The 80-20 Rule Revisited

It’s the old 80-20 rule.

Eighty percent of anything is crap. Of the remaining 20 per cent only 20 per cent of that is amazing. The remaining 80 per cent is competent and may even be technically perfect but has no soul.

I was at the Barrie Ontario Kempenfest on Saturday. Hundreds of artisans displayed their works and honestly after half an hour every iron lawn crane and kitchen towel rack started looking the same.

It was the same for the photographers. There were about a dozen and of that number three were pretty good and the rest were awful.

Of the three good ones one or two were over sharpening their images and they looked hyper real. A lot of the photography was shot in vacation locations and while technically excellent it said nothing. Two of the three were printing their own images and one said she was just using a Canon Rebel but her images were so good I’m not sure I believe her. My wife said she believed her but the quality of the images was outstanding and the lady could see a picture in front of her. Maybe she was right but I wish I was shooting that well. Marion (my wife) says my photojournalism style doesn’t lend itself to comparison to landscape and exotic location photographers and maybe she’s right.

So who do I like? Well here’s a guy I follow regularly.

He shoots commercial work but there’s something meaningful in much of it…not all of it…but a lot of it. There’s enough meaning here for me that I want to study what I am seeing. And tell me if you agree with me that part oneΒ  from his online retrospective is better than okay and part two is amazing?

This is Becker and he says he’s a wedding photographer. I’m thinking he’s much more…have a look.


After the Festival is Over

Now what?

You’ve shot 50 or 500 or a couple of thousand images at the music festival. Now it’s Monday morning or maybe Monday night.

Where do we start?

First of all I make sure the images are safe. I remove the memory cards from the cameras and I download the image files into newly named folders to both of my external hard drives. The folder get a name like Beaches Jazz Festival 2011. I remove the memory cards from the computer and I put them away for a few days as I make certain I’ve safely downloaded all of my images.

Then, after my monitor has been on for at least half an hour, I calibrate it. I use a Spyder 3 and it works. What I am aiming to improve is what I see on my monitor as compared to what comes out of my printer or ends up in my online gallery. If your monitor is set too dark or too light you’ll never get close to what the printer outputs on paper. And I’m only talking about getting close. I don’t run what are called printer profiles for different papers. I get around this by using the paper manufactured under my printer manufacture’s brand name.

Should I be calibrating my printer? Sure but I’m not selling fine art images for $400 or more. So my printing and online images only need to look good to my eye and not to some calibrated standard.

Having said that, I am considering buying a colour patch device which acts very much the same as shooting a white or grey card before your festival shooting so as to give you a white balance reference for use with your image editor. By using a colour patch you can get your colours closer to reality. Normally you won’t see much of difference right up until a light blue, green or light magenta blouse on one of your subjects just comes out in the wrong colour. Then you’ll understand the value of calibration at camera, monitor and printer.

Okay we’ve got the monitor calibrated and I like to turn down the lighting in the room a little.

The next device I plug is my Wacom digital tablet. It will take sometime to get comfortable with a digital tablet but once you do there is no going back to a mouse. The Wacom Bamboo Pen and Touch series is a bargain at $99 and comes with a copy of Photoshop Elements. I’ve got a medium size Intous model and it’s really easy to use. There’s even a wireless version and one deal for $399 that includes Lightroom 3 – sweet.

Next up for me is Lightroom 3.

Now any decent RAW photo editor will work.

(And I neglected to talk about why RAW in my last post. Festival shooting is always tricky because you never know what light – if any – you’re shooting with so it’s incredibly important to shoot RAW rather than JPG. In RAW you can change everything. In JPG you can only change a few things (like brightness) a little. If the white balance is screwed up and you’ve shot in JPG the only solution is to make the image into a black and white shot.)

Editors include Photoshop Elements, NX Capture 2 (only really works with Nikon NEFs. Yes you can import your Canon RAW images as Tiffs but nobody I know does.), Aperture 3 (only works on the MAC platform) has been discounted at the Apple store for $79 which is a huge discount for fabulous software. Next up is Lightroom 3 and for those with deep pockets there’s Photoshop.

I use Lightroom 3 because it is more than just a photo editor. It’s also a database manager for all of your images. If you’re shooting lots of shots regardless of whether you’re a pro or an amateur Lightroom 3 is a blessing. It’s fast. It’s consistent. And, best of all, it never actually touches your RAW images.

Where some editing software takes your RAW image and changes it when you save it Lightroom 3 only pulls up a JPG representation of the RAW file and attaches a list of your changes which it applies only when you create a copy to file. So the copy has the changes attached and your RAW file remains pristine.Β 

So why not use Photoshop (I do have it.) but at $800 or so it’s too expense for most of us and while it is a pixel editor (This is why it’s so powerful.), most photographers don’t edit at the pixel level but at the more global image level. In other words if I want to swap heads in a shot of two folks Photoshop will do that seamlessly. But my intent is to create pretty pictures, then Lightroom 3 is my choice.

Once I’ve fired up Lightroom 3 I import the images (remember these are JPG representative images and not the original RAW files) and they load within a minute or so. This importing JPG representative images is lightening fast compared to importing all the RAW files as some editors do.

Once Lightroom 3 has imported all the images I go to grid mode where I can see about nine thumbnails at once and I do my first rough edit. All I’m doing here is keeping anything that has potential and not picking anything that is fatally flawed by wrong exposure or shot of my feet etc.

Usually this means I’ve eliminated anywhere between 20 and 50 per cent of my shots.

Now using whatever method (flagging, colours, stars) I set Lightroom to show only my picks.

From here I start working on the images. I’ll unpick anything that doesn’t work and start making changes to images I want to keep.

So how do I process a couple of hundred images and reduce the online number down to 100 or so?

I have a secret πŸ™‚

In fact I’ve got a couple of files full of secrets. They’re called filters or presets. And they save an enormous amount of time.

I have all of the NIK software packages which work within Lightroom 3 as external editors. (The also work with other editors including Elements, Aperture and Photoshop. The colour filter software Color Efex 3 works within NX2.) These powerful editors can make major changes to images. NIK has noise reduction, sharpening, filter effects, HDR, black and white and colour changing editors. Each one is worth its weight in gold IMHO.

I also have a large file of presets from Seim Effects. These presets are not editors but they do apply simple settings to the image. Could I manually apply these settings? Sure but by using the filters I not only speed up the process but some of the presets are way more clever and create way more beautiful effects than I could do on my own.

Once I’ve finished editing an image I save it as a full-size JPG in file folder on my hard drive. I name this folder something like Beaches Jazz – 2011 – Picks and these are the images I publish online in my SmugMug or Flickr galleries.

I also use this file to choose the images I’m going to print on my Epson 3800 printer. I can do a 16″ X 20″ print and trust me at that size they’re impressive. The only downside is the cost of ink which runs around $600 to buy a whole new set.

Once I’m finished editing I make copies of my Picks folder on my two external hard drives and I burn a DVD of the finished work.

And then, and only then, doing I reformat the memory cards in the camera they are going to be used in and reset the cameras back to factory specs, recharge the batteries and put everything back in the camera bag ready to go on a moment’s notice (That’s the old photojournalist in me.)

How to shoot a music festival

I had such a great time shooting the Beaches Jazz Festival I thought I should share some insights I gathered during the event.

These suggestions apply to street-type festivals where your access to the musicians is pretty much unlimited.

So rule one is wear black. I didn’t think this up on my own. It comes from the master of street photography Jay Maisel who says if you wear black you tend to fade into the background and are essentially invisible to the people around you. He’s right. I tried on 35-plus-degree days to wear as much black as I could and I was universally ignored even though I was working the street pretty hard.

Rule two is don’t carry too much equipment. Look you take what you’ve got but if you’ve got a choice you need to make some decisions. For example, based on my experience at the Beaches Jazz Festival all you need for lenses is a fast portrait-type lens (50mm f/1.8 or better yet 85mm f/1.8 or even better yet 105mm f/2.5) for shooting headshots and a wide angle fast lens like 24mm f/2.8 or better). BTW all the lens here are stated in 35mm terms. Make allowances for DX format cameras (1.5 or so magnification factor) or micro four-thirds (2X magnification).

Now not all of us own fast wide lenses so a wide zoom will do (12-24mm Nikon or 9-18mm Olympus micro four-thirds). The problem is these lenses are slow lenses. In other words they don’t let in as much light as a fast prime lens and this gets important around dusk at a street festival.

If you’ve got a Nikon or Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom (the wedding photographer’s friend) that will do the trick but these guys get heavy after being carried around for a couple of hours in the hot sun.

Here’s what I used on Thursday night at the Beaches festival: Olympus EPL-2 with 17mm f/2.8 pancake lens and 40-150mm telephoto zoom. I didn’t use the standard 14-42mm lens or the 9-18mm super wide much at all. If they were available I would have loved the new 12mm f/2 fast wide (24mm in 35-mm terms…confusing what?) and the very fast f/1.8 45mm (90mm in 35mm terms) portrait lens.

These two alone would be killer lenses for street photography of all types as they’re fast as heck and work the two major angles of view I shoot from 90 per cent of the time which are real wide for groups and headshots of individuals. These two lenses alone make the Olympus micro four-thirds format a killer when it comes to shooting on the streets.

On Friday night I took the Nikon D-300 with battery grip and two SB-900 flashes plus a big Nikon 105mm macro f/2.8 with vibration reduction (VR) and the 35mm f/1.8 wide. I did use the 12-24mm wide zoom a little but 90 per cent of Friday night was with the 105 which performed superbly.

Why the switch?Β 

The very best time to shoot during a street festival is an hour before sunset and an hour after sunset if it’s a cloudless evening. You’ve got lots of golden horizontal light to play with and your faster lenses will excel and you can get away with your slower lenses (remember you’re handholding the camera and you need sufficient shutter speed to overcome the shaking of your own body and stop the action of the singer and band members on stage). Don’t count on there being sufficient (or any) stage lighting at some of these street events after dark.

I saw a lot of guys carrying mono (or tripods which is really unproductive in crowd situations and could even be dangerous) pods of steady their shots during the evening hours. This works for about half an hour at dusk and then it gets too dark to shoot without flash. Yes you can steady the image but you can’t stop the action. If you’re not using fast lenses you’re going to have issues getting the camera to focus in the dark.

So I don’t carry a monopod anymore to street festivals. I take a flash.

Now even the nicest performer is going to get annoyed if you’re continually firing off a flash. If I have to go to flash I shoot a few frames and then move on. This doesn’t yield great photography. If you get lucky or if you’re persistent you can get a great shot but it’s not like shooting when there’s enough light to use a fast lens and you’re firing off a lot of frames.

Okay back in the old days when we were shooting film we tried to hold off firing until we saw “the shot” in the viewfinder but in today’s digital world the percentage of great shots goes way up when you wait for that special moment and then you fire off a burst of frames. Be careful though. This works with loud amplified music but if you’r covering a folk or baroque festival firing off strings of shots is going to annoy the festival audience.

You do not want to upset a crowd.

Having said that it’s been my experience that if (a) you’re dressed in black and (b) you look like a pro (This is one of the few times that wearing a dark photo vest isn’t such a bad idea) and (c) you move with confidence when you step in front of everyone (including Uncle Fred who brought his new digital video camera and has positioned himself back at the edge of the crowd so there’s no way to get around him without getting into his frame) nobody is going to complain or even comment.

Now if it appears that you’re shooting beside someone who is a pro I tend to yield the best shot to them as they’re working for a living and I’m not. Having said that, when I am being paid, don’t step in front of me when I’m shooting. I’ve been known to physically move other photographers out of the frame when they’ve been really unconcsious and inconsiderate. Pros do everything they can to respect the other shooters including amateurs but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to get in the way.

When I do step in front of a crowd or in front of people who have sat themselves down on lawn chairs (as is typical at smaller festivals) I do what I can to either sit below their line of sight or shoot from the edge of the stage walking in front only when I see a potential photo.

Shooting video is entirely different. Now you need to be front and centre and you will benefit from stabilizing the camera with a monopod or other form of stabilizer. And you will annoy folks.

One way around this is to get a black t-shirt or two made with the words EVENT PHOTO and if you’ve got some cash have your the URL of your website or gallery printed on the front. Just because you’ve got a t-shirt that says EVENT PHOTO doesn’t mean you’re the official photographer but it will be what everyone will assume and they’ll likely leave you alone.

One of the other things I do is after the musicians finish their set Β and if I think I’ve got some really good images I offer them my business card and invite them to use any images they wish with the only proviso that give me a photo credit.

I look at this way. These musicians didn’t ask me to shoot them. They probably don’t have a budget for this type of spontaneous offer. And, I want the photo credit.

Festivals are what I call a photo-rich environment. They are a great place to get exceptional opportunities to shoot amazingly good images.

D-300 and EPL-2 Shootout

So which camera won the Toronto 2011 Beaches Jazz Festival shoot out?

Was it the diminutive Olympus EPL-2 with its accompanying tiny lenses and video capability or was it the big bruising D-300 with big fast glass and matching SB-900 flashes?

The answer is, like all things in photography, it depends. πŸ™‚

Thursday evening there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and I kept shooting in available light with the EPL-2 until 9:30 pm or so.

Friday evening it was overcast and by 8 pm it was dark enough that even with fast glass the flash started to come out of the bag.

The D-300 with the 105mm VR macro lens is a bitch to carry and then add an SB-900 and you’ve got your work cut out for you. Add a Crumpler bag of lens and accessories and a 30 degree night and it’s no country for old men πŸ™‚ But the images are sensationally sharp and almost no depth of field.

In the other corner at less than a third the weight and a fifth the size comes the EPL-2 which can be carried effortless around the neck all night long and the lenses can fit easily and lightly into a photo vest. Cool…and light….and cheaper too.

But what about when it came to shooting?

Well the EPL-2 does have video capabilities that the D-300 doesn’t have (and I could have taken my D-90) and the EPL-2 images look just as good as the Nikon’s IMHO. I was shooting in RAW both nights and Lightroom 3 with a whole whack of plug-ins made short work of editing the images. The grunge settings might not be to everyone’s liking but I’m not shooting for everyone. I’m shooting for myself and I like the look just fine.

Okay already get to the point: Which camera?

When it comes to shooting in lots of light the EPL-2 shoots just fine. It’s fast, light and focuses is fine even in very dim situations. The controls are a little weird as I tend to dial in exposure compensation without realizing it and this is just operator error (RFM – read the flipping’ manual or words to that effect) and I could never get the SB-28 to work consistently (see previous point) so I relied on the pop-up flash for fill which worked pretty well. And the video is amazing especially with the plug-in external microphone.

But and there’s always a but…when it comes to really pushing the equipment to deliver performance using flash and multiple exposures shot just about as fast as I can push the button it’s the D-300 all the way baby. This is an amazing camera and consistently yields fabulous images taken in less than ideal circumstances.

So I’m off to shoot a special event this afternoon that’s outdoors. Guess which camera system I’m taking?

It’s the Olympus! If it was a cloudy day the D-300 or D-90 would be a better choice.

Friday night at the Festival

I’m back from the Beaches and time to go to bed but quickly I’ve looked at the images using the Nikon and flash and they look even better than Thursday night’s shots if that’s possible.

I’m really thrilled with the Olympus and the Nikon under heavy use didn’t disappoint either.

And did we have fun?

Oh yeah. Images should be up at Peter West Photo sometime this weekend.


Cool Jazz on the Hottest Night of the Year

The Beaches Jazz Festival taking place this weekend in Toronto is THE place to go to shoot great festival photography.

So what do you need?

Water – more water – sunscreen – a hat – good socks and shoes and a big smile. Yesterday when I was shooting the temperature hit 100 degrees on the pavement.

As for photography, if you’re shooting before dusk, you need a wide-angle lens for the big bands (on DX format cameras an 18-200 zoom or 12-24 would be great) and a fast 50mm or 85mm (or if you’ve got big bucks an 70/80 to 200mm lens. Sure it’s big an heavy and the wedding photographers must-have lens but it gets the job done).

If you’re shooting after dusk you need fast (at least f/1.8) lenses. Your kit lenses or slower zooms just won’t cut it after dark and using a big flash at night is fine if you’re shooting somebody’s mugshot but not recomended for festival photography.

Now having said all that I have two confessions to make:

First: All of the shots from last night’s shooting were done with Marion’s Olympus EPL-2. Lenses included the kit lens (14-42mm), the long zoom (40 to 150) and the super-wide (9-16mm) plus the 17mm fast (f/2.8) pancake lens which did most of the work after dark. I think the results are amazing. Later today I’ll post about 75 images and a couple of videos from last night.

Second: I’m in love again. (Don’t tell Marion.) Erin McCallum has likely broken more than a few hearts in her time. She’s got a whiskey-soaked voice that reaches deep inside and a pair of lungs that can set your hair on fire. She’s as pretty as all get out and I wish I was half my age — which I am obviously not acting…or maybe I am πŸ™‚ Her and her band are one of the best acts on a tough street of really top-notch artists.

BTW somebody should feed this girl. Like I said she’s as pretty as all get out but needs 10 more pounds on her pretty bones.

Here’s the link to the Beaches Jazz Festival images at Peter West Photo.

Photographers I Hate

I use Google Reader to capture new blog postings about photographers and photography. Everyday holds moments of wonder and envy.

Case in point is the photography of a Toronto-based photographer Erik M.

I don’t know who Erik M is but I do know he can shoot the pants off me. Erik is what I’d call an industrial landscape art photographer and he’s really really good.

Here’s an interview of Erick from blogTO and a link to his Flickr gallery.

Wonderful work…and I hate him πŸ™‚