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

November 21, 2014

Acrylic Print Adds Liquid Depth

By Joan Sherwood, Senior Editor

Acrylic prints are one of the hot new products emerging to tempt consumers. White Wall recently gave Professional Photographer the opportunity to test one of their offerings.

I captured a still life photo that I thought would suit this medium, uploaded the file and placed my order through White Wall’s  simple online ordering interface. In seven business days my print had arrived from Germany. The packaging was not excessive but perfectly protected the 36x24-inch print.

White Wall offers several acrylic print options, including a direct print behind acrylic glass, an original photo print under acrylic glass, an original photo print under matte acrylic, and an original photo print under special resin. It can be a little difficult to discern the difference between them, but cue words like “premium” as well as the pricing structure help you figure it out. Photographers can also order a free White Wall product sample set (plus $7.95 shipping) so that there’s no guesswork involved. Just look for the product sample set link at the bottom of any page in the White Wall site.

I ordered a direct print behind acrylic glass for our test. Frankly, I was blown away by the results. The acrylic accentuated the depth of field in the image that made it look so much better than it did on a computer screen; it brought the photo to life. The acrylic is astoundingly clear, the color is vibrant, and for homes and businesses with a modern décor, this medium is a natural fit.

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My print arrived with metal rails already installed on the back of the print for easy hanging. That’s included in the price, but you can de-select it if you prefer not to get it.

Acrylic prints are available in several standard sizes and aspect ratios. Custom sizes can also be produced.

If this is a product your target market would appreciate, I encourage you to check it out. It’s certainly an eye catcher.

Flashpoint StreakLight 360 with All the Creative Fixins

By Don Chick, M.Photog.Cr., CPP

The Flashpoint StreakLight 360 Ws Creative Collection ($700) from Adorama comes with quite a variety of light modifiers and accessories for this strobe. You'll get a standard 5-inch parabolic reflector (included with the basic StreakLight) along with a 11.6-inch beauty dish with honeycomb grid and diffusion sock, diffused dome, two different snoots with grids, and a 5-inch shallow reflector used to attach an umbrella to the strobe unit. Adorama even offers an optional soft box for this strobe.

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Below, you can see the effects of the various modifiers in action.

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©Don Chick

Other accessories in the kit included a selection of colored gels, a USB cable for charging electronic devices like a smart phones or tablets from the battery pack, an adjustable light boom for holding the flash away from the camera, and, in my opinion, the coolest accessory: a remote trigger with the ability to adjust the power output from camera position. This one accessory will save you a lot of walking back and forth to the strobe.

This is a manual strobe. You can’t set it on an automatic or TTL setting as you might do with your camera manufacturer’s (Canon, Nikon, etc.) strobes, and to set the power setting quickly and accurately, you need to use a light meter. It has four modes—manual, two slave triggering modes and stroboscopic mode—but they all require you to set the power output manually. Once you have your light meter reading, as long as you keep the same distance of subject to strobe, you won’t have to measure it again.

If you do change the distance to your subject, you can either measure for an updated reading or change the power setting with the remote control. If you can accurately gauge distance then you can utilize the inverse square law of light and calculate it mentally.

For example, if you were to read f/8 at 8 feet from the subject, and you moved the light to 16 feet away (doubling the distance), then you will need to increase the output of the strobe by two stops to keep the same reading (f/8) on your subject. If you double the distance you have 1/4 as much light striking your subject, so to keep the same reading you need to increase the output by 2 stops. If you halve the distance you’ll need to reduce the output by two stops to get the same reading on your subject.

When I was using the StreakLight 360 Ws during a client session the Flashpoint Commander Transceiver Set (included in the kit) was extremely helpful. With the receiver plugged into the USB port on the side of the strobe and the transmitter in hand, I could trigger the strobe and measure the flash level amount at the subject position. If I needed to make an adjustment, I could quickly toggle up or down in 1/3-stop increments.

One thing to know about the transmitter, though, is that it doesn’t automatically power off after a certain period of time. You must turn the power switch to the off position when you are finished, or the batteries will be drained by the transmitter by the next day. This happened to me several times; fortunately I was using rechargeable batteries. This issue could easily be remedied by the manufactured by putting a timer on the unit that would shut it off when not in use for a certain amount of time.

I really liked having the reflector that allowed me to attach an umbrella to the flash unit. An umbrella on the main light provides a relatively large light source and therefore a softer quality of light on my subject. In the final image of Kimberly (below, left) I was using the umbrella light modifier and her Mom was holding the unit so it wouldn’t tip over. In the image of my model Terri (below, right) I was using the 5-inch parabolic reflector with the supplied diffusion over the front. I chose the 5-inch parabolic during the session with Terri over the umbrella because I didn’t have an assistant or weights to secure the light stand, and there was a breeze. An umbrella or the beauty dish would have fallen over in the wind.

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If you are going to mount this strobe on anything other than the hot shoe of your camera, I suggest that you don’t use the hot shoe foot with 1/4”-20 thread. Instead, replace the hot shoe mount on the bottom of the unit with the 1/4”-20 thread adaptor. This configuration is much stronger for the unit. When I used the hot shoe foot and mounted it to a 1/4”-20 adaptor, the weight of the strobe and other accessories broke it rather easily.

There are many reasons to consider adding this strobe to your equipment arsenal. The variety of light modifiers can accommodate many lighting situations. You can use the power pack, with the accessory cable, ($35), to power your brand name flash. And you can add a backup battery for only $100.

The fact that it’s a manual strobe may discourage some, but it can actually be a positive. When you set the flash at any given setting, that’s the power output you get every time. The strobe is not trying to interpret the scene; it just gives you the output that you set it to.

I feel that the unit could be improved if a PC connection were added for the wireless remote control. Once during a testing session I would have liked to have put a second strobe on my camera’s hot-shoe, but without a PC cable connection for the wireless control, I couldn’t.

My test for guide number (F stop reading x 10 at ISO 100) did not match the manufacturer’s published guide number of 262. I got slightly less at 220 using the standard reflector without any diffusion. This is still a lot of power for a battery powered flash unit. The manufacturer claims that you’ll get 450 full power flashes from a fully charged battery. I didn’t get that many; however, when I was using the unit on location to augment the lighting in a scene the power setting was often way down on 1/8 or 1/16 power. When set this low it will provide the user with many hundreds of flashes.

What's in the collection:

StreakLight 360
Flash Tube
Remote Kit
Reflector
Diffusor for Reflector
Coiled Connection Cable
Charger
Tripod Baseplate
Hot Shoe Foot (with 1/4"-20 thread)
1 Lithium Battery Pack BP-960
Shoulder Strap
AC Charger
Replacement Battery
Dome Diffuser
11.6" Beauty Dish & Grid
4 Color Filters & Grid
Flash Grip
Snoot
16 ft Cable
1 to 2 Cable
2 to 1 Cable
USB Cable
Speed Pod
1 Year Warranty
Manual

November 20, 2014

Fujifilm X-T1 Has Pro Appeal and Fits Modern Needs

By Stan Sholik

The Fujifilm line of mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras began with the pro-level X-Pro-1, went down-market with several models to appeal to enthusiasts, and is moving back to the pro and serious enthusiast market with the Fujifilm X-T1.

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The X-T1 features a 16.3-megapixel APS-C-sized X-Trans CMOS sensor in a diminutive digital SLR-shaped body, the first of this shape in the line. The “DSLR bump” houses an electronic viewfinder (ELV) rather than a mirror prism. The ELV itself delivers a slightly larger image than many digital SLRs and is extremely responsive. There’s no delay or tracking issues when panning through a scene searching for the subject. The live view in the ELV is instantly and smoothly refreshed. The ELV also offers some neat tricks, like a dual window displaying the overall scene with an inset displaying a magnified view; and in portrait orientation, the shooting data as well as the image rotates for easy reading.

Speed is inherent in nearly all aspects of the camera, not just in the ELV. There’s minimal delay when turning on the camera. Autofocus time is claimed to be “the world’s fastest at 0.08 seconds,” which may be true using High Performance mode and certain lenses, but sucks battery life. Shutter lag seems nonexistent. The camera can capture 8 frames per second, which came in handy shooting auto racing, and it supports ultra-fast (and expensive) UHS-II SD cards for speedy buffer clearing.

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In continuous mode, the X-T1 can track focus and exposure at 8 frames per second using an array of phase detection pixels in the center of the image sensor. ©Stan Sholik

During continuous high-speed shooting, the X-T1 can not only track the subject in focus, it can also adjust exposure as long as its central phase detection pixels are kept on the subject. For a subject moving toward the camera at slow-to-medium speed, this works extremely well. But with a subject moving across the frame or approaching very quickly, the live view can’t refresh fast enough between captures, making it difficult to keep the subject in the frame. Unless you’re trying to shoot a fast-action sporting event, as I was, you’ll probably never notice this.

Strangely, the one place where you notice a serious time delay is when you wake the camera from sleep; you have to press and hold the release button partway down for a second or more, which takes some getting used to. Or, since it’s ready to shoot almost instantly when you turn it on, you can turn the camera off between captures.

There are lots of neat tricks in the camera, so many and some so different from digital SLR options that you’ll need to spend time with the manual discovering the best set of options for your work. For example, the default setting displays the image you’ve just taken in the ELV, which I found disconcerting when I was shooting studio portraits. There are options for displaying the image continuously, for 1.5 or 0.5 seconds, or no display at all after shooting. I chose no display and left the image review option off the entire time I had the camera. Even with the display off, though, the live view ELV can’t refresh quickly enough to track a subject moving across the field in continuous high-speed release mode.

The magnesium alloy body feels solid, and the grip is substantial for a small body. Dials and controls abound on the top plate, and they all have a substantial feel. The ISO dial has settings for 200 to 6400, plus A (automatic), L (100), H1 (12,800), and H2 (25,600). Raw file capture, however, is only available at the dial settings from 200 to 6400. At other ISO settings, images are captured in JPEG, allowing for default in-camera noise reduction. Raw files at 6400 have excellent sharpness and the visible luminance noise in the shadows is not objectionable after minimal post-processing noise reduction.

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Analog dials dominate the top panel for basic camera control, with only a few buttons on the top and back. ©Stan Sholik

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At ISO 6400, the highest ISO for raw capture, image sharpness is excellent and noise is minimal. ©Stan Sholik

Shutter speeds range from bulb to 1/4,000 second. Programmed exposure is available when both the shutter speed dial and XF lens aperture slider are set to A. Programmed mode yielded consistently excellent exposures, needing only small adjustments using the exposure compensation dial. You set shutter priority by leaving the lens set on A and choosing a shutter speed, and aperture priority by moving the lens slider off of A and setting the shutter speed dial on A. Manual exposure requires both the shutter speed dial and the lens slider to be set off of their A settings.

There’s also a large, non-locking exposure compensation dial with settings from +3EV to -3EV in 1/3EV steps on the top panel. It’s a little stiff, saving you from inadvertent changes, but it’s difficult to adjust quickly using only your thumb. Exposure compensation changes are displayed in the ELV, allowing you to adjust for backlighting or overexposure while viewing the live image. The exposure accuracy of the image in the ELV and the captured image is excellent.

It’s a small camera, so some users will find the nearly flush buttons on the top and back difficult to press. And I found the feel of the four-way controller on the back a little mushy and imprecise, particularly when repositioning the autofocus area.

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With a PC sync socket, fast response,
and Astia film simulation, the X-T1 is
an excellent portrait camera in the studio.
©Stan Sholik

Other “pro” features include a 1/180-second flash sync, a PC sync socket on the front of the camera, and the ability to add an optional battery grip to the baseplate. There’s also a choice of film emulations. I chose Astia for portraits and Provia for other shooting, but available options also include Velvia, color neg, black and white, black and white with several filters, and sepia. Also featured are advanced filters and a panorama mode that sometimes delivered perfectly stitched panoramas, and sometimes didn’t (likely operator error rather than a camera issue).

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The in-camera panorama mode delivers excellent results if used carefully. ©Stan Sholik

Image quality with both the 18-55mm f/2.8-4.0 and 55-200mm f/3.5-4.8 Fujifilm lenses is very high. The lenses, like the body, are compact and lightweight, but solidly built. While these lenses don’t incorporate the weather-resistant sealing that the X-T1 features, forthcoming lenses do. And if you have a collection of your older non-Fuji lenses with aperture rings, there are adapters for the X-T1. I bought one for my Nikkor lenses and everything works perfectly; although carrying SLR lenses around with the X-T1 somewhat defeats the benefit of carrying a smaller mirrorless interchangeable-lens body. Adapters are available for a wide range of camera lenses, including Leica M-series.

Even more features make the X-T1 appealing. Battery life is excellent, especially if you set the options for power management carefully. I was easily able to shoot 200-plus images during the day and night without setting the power management to its lowest setting. In High Performance mode and with the ELV and LCD brightness turned up, battery life drops dramatically. The back LCD tilts up and down for low- and high-angle viewing, yet nestles snugly into the rear of the camera, fitting like a non-articulating screen.

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The Fujifilm Camera Remote app for iOS and Android phones and tablets allows you to browse the images on the camera, geotag them if your smartphone or tablet has GPS, and even transfer the images to the smartphone or tablet.

Another feature in the early stages of development but with great potential is Wi-Fi connectivity. Using the new Fujifilm Camera Remote app you can remotely trigger the X-T1, browse the images on the camera, geotag them if your smartphone or tablet has GPS, and even transfer the images to an Apple or Android smartphone or tablet. Setting up the wireless link is a simple matter of pushing a few buttons on each device, and being patient while the connection is made. It works as advertised, but I found that every time you change modes, for example from browsing the captures to transferring images from the camera to your device, you had to break the connection and re-establish it for the new mode. I hope future updates will keep the connection open.

The only major area of disappointment with the X-T1 is video quality. I was underwhelmed by both the ergonomics of operating the camera to shoot video and the quality of the results. For enthusiasts, or pros taking family or vacation videos, this is probably not a big issue. 

With the ability to use older lenses from a range of manufacturers, or the ability to carry two small Fuji XF zooms to cover the focal range from 18-200mm (27-300mm equivalent), the X-T1 is an excellent backup camera for pros. And for pros in need of a smaller camera that provides complete control over the photographic process without paging through embedded menus, and a camera with 12 excellent lenses, many of them fast primes, the Fujifilm X-T1 is a serious contender. Street price is about $1,200 for the body only.

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

October 27, 2014

5 Things Every Photographer Learning Video Should Know about the Panasonic GH4 and 4K

… (and 4K Video)

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by Ron Dawson

When I first sat down to write this review, I was in a quandary. What could I contribute to the Panasonic GH4 conversation that has been going on since the beginning of this year? My research was quickly swept into an acronym, spec, and nomenclature-heavy stream of information. Then I stumbled on a forum discussion about the claim that the 4K 4:2:0 8-bit video captured by the GH4 could be converted to 2K 10-bit 4:4:4 color space when transcoded to CineForm or ProRes.

If your eyes glazed over reading that last sentence, I’m not surprised. I consider myself a technically capable and informed filmmaker, and I’ve been doing it professionally now for more than a dozen years. I have instructed on the topic for a number of media outlets and national seminars, and even I felt tech-timidated. Photographers who are just learning video don’t need to be dunked into the deep end head-first like that.

Here are five short GH4/4K nuggets of information that will give you enough information to understand and follow the reviews and information out there and to give you the foundation to make an informed decision when considering this camera and other 4K technology.

1. Two flavors of 4K. There’s true 4K, specifically 4,096x2,160-pixel resolution (Cinema 4K), and then there’s Ultra HD (aka UHD), which is 3,840x2,160. UHD is four times the resolution of the standard HD spec: 1,920x1,080 (twice the length and twice the height). Most consumer TVs are UHD.

2. Micro Four Thirds sensor size. The GH4 is a Micro Four Thirds (MFT) sensor size, which has viewing area of 17.3x13.0mm (21.6 mm diagonal). This is important to know because of the crop factor (just over 2X). Here’s how it compares to other DSLRs.

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Now before you write off this camera because of the tiny crop size, consider that an MFT sensor is larger than Super 16mm film, a format that was used to shoot part of Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar-nominated feature “Black Swan.” Many other well-known feature filmmakers have shot some classic films on Super 16 (e.g. Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It,” Aronofsky’s “Primer,” Robert Rodriquez’s “El Mariachi,” and Kevin Smith’s “Clerks”). My point: don’t let sensor size prevent you from making a choice to use a camera, unless there is some very specific aspect of a smaller (or larger) sensor that is truly significant.

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For instance, larger sensors do have a shallower depth of field, so if for any reason you need super shallow DoF, a smaller sensor could be an issue.

Another point about MFT sensors worth noting is that there are so many lenses and lens adaptors already out there that can fit these cameras. The Metabones Speedbooster is a popular adapter that will allow you to connect full-frame lenses. They won’t make your field of view full-frame, but you’ll get a field of view closer to an APS-C (1.6X crop).

3. Recording format and quality. The biggest appeal of this camera is its ability to record 4K (both Cinema and UHD) directly to an SD card. When I was first using the camera, I had a heck of a time finding out how to do that. I discovered there are two menus you need to set. Recording Format (either AVCHD, MP4, MP4 LPCM, or MOV) and Recording Quality. It is in the Quality menu where you make the selection for 4K.

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SIDEBAR: Format and quality primer

Here’s where I’d like to provide some filmmaker insight that may cause some of the aforementioned head-spinning. You’ll notice that the GH4 has literally dozens of format and quality settings:

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Where on earth do you start? Here’s a quick primer:

Mbps is Megabits per second. The higher the number, the better the quality of the video. To give you perspective, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II h.264 video is approximately 45Mbps. The Nikon D7100 is in the neighborhood of 24Mbps. Traditional HD camcorders produced in the early to mid-2000s were also in the mid-20s.

All-I is “intra-frame” compression and IPB is “inter-frame” compression. The former looks at and compresses each frame individually. IPB looks at frames before and after and bases its compression on changes in the image. Theoretically, All-I will give you a better quality, but takes up more space and processing power. Which is why you’ll notice that none of the 4K formats are ALL-I. If you’re concerned about file sizes (i.e. hard drive space or SD card size) and processing power (for instance, if your computer is older), then stick with IPB formats.

The formats are AVCHD, MP4, and MOV. These are all what’s called “wrappers.” In the world of video there are codecs (how the image is compressed) and wrappers (the format the compressed video is placed in). The GH4 uses for the aforementioned wrappers for its H.264 compressed video. (Note: the MP4 wrapper here should NOT be confused with the MPEG4 codec.) You can have any number of different codecs for any one kind of wrapper. On the GH4, you’ll find the 4K quality resolution settings in the MP4 and MOV formats. AVCHD is a format common in consumer camcorders and lower end cinema cameras like Canon’s C100. It provides relatively high quality footage with a low Mbps compression rate. It can be tricky editing AVCHD footage, though, depending on which editing software you use. It’s not as easy as just dropping clips into a folder. AVCHD files are self-contained in a “Package.” Just about all the current versions of the major editing programs can “decode” this package and extract the videos you need. But each handles it differently. Know how you’re editing program works before choosing AVCHD.

LPCM and AAC are different audio compression formats. Frankly, I wouldn’t make any kind of decision on which format to choose based on this. If you’re using this camera to record video, and you need audio too, even though this camera will allow you to record (and monitor) audio, I still highly recommend using an audio digital recorder. Note that when choosing a format though, if you decide to go with the MP4, the LPCM option is best suited for video you want to edit later.

_______________  

4. High Speed Recording. For my money, in addition to the 4K recording capability, another huge benefit of this camera is the ability to shoot slow motion IN CAMERA, and at full 1080p resolution. As a quick review: most of you will most likely be shooting in either 29.97 frames per second (aka 30p), 23.98 fps (aka 24p) or 25 fps if you’re in a PAL country. You can always slow down video in your editing software, but this reduces the quality and can make it look muddy. To achieve true slow motion with better quality, you need to shoot at a frame rate higher than the rate in which you’re editing. Most traditional DSLRs have been able to shoot up to 60 fps, which in a 24 fps project will yield 40% slow motion (24/60 = 40%). However, they have to drop their resolution down to 1,280x720 (aka 720p) in order to do that.

The GH4 allows you to record up to 96 fps in camera using the Variable Frame Rate (VFR) function. In fact, using this function, you can step your frame rate anywhere from 2 fps (which will give you a sped up video equivalent to 1200% speed at 24p), up to 96 fps, giving you 25% slow motion at 24 fps. All at full 1,920x1,080 resolution.

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The VFR has to first be turned on in the format menu (either MP4 (LPCM) or MOV mode). Once you’ve set the format, you must change the Quality setting to 1080p at either 29.97 or 23.98 fps. You then exit back to the Motion Picture menu to turn VFR on.

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What is very cool about this feature is that the GH4 will now shoot in the target 24 fps, but take into account the VFR setting, in effect, giving you slow motion in camera. Usually, you have to shoot at the higher frame rate, then change that frame rate to your project frame rate in your editing software. This is known as “conforming.” In short, by using GH4s VFR feature, you don’t have to conform your footage. It will be imported into your editing software already slow.

It’s worth mentioning that you can still shoot regular high speed rates (i.e. 60 fps) at full 1080p, then conform later if you like. Why might you do that? Because the VFR functions are only available at the 100Mbps compression level (remember, the higher the Mbps, the better the quality). In the MOV mode, you can shoot up to 60 fps (technically, it’s 59.94) at 200 Mbps, All-I. If you need that extra quality and you don’t need slower than 40% slow motion, you might select this in lieu of the VFR.

5. Downscaling 4K to 1080p. As amazing as it may be to shoot 4K in camera, the truth is, most people do not have the ability to view videos in 4K. Unless you’re shooting something to be shown in a movie theatre, a full-sized 4K video will be useless to your client. But, fear not. There are two very significant reasons why shooting in 4K is better, even if your final output is traditional 1,920x1,080. And both are related to downscaling the video.

If you take a 4K video and edit it in a 1080p project, you now have a video that is 4X the viewing space. That gives you the ability to “push in” for close ups or reposition your image without losing quality. Here are three screen shots from a video I shot at UHD 4K to illustrate:

A 4K UHD image set to 50% of the video size (which fits perfectly into a 1080p project)

uhd in 1080 timeline - 50.png

Here’s the same shot, but with the video size adjusted to 75%

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And here’s the shot at 100%, giving me a nice close-up of the subject.

uhd in 1080 timeline - 100.png

It’s not uncommon for commercial video jobs to set up two cameras, one for the wide shot and a second for the close up. If you shoot in 4K, you can get both in one shot. Or, do like I did, and use the second camera for a super wide shot. (My second camera was a Canon C100 shooting at 1080p, ungraded using the Wide Dynamic range profile).

Super-Wide-Shot.jpg

Just think about all the editing options afforded you by having one of your angles shot at 4K resolution.

The second benefit of shooting in 4K actually relates to the head-spinning experience I mentioned at the beginning of this article: the ability to convert the 4:2:0 8-bit 4K video to 10-bit 4:4:4.

As I promised, my goal with this piece is to prevent you from being overwhelmed with all the technical jargon you may not be familiar with if you’re not a classically trained cinematographer (or a color scientist or mathematician). So I’ll keep this simple as possible.

Most DSLRs shoot in a 4:2:0 color space. This is a ratio of luminance and chroma (Wikipedia: Chroma subsampling). Again, the higher the numbers, the better (4 being the highest). The other color space combinations that are popular in the video world are 4:2:2 (as in ProRes 422) and 4:4:4 (or even 4:4:4:4, with the fourth 4 representing an Alpha channel).

Furthermore, the color depth of the GH4 video is only 8-bit (as opposed to 10-bit). Many Professional Photographer readers are well familiar with bit depth. Without getting into all the math, 10-bit is exponentially higher than 8-bit.

The theory is that if you transcode (i.e. convert) 4K footage to a ProRes 444 or CineForm 444 codec, the 4X resolution, when compressed down to 1080p, actually yields a richer color space. The extra pixels, in essence, increase your chroma values (the 2 and the 0), so that 4:2:0 becomes 4:4:4 (FYI: CineForm is created by GoPro and is most common on Windows machines whereas ProRes is common on Macs). The math for this actually works out. However, there is still debate on whether you actually get a 10-bit image from an 8-bit video. But it doesn’t matter. The 4:4:4 color space will give you a higher quality 1080p image than if you shot the video at 1080p. This will allow for better color grading or motion graphics work.

I ran a test where I compared 4K footage (transcoded to ProRes 4444 at 1,920x1,080) to 4K 4:2:0 footage dropped in a 1080p timeline. I then applied a Curves filter to it and adjusted some of the color values. The transcoded footage is on the left. The 4K footage (dropped in the 1080p timeline) is on the right.

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If you click to view the full-size image at 100%, you should be able to see a noticeable quality difference.

(You can download the 200% image on my blog and check it out at http://j.mp/ddmag-gh4test1.)

You’ll need to use a program like MPEG Streamclip (squared5.com) or Apple Compressor, or GoPro’s CineForm to convert the footage. But it’s well worth having that extra color quality, particularly if you plan to do a lot of color grading and/or motion graphics work.

The Final Verdict

In my opinion, this is an amazing camera and deserves serious consideration. I definitely plan to use it for my shoots for all the reasons I mentioned above. And what I haven’t mentioned yet, which you likely already know, is that it’s only $1,700 U.S. (That boggles the mind!) Still, I strongly encourage you to rent it first. Lensprotogo.com is my go-to rental house, and they were kind enough to loan me the camera for this review (Shipping is included in their rates and that every order ships in Pelican cases. Using the code x180 will give you a 10% discount). Whoever you use, there’s no reason why you can’t invest the time and money to at least try this camera out.

I encourage you to do more research. Hopefully this article will provide some insight, fill in the knowledge gaps, and make your exploration all the more effective.

 


 
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