French Cultures Festival Kickoff Concert 2018

On Friday March 9th, 2018 I shot the 2018 French Cultures Festival Kickoff Concert at Houston’s Discovery Green. There were three great bands (The Great Novel from Montreal, Tomar and the FCs from Austin, and Headliners The Blind Suns from Angers, France. They all played on the same accessible and beautifully lit stage with the downtown buildings providing a sometimes dramatic background.

People doing what they love and being oblivious to the camera makes capturing emotions a breeze and never having to pose them. This has given me a desire to shoot more artists/musicians/athletes/performers at work.

If you’re a photographer looking for an easy atmosphere to practice your craft, this is one of the best places to work on your skills. Kudos to Discovery Green for creating such an inviting venue!

For the photographers out there, all these were shot on a Fujifilm XT2 and a vintage M42 mount Asahi Pentax SuperTakumar 135mm f2. Manual focusing is not that hard with some practice and the camera’s peaking assistance.

Creating and Editing Images – changing moods, colors, and contrast

Editing an image is a matter of both taste and intent. In my abstract notion of a photographer’s ideal world, the image captured in camera is the final product – meaning that the photographer can find or create the desired lighting and composition prior to releasing the shutter. If the planned shot involves putting the subject in a complicated scene one would need a huge budget or a large studio to have full control over that initial capture. This was as true in the days of film as it is now but one of the main advantages of digital photography over film is that post-processing is easier and faster. Post-processing options are part of my decision-making at the time of that first exposure. Here is an example of the concrete application of that abstract notion:

Back in April I did a Fitness/Goddess shoot with Shannon McMillan Hernandez (details here). The initial images were perfectly acceptable and she remains very happy with them. From the very start I knew that I would edit the two themes within this shoot differently, even though they were shot in the same conditions and location.

The Goddess Theme

My original objective was to put Shannon in a scene dramatic enough to match the look of outfit. The counterbalance to that objective was that I had to be able to produce usable images that she could have in a short amount of time. To produce images that would be quickly available I tried two options: First I set the exposure to preserve the highlights in the sky and used my own lighting to expose Shannon but quickly saw that I had to contend with lights reflecting off the large windows in the background. I then exposed for the subject rather than the background. While this resulted in a is totally overexposed sky my Fujifilm’s dynamic range allowed me to recover a decent amount of those highlights.

The Fitness Theme

This required much less editing. Initial image is top left with stages of editing below it and the final image on the right.

 

 

Femininity and Strength – not mutually exclusive

A Fitness/Fantasy Shoot

I met Shannon McMillan Hernandez at Lifetime Fitness, or rather I approached her to ask if she would be interested in doing a shoot. She is a Pro Figure Athlete and a personal trainer. As I explained to Shannon, my intent was to try to combine two themes that are, in my opinion, infrequently expressed together: femininity and strength.

Shannon has competed as a Pro Figure Athlete and obviously knows how to get her body ready for the stage but I wanted her to avoid getting into competition shape. Anyone who is familiar with what it takes to compete in the bodybuilding/fitness world understands the amount of work and commitment needed. They also know that the way competitors look on stage is not a sustainable version of themselves. That shredded look has its place of course but I didn’t want people, especially women, looking a the pictures to view a professional competitor’s physique as any sort of standard by which they should judge themselves or others. After all, even competitors don’t look like that on a daily basis. Rather than feeling intimidated, I wanted people to feel inspired. I think Shannon really delivered!

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An added bonus was that Shannon didn’t just want to do a fitness shoot, she also had a specific theme she had been wanting to try out for a long time – Goddess/Warrior. Her ideas for theme were a great fit for what I wanted to capture.

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I think that femininity is too often presented in terms of objectified sexuality. Images of  women looking feminine are ubiquitous but they are often sexually explicit. I am not offended by nudity or revealing images but I think they can also limit our perceptions. I wanted to show that a woman does not have to be naked to be feminine, that she can look both feminine and strong, and that strong can be sexy without being explicit or objectifying. I don’t think this is a new idea and I don’t claim inventing it – I just don’t see it expressed in photography often enough. I hope I succeed in capturing Shannon as an example of femininity and strength – powerful, confident, and not boxed in by objectified sexuality.

It is always fun to try a different genre of photography. I love taking on a project that is creative, or gives me the chance to expand my skills. This shoot did both.

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You can see more unedited examples on Shannon’s Facebook page. At some point I will make time to do some creative edits on a few of these images but I think that they stand up very well as they are today.

FujiFilm XT-2 for Sports/Action: Focus and Battery performance review

Over the weekend Master Shi Yan Feng of the American Shaolin Kung Fu school accepted my offer to shoot the Texas Kung Fu Festival. I wanted to shoot this event for two reasons. Firstly, my wife is one of Master Feng’s students and loves what she is learning. Doing something for her teacher was my way of showing my appreciation. Secondly, and more relevant to this website, the shoot was going to give me a great opportunity to put my Fujifilm XT-2 through its paces. Most of the photography I do is portraiture so this was a chance to do something different. I planned to do a mix of shooting individuals in isolation and groups of performers. This meant varying the aperture for composition but it also meant I could practice new skills while testing three of the camera’s capabilities:

  1. Tracking moving subjects.
  2. Dealing with high contrast lighting.
  3. Battery life.

To test battery life and make sure I could use the camera’s boost mode I went with a fully charged set of 3 batteries (one in the camera body and two in the VPB grip). I took three lenses (35mm f2, 56mm f1.2, 16mm f1.4). As expected, I used the 35mm almost exclusively for the action shots. Its field of view and faster focus were ideal and I did not need to use a wider aperture than f2. I used the 56mm for a few portraits and the 16mm for only about 3 shots. All the shots in this post were taken with the 35mm.

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How did the testing go?

1. Tracking fast moving subjects:

Most of the day the camera was set to continuous focus and zone focusing with tracking option 5 (erratically moving objects) and electronic shutter only. As you can see from this sequence of shots, keeping the performers in focus as they moved across the stage was very successful.

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Keeping two people in focus obviously meant closing the aperture a little for more depth of field. Keeping a whole line of people running across the stage was another good test but I had the aperture a little too open to keep them all in focus. My fault, not the camera’s.

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Perhaps these are not the harshest tests of focus tracking. How about tracking one person and using a wider aperture?

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Very successful, I think. Let’s make it even harder: Tracking one person’s face with a wider aperture. These were at f2 and I was not using face recognition. Instead I put the focus area (not zone) on the performer’s face and moved the camera with her as she jumped. It’s not easy to tell in these small versions but in the full size pictures her face is sharp.

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Additionally, obstacles did not confuse the camera’s focus tracking.

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2. High contrast lighting:

The entire event was obviously outdoors. The Texas sun was bright but there were a few dark clouds and even a couple of showers. I was there from 11am to 4pm so the light changed a lot during the day. Since it was so bright I set the ISO to 200 and the shutter speed to A (essentially aperture priority mode in Fujifilm terms). This seemed like the easiest way to operate because bight sun gave me shutter speeds that were always over 1/1000 of a second (sometimes more than 1/8000, hence using the electronic shutter all day). I wanted to freeze the action so having a fast shutter was the most important thing. As you can see in the examples below, the exposure changed quite a lot. I was using spot metering throughout. Occasionally I would track a performer from one end of the stage to the other. With the focus engaged and sideways movement you could have a performer start their movement in very bright light, move into the shadow cast by the banner and than back into direct light at the other end of the stage. For example:

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This variation can easily be corrected in post but I wanted to leave it visible to illustrate the point.

3. Battery life:

As noted, I took the VPB and 3 fully charged batteries. All told I shot 1443 frames. When I got home the first battery was empty, the second was at 80% charge and the third was 100% full. Honestly, using 1.2 batteries is a lot better than I expected. Granted I don’t leave the camera on all the time and powering it off when not actually shooting saves the power but I was using AF-C, CL and CH modes all day.

The overall verdict? I am impressed. Very impressed. Here are a few more shots if you are still reading all the way down here.

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Goodbye Canon, Hello Fujifilm.

A fair number of photographers have moved to Fujifilm in the last couple of years. This post is to clarify a few things to other photographers – whether they are considering making the same move or not.

“Jumping Ship”?

I find talk of “switching” or “jumping ship” a little hyperbolic. It implies that one company, in this case Fujifilm, is making products that are so superior in quality that photographers are dumping their other gear on the used market and buying Fujifilm gear. This is simply not objectively accurate or real. Why? Well, some Canon/Nikon cameras are really excellent. In addition, there are many more lenses available for them than there are for Fujifilm. And some of the Canon/Nikon lenses are either great value or almost magical. By comparison, some of the Fujifilm lenses are astounding but none of them are cheap.

In the Canon ecosystem (I have very little first hand experience with Nikon) I will certainly miss the cheap but very effective 50mm F1.8 and the amazing 135mm F2. They were my favorite lenses on my old camera. The first delivered great quality at a ridiculously low price and the second…well, just look it up. A very special lens indeed, even on a cropped sensor:

The 135mm F2L yields a 216mm field of view on a cropped sensor Canon body

So why did I “switch”? I had to. Building a (working or serious) photographer’s kit on one camera system means having enough lenses to cover one’s needs. Given unlimited funds I would have kept my Canon gear as well. However, funds are not unlimited. So I had to pick the system I liked the most.

This is where things get very subjective. Shooting style, ergonomics, aesthetics, weight, price and other factors come into play. Subjectively, Fujifilm is more pleasurable to use and thus gives better images than my Canon did – not because Fuji is better than Canon but because I love using this camera. The more enjoyable the user experience the more likely the gear is to be used creatively. The latest full frame Canons produce excellent images but they’re more expensive, heavier and less enjoyable to use. My ideal camera would have the ergonomics and design elements of a Fujifilm XT-2 but with a larger sensor. That would give me the subject isolation  that no crop sensor can offer. However, that camera doesn’t exist and would cost twice as much if it did. It would also need a whole new lens lineup. Sony’s full frame mirrorless cameras came the closest to this ideal but they just didn’t have the right feel in my hands.

Shot with the Fujifilm XF 56mm F1.2