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Thursday, June 25, 2009

••◊ Gliding with the LX3

A local photography club I belong to recently held a meetup at the La Jolla Gliderport. The "gliderport" is a piece of land the city owns that is designated for the use of local hang gliders and paragliders. In approximately an acre of seaside terrace the daredevils set up their equipment and then it's a 100 foot drop off a cliff into the ocean. Yes, lifeguard is posted if that does any good after the fall. Instead of just taking my still camera alone I decided to tag team it with the LX3 for HD video. I only had 3GB of SD card space (i.e. 30 minutes) available, so that meant editing in camera.

What I now know is that the LX3 isn't a sports camera. It has absolutely no telephoto capability what so ever. My usable video footage was mainly at take off and landing with extensive use of upward angles or angles over the edge of the cliff to fake height. That's Hollywood...it's all fake.

Video noise was still an issue even with a vast amount of daylight, but downsizing by half fixes that (
see previous post). Another issue is that Premier Pro sometimes locks up when I try to import the .mov quicktime files that the LX3 natively produces. The fix for this is to convert them using the Adobe Media Encoder into another file format before import. A pain, but it works.

After my disappointing attempt at using the blogger video upload I decided to move to
Exposure Room for handling online video. They let you view video in HD!...but in this case we are just talking about VGA widescreen because of the half resolution noise fix. I thought it would be fun to share a little of the lofty video from the gliderport, so this is by no means a serious effort; just a bit of fun. Click on the link below the video to view the video in a larger size.

As a side note...Jo, the woman about to go hang gliding is on a summer road trip with her friend (both from Boston). They started in Tijuana and are going up the coast to Vancouver B.C., with a stop for bungy jumping in Vancouver. I wonder what type of daring things they'll do in between...put on a republican bumper sticker in San Francisco?

Monday, June 22, 2009

••◊ A little review of the Panasonic LX3

We recently bought a Panasonic Lumix LX3 camera at work and of course I couldn't resist that new lens smell. At $500 the LX3 is definitely placed at the top end of the point and shoot market. The reason I recommended the purchase of this camera over the arch rival Canon G10 is because Canon has just gone too far with the whole mega-pixels thing. The purpose for this camera is for passport photos, manufacturing demonstration videos, and R&D development. What we really need is small size and good low light performance, both of which the LX3 seemed to adequately deliver and the G10 is less apt.

The first thing I noticed about the LX3 is the severe lack of zoom capability (5.1-12.8mm, ~2.5x). This camera is good for wide and wider shots, but includes macro lens capability using a manual switch on the right side of the lens. I personally found the optical image stabilization to be quite usable and non-jerky unlike a few consumer video cameras I've played with. Of course at such wide angles the need for image stabilization should be fairly minimal.

The camera's auto focus is generally good enough for still objects. You press the shutter button down half way with the object you want in focus at the center of the LCD screen, wait for the green focus rectangle (~1sec), then re-frame and continue pressing the shutter button down fully to take the shot. Easy to use, but also easy to miss a shot while focusing. The lens allows for manual focus, albeit through a convoluted set of button presses on the rear controls that takes much longer to setup (useless).

The LX3 manual was a breeze to read. I made it through in about 10 minutes since I was only looking for non-obvious information (hey, it's a consumer product).

With all the new cameras coming out with video capability I wanted to try HD video recording with this little wonder of technology. This camera records 720p video at 24 frames/sec with 16-bit 16kHz audio. The LX3 recording format burns through about a gigabyte of flash card space in ten minutes while in HD mode. It also records in standard definition, which as it turns out may be better. You choose the video format with a toggle switch on the top side of the lens that selects the aspect ratio: 4:3, 3:2, 16:9. The first selection is SD, the last selection is HD. Frankly they should have saved this selection for a menu item and provided a manual focus ring instead. When recording 720p HD video at any light level the first thing you notice is that the recording has a considerable amount of pixel level noise. Downsizing by half from 1280x720 to to 640x360 in a video editor makes the noise quality at least reasonable, but defeats the reason for having HD recording.

The audio also is severely lacking. They put a pinhole in the top of the camera for a microphone port. When I saw the audio sample rate specification in manual (16kHz) I thought, "OK, voice quality...no big deal." How it really turned out is that my male voice sound like a member of the Vienna boys choir with a cold. There is no low or high frequency response to be had. The microphone also easily picks up wind noise. I took the camera outdoors and found that wind noise dominated the ambient sound. The example video shows what I'm talking about. I know audio professionals that fight this problem with a giant fuzzy wind sock (zeppelin) over their microphone so it's not an easy issue to solve.

My largest gripe is that the auto-exposure lock doesn't work in video model (firmware rev 1.3). On page 87 of the manual it says that video mode supports auto-exposure lock, but it doesn't and I'm waiting to hear back from Panasonic on this issue. In picture mode AE-lock does work. The reason I mention this is because the first recording I did outdoors with grass blowing in the wind caused wide fluctuations in exposure. Someone walking through the camera scene with a black or white shirt can easily mess up your exposure. I also found that the camera tends to want to overexpose by 2/3-1 stop in mixed bright/dim light situations. This is easily fixed by enabling histogram view (!!!!-excellent) and using exposure compensation. The video below shows the exposure variation because of the auto exposure.

With a f/2 lens and claimed low light capability I put the LX3 to a torture test. The video below is from a freeway overpass at night. Lots of bright spots and dark background. Except for the white balance performance (without too much tweaking) the LX3 did a very respectable job. Most consumer point and shoots *vastly* under perform in these situations but the LX3 looks fairly good when the video is downsized by half. I was definitely using the camera at it's limit since I couldn't turn the exposure compensation up and get brighter video.

Another complaint is that the camera doesn't let you zoom while recording video. Yes, you have to compose in advance and accept what comes. This seems like a strange characteristic given that $150 point and shoots have this capability.

All in all the LX3 is a decent point and shoot camera, just not as good as it could be with a few firmware upgrades, a couple minor hardware tweaks for audio, and real manual lens focus. If you don't need telephoto capability I think the LX3 is good overall, for a consumer product.

Oh, yeah...and it takes still photos too.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

••◊ Congratulations Marci

My friend Marci, an all around great gal, recently became an emmy award winner for her work on “La Jolla Symphony & Chorus: Philip Glass’ Cello Concerto.” For those more familiar with photographers than composers, Philip Glass not only works with symphonies but also creates soundtracks for well known Hollywood movies. Some recently examples are The Truman Show, The Illusionist, and No Reservations. There is also a biopic documentary about his life that was recently released and is now on PBS.

Marci is pictured on the left in the blue jacket. If you look really closely at one of my pictures from the previous green screen blog post she's standing near the stairs.

Congratulations Marci.

Monday, June 15, 2009

••◊ Why media matters...and ink too (part 2)

Last March I wrote a blog post about why paper and ink matter for professional prints. The article set out to compare two types of ink and four grades of paper ranging in cost from $0.10 to $2.00 per sheet. The prints have been in my living room soaking up the southern California sun for almost three months now and are starting to show the results of their respective durability characteristics. I know if my mom is reading this she's going "WHAT-everrrrr." Yes mom, it really does matter what you print on and with. Have proof.

First up is the $0.10/sheet photo media and dye ink. There is definitely an overall fading that can't be missed. So I would deem this combination good enough to show grandma pictures of the kids, but not good enough to keep the photos.

Setup number two uses media that is $0.30/sheet and dye ink. Certainly there is less fading, but you can still see it in Rebecca's hair and shirt. Since it's nearly criminal to turn a beautiful redhead into a blond, I would personally stay away from this combination. This is middle of the road durability performance, as you would expect from the middle priced paper with dye ink. Not quite cheap enough for throw away photos, not durable enough to keep the photos very long. Maybe this is a good combination for refrigerator pictures(?)

Photo pairing number three uses dye ink and the most expensive photo paper of the dye ink prints at $0.60/sheet. To my eye there is little change or color fading. This combination would be good enough for consumer photo album prints. Dye inks aren't quite as durable as pigment inks, but this combination is close enough for most consumers.

Finally we get to the pro level pigment inks. You'll have to excuse the general lack of saturation. Consumer printers (i.e. dye printers) tend to saturate colors, whereas pro printers don't. I didn't want to modify the photo or change the settings in the photo program between prints, so I didn't increase the saturation to compensate here. This is a before and after comparison anyway, so all that matters is that the "before" and "after" aren't different. I don't see any immediate signs of fading between the before and after here. This is the exact same $0.30/sheet media as above, but the major difference here is the pigment ink, which is much more durable to UV than dye.

The $2.00/sheet (13"x19" sheets) professional media with pigment ink also shows similar performance. In general I use this paper for all color prints when I need professional quality. With this combination I don't see any immediate signs of fading. That's good because I've already sold prints on this paper with this particular brand of pigment ink. No need to worry about fading here.

So...no surprises. Pigment works better than dye. More expensive paper works better than cheaper paper. The downside?...now my mom is going to ask me to do all of her photo printing.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

••◊ It's not easy being green

Last night I attended a meeting of the San Diego Filmmakers. When I arrived I peeked in the cyc room and found a well furnished green screen studio (see photo below). Panasonic also let us demo the brand new HPX300 camera for the evening. Normally this room is painted a beige-ish white, so it was a unique experience to walk into a room surrounded by green screen matte paint (expensive stuff, not Home Depot goo in a can). We had to wear hospital over-the-shoe booties on the paint so as not to get it dirty. Poor Mike (stage manager) is probably still cleaning up after our filthy footwear.

Our guest speaker for the evening was Michael Brueggemeyer, a well experienced DP. His first advice was if you can avoid green screen, do it. I generally accept his advice, but after the demo I was convinced I should. Mike had previously shot a scene at the beach and the demo involved a young woman walking in front of the green screen and being composited into the beach background.

Mike first lit the backdrop mainly using overhead lights and an Arri 1K lamp mounted on a c-stand on the floor. The overhead lights were faced toward the wall and tilted slightly down with black foil to flag off light back-spilling onto the talent. The production video monitor in the picture below shows the even nature of the green screen brightness. His comment was to keep the brightness on the green wall even to within 0.5 stop at about 60 IRE for typical optimal results. Ideally the semi-horizontal line (in white) on the production monitor would be a thin perfectly horizontal line to indicate perfect brightness from edge to edge...however, close enough is close enough. As you can see on the monitor the brightness droops to the left a little, but still works.

Mike next lights the talent and assumes that some of the talent lighting will spill onto the green screen. This means iterative tweaking of the lights to re-optimize the green screen to even brightness again. The more even the green, the easier your job in post. Still, with a very well lit background it still may require a mask around the talent in post to perfectly optimize the matte pull. Mike had to do this during the demo because of some light fall off at the edges of the video frame. He mentioned this was typical of finalizing green screen work for video/film.

The final part of the demo showed how difficult it was to color match the person in the green screen video to the outdoor scene. This is probably a color correction specialty in itself and beyond my ordinary patience capability. Thank goodness for the talented people at ILM.

Finally the night ended with a few technical questions and the reminder that it's better to shoot the talent on location if you can. Questions came up, like green versus blue screen...? Well, if your subject has blond hair sometimes it's better to shoot blue screen because blond hair has less blue. Can you use green clothes with a green screen...? Maybe, as the demo showed. It depends on how saturated the color of the clothing is.

One interesting piece of information is that in the days of yester-year, they would light local TV weather forecasters with rimming magenta lights from the side. Why? Because Magenta is the opposite of green and would counter act the green reflection off the back wall (green+magenta=white) and allow the compositing computer to pull the matte better. Now it's done by the computer alone.

Green screen is a lot of cool technology at work, but I think I still prefer reality when available. Thanks for passing on your knowledge Mike.

••◊ Norah's myspace is up (finally)

I shot a photo session in February for an up and coming musician named Norah Cunningham. Her myspace is finally up. Congratulations Norah (it's about time)!

Friday, June 5, 2009

••◊ Staring into the sun

Today I took the day off from work to take pictures at a fundraiser for the Jenna Druck foundation, benefiting leadership mentoring for girls. It was a lunch time affair at the Paradise Grille in Del Mar with an auction, musical performance, and fashion show all in about two hours. Yes, I was one of five people there without two X chromosomes ...but I was loaded up with two DSLR cameras which at least gives me partial male street cred.

Shana Adair, along with her husband, are the owners of the restaurant. Shana was kind enough to take a minute out from running around being the hostess to pose for a picture. Which then brings me to my photographic dilemma. What to do when you're shooting outside in direct sunlight (no choice)? No DSLR camera can handle the contrast range of direct sunlight and shade. Typically there are three solutions...

  1. Panic
  2. Underexpose and compensate in post
  3. Let the background blow out

Considering I always shoot in raw format, I tend to underexpose by -2/3 to -1 stop and decide how I want to compensate in post. Any more than that and I tend to reconsider my options. The first picture of Shana was taken with -2/3 stop of exposure compensation, however the items in the background are still blown out. That's where raw comes in. Typically raw has 1 stop of exposure headroom. So I can take the raw file, underexpose it by another -1 stop, lay the two pictures over one another in post and cut out the overexposed bits in the file that's brought up by +2/3 stop. This gives me -1.67 to -2 stops of "sun compensation headroom," and a better final product. The second picture below is fixed using this technique. Notice that Shana is brought back up by +2/3 stop, but the background she is resting against isn't blown out like in the underexposed original because it's been brought down by -1 stop.

So, if I have to reconsider the location or shot there are two main techniques I use: shade and full sun. Here are pictures of two of the models from the fashion show. Model #1 was in the shade and had a half way dark background. It really isn't worth recovering the background for this particular picture in my opinion. Model #2 was in complete sun, but was underexposed by -2/3 stop so I could recover the highlights in post if I chose (especially with the dreaded white shirt). In her case I applied an additional exposure compensation of -0.8 stops in post and played with the contrast a little to maintain a few details in the shirt and to get some light into her eye sockets.

The musician for the afternoon was Alyssa Jacey, a folkie and friend of Brooklyn as it turns out. I decided to include this picture just because I like photos of musicians and it's my blog so I can post what I want, when I want. Alyssa, you rock in an acoustic, soft, ballad-ie...I guess that doesn't really make sense. Just keep it up.

Rock on. Peace, out.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

••◊ Andrene and Jared

I recently met Andrene at a local clothing store call TRE (acronym for "The Rare Earth"). Since I'm in constant search for models, stylists...etc now days I inquired if she knew any stylists. Turns out that she is one. Andrene also has a personal training business and organizes local fashion shows. Quite the entrepreneur.

I invited her to our local strobist get together in case she wanted to network and help out with the styling. Well, this last meeting was less than ideal conditions. It was sopped in near downtown San Diego and hunkered down for the long haul. We decided to just get together at her house and invite her friend Jared. Jared is a former professional baseball player for the Seattle Mariners and is a *diminutive* 6' 7" tall. Jared is currently retired and
runs a business coaching others. He also does runway modeling for Andrene when she organizes shows.

This gave me a chance to photograph two athletes, which is something I've wanted to do for a while. Obviously both of these individuals are fit people. The indoor settings fit Andrene to a "T", however not so much for Jared. Jared needs to have some type of sports action to get his look down. We started with some basic warm up shots on the workout mat. I knew I wanted a softer look for Andrene so I hit her with a poor man's beauty dish (umbrella overhead) and a flash sitting on the floor behind her. With Jared I wanted to give him a more "manly" harsh look so I lit him with bare flashes over each shoulder and a reflector to either side to catch the bare flashes for fill. Background was clearly improvised in post.

Then of course we moved on to fashion-type shots. Andrene has many wonderful photogenic spaces in her house, but given the time allotted we stuck to her "closet"/fashion warehouse. The main problem I had was reflections off the glass doors behind where they were sitting. This basically meant one of two things for me; ambient light or cropping. The umbrella definitely showed up in photos anytime I went wide with flash. I know, I know, gobo it. But I didn't have an appropriately sized gobo to adequately hide the umbrella.

That's OK because Andrene's closet has diffusers over each of the side windows (yes, side lighting built in!). It was a cloudy day, which also helped. With Jared I added in a little fill using the umbrellas overhead to the left and right.

This also gave me an opportunity to try a little more couples modeling. I recently went to Mark Delong's web site and saw a picture with the guy looking away and the woman looking into the camera. Since he was successful with it in a different setting I decided to give it a go. I think it worked. Lighting was just ambient.

Andrene is producing a fashion event this Friday and she asked me to photograph it, so we'll see what happens. I still not completely sure on what the event is all about, but...beautiful models and a great backdrop...couldn't say no.