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.