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Monday, May 31, 2010

••◊ Senorita Joshi

A few weeks ago Tamara, whom I met in Oreste's UCSD class, asked me to shoot senior portraits of her friend Joshi. Joshi is about to graduate from high school next week, so congratulations are in order. We had one freak weather cancellation and my trip to NYC delayed things another week, but Saturday the stars aligned. I go cycling past the grasslands shown in the background so I asked around and Molly at Highland Valley Studios was very kind and allowed us to come on to her property to shoot the photo set.

Tamara is a photo student, so I look at this photo shoot as saving her poor daughter from shutter fatigue for at least one day. I set up the shots, took some photos, then Tamara jumped in the mix. Most of the day was done with either gold reflector or a single shoot through umbrella. Even at 4pm onward the sun here is extremely bright, so I compensated for the sky with a polarizer. Then it was just a matter of cranking the 580's up to full blast to compensate for the background.

Braving cow pie land mines and ants that Buddhists might believe were bodybuilders in a past life we took some gold reflector photos in the field.

I tried to do some wide angle star shots with Joshi, but the new 5Dm2 firmware (2.0.7) appears to have a bug. After a 10-12 minute star exposure the camera wouldn't store the image. A screen appeared that just said that the image was still in progress of being stored. I finally had to give up and open the battery compartment to get the camera to reset. The thing is that the same bug didn't happen with a 2 minute exposure. Strange. I may have to try this again and see if my issue was just a freak accident. Off to enjoy the rest of Memorial Day...

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

••◊ Panoramas Fresh from the Big Apple

Spent last week in New York City walking around Manhattan and taking a few photos. I thought I would be inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge and Times Square, but surprisingly not so. Times Square is like Vegas in my opinion; you see it and go "wow." Then every time you go back you notice how much more crowded and noisy it is until you start to take 8th or 6th to avoid the mad house of gawking tourists and street hustlers.

A bird's eye view

What little photography I did ended up being mostly panoramas. The city is huge, but you would be challenged to see or feel wide open spaces. Buildings surround and ultimately envelope you. Panoramas are sort of the antithesis of the feeling you get walking around the being intimidated by large monoliths. Now I know why high rise offices are so prized in the city. Even the bird shown above was defending his perch from all the tourists on the Empire State Building. In post at first I tried the Canon PhotoStitch application, which was wholly inadequate. Let's just be rationally fair...it sucks. I have Photoshop so I did a search on how to generate panoramas in Photoshop and found this tutorial. Just do a search for "Photoshop CS4 panorama" and there will be dozens of tutorials. Rather than just regurgitate the tutorials I'm going to let you do your own research.

What I will say is that there are a couple suggestions I might make from my "oh crud" line of mistakes.

  1. Use a non-distorting focal length if possible (i.e. 50mm-ish)
  2. Use raw
  3. Use manual mode to make sure all photos have the same exposure
  4. Make sure your shutter speed is sufficiently fast
  5. Make sure you keep you camera level
  6. When converting from raw, obviously use the same picture profile, white balance color temperature, and other tweak-able parameters
  7. Rotate your pictures upright before stitching them
  8. Fix any subtle exposure differences after stitching and before merging
  9. Watch for stitching seams and tweak them after stitching

But what about the pictures, you ask? Well...here's the spiel.

This panorama is a view of Mid- and Upper Manhattan from the Empire State building observatory deck. Obviously, you'll want to click on the pictures to see them full size (down-rezed for the web). Just north is Bryant Park and to the right of that is the New York City Library. Further north is Central Park with the upper west and upper east side of Manhattan. Over to the left is New Jersey and over to the right is Queens with the Queensboro Bridge. If you look nearest the green building you might be able to see Times Square. The Hershey's store sign is just barely visible.

Same observation deck, but looking south off the observation deck. Off in the distance is the financial district, where the World Trade Towers used to be. The Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg Bridges (south-to-north) are at the left of the photo along the East River. New Jersey is to the right along the Hudson River. The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island is in the center top of the picture off in the distance.

Grand Central Station was also quite photogenic in my opinion. It's too bad they don't build in this style anymore. Really beautiful architecture and color on the inside. As you can tell this is a busy environment.

This panorama is of the man made lake just on the north side of Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. We actually stopped at this oasis for a while just to relax and escape the buzz of the city for a while. Plus our feet were tired; Central Park is huge. You can rent a boat from the restaurant shown at the right of the photo and paddle around the lake for a bit, which lots of couples, friends, and tourists do. A pair of girls are just sitting in the shade chatting away at the left of the photo. All you hear is people walking by, sometimes with a friendly conversation going on. Of note was that no one was glued to their Bluetooth headset while sucking down a cigarette here, unlike midtown Manhattan.

Finally, this is a view from the Liberty and Ellis Island ferry looking toward lower Manhattan. I may post more pictures of lady liberty in a few days, but I thought this photo was just a nice view. Although I admit this isn't a stitched panorama, just a cinemascope aspect ratio (2.35:1)cropped image.

For all these images I used my Gretagmacbeth custom color profile, with success so far. Yesterday Martin Koch from Austria got a hold of me and I sent him the profile. He seems to be happy with it too as shown here. More to come.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

••◊ howaaaaaahhhhhh...My pinky will now crush you.

I spent yesterday at Kwon's Black Belt Academy down in Chula Vista helping my friend photograph students and the masters (instructors are called "masters"). Grand Master Kwon was in attendance at a belt promotion ceremony for his Pilsung students (Korean martial arts). Photographs for the students went pretty quick. We basically set one lighting setup and ran 'em through. Then it was time for the boys to play.

We setup a white seamless and an experimental green screen setup in the dojo. Larry Messier, who runs the dojo up north in Temecula, wanted some promo photos. You can see Carlos posing for Clarence in the picture below. I didn't really start shooting until Carlos was finished and Dan, the local master, started posing for us. Below are pictures on the white seamless starting with Dan, then Larry, then the two sparring for us - relax, they did it WWE style - all fake for the cameras. However, they still can crush you with their pinkies! Now if only I could get you to read this out of sync with the voice in your head so you could have the full Asian martial arts entertainment experience.

Clarence wanted to play around with the green screen, so we set one up at the opposite end of the room. Mainly this was an experiment to see if something like this could even work. In my opinion, it only half worked. I set the green to be about a stop down from a normal exposure, partially to try and control spill, partly because I wanted a deep saturated green. We didn't have the luxury of L-reflectors or flagged soft boxes to light the background evenly, so pulling the key took a lot more work in post than it was probably worth. Still, if you don't do these things you'll never learn.

The screen is made up of two sheets. The one on the floor is taped to the one rear upright screen. It was hard to control the green spill from the floor. Basically I had to selectively desaturate parts of their ankle and heal/toe area. Also, for action shots, the screen wasn't large enough. We kept having to shift Dan and Larry in vary directions in order to fit their movement within that sheet. The 1/200th sync speed was a little too slow to catch the action more often than not. I wish I had two more 580exII's so I could just use those TTL with high speed sync. Of course, then I would likely be light limited since we wanted to shoot these things at f/8 or smaller for longer depth of field (have to kinda still predict focus). The spill from the back wall sometimes creep-ed into their clothing, but we were depth limited by the floor sheet; so you do the best you can. Below is a quick and dirty compositing result.

After playing with the green screen I still think it's best to just get it right in the camera, at least for me. I not really a post processing person. I'd rather be shooting rather than sitting in front of Photoshop, but that's just me. Lucky for me, Larry is the Photoshop wiz this go around.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

••◊ Painting the Canon 5D mark II (i.e. darn those reds)

Now that I'm doing more filming with the 5D than still pictures the fragile H.264 codec has really become something I have to pay attention to. The luxury of shooting stills in RAW is something I found critical very soon after buying the 40D. The video codec on the 5D, however, is kind of like shooting in JPEG. You get what you get and there's not much leeway in changing that after the fact. During the HDI Rawworks lectures last weekend I found that the pro's using this camera made color choices in camera. Even Shane Hurlbut has commented on his blog about having to manually shift the white balance on the 7D...but more about that later in this post. A very good thing is that I work with some of the best color science professionals in the industry today. They deal with these issues day in and out.

If you work with 5D footage often enough you'll notice that it tends to over saturate the red/magenta/pink range of colors. As much as I appreciate red heads, not everyone is...as the camera tends to naturally reproduce with it's factory color profiles. One of my professional colleagues, who is also a high end Canon owner, commented that this is the aesthetic choice that Canon makes. Does it produce nice photos? Yeah sure, I guess. Is it a good start for video and color correction? - no. Over saturating any color causes color channels to clip and that's unrecoverable with the H.264 codec. What most people tend to do it set their camera to a neutral picture style with contrast and saturation set down two stops to compensate for color correction in post.

Is there a better way? Maybe. I set off to understand how to solve these problems for documentary shoots. Shane hits on it a little in his above mentioned posts. I was also inspired by Ben Cain's camera painting tutorials on his web site. I started with a simple shot of a Gretag Macbeth Color Checker chart shot in RAW as a still photo. I then imported the picture into Photoshop and blurred each of the color tiles to get the average neutral style color reproduction value. I also set the exposure so the bottom mid-gray tile was set to the theoretically correct value.

The chart comes with a little pamphlet with color names and sRGB values. sRGB primaries and gamma is equivalent to rec.709 (HD video) as far as I know. Even if it isn't, the videos I create are shown on the web so sRGB reproduction is exactly what I want.

Enter the Canon Picture Style Editor. The documentation for this tool is a bit obscure. In fact, the only tutorial I could find was on Canon's Japan web site. It lets you set the tone curve and color shift for up to 100 colors. The picture below shows the Picture Style Editor tool. The "S" curve in the Tool Palette is how you set the tone curve. The color wheel shown above demonstrates how a color is effected when you modify a color range (the "pie slice" is the effected range).

The tone curve, as I quickly found out, is pretty much camera specific and an aesthetic and technical choice of Canon. I chose to just use the default Neutral tone curve as a starting point and not modify it. Why? When I played with the tone curve to any significant degree I started to see artifacts like noise or loss of detail creep up quickly. Since the footage isn't RAW it's just another aesthetic choice and I chose not to adjust the curve. The legendary 5D "superflat" picture style uses the tone curve and contrast turned down to -4 to get it's super dynamic range, but leaves me wondering about the negative impact (dunno myself).

The Picture Style Editor lets you also edit colors in HSL (Hue, Saturation, Lightness). The Hue is the rotation about the color wheel (0-360 degrees), the saturation is the distance from the center of the circle to the outer circumference (center is fully desaturated), and lightness is the third dimension in and out of the circle representing brightness. Does any other piece of software edit in HSL? Not really, but the Picture Style Editor includes an RGB to HSL converter to make life at least sane.

At my first try I adjusted all the colors to the values shown on the little sRGB Gretag chart. This overcompensated for the non-linear tone curve. Long story short, it didn't work. Noise popped out everywhere and human skin looked scaly from thus noise. Ick. Keep in mind that I was adjusting color with contrast and saturation in the style set to zero (default) knowing that I was going to turn these down while filming (usability choice). The tone curve was throwing everything off. Why not adjust the tone curve? Well, the Gretag chart values assume a fixed constant illuminant, not the real world of shooting pictures in contrasty situations (another usability choice).

The answer finally came to me today. If I ignore the lightness and just concentrate on the hue and saturation I will at least have the correct color and saturation (remember the over saturated reds?...gone baby, gone). So I used the existing "L" values from the photo and the "H" and "S" values from the Gretag chart after converting them. Will adjusting the contrast to -2 in the camera effect the H,S values. Yes. However turning down the contrast is just a safety net to me. It's meant to be turned back up in post at my choosing (another usability choice).

Below is a before/after example of the custom picture style using the same white balance color temperature. The 'before' picture uses the standard neutral picture style from Canon. The 'after' picture uses the new custom profile adjusted from the Gretag chart. Yes, Brooke is likely a user of tanning cream but her skin doesn't look burned red in person, unlike the first photo would indicate. Hair and skin tones are much more real and natural in the second photo in my opinion. I tend to keep in mind that footage is color corrected anyway so absolute color accuracy is rarely required. I just want a better starting place.

Time to try this profile in some real world situations. I might pass is around and see if additional aesthetic choices need to be made. At least this gets closer and takes care of the saturated red issue.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

••◊ Geeking out in LA with the 5D

This morning started off well enough. I get up, have some oatmeal, get ready for some serious geeking out in LA with the HDLSR crowd. Then Clarence calls me around 7:30 when we're supposed to leave. "I don't think I can make it. I'm not feeling that great." OK. After I describe the gear pr0n-fest about to go down today he changes his mind and decides to go. That puts us about an hour behind schedule. Alright, alright, so we'll miss the Canon presentation. It's not like they are going to tell us about their secret plans for the 5Dm3 anytime soon.

Defying death in LA traffic (less of a joke than you might think), we make it just in time for Rodney Charters to start his talk at HDI Raw Works. Rodney talked about his start in photography and using the (original) 5D as a way to do photography around the set. Just this season the 5Dm2 camera has turned in to a useful tool for plates and compositing high resolution images. Very cool stuff. Too bad this season is the end of Jack Bauer.

Next up was Shane Hurlbut, who has a bit of a rock star persona (the good kind) when it comes to public speaking; quite energetic and entertaining. I had the pleasure of meeting him last November in downtown San Diego. As you can see in the photograph he's pointing to the back of a motorcycle where they tied a 5D camera down with gaffer's tape and dampened the vibration with a white t-shirt. Crazy stuff - but that was the least of it. He then proceeded to show us a metal box they constructed so Navy Seals could fire live rounds at a camera. The poor little camera was turned into hamster cage newspaper, but the flash card was protected just enough to recover the footage. Ah...things you can do when $2500 is considered a cheap toy camera.

What would a geeking out day be without some drool worthy gear? After watching Vincent Laforet's seminar on creativelive.com I'm definitely lusting after an oconnor 1030 tripod head (picture is a different model). However at $5600 it's not going to happen (unless you come through big time for my birthday, mom). Even at used prices it's not going to happen. Redrock Micro was there with their usual assortment of blue and black contraptions to lust after. A shoulder mount rig from them would be much appreciated right about now. One of these days when I have time again I'll get back in the machine shop and start constructing the pieces. Too busy right now.

Also in attendance were Jared Abrams of the excellent site cinema5d.com, which I can't recommend enough as a valuable resource, and Robert Primes. Robert has been the DP for many episodic television shows and is considered by the 5D crowd to be one of the Zacuto mob. Unfortunately Robert's speech was plagued by clip un-rendering gremlins on his Apple notebook, and this was after the main presentation computer didn't work for him an caused a delay in his presentation. It was just one of those days. Poor guy. You have to admire his body of work at least. He seems like a guy I could learn a lot from just by the way he takes the time to carefully explain things. Too bad he's not a blogger.

I just have to get this out of my system. Clarence - you bastard! Sure, I wait an additional hour so you can get your lazy ass out of bed because you were up until 2am playing video games. I pay for gas. Then I have to pay the $10 admittance fee for you to get in because you forgot to get cash. What do I get. YOU win the raffle for the ultra pimped out camera bag. You bastard. Needless to say, Clarence picked up the tab for dinner that evening on our way back home, which somewhat makes up for these series of events.

Things learned? I didn't realize that I had left the Auto Lighting Optimizer feature enabled on my camera. After Shane mentioned it, sure enough that feature was still on. Doh! It's set to disabled now. Also I'm switching to the Neutral picture style. Still have some tweaking to do there, but all the photos above were taken with my GretagMacbeth corrected picture style. That's likely to be the feature of my next blog post as a finalize to something I like. It's not quite there yet.