

It’s impossible, of course, to turn novices into experts with just a set of guidelines.  And there were dozens of “rules” I omitted (some to my downfall... such as “no vertical videos”).  To boot, some folks roundly ignored my guide, shooting from the hip, so to speak.

Step two was a framework for the responses.  Tim and I talked about the tone of the piece, who Greg was, his outstanding achievements, and work habits.  Tim wanted something filled with humor and appreciation.  Originally, there were to be eight pairs of people on camera.  I created sets of questions (no more than 4 per person), and we divided them across geographic regions.  The number of people quickly multiplied, as did the length of the piece.  Soon, I had over an hour of footage from 25+ individuals.  Audio levels ranged from barely audible to loudspeaker, and background noise from air conditioner hum to convention floor.  

The trick, then, was to construct as much “story” as possible among the different speakers.  I divided the video into topic sections, and focused my edits along common themes, letting multiple people tell the same story whenever possible.  No one was ever under the illusion that this was going to be a polished “showroom” piece.  But Hilton was thrilled with the final result; the rough edges were authentic and heartfelt rather than glossy.  The sentiment was exactly what they wanted to convey to Greg, and the “tone” said “Hilton.”

Monday, July 11, 2016

Color Grading Slog Video - Without the Headache

For me, Slog profiles are both a siren and a curse.  I'm drawn to the promise of greater dynamic range and the protection from blow-outs; I'm demoralized by the difficulty of transforming Slog 2 and Slog 3 footage into vibrant, rich video.  Admittedly, I'm not the greatest of color graders; most of us aren't.  In fact, I suspect that much of the "stylized" color grading I see is simply an effort to cover up the fact they couldn't create a natural looking image.  I'm sick of green-hued images.  But I can't throw stones because I have the same difficulty-- even after 20 minutes of futzing with levels, color wheels, and contrast, I'm dissatisfied. So what the heck is wrong with Slog footage and how can I grade better and faster?

I don't have an answer to the first question.  The problem is probably me.  To give myself a break, photos are rarely as pug-ugly as Slog 3 images, and the tools in Lightroom and Photoshop are much much better.  But I have figured out a great way to quickly grade my footage to an even more satisfactory level than before. 

Personally, I think the Sony a7Sii color is a bit wonky.  Not all the time-- but sometimes there's a muted hue, and it's on full display when you color grade from Slog. So here's a technique I've discovered:
  1. Before shooting your footage, take a photo of the scene.  Make sure it's properly exposed, since your camera settings for Slog may be too far to the "right," i.e. slightly blown out for still photography.
  2. Now film in your Slog profile of choice.  Whenever you move to a different scene, take another photo.
  3. Import both the photo and the video into your video editor; I use Sony Vegas Pro.
  4. I believe all the major editors have a color-match function.  In Sony Vegas, open the Color Match FX to apply the photo color to the video. Be sure to tick the "match brightness" box.  It should look like this:

If you're unfamiliar with this tool, I'd suggest Google for a more complete explanation.  But quickly, the Source Image will be your photo (the color you want); I make sure the still image is on the Preview screen and then click "Preview" to capture it.  The Target is your video; I bring up the video on the monitor and hit Preview in the Target box.  The color adjusted image will appear in the Result section. 

This will get you 80% of the way there.  Typically, I use the Levels FX to bring the image into perfect exposure.  If you don't know how to use a Waveform scope, learn, because it's amazing.  And for a little extra punch I'll boost the overall saturation using the Color Corrector, and individual colors using AAV Color Lab.

Here's a before image of the footage:

It's the typical washed out footage of Slog 3.  Now here's the color matched and tweaked image:

The great thing is that this only took an extra 15 seconds during filming, and about two minutes of grading in post. After tweaking the levels and saturation, the resulting image is better than the original photo.

While I've known about the Color Match feature for a while, I only now just thought to apply it to my Slog footage utilizing a reference image.  It's really the same technique film photographers used to employ, taking a Polaroid to check exposure. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Channeling the Buying Impulse

We all want progress.  Often the progress I most fervently desire is forward movement in my career: more jobs, better jobs.  When I hit a lull, waiting for the next opportunity is hard.  I quickly exhaust my techniques for "goosing" new business into being, and I'm left with this need, this yearning for forward movement.  If I can't get better jobs, I want better tools, better capabilities, better photos.  Buying some new piece of equipment is a nice, easy solution.  It's fast. It doesn't over-commit my time.  It's definitive, cheap progress.

The problem isn't just the rapid decrease in my bank account.  Like cotton candy, the "buying solution" lasts about as long as a sugar high.  Within days I need another fix. Photography is first and foremost about problem solving: how to work with a given light, a given architecture, a given person.  I've already got a robust set of photography tools, so I'm much better off learning how to use them better to solve problems. 

Which is basically the answer to re-channeling my impulse to buy more gear.  Shooting is a lot more satisfying than buying.  The challenge is how to shoot without having the driving purpose of a job.  A job focuses the activity, raises the stakes, and provides a nice clean finish.  But if I know that my impulse to buy more gear is really about a desire for progress, for improvement, than it becomes just a little bit easier to tame that buying impulse.  I can make that conscious effort to put down the cotton candy and make some soup.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Sony a7Sii Joshua Tree Review

Continuing my extended review of the Sony a7Sii (you can read the general overview and the wedding reviews on my blog), I took it to Sequoia National Park and Joshua Tree to see how it would perform (and to deepen my knowledge of the camera).  Being mirrorless-- and a Sony-- its operation is significantly different than my other two cameras.  And in all fairness it has an incredibly high bar to pass in order to make it into my camera bag.  The Nikon D600 (my workhorse) was rated with the 3rd best DSLR sensor when it was released; my Pentax 645D was similarly at the top of its class, only within the even more demanding medium-sensor competition.  So how did the a7Sii fare?

To start let me say that I never intended the Sony to be a primary camera, only a solid backup.  I don't like having identical systems for 1st and 2nd cameras. Since cameras so rarely fail, I like my 2nd to offer something different in terms of tonal quality or features.  I want it to be something I'll use during a session even when my primary kit is functioning just fine.  To that end, the Sony doesn't disappoint.  But let me start with the specifics.

The Good
I wanted to play with the a7Sii with some landscape opportunities; I'd already found that the ever-so-slight shutter lag made it less than ideal for events and sports; I wanted to see how it performed with a still subject.  Normally, I'd chose the Pentax 645D for this job.  And let's be honest-- it's unfair to pit a 12MB full-sized sensor against at 40MB medium format sensor.  The Pentax surpasses in detail and texture.  Still, the Sony does quite well on its own terms.  While the image quality is not quite on par with even my Nikon, it's clearly ahead of smaller sensor cameras, and many full-framed ones too.  Also, the Pentax is freakin' huge; it's not suited for hardcore traveling.  The Sony is the smallest of the trio, and in some respects (silent shutter, low-profile, and tilting LCD) the most versatile.  So even though it doesn't have the same detail and textural depth, I'd still list image quality in the "good" section.

With landscape (and portraiture and architecture), you don't notice the ever-so-slight shutter lag.  The issue doesn't distract in the slightest.

The dynamic range is pretty impressive; it may even surpass my Nikon-- I'll have to test that further.  What makes it so good is that the camera resists blowing out.  You can see it in the blue skies-- I did very little to pull them out in these images.  The darker zones are sometimes a bit mushy, but the camera works hard to keep everything within range.

I'll repeat myself now: the Sony a7Sii is incredibly fun to shoot.  It just feels good.  And the versatility I mentioned before gives it a flexibility that's hard to match.  So even if my other cameras produce better images, there will still be times when I'll chose it above the rest.

A simple $20 adapter allows me to use some incredible Nikon glass. This is the 50mm f/1.2.

Because you can quickly zoom in (I've assigned the Zoom to the button nearest the shutter), focusing with a manual lens is quite quick and beautifully accurate.

The Not-So-Good
When it comes to landscape photography, the Sony really doesn't have any major flaws.  If you're a professional landscape photographer the low resolution (12MB) sensor is an obvious and insurmountable problem. But for the rest of us it does quite well.  And if you use a better lens, you'll get some of that detail and sharpness back.  12MP with excellent glass is sharper than 16MP with mediocre glass.

In scenes with a wide dynamic range, the viewfinder and LCD often make the brightest portions appear blown out.  But just on the screen-- not the image itself.  To compensate,  I took to always having the histogram up in shooting mode so I could tell what was really happening.  It's not blown out, the viewfinder/LCD just doesn't have the same dynamic range as the image.

Color.  Color? Color....  I'm pretty mixed on this one.  Shooting in RAW and converting with Adobe DNG converter, the colors are oddly muted.  Not just muted, oddly so.  You can pull a lot of richness back (in fact the raw files are quite flexible), but it takes more tweaking than with either of my other cameras.  I also, I find it needs a little more sharpening.  I think those qualities qualify as a negative.

But really, there's not much else in the negative.

The wife... tree hugging.

The Verdict
The Sony does a very good job of challenging my Nikon for travel photography.  The smaller size and versatility make it a difficult camera to leave at home.  Let's see what I do the next time I take a major trip (okay, let's be honest, I'll probably take both since the Sony can use the Nikon lenses).  The a7Sii is quite capable for landscape photography, just so long as you don't need a huge amount of detail.  Again, it wouldn't be the choice of a professional in that field, but rather a professional photographer looking for either a solid second camera or dabbling in a field that's not his/her/they specialty.

At times I felt there was some very safely "middle-ground" about the camera.  With the kit lens, it's easy for the images to be good yet unexceptional.  However, I think that with better lenses and a deeper understanding of the camera's qualities it will be possible to create some truly exceptional images.  These images, by the way, were tweaked for color and sharpness, but I didn't take the time to try and find their full potential.

The a7Sii is, of course, really designed for video.  Still images are secondary.  If you judge it as a video camera first and a still camera second, the Sony a7Sii is better than its aspirations:  I'll never grab my Nikon above the Sony for video, but there are times I'd grab the Sony first when shooting still images, which speaks volumes.  And if I had to give up one of my three cameras today, I'd let go of the Pentax.  The image quality is superb, but it can't compete on versatility.  In comparison, it's a boutique camera, a tool for a specific purpose.

Nuts!  I left my tripod at home.  This image was shot with the camera propped on my bag to reduce shake....  Also, in  the dark I couldn't find the shutter delay option, so two strikes against. me.  That functionality is a bit buried in the menu.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Creating Facebook Videos that Work

Tips for Making Facebook Videos the Sell

Today we posted an article on our other blog at Hurricane Images Inc.  Like it or not, Facebook is almost a ubiquitous presence in our lives.  And increasingly it’s become important for small businesses-- for branding, customer relations, and marketing.  Creating video for Facebook isn’t like creating video for other platforms, though. It’s a unique interaction, and if you’re going to be successful, your video should be custom built for the platform.  I'm posting the first five tips here.  If you like them, mosey on over to Hurricane Images Inc to read the next five.  And a little lagniappe.

1. Create for Facebook.  This means design your video for how people will watch it on Facebook, and upload it directly to Facebook.  Attention spans are short, 85% of videos are watched with the sound off. Facebook gives priority to their “own” content, versus Youtube links.  So design your content for the medium.  Marketing is only an expense when it doesn’t work; otherwise it’s a profitable investment.

2. Start hard.  The first three 2 seconds have to stop them in their tracks because viewers are scrolling downwards through their feed.

3. Make your visuals lively.  Seems like this goes without saying, but the visuals have to be striking.  This isn’t a medium that does well with elegance, slow moving frames, or talking heads.

4. Be unbelievable brief:  2-30 seconds is perfect.  Anything over 60 seconds is lost. What’s worse, if you bore them they’ll walk away with a negative impression.  So what if you have more to say? Create a second, longer video and link to it.  Or your website.  “Want to learn more, visit:”

5. Call to action.  Tell them what they should do.  It doesn’t have to be “buy my product;” it can be as simple as “learn more.” Go to the “Edit Video” section of your video and under the “Call to Action” section, you will find various options (Learn More, Watch More, Shop Now, Book Now, Sign Up and Download).

Want more?  Read on.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Pinterest Tools - a review of Copublish, a free management tool

Pinterest tools for selling your work

I don't enjoy social media (Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, etc.), so anything that makes interacting with those platforms easier is a real boon.  There's a lot to debate about the usefulness of these tools, too.  Having that video or image that goes "viral," attracting ridiculous amounts of attention and praise... well, who can argue against the success of that?  But if it's not a phenomenon you can consistently replicate-- or that even has a solid set of guideposts for increasing your chances-- then it's not exactly a "business activity."  That isn't to suggest social media tools aren't of value.  If you run an Etsy or online shop-- a venue that opens you up to national and international customers-- these tools have a necessary place in your marketing outreach.  Especially a tool like Pinterest which puts your product in front of people with an interest.  Connecting people with common interests is Pinterest's strength, and the network is global.

As a photographer and videographer (who is geographically limited), Pinterest is less practical; I don't benefit from admirers in Australia, or even Alabama.  But I do believe it has a small place in my toolbox.  My goal is for someone local to see my "product" and reach out.

Having a "small" place in my toolbox means I want it to take a "small" amount of time (and a small amount of cost), so I started looking for free tools to manage my posts.  Like all social media tools, regular posting is important.  I wanted a tool I could use to schedule a week's worth of posts and then ignore.  And I wanted it to be free.  There are some paid options (like, but few in the free category.  In fact, I found only one: Copublish (

So does it work?

Copublish lets you schedule your pins in advance, describe and tag them, and track their analytics (though I don't think they do this any better than Pinterest).  The interface is simple and attractive, though I found it a bit buggy.  After I set up my account, I added a new board to Pinterest.  Copublish couldn't "see" the new board.  So I un-linked my Pinterest account from Copublish and tried linking it again, but it wouldn't.  I'd give it permission to post to my Pinterest account and it would keep telling me I didn't have any accounts linked to Copublish.  I emailed tech support and they responded really quickly (like five minutes later), asking a question.  But then they didn't respond after I gave them the answer.  I suspected that the problem has related to how Copublish "refreshes" its data, so I waited and day and sure enough it was working again.  Since then I've scheduled two weeks of posts to two different boards.  On the whole, I'd rate Copublish a B-.  It's working well now, but I worry about what will happen if I add a new board.  If it can handle that, I'd upgrade it to a B+.

Ultimately, of course, the most successful Pinterest campaigns are run by people who love Pinterest, post regularly by hand, and are interacting with other users.  If Pinterest is an important tool for your business, I wouldn't skimp on your time investment.  For those of us who are social media introverts, Copublish is a handy tool.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

8 Tips for Building Intimacy in a Session

Intimate Unique engagement photos by Hurricane Images Inc

When people pay money for a photography session, the expectations are high.  Excitement builds.  The session itself becomes an experience, and adventure.  It's easy to forget how much risk is involved for the client.  They're paying money to someone they don't really know, then putting themselves in a position where they could look "bad."  There's something inherently intimate about photography.  When I shoot weddings I'm deeply aware that I'm often seeing more of the wedding than the bride and groom, and capturing the most intimate parts of it.  And weddings aren't the only "life-changing" experiences that I've had the honor of photographing at Hurricane Images Inc.

Hurricane Images Inc Named Oakland's Top Portrait Photographer in 2016

So how do you build the trust and intimacy needed to make the client comfortable and the experience memorable?  Here are eight tips:

  1. Be professional.  That means be on time, return emails and calls promptly, have a contract, and come prepared.  And don’t look like you just rolled out of bed.
  2. Listen first.  Ask questions.  By the end of the session you should know what they’re using the photos for, what they do for a living, whether they have kids, what they’re doing after this, and maybe their hobbies.
  3. Share something of yourself.  Unless they ask a specific question, I usually share something about the business of photography-- what I like about it, how long I’ve been doing it, a session that meant something or was funny.  Engage in a real conversation.
  4. Develop of list of “supportive” words: that’s great, perfect, looks good, that’s awesome, just like that....  Use them constantly.
  5. Show them the back of the camera.  If you like what you see, share it. It builds confidence and gets them excited.
  6. Never cross the touch barrier.  Except, well, sometimes you can.  The best and safest rule is to never touch a client or model; instead, mirror how you want them to be physically.  This is a great way to build trust, because it requires a certain amount of silliness.  But it would be disingenuous to say I’ve never moved a client’s elbow or brushed an errant hair out of the way when they couldn’t physically do it for themselves. But you need to have established a lot of trust before that barrier gets broken, and you need to be able to read your client well.  There are some whom I’d never dream to touching beyond the handshake.
  7. Don't rush.  I'll take a good hour to shoot a business headshot if the client isn't in a hurry.  Yes, I can do it in 15 minutes, but the only thing memorable about it will be how much those 900 seconds cost. 
  8. Enjoy yourself.  They will, too.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Woo-Hoo: Named one of Oakland's top wedding photogs names Hurricane Images Inc one of California's Top Wedding Photographers

Every now and then you get a nice surprise in your Inbox.  This week named Hurricane Images Inc. as one of the top wedding photography companies in Oakland.  Normally, I'd view that honor with a bit of skepticism (reckoned how, exactly?), but I was pleased to see they had vetted 277 photographers in the process, curated 116 websites, and narrowed their "Top" category to just 18 companies.  So I'm thrilled to have made the cut.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Sony a7Sii for weddings review

Sonoma County Wedding Photography by Hurricane Images Inc.

I was excited about using the Sony a7Sii for my upcoming wedding shoot.  Why? For one, it had been forever since I had used a silent camera.  No mechanical shutter, no sound.  And during a church ceremony this seemed priceless-- as did the incredible low-light capabilities of the a7Sii.  But the real world can be harsh.  The real world can turn "oh, my iPhone takes great pictures" into "my iPhone is completely impractical for anything beyond selfies and food porn."  So how did the a7Sii do at the wedding? Here's the good and bad.

The Good
I have to say that the a7Sii brings all of the joy of taking a picture back from 1990s.  We're so used to the camera doing all of the work that we've forgotten about the feel of taking a picture.  The ability to assign functions to buttons on the a7Sii is incredible.  It's lovely to have every possible function within thumb's reach.  It's lovely to see the histogram in the viewfinder.  It's lovely to have the viewfinder show the actual exposure-- what you see is (pretty close) to what you get.  Especially with a manual lens, it makes taking a picture a lovely experience.  Years ago I bought the coveted Nikon 50mm f/1.2.  I quickly concluded it was crap (at least my version).  It's soft from f/1.2 to f/4.  My Nikon 50mm f/1.8 is sharper. Wide open the purple fringing hurts one's soul.  But the (skimpy) 12MP sensor redeems those bad qualities, making the lens a delight and powerhouse of expression.

The a7Sii draws no attention to itself.  It's small and silent.  That's a plus for capturing candid moments at a wedding. I like stealth.

The camera truly is remarkable in low light.  This was taken at ISO 4,000.

It's grainy to be sure, but usable.  I gave this image (and all the others in this post) to the couple.  I wouldn't consider using anything above ISO 2500 from my beloved Nikon (okay, maybe if I converted the image to B&W I would do ISO 3200).  This was taken at ISO 5,000:

Again, grainy but completely usable.  And there's a quality to natural/available light that is completely different from flash photography.

Color rendition: that falls on both sides of the Good/Bad line for me.  You can get quite nice colors.  Sometimes. In low light, the hue can shift, and the program you use to convert your files can worsen the problem (I had to convert the files to DNG as a Lightroom 5 user).  I found that Adobe DNG Converter to be far superior in terms of color rendition, but not perfect.  Colors sometimes leaned towards green hues.  In good light, though, the colors are quite pleasing.

Black and white.  Between the lack of punch (and the color distortion that happens when you try to add in punch) and the low-light issues (see below), the Sony will eventually reach it's limit.  And then you make great Black and White images.

ISO 10,000

ISO 10,000.  Really?  I'm from the days of film where ISO 800 was pushing the "arty" look.

This is the image at 1:2:

Noise reduction is at 30; sharpening at 30.

The lack of sharpness here is largely due to the noise, and probably made slightly worse by a minimal shutter speed.  The image has the low-contrast quality that's endemic to low light situations, but I was standing four feet away from him and you really don't want a flash going off in this moment. 

The Not-So-Good
The first isn't a limitation of the camera but a fact of life.  Low-light situations are also low contrast and muted colors.  So in situations without clear light sources (and the shadows they produce), images are often a bit lifeless.  Rather than rely on the Sony's low-light capabilities, I used my Nikon with flash for many of my "low light" shots in order to get that added punch and dimensionality.  Otherwise, foregrounds blend into backgrounds and the world becomes mushy.

Between the electronic viewfinder and the electronic shutter there is a lag.  It's not noticeable when taking posed shots, but it can be a nuisance when shooting events.  You miss things.  This is exasperated by the fact that the preview image shows in the viewfinder.  That's wonderful in controlled situations, but a real stumbling block for fast moving events. You have to tap the shutter button to return to live view, and half a second has gone by.

12MP.  An additional challenge in working with only 12MP is the relationship between detail and grain.  There's less detail in a 12MP image, so grain (when it finally appears around 4,000 ISO) more quickly interferes with the detail.  Just a fact of life.  So in addition to having less ability to crop your photos, you quickly lose some of your detail with ISO.

Lens choices.  Oy.  Sony lenses are way over-priced.  The great thing is that a $20 adapter makes all of my Nikon lenses work... but only in manual focus mode.  That's great for video, architecture, and landscape.  It's too slow for people.  All of these images are shot with the Sony 28-70mm kit lens, which is sufficiently sharp for the a7Sii (yay) but also slow and unexceptional. The kit lens is far better suited to video and landscape than portrait and event.

Because you need the punch that comes from a flash, I spent less time with my Sony at the wedding than I thought.  If you can use a flash-- and you know how to use one-- it's just a better solution in low light.  If you can't use a flash for whatever reason, the Sony is great.

Sonoma County Wedding Photography

The verdict?  Any verdict would be an over-simplification.  I am increasingly impressed with the a7Sii's video capabilities, and that's the camera's strength.  I can see why one might buy the a7Rii over the "S" due to the megapixels and the fact that most of the time you won't use the better low-light capabilities.  I'm tempted to say that I made a mistake in buying the S, but it's also true that the lag issue and the lack of affordable auto-focus lenses means that my Nikon will always be my workhorse.  So when it comes to still photography (where the Sony a7Rii is clearly superior), I'd still be using my Nikon. I also suspect that the lack of affordable lens choices is even more problematic with the R, due to the need for really sharp lenses.  So if the Sony S is primarily for video (and for me that's true), then it's a better option than the R. My conclusion?  The a7Sii makes for a capable 2nd camera, but not a 1st camera for weddings.  This past week I took the camera to Joshua Tree, so I may add to my ongoing review of the Sony a7sii with that perspective.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Envisioning the final image... all the way

Pentax 645D

We're always told to envision the final image before we press the shutter.  Frankly, I'm not quite sure what that means.  I mean, I'm evaluating the scene prior to picking up my camera; I'm looking at a little rectangle image in the viewfinder;  I'm placing my subject artistically in the frame; I'm evaluating my exposure; if Athena the God of good judgement is with me I'm checking the edges of my frame, not just my subject.  Does this qualify as "envisioning the final image?"

Oakland Video Production and Photography

A nagging doubt makes me suspect not.  I'm often surprised when I see the image on the back of my camera.  Sometimes I see things there I didn't see in the viewfinder.  How three dimensions mutate when compressed onto two dimensions.

Having obviously not mastered the basics, I'm still foraging ahead to what I now see as the next level: envisioning the image as the viewer.  Not as the photographer.  As the viewer.  What emotions will it evoke?  What is it's use?  Will it be used for marketing? Education? Pure enjoyment?  How do these things relate to what the viewer sees?

And here's the point.  We (the photographer) take the picture. If we're professionals, it's for someone else. That person sees it not just as a picture, but as a tool.   It is a memory enhancer, or art to go on the wall, or a seller of product (shoes or dresses or beer), or a seller of brand (sexy accountant-- no, sorry, dedicated accountant).  If we want to excel as photographers we need to be knowledgeable in these areas, too.  Not just light ratios but marketing, adult learning theory, and social networks.  That's how our images are being used.  When the client looks at our pictures they're thinking, "does this sell, brand, remind, or beautify?" Most often it's the first of those: "does this image sell my product?"

Video production for Etsy artisans

That's not as grim as it sounds.  Seeing the image as the client isn't about adulterating your art with marketing schmooze.  Knowing marketing (and by extension the customer being marketed to) is simply another tool, another lens filter.  Consider this:  Shooting for a magazine you'd naturally consider negative space.  Your "dedicated accountant" wants to exude knowledge and assurance-- emotional qualities you might have pursued in your image anyway.  Negative space, emotional content-- those are important considerations in marketing. If you've ever done either of those two things, you've envisioned the image as the viewer.  But that's just the tip of the monster.

At Hurricane Images we posted a blog designed to help Etsy sellers use the videos we made for them.  When we work with merchants and artisans we start with the question, "what does our client want to express?"  We finish with the question, "what do their customers want to buy?" The client looks at our videos and images not as sellers, but as customers.  What are they really buying?

If you think about that question you realize they're not buying a handcrafted piece of jewelry.  They were buying the experience of being the subject of everyone's attention in the room. They're buying an object that takes everyone else's breath away.  Our video wasn't about jewelry, it was about breathlessness.  Shoot that.  Think about what the background should evoke. Is it intimacy or expanse, warmth or a winter night?  Is it a cocktail party out of focus? A hand submerged in fur on a cold night?  It's not a ring, it's an experience.

We also shot a set of testimonials for a center that provided holistic therapeutic massage.  No one wants therapeutic massage.  What they want is to be their younger, healthier self again.  The object (massage) isn't the subject.  The subject is what the customer wants.  

That's thinking like a marketer.  That's seeing the work as your client. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

An Evolution of Thought

Blogs are hard to keep going. A few years back, I loved reading PetaPixel, DIYPhotography, and Cheesycam for their innovative how-to pieces and educational posts.  Great places to learn. Over time, though, they became centered on product reviews and "look what someone else has done." I don't mean to diss them.  I still pop over and check them out from time to time.  But they've changed.  They're no longer about educating photographers.  Truth is, finding new things to teach is really hard. I started my blog as part of my 100 Learnings in 100 Days challenge. As I studied something new about photography every day, I realized that if I wrote about it I'd be more likely to remember it.  I actually learned 100 things in about 80 days, and the challenge generated about 85 "Day X/Learning Y" posts.  And then a few more after that.  Slowly, other types of posts started to creep in.  Philosophy. Gear reviews.  They stopped being so educational.  And the frequency of posts slowed down.  To a dribble.  Then a drip.  Strangely, I can't say my learning has slowed to a drip.  I'm still learning something new almost weekly.  It just hasn't felt as "shareable."  I'm a writer, and I like content to be coherent.

I'm hoping to change that.  (Not the content/coherent part, but the dribble-drip.)  One reason my output slowed is that I was adhering to a specific type of technical learning around photography.  My "challenge" kept me focused on skill-set learning.  I'm still going to post those types of things, but I hope to expand into other photography related material.   It's one thing to learn the technical skills necessary to become a photographer.  Staying  a photographer is an even bigger challenge.  It involves the business of photography, marketing, equipment, and learning from experiences.  My work is also expanding into videography, so expect some posts about that as well.

We're evolving.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Nailing Perfect Exposure in Lightroom

I'll be the first to admit that I have a problem nailing the perfect exposure for the final print, especially if that print is on paper.  Personally, I tend towards moodier images with more dark tones.  Computer monitors generate light, so images usually appear brighter on screen than when printed.  Combine my "mood" with physics of light and you can end up with seriously unhappy client.

Almost all non-professional printers (like those at Walgreens) auto adjust the exposure because of this.  So in many cases you're saved by technology.  But professional printers often don't (it's a mixed bag), and it's always better to be in control of your own exposure.

The rule of thumb I sometimes hear is to find the exposure you like, and then increase it between 1/4 and 1/2 stops when sending to the printer.  That's a good rule of thumb, but I think I've found a more precise way to ensure the skin tone in my portraits are properly exposed.  If we follow the Zone System, we know that skin tones should be between Zones 5 and 7 (depending on skin color).  I've always been annoyed that the histogram in Lightroom doesn't change when you zoom in, but it does change when you crop the image.  So to perfectly expose skin you simply need to crop in:

Then adjust your exposure watching the histogram.  The histogram is divided into four sections.  Perfect skin tones will reside between the mid point (Zone 5) and the third line (essentially Zone 7).

You can adjust the exposure while still in the Crop Mode, and then re-crop the images to taste.

Now for a quick tip:  while in the Develop Module, when you put your cursor over an area the histogram doesn't change, but the numbers below R, G, & B, will show their values.  You can quickly check the exposure by hovering your mouse over the area. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

How to market your Etsy shop using video

Video production and photography for Etsy artisans

Over at Hurricane Images we've been doing some expanding.  Over the past year I've had an increasing number of clients ask for video.  So a couple of months back we launched a full service video production company.  One of the challenges to starting a new business is maintaining your focus.  I've enjoyed working with a wide range of clients-- but none more than the artisans and artists.  I'm reaching out specifically to boutique shops, artisans, non-profits, and start-ups.  People with exciting new ideas and vision.  So you'll be hearing more about video production, and how small businesses can use video to connect with customers, supporters, and fans.

One of the most exciting new developments on Etsy this year is the ability to upload video to your “About” page (profile?).  Video and Etsy are natural partners because both emphasize the personal.  Etsy customers want something unique, and they want to feel a connection to the creators.  It’s not simply a purchase, it’s about being part of a community. 
Video production for Etsy artisans

Five years ago I bought my wedding ring.  I visited dozens of local shops, but I bought my ring on Etsy.  I surprised even myself with that decision, because a wedding ring is something you really want to see on your finger.  It’s intensely personal, and it takes an enormous amount of trust to buy something like that based only on a picture.  In reality, I didn’t.  I bought it because I was able to email the maker and ask my questions.  The ring in the pictures was exactly what I wanted, but I didn’t know what would happen if it didn’t fit.  I didn’t know if the color would fade.  I didn’t know how I should take care of the metal.  If I hadn’t emailed him, I would never have bought the ring.  He couldn’t take the initiative and email me.

Your video is that email.  It’s an opportunity to reach out to your customers without them having to contact you first.  People who buy on Etsy want to know how it’s made, who you are, and why you make the art you do.  It’s the very essence of Etsy.

So how do you make the most of your Etsy video?  Here are 10 tips to create the best video possible and get it seen.
  1. Focus on who you are, the process of creation, and what’s unique.  Video is a story-telling medium.  Let your pictures sell the your products; have the video sell what’s behind them. 
  2. Match the tone of your video to the “tone” of video.  What music  describes your product?  Is it relaxing and elegant?  Punk? Heavy metal?  In video tone is conveyed not just in music, but it editing style and color tone.  Your video should reflect you. 
  3. Keep it short.  The biggest mistake people make when they create their video is making it too long. We live in a fast-paced world.  Your video should be between 1 and 3 minutes in length.  Anything over 90 seconds needs to have “two acts.”  What does that look like? Well, Act One could be what made you decide to be an artist; Act Two would then be how you create your pieces.  Or Act One is how you create, and Act Two customer appreciation. If it thinking in terms of two acts is daunting, keep it under 90 seconds-- or find a writer friend or professional to help.
  4. Don’t try to tell everything.  Clearly define 2-3 things you want to convey and keep your message focused.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything is equally interesting (it isn’t).  Or that people will pick and choose what’s of interest to them.  They don’t.  They switch channels.
  5. Answer the questions that are asked the most.  For every customer who contacts you to ask a question there are probably 10 who didn’t because they were afraid of starting a conversation.  Weave the most common questions you’re asked into the narrative of your video.
  6. Upload on multiple platforms.  One of the great things about video is it can be your “brand ambassador.” It can be out there working for you when you’re asleep or in your workshop.  Post the video on Youtube, Vimeo, and your website and blog.  Link to it on Facebook and Twitter. You can even post video on Google+ and Pinterest.  Good video isn’t just a way to communicate with customers who have found you.  It can reach out to potential customers who haven’t.  Remember that each post is also a backlink to your Etsy page, increasing your visibility on search engines.
  7. Promote your video.  Just like it was your work.  Tout it on Facebook, and Twitter.  Email it to your friends and contacts with a simple note. 
  8. Give them a deal.  Consider using the “unveiling” of your video to offer a 15% discount to people that mention it.  It’s not just an “about” video, it’s a marketing tool.
  9. Keyword it.  Just like your images, you should keyword your video files.  But don’t over-keyword.  Keywords are treated equally, so too many of them that aren’t exactly what people are looking for can be harmful.
  10. Work with a professional.  Realistically, professional quality video is difficult to make.  Poorly made video can discourage potential customers from making a purchase.  As TV and movie consumers, we’ve become accustomed to high quality work, and even bad movies have excellent production values.  Your video will promote your work for years to come, so make it an investment.  Choose your video production company wisely.  They should do more than just bring a bunch of fancy equipment and hit “record.”  A “canned” process will produced a canned video, and they often reek of inauthenticity.  Your production company should take an interest in your work, your aesthetic, and your goals.  They should see you in action before they bring out the gear.  They should be able to help with scriptwriting, music, and provide options for review.  And they should be able to show you a budget that makes sense.

It’s not impossible to make your own video.  What’s most important is that it is clear, authentic, and compelling.  For many Esty vendors, self-producing is the only reasonable option for their budgets.  But be conscious of the benefits of working with professionals, and the drawbacks involved in self-producing.  We see over 3,000 advertisements a day.  That’s a lot of noise.  Your Etsy video may be the best investment you make this year.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Burned: Fake SD card from B & H

We've been striking out in some new direction here as Hurricane Images Inc., including expanding into video production-- and I'll be posting new material soon.  This one is a quickie because of the alignment of stars.  B&H is offering some sweet deals on SD cards, including the SanDisk Extreme Pro, a 95MB/s powerhouse.  Coincidentally, I was in NY last week and needed to purchase a new card, so I popped into their store.  I put it in my Sony a7Sii, watched it format, snapped a couple of photos and set off.  Later that afternoon I spotted a man selling books out a colorful van.  On top of the vehicle was an old boot.  I switched over to video, but it wouldn't record.  The card wasn't capable of capturing HD.  It wasn't fast enough.  But as a Class 10, U-3 it had the right specs.

When I got home I used a speed test utility on the card.  Sure enough, it was only operating at 70MB/s.  I emailed B&H explaining how I was visiting, bought the card, and discovered it was a fake.  They emailed back to say I could bring it back to the store if it was "defective."  I wasn't in the area anymore and it wasn't defective, it was fake.  So I called.  The Rep apologized the suggestion that I bring it back to the store and said he'd issue an RMA.  But when pressed about the fake card he said he was sure it wasn't "intentional," and "we can't open up every card and check." In other words, B&H wasn't planning to do anything beyond replace my card.

Today, I got a form email from B&H, asking for my opinion on how they'd done.  This was my response:  "The counterfeit card was purchased in-store, handed from the rack to me by one of your salesmen.  Clearly, it is more likely than not that other SD cards on that rack are counterfeit, mislabeled, or whatever you choose to call them.  Based on the Rep's response, I fully expect that those cards are currently being sold to other customers, since he has no intention of checking them. Some cameras, like mine, immediately notify you when the card is not performing up to requirements; therefore I knew to return the card. Other cameras don't, so these customers have simply been cheated. I am a professional photographer and a member of PPA.  I am infuriated by this response because I cannot show up at a session and not produce.  Situations like this put my business at risk.  I know it is impossible to 100% insure the integrity of all your products, but your response to finding it has been compromised had better be at least as infuriated as mine."

So there's a few learnings to be had here.  First, when you buy something, check it.  Had I bought that card for my Nikon it might have been months before I discovered the problem.  Second, if you're a seller, you have responding poorly to complaints like this can harm your business.  I bought an Ikan micro spot light today.  It's a small purchase, but B&H had it for $10 cheaper than Amazon, with faster delivery.  I couldn't bring myself to click "Buy."  For two days.  Finally, I checked Adorama and found they had it for the same price, so I bought there.

If you'd like to check your cards, I used an app called h2testw.  Not a very pithy name but it worked and was virus/adware free.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sony A7sii - Review

There are enough technical reviews of the Sony A7sii out there that I won't discuss the specs of this instrument.  This is more of a reflection from the viewpoint of a working professional-- and one that is primarily a Nikon shooter, with a Pentax 645D as a secondary system.  The first question you might ask is why on earth would I spend close to $3K on a Sony if I already have professional gear in two other systems??  It's not simply a matter of gear-mania.  My work is expanding into video, so I wanted a tool that was specifically designed for that purpose. And the A7sii really is.  I'll talk more about that as well.

Professional Craftsmanship
This does, actually, bear repeating.  The A7sii is a expertly designed and manufactured camera.  Its small size gives the sense of being unprofessional, but its quality matches its price tag.  If feels rugged.  While the small form has its advantages, I can't say I enjoy holding it as much as either my Nikon or Pentax.  It's just small, ergonomically.  I'll have to get used to it.

Each manufacturer manages to get something right that you wish the others would adopt:  The Nikon is a fantastic all-around camera; the green exposure button on the Pentax is brilliant for working quickly in Manual Mode, and it seems like only stubbornness keeps the other manufacturers from adopting it.  With the Sony, it's the abundance of well laid-out  programmable buttons-- no less than 4, plus a FN (function) button for quick access to 10 more menu items.  You never have to take your eye from the viewfinder.  Everything is at your fingertips and shows up on the screen.  I can't express how awesome that is.
Peaking and Focus Zoom.  These are necessary tools for video, but are also incredibly useful for working with manual lenses in still photography.  The viewfinder is sharp enough that you can get pretty good focus just by eye, old school, but focus peaking is quicker and zoom more precise. I purchased a K&F Concept Lens Adapter to mount my Nikon glass on the Sony.  For 18 bucks I can use all of my lenses, albeit in manual focus mode only, and manual aperture as well.  The adapter works well, though the aperture clicks are so close together they're impossible to count if you're trying to triangulate your exposure with your shutter and ISO.

Zebras.  Again, this is great for video and still images alike.  You can use the zebras to identify blown out portions of the image; or you can adjust them to identify when the skin is properly exposed. 

Viewfinder.  The viewfinder is nicely sharp and easy to use.  The camera switches from the back LCD to the viewfinder when you put the camera to your eye, which is simultaneously brilliant and annoying.  Annoying, because sometimes you'd like to turn off the auto LCD (to conserve battery or prevent your camera from lighting up).  When you do, however, it won't show you the image when you press the Play button, which frankly is stupid.

Battery Consumption.  This little guy chews through batteries like a pit bull.  Sony includes an extra battery in the box, so they're obviously aware of the shortcoming, but even two batteries only gives me about half the life of my Nikon.  If I find some power-saving tips I'll post.

Image Quality
Much has been said about the low light abilities of the Sony A7sii.  So I needn't say more.  Except I can't help myself.   It really is two steps above my Nikon D600, and it's hard to believe until you look at the files just how well it handles near blackness.  Between ISO 100 and 2000 there really isn't any advantage between my three cameras.  But from 2500 to 40,000 the usability of the image is stunning.

This is at ISO 40,000.  It's had noise reduction applied in Lightroom, but that it's usable at all is a miracle.  Yes, I'm only lit by my cell phone; otherwise the room is black.

This is ISO 8,000.  The close-up beneath is at a 100% crop.  There's noise (and plenty of it), but this is still just usable. And no noise reduction has been applied.

For professional use, 12MP is a little disappointing if you've become accustomed to having more to work with.  It's not simply that you can't blow up the image for printing; you can't crop down very far either, and have it keep its quality.  The image size is more than enough for casual shooting, but less than what I need for professional. For this reason, it won't ever become my primary photography camera.  I do pack it as my backup.

The other aspects of image quality-- color rendition, dynamic range, etc.-- are quite good.  I may have more to say once I've spent more time with it.

I'll save a real review of the video capabilities for later, after I've spent more time with the camera.  Others have said, and I'll repeat, that the A7sii is really designed for video, with still images as a back up.  With most DSLRs, you have to rely on accessories to get all of the tools you need to capture footage efficiently... things like focus loupes, peaking, and zebras.  Those are built in with the Sony.  Plus Slog2 and Slog3 for professionally flat images.  And the mics are much better.  You never want to use your camera mic for talent, but it produces good quality for ambient sound and even for a behind-the-camera interviewer.

Is it worth three grand?  With internal 4K, it's hard to argue against that price tag.  Yes, there's more that goes into cinematic quality video than just 4K resolution, but the a7sii can produce professional quality video for the web.   (And with an external recorder it can produce television broadcast quality.)