March 25, 2015

In Memorium: Paul C. Buff, 1936-2015

Paul Conrad Buff, founder of Paul C. Buff, Inc., longtime Professional Photographers of America member, and inventor of lighting tools that include White Lightning, Zap, AlienBees, and Einstein monolights, died March 14, 2015, at his farm near Theodore, Alabama. 

A native of Glendora, California, Buff was born April 24, 1936. He enlisted in the U.S. Marines and served 1954 to 1957. He began his career in the music industry by building Pal Recording Studio in 1957 in Cucamonga, California. Buff was an early innovator in multi-track recording by building his own console to record five tracks on half-inch wide tape. As studio owner and recording engineer, he helped create the sound of surf music with the hit records “Wipe Out” and “Pipeline.” One of Buff’s early employees at Pal was budding musician Frank Zappa, whom he mentored and later sold the studio to. 

After selling Pal Recording Studios, Buff founded Allison Design where he continued his career as inventor and innovator in the field. In the mid-’60s he moved to Nashville where he became involved withthe company Valley Audio. Allison and Valley morphed into Valley People, where Buff remained president until 1984. A pioneer in computerized control of the sound recording process Buff invented various audio tools including the Kepex (Keyable Program Expander), the Trans-amp, the Electronic Gain Control Device, and the Valley People Dyna-mite. These recording tools were used by many artists, including the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Carole King, and Barry White. Many of the designs are still in use today.

After becoming interested in photography in 1980, Buff looked at the available electronic flash lighting equipment and decided he could use more modern electronic engineering to make it more efficient and affordable. As a business strategy, he elected to keep prices down and shorten the lines of communication between customer and manufacturer by selling directly to photographers. The first product, the White Lightning 130, was introduced in 1981. A yoke-mounted monolight that resembled a fat white coffee can, the WL130 sold for an unprecedented $139.95. It was later replaced by the Ultra, Zap, and the current X-series. White Lightning Ultras gained a reputation among photojournalists and other working and amateur photographers for being rugged and reliable as well as precise and affordable. Features included the Balcar light modifier attachment system, wireless remote control options, wide output range, and a powerful modeling light.

As an adjunct to the more expensive White Lightning series, in September 2001 the company introduced a second and more affordable product line, the AlienBees. More recently a third line, the Einstein E640 was introduced and remains the state of the art in manual monolight design. Other products include the Vagabond series of high-capacity rechargeable lithium batteries and a wide range of light modifiers. According to company’s website, since the introduction of the AlienBees series, Paul C. Buff Inc. attained and maintains an approximate 60 percent annual sales share of electronic flash sales in the United States.

Buff is survived by his wife of 16 years, Debbie, stepdaughter Kimberlee Jones, stepson Julian Smith, and grandchildren. The company will continue. 

On its website, the Paul C. Buff corporation has invited people who wish to offer condolences to send them to CelebratingPaul@paulcbuff.com.

March 24, 2015

Get a Slow-mo 360-degree Video Sweep with OrcaVue

By Joan Sherwood, Senior Editor

When you mention a 360-degree shot, most people will think of a panoramic sweep of the surrounding view from the photographer’s point of view. But imagine you had a film crew and could do one of those iconic cinema takes in which the camera sweeps around the subject in the center, like a couple embracing, or Keanu Reeves in full-airborne fight mode. That’s the sort of three-sixty that OrcaVue can get you, except you won’t need a whole film crew or a crane.

 

At the center of OrcaVue is a stationary platform with current models capable of holding 250 to 300 pounds (the OrcaVue XL is in development and will hold 400 pounds). Your human (or other) subject(s) stands or moves on the center platform as the OrcaVue sweeps its camera-mount arm in full 360-degree circles. The speed of the sweep is designed for 1 to 2 revolutions per second for cameras like the GoPro set to record in a high frame rate, such as 120 or 240 frames per second (fps) or other cameras that can reach 3,200 fps. The result creates a smooth, stunning, slow-motion shot moving around the subject in action.

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©OrcaVue

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The OrcaVue can support small devices like the iPhone 6 or 6 Plus as well as larger recommended camera models up to 7 pounds. Recommended cameras include the Panasonic GH4, Sony Alpha A7s, Canon EOS 70D, 6D, or 5D Mark III, and the Nikon D800. Larger cameras at higer RPMs will be compatible with the OrcaVue XL.

For a full-body shot using a full-frame DSLR, the team recommends using a 14mm lens with the camera arm 42 inches away. It all depends on what shot you want to get.

OrcaVue has two counterweight systems that are used for different situations. The first is the very simple static balance method for low revolutions per minute (RPMs). This is as easy as adding larger counterweights, or sliding the counterweight further from the central axis. The second is a more complex method of balancing dynamic equations, used at much higher RMPs (typically used on cameras with frame rates well above 240 FPS). It may sound complicated, but the OrcaVue app (coming soon) will save you from having to do any math. Simply input your givens (camera weight, distance from subject, desired RPM), and the app will read back the values for the counterweights needed.

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©OrcaVue 

The current asking price for the OrcaVue Life model is $2,499 ($500 off), which will be available for shipment in April. There is also an optional custom-fitted Pelican Case for $300.

There are also rental options available for Video Production Service (VPS) and Crowd Event Service (CES). The services include one-on-one assistance from OrcaVue staff so that you will be able to use the rig to its fullest potential. For VPS, you can rent for 2, 4, or 8 hours and the rental fee, which ranges from $599 to $999, includes an OrcaVue operator; travel and lodging expenses for the operator are tallied separately and billed at cost. Crowd Event Service includes an operator and an event manager’s services and is priced from $749 to $1,349.

The production and design team behind OrcaVue is business developer and engineer Adam Boussouf, head engineer Daniel Rosenberry, chief cinematographer Jonathan Rosenberry, and master builder Robert Rosenberry. Together they have already met with enthusiastic response for the product. Check out sample videos on Instagram at https://instagram.com/orcavue/ .

February 19, 2015

Review: Wrap It Up with a Miggo

By Betsy Finn, M.Photog.Cr., CPP

I have a love hate relationship with camera straps. They are useful, and save my wrists (not to mention keep my camera safe). But they tend to be uncomfortable, bulky, and most annoying, make it more difficult to stow away my camera when it’s not being used.

So when I saw the Miggo Strap & Wrap, I was intrigued. A camera strap that doubled as a soft case? Interesting. For this review, I received a DSLR/Mirrorless (CSC) Strap & Wrap. They have one in development for “professional” DSLRs ­­ that should be able to hold full-frame sensor bodies like my Nikon D3. For this review, I pulled out a smaller DSLR, my Nikon D200. I’ll talk about the fit more in a little bit, once I explain how the Strap & Wrap works. 

The Strap & Wrap is a long piece of neoprene with a zipper down its length, an enclosed mounting plate at one end, and a padded neck strap at the other end. Below you can see how the strap looks zipped and unzipped before you attach a camera. 

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The mounting plate is sturdy but soft, with many little holes so you can adjust where the strap is mounted to your camera depending on where the lens sits on your particular camera model. You’ll want to play around with off­-center installation and find the location that's best for you.

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The mounting screw comes apart so that you can move it to whichever location is best. Note that there is a rubber washer on the one side (that goes up against your camera) and the metal screw goes on the outside (below). You can theoretically keep this camera strap on and use the female threads on the outer surface of the screw to mount the whole shebang to a tripod. Or maybe a mounting plate would be more practical, depending on how often you intend to stabilize your camera.

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Once installed on your camera, the strap will rotate freely around the screw post (it doesn’t have threads along its entire length for this reason. Here’s what it looks like attached to my camera body.

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See the blurry white arc in the upper right of the frame? That’s actually a lens cap holder. This is a godsend for me, since I am always misplacing my lens caps. They have a mind of their own and don’t like to stay in my pocket, so having a special stow pocket is fantastic.

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The camera strap function is pretty self­explanatory. You unzip the zipper and hang the strap across your body or around your neck (Miggo recommends cross­-body for DSLRs). Comfort­wise, the neoprene works great. But for my petite (5'3") frame, the strap is just too long … the camera falls at my hip or below, even when worn cross-body. On the flip side, this length would be ideal for my husband, who is tall and usually struggles with camera straps being too short.

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To convert from the strap to a camera wrap, you simply zip the zipper closed and wrap the length of neoprene over the camera. Depending on the length of your lens, you will wrap it differently.

• Short lens: wrap comes up from below, over the LCD screen, then the top of the camera, around the lens, back over the LCD screen a second time, and then the open loop will secure around the padded lens.

• Long lens: wrap comes up from below around the front of the lens, then the top of the camera, over the LCD screen, underneath the body, and then the loop secures around the lens.

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You’ll want to have your camera’s lens cap on when you wrap it because the zipper does pass over the front of the lens. And while it is an invisible zipper (meaning it’s hidden/protected inside the neoprene), I would still rather be safe than sorry when it comes to my lenses. 

Wrapping up the camera wasn’t all that tricky. Depending on the lens I used, the fit was more snug or even a little loose. That’s why Miggo suggests two ways to wrap it up. 

Here’s what my camera looked like in the Strap & Wrap:

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And in case you’re wondering, yes, I was able to still use the grip on my camera (see below). 

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So, that’s how it works. The smaller the body, the larger the lens you can wrap up in the Miggo Strap & Wrap. Overall, I really like the concept of this strap/case. I’m a little bummed that the strap is longer than ideal for my height, ­­but if you are average height or tall, you’ll probably be thrilled. I wish that the strap could wrap around the sides of the camera body to protect that too (see the photos above, the sides of my DSLR remained exposed), but I guess the lens end or the LCD screen side are most fragile so as a soft case, this seems adequate. Miggo gets bonus points from me for eliminating the problem of where to store my camera strap.

And as I mentioned earlier, there isn’t a currently a version for large DSLRs—Miggo products are suitable for small and medium-size DSLR cameras only. The Strap & Wrap retails for $49.99. Miggo also makes a Grip & Wrap version that is similar in concept, but instead of a camera strap, becomes a wrist strap; it retails for $39.99. For more information, visit:

https://mymiggo.com/products/ 

Betsy Finn, M.Photog.Cr.,CPP lives in Michigan. Her studio, Betsy’s Photography, can be found on the web at bphotoart.com.

Imaging USA: Expo Floor Finds

By Joan Sherwood, Senior Editor

One of my favorite parts of Imaging USA is setting aside time to scout the Imaging Expo and look for new and interesting items that I haven't seen before, spectacular exhibitor displays, and listening to what the crowds of shoppers are responding to. 

One of the first things I ran into was a massive crowd around the BorrowLenses and Spider Camera Holster booths. Just once was I able to get over to where Shai Eynav, president and founder of Spider Camera Holster was demoing their products (the new SpiderPro Hand Strap, the Spider Monkey quick-draw system for accessories, the new Medium Lens Pouch, and the Memory Card Organizer) a to a standing-room-only crowd.

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Album makers Finao launched their new Friends With Benefits loyalty program at Imaging USA 2015. There are everyday benefits with being a Finao customer, but the FwB program lets you reap more according to how much you spend annually with the company, sorting VIP customers into Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Diamond categories. Rewards include Finao cash, free Xhibit fine art matted print, discounts, and additional goodies and perks.

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Then of course there is the benefit of getting to choose from some beautiful, meticulously crafted albums, like the Limited Edition Savile Row, Tufted, and Halson albums pictured above (click image for large view).

Sometimes you run across a gadget that looks potentially really useful, and the Grip & Shoot is one of those. Essentially it's a Bluetooth 4.0 remote for your smart device camera (compatible with iPhone 4S and newer, some iPods and iPads, and many Android devices), and it works at distances to 100 feet and more.

You can use it with your device in the JawZ Universal Holder, or with the Grip Adapter that lets you mount it on any stand with a 1/4"-20 thread. 

The Grip & Shoot system is also designed with an open API, so app developers can design apps to take advantage of it, including gaming and utility apps.

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Sweetlight Systems got a lot of attention during the show. They make a patented hybrid backplate for the Hybrid Pro that lets users easily switch from continuous lighting to strobe (via Spin Ring on your strobe unit) without breaking down equipment. Check out their site to get the full picture. 

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January 21, 2015

Gateway: Painter Essentials 5 Lets You Jump Right In

By Betsy Finn, M.Photog.Cr.,CPP

For the photographer who wants to offer an upsell, painted photos are sometimes a nice option. The problem is, they can take a lot of hours to complete, which drives up the cost. So, the question is, how to create painted photos with minimal time investment?

Corel Painter 2015 is the workhorse of the industry. You probably know several photographers who have spent many hours learning the art of digital painting. Yes, it looks awesome, but learning Corel Painter and practicing your art is a significant commitment in time, and you’re busy running your business.

Enter Corel Painter Essentials 5. It’s built on the code of Painter 2015, so it supports some of the functionality that 2015 does, such as Intel 2-in-1 support and 64-bit for PC and Mac. You’ll even find a number of the Particle Brushes from 2015 in Essentials 5. While Painter 2015 appeals more to professional artist, Painter Essentials 5 is for the more casual user, with a simplified interface.

Upon installing Painter Essentials 5, I decided to jump right in without any training, just to see how intuitive everything was. The welcome screen made things seem pretty easy.

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I wanted to try an auto painting, so I chose Start new Photo Art. The application asked me to open a source file, which needs to be an 8-bit file. I re-saved one of my portraits as 8-bit, and I was in business.

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After opening a file, you’ll see the following menu appear on the interface. Note that there are a couple different options.

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My next step was to select the preset style. I chose Detailed Painting.

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Then I clicked the Play button and waited for my auto painting to be created. On my computer at least, I couldn’t run the application in the background, but the process didn’t take that long to complete, so I waited patiently.

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Once the auto painting was complete, I checked things over. The painting was decent, but obviously needed some touching up. I decided to refine the facial features. Here’s what it looked like before any manual adjustments were done.

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Painter Essentials 5 comes with a number of Photo Brushes. These will paint from your source image, but apply the textures and properties of the media that you select.

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Things worked okay, but then I ran into a glitch. I think my Wacom tablet was causing the problem because the glitch disappeared after I restarted the program and adjusted my tablet’s stylus settings. So you may need to set up your stylus after installation.

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I spent some time playing around with the different brushes, adding detail, and refining the textures and brush strokes in areas until it looked decently finished. (One experience I remember from when I was painting on canvas was that I could never decide when a painting was “done.”)

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Then it was time to save. The output (Save As JPEG) gives you some options, as seen below:

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To save all the layers, source image, and other Painter-specific stuff in the file, you’ll have to save as a .RIFF file. You can save straight to one of many formats, such as .JPG, but if you select something other than .RIFF, it will remind you:

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And that’s that.

I also wanted to try out two other options that you may find of interest. First, painting from scratch. You can choose to create a new blank canvas, and it will give you the setup interface below.

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I’m not going to pretend that I created some photo-realistic masterpiece from scratch in under an hour, but I did spend 15-20 minutes playing with the brushes and creating an abstract painting that evokes the stamen of a flower. At any rate, it was relaxing and I had fun getting to know how my stylus worked in Painter Essentials.

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Now there’s one more option you can do, which is paint “from scratch” but with a source image. For this option, I selected New Photo Art again, but this time, after setting up my source image, I did not start auto paint. Instead, I selected a photo brush and started painting freehand. Each of my strokes revealed the colors and values from the source image, but was able to leave me with a completely custom looking painting. Take a peek at my original image, the progression of the painting, and the final painting:

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I absolutely love how this turned out. This was my first painting done this way, and approximately my fifth painting in Painter Essentials 5.

So, while it may take acclimation, it’s totally possible to produce saleable images after a short learning curve with Corel Painter Essentials 5. I’d say my total time invested in the portrait painting was under 15 minutes, and I probably spent slightly longer on my painting of the flower (I didn’t time that one).

I know I’ve only scratched the surface of the software’s capabilities, but my goal with this review was to see how quickly I could acclimate myself to using Painter Essentials to create a potential upsell item or usable accent art. And on that front, it most certainly delivers. Corel also has free video tutorials online to help you get started.

Bottom line? If you’re considering Corel Painter 2015 but aren’t sure it will be your cup of tea, you could always start with Corel Painter Essentials 5. It is a great learning tool for those looking to enter the digital art world, and can be used as a stepping stone into Painter 2015. Painter Essentials 5 is $49.99, whereas Corel Painter 2015 is $429; a trial of either program can be downloaded at painterartist.com.

Betsy Finn, M.Photog.Cr.,CPP lives in Michigan. Her studio, Betsy’s Photography, can be found on the web at bphotoart.com. 

January 20, 2015

Canon Experience Center Ready to Host and Serve

By Stan Sholik

Canon still photographers and videographers owe themselves a visit to the new Canon Experience Center in Costa Mesa, California. A hybrid of Disneyland and an Apple store (but without sales) for Canon users, the 38,000-square-foot renovated industrial building is part history lesson, part gear showroom, part service facility, part studio, and part Canon Professional Service (CPS) member refuge.

The opening of the facility was celebrated on November 5, with corporate representatives from Canon mingling with media for a ribbon cutting and behind the scenes tour. While there is plenty to entertain enthusiast photographers in the lobby, there is clearly an effort to welcome, inform, and service professional Canon photographers.

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The Canon Experience Center is located in Costa Mesa, CA. Photo courtesy of Canon USA

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Canon executives were present for the ribbon cutting at the grand opening. (Left to right) Joseph Warren, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Human Resources, Canon U.S.A., Inc.; Eliott Peck, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Imaging Technologies & Communications Group, Canon U.S.A., Inc.; Seymour Liebman, Executive Vice President, Chief Administrative Officer and General Counsel, Canon U.S.A., Inc.; Yuichi Ishizuka, President and COO, Imaging Technologies & Communications Group, Canon U.S.A., Inc.; Toru Nishizawa, President and CEO of Canon Virginia Inc.; Charles Womack, Vice President and General Manager of Customer Support Operations, Canon U.S.A., Inc. ©Stan Sholik

Have you ever wondered what the full line of Canon lenses looks like? Or wanted to look through a 600mm f/4 or 800mm f/5.6 lens mounted on the Canon body of your choice? In the lobby is a display of every lens that Canon currently manufactures, and representatives are there to answer questions and mount lenses on bodies for you.

The center of the lobby is dominated by a display featuring miniature trains running through beautifully designed settings. The display is ringed with cameras and lenses, both still and video that you can hold and operate while taking photographs of the trains.

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Photo courtesy of Canon USA

Of course there are large prints displayed around the outer perimeter of the lobby, taken by Canon Explorers of Light and printed on Canon large-format printers, which are also on display in the lobby. There is an alcove with a functioning portrait set, a series of stations for dropping off and picking up repairs, and a lounge for CPS members.

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Photo courtesy of Canon USA

This lounge is particularly impressive. Separated from the main lobby, it offers a quiet place for CPS members to meet with clients, edit images, or simply to relax before heading back into Orange County traffic. Members can also pick up loaner equipment here, or handle Canon gear in relative privacy.

As impressive as the front end of the Canon Experience Center is, it occupies less than an eighth of the building. The greater part is occupied by the service center. Seventeen technicians at present, with a goal of building to 36, handle an average of 70 to 100 repair orders per day. Turnaround time for CPS members is under two days, with many of their repairs completed in one day or less. Where estimates are required, turnaround time averages about 4.5 days. Everything from still cameras and lenses to broadcast video lenses are repaired by techs trained by Canon. While we weren’t allowed to photograph in the service area, the darkrooms we were shown where still and video lenses of any focal length are tested and adjusted are very impressive.

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An area of the lobby is dedicated to managing service drop-off and pick-up. Photo courtesy of Canon USA

After the tour we were escorted to a presentation in the 35-seat theater where Canon Live Learning, Explorers of Light (EOL), and Canon Professional Services events will be held throughout the year. There we learned that the next day would herald the grand opening of Canon’s new 33,682-square-foot support center in Albuquerque. That facility officially began operations in June 2014, providing support to Canon’s professional photographic, cinema, printing, office solutions, and eCommerce customers. It is also an additional U.S. call center, joining the Chesapeake, Virginia, location to ensure uninterrupted US-based customer service operations 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The Costa Mesa and Albuquerque centers join Canon facilities for both professional and consumer clients located in Jamesburg, New Jersey, Itasca, Illinois, and Newport News, Virginia.

At the end of the day it was clear that Canon is seriously committed to providing the highest quality customer experience possible. Even a dedicated Nikon photographer like me is impressed.

Stan Sholik is a commercial/advertising photographer in Santa Ana, California, specializing in still life and macro photography. His latest book, “Shoot Macro” (Amherst Media), is now available.

December 18, 2014

Sandwich Style Stop-Motion Via HD-SLR, Interview with Animator PES and DOP Adkins

Academy Award nominated director PES (real name Adam Pesapane) recently shared the final of his trio of food-themed stop-motion animation short films, "Submarine Sandwich."

For this project, PES and his team captured the film entirely with a Nikon D810 HD-SLR and a variety of Nikkor lenses, all funded via a Kickstarter campaign. Nikon was the lead sponsor of the campaign and donated a Nikon D810 Animator's kit to be given to one of the top supporters of the project. 

We asked PES and Director of Photography Eric Adkins about the film and how they achieved the consistent look and fine detail of the final product.

Professional Photographer: What type of lights did you use on set to maintain the consistency needed for a stop-motion project? 

Eric Adkins: Fortunately, our studio space was in an old storage facility where the power was clean and dedicated without other industries nearby to dim our lights in time. We used a small, but broad tungsten studio lighting package consisting of a couple 2K Mole Nooklights through a 6x6-foot framed China silk diffusion from the side, one lamp gelled an antique yellow, and one clean to lessen the saturation. A ceiling mounted Zebra (warm) Lamé reflector over the slicer and a half blue gelled Silver Lamé up front side of the counter for daylight, these were both lit by shuttered 750-watt ETC Source4 ellipsoidals to control spill. One more half blue ETC S4 with a glass striped gobo pattern to mimic window blinds, in addition to a half blue LTM 1K lamp filling the unseen wall as "daylighting."

This was all broadly set up to easily shoot in our deli and activate the brushed stainless steel slicer and soft white porcelain surfaced deli cooler, with an added off-set "neon" sign red gelled LTM 400-watt soft light for color accent. The glass surface reflections were blacked out to the camera to add clarity to the sporty deli "meat" case.

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PP: You mentioned the usefulness of the PC-E Micro NIKKOR 45mm f/2.8D ED lens in your making-of interview. Could you elaborate a little on what sort of range of focus you were able to achieve with this perspective control lens, for instance in relation to the types of props you were photographing with it?

PES and Eric Adkins: Perspective control lenses, like the PC-E Micro NIKKOR 45mm f/2.8D ED lens, create unique solutions to achieve split focus when keeping differing z-depth planes in focus, while requiring a minimized depth-of-field look around our deli slicer. Not only does the optics swing and tilt, but it rolls to allow for the z-depth path to be selected on moving objects in the frame. [It's] Perfect for curvy object modeling, such as a deli slicer, as it will hide most perspective distortions and anamorphics created by pushing the limits of the circular lens optics. Added filters to achieve a similar split-focus effect are not subtle and adjustable, create focus dead zones at narrow depth-of-fields, and can create refractive aberrations around highlights.

PP: Many of our readers work closely with a co-photographer on intense projects that last many hours. What do you and your co-animator, Dillon Markey, do to maintain a good working relationship?

PES: First and foremost, Dillon and I get along great and enjoy each other on a personal level, so that is a big factor contributing to our ability to work long periods together. I also really like to maintain regular working hours (9-6) as much as possible during a shoot (many studios typically overwork animators). I treat my shoots like we are running a marathon, so we need to pace ourselves. We don't work late nights at the beginning (although there will inevitably be some required later on). So overall I guess you can say I believe in creating an environment where we work hard during the day and can have a life at night. A happy balance produces the best work in my experience and probably goes a long way to preventing us from getting on each other's nerves. The other thing I believe in is getting out of the studio for a sit-down lunch every day, no exceptions. As we often spend our mornings preparing a shot and our afternoons shooting it, that lunch becomes a very useful way to clear one's head, restore energy, grab a few minutes of sunlight (remember, we work in a black box all day), and get ready to focus on the shot at hand.

___

PES is an American director and stop-motion animator and is best known for his 2013 short film "Fresh Guacamole," which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. 

You can learn more about what went into making "Submarine Sandwich" in this behind the scenes Nikon Focus on Cinema interview.

First Look: Sony a7 II 5-Axis In-Body IS Impressive

By Theano Nikitas

A little more than a year after Sony rocked the photographic world by introducing the a7—the world’s first full-frame mirrorless camera—the company recently released an updated version: the 24-megapixel Sony a7 II. The new model features a number of new under-the-hood and physical improvements including the implementation of 5-axis image stabilization, which Sony claims provides a 4.5-stop benefit. Borrowing algorithms from the a6000 and the a77 II, the a7 II’s AF has been speeded up by about 30 percent (according to Sony).

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Physically, the a7 II’s design has changed: the body is a little thicker than its predecessor and features a larger grip. Some of the other design changes include an all-metal lens mount and minor repositioning of some controls. The shutter button, for example, is now located on the grip and is angled forward. When I read the specs, I was concerned about the camera’s additional girth but was pleasantly surprised that I the a7 II was comfortable to use, especially with the larger grip. The angled shutter button is also a welcome change.

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Sony provided the press with a couple of interesting opportunities to test out the new camera a couple of weeks ago. We visited Hollywood Stunts, a professional training center in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where we photographed people jumping, rappelling, and staging fight scenes. After that, we took off from the East River in Manhattan for a helicopter ride over the city.

The shoot at Hollywood Stunts was designed to challenge the a7 II’s AF system and the camera kept up with the subjects’ movements pretty well in both continuous and single AF modes. I especially liked seeing the focus points move around the frame as it tracked the stunt performers’ movements. Lighting was uneven and not terribly bright, so I had to boost the ISO to get a decent shutter speed. Since I prefer to deal with image noise in post processing, I disabled the in-camera noise reduction. Even if NR had been activated, noise levels were pretty high so images look a little soft. But, overall, the AF was fast and I had more focus hits than anticipated.

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Exposure: 1/250 second at f/4.5, ISO 10,000. ©Theano Nikitas

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Exposure: 1/250 second at f/4.0, ISO 4000. ©Theano Nikitas

Even more challenging was shooting from a helicopter just after dusk. As anyone who has tried to photograph from a helicopter knows, it’s difficult to hold a camera steady and even if your handhold is rock solid, the ’copter’s vibrations and movements can cause unintended blur and motion. But the a7 II’s 5-axis sensor shift stabilization performed admirably through vibrations, turns, altitude changes and all the inherent challenges associated with aerial photography. Again, I wasn’t thrilled with high ISO noise levels and in anticipation of tweaking images in post, I captured in raw + JPG formats.

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Exposure: 1/320 second at f/4.5, ISO 2000. ©Theano Nikitas

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Exposure: 1/400 second at f/4.0, ISO 1250. ©Theano Nikitas

Of all the improvements to the a7 II, the 5-axis image stabilization is the most notable, and not just because it’s the very first full-frame camera to offer 5-axis IS. Like other image stabilization systems, the a7 II compensates for pitch and yaw, but it also counteracts roll and movement on X and Y axes (the latter isn’t even possible with IS lenses). Because stabilization is based on sensor-shift technology, all lenses benefit from the system—at least partially. To gain the benefit of 5-axes, the lens needs to communicate focal length and camera-to-subject focusing distance. If focusing distance is unavailable or focal length needs to be entered manually, then IS on the X and Y axes is not possible. Still, this is a huge benefit for photographers with non-stabilized lenses.

I was most impressed with the 5-axis image stabilization and look forward to putting the camera through its paces in the long term. But, for now, I think Sony ensured that the a7 II is more than just a minor update. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the 5-axis IS and faster AF make their way into the a7R and the a7S.

Sony a7 II
$1,700 (body only)

www.sonystyle.com


 
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