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Archive for January, 2012

Beautiful Music, High ISO

Jan 11

In Equipment, history, Thoughts at 9:04am

The recent D4 project was a terrific project for the studio, made more so by the company I shared shooting it. Bill Frakes did his usual wonderful sports stills, but also filmed a beautifully evocative video of Istanbul. Take a look at his site, Straw Hat Visuals. Corey Rich once again defies gravity in his adventure sports video work, seen hereMatthias Hangst shot amazing action, and Vincent Munier once again took on difficult and daunting landscapes. Humbled and honored to be in their company. Bill Frakes and I, especially, go back a long ways. He is one of the truly significant standard bearers in the history of sports photojournalism.

Charlie Gabriel, Preservation Hall Band. Nikon D4, 200mm, f2, 1/160th, ISO 12,800, Tungsten AWB.

Technology marches on. We now have cameras that perform well in the realm of ISO numbers previously only associated with highly complicated math problems. I took the prototype D4 into Preservation Hall, and made some portraits during the day, then lingered for the evening show, and shot available light. Below is Charlie that afternoon, under flash conditions. D4, ISO 200, 1/80th, f5.6, cloudy WB, lens at 26mm.

The Hall is tough to work. Wonderful ambiance, and almost zero usable light. I found this out years ago when I shot there for Sports Illustrated prior to a Super Bowl. I squeezed a few pictures because that night because they gave me a pass to put up a flash–a Norman 200B–in the ceiling. It amped up the light just enough for Kodachrome 200. But the stuff I tried with existing light was pretty much DOA.

So shooting the picture up top at 12,800 ISO was definitely a revelation. The quality of the light in that venerable music hall is still super warm and soupy, but…I could work. That’s the bottom line with new gear. Does it help? Does it make the job easier? Does it open the door to a picture?

Technology and me have always had a love/hate thing. I love that fact that it can help create pictures I want to make. I hate the fact that even relatively simple items come with a manual the size of War and Peace.  I’m still pretty much a Neanderthal on the computer, and of the fancy gadgets I own, like an Iphone, I probably use about 20% of its capacity. (I’m definitely not one of those folks who pitch a tent outside an Apple Store for days and days when a new gizmo is announced.) The younger guys at my studio either chuckle or turn away when I attempt post production, or the loading of new software on my computer. And certainly, my blog is not where you would come for a highly evolved technical discussion of the shape of the pixels. There will certainly be sites out there which will, eventually, take this camera apart, like a car in a body shop, and look at every gear, bell and whistle. Not here. I work at the technology stuff a bit, but, you know, life is short, and I’d rather shoot. Or dream up a picture I want to shoot. Or write. Or, best of all, be at home with Annie.

But I have to admit, despite my stumbling gait, my path as a shooter has fortuitously crossed over with new camera tech at some crucial times. When I made climbs up the mast on the Empire State Building, I was fretting as to what single lens to bring up with me. Didn’t want to do the fisheye. I was working for Geographic, and many editors there are not wildly enthusiastic about distortion. The available older versions of super wide rectilinear glass were problematic. I was chagrined. But–presto! Right about then the 14mm f2.8 rectilinear came out. Fast, sharp, and not flare prone like its predecessors. I immediately went in to rent it for my last climb. The guys at the counter, who knew me pretty well, casually asked me what I was shooting, and, excitedly, I told them I was climbing the antenna on ESB. They took the lens off the counter and said, “You know, dude, you really should just buy it.” Which is what I did. Later that week, on my fourth climb up there, I got lucky with the light, and the lens.

The above version is not the select Geographic ran. It’s later in the morning, as the sun got stronger. Here’s what I was worried about up there. It wasn’t falling. It was repeatedly loading new film cassettes into the camera. I was levered backwards at about a 45 degree angle, pushing off the mast with my feet, hanging onto the aerial with my left hand, and shooting with my right. Because even back then I couldn’t see anything up close, I also had a pair of granny reading glasses taped and tethered to my neck. Juggling a bunch of stuff, in a word. My panic time was those moments I reloaded. A dropped film canister from that height, if it finds the street, could kill someone. I would have loved a 32 gig card, but those were many moons in the future.

When digital dawned, I had no idea. I stuck with film as long as I felt I could, and then made a jump for survival to this fancy camera known as a D1X. First thing I shot with it was a Kentucky Derby, and my brothers Mike Corrado and Skip Dickstein had to show me what do with my cards after the race. I was hopeless, but I didn’t care. The digital camera felt like a film camera. There was a shutter, and a lens. I frankly didn’t care what was happening inside of it. Plunging on, and resolutely placing faith in the old adage that the Lord looks after a fool, I ended up shooting the first all digital coverage in history of National Geographic some months after this first outing.

Fast forward to a camera I was just tickled with, the D3. Thought, as I have mentioned, I would go to my grave with that camera. It simply suited all the needs I had in the field. Then, the D3S came out. I thought, nah, don’t need it. I’m cool with what I have. But then, Geographic assigned me to a story on the electrical grid of the United States, and I realized I was about to spend a ton of time in helicopters at night, observing the illuminated grids of various cities. The D3S promised better chip performance, and improved results at high ISO. So, I re-upped. Sold my D3 cameras and bought D3S models.

It was good that I did, I think, as the lead to the story was a night view from a chopper, with long glass. The technology I employed, at this point unthinkingly and reflexively–excellent high ISO, VR in the lens, bright viewfinder, accurate AF–the myriad of camera advances I often now just take for granted, helped me come back with pictures that night from that very expensive chopper ride.


D3S, 200-400mm lens, ISO1600, f4, 1/125th. Lucky shot. Goldman Sachs building, lower Manhattan, with virtually every room lit up.

D3S, ISO 1600, f2.8, 1/60th. Lucky with the sunset.

So I guess that’s one big question that drives all this. Our eternal responsibility as photographers is to deliver the best possible quality image we can manage back to the client. And that’s become a part of the digital equation every shooter has to work out as a personal and professional decision. What’s the best gear for me, relative to my work flow and my mission? Shooting night sports for the wires back in the day, when everybody on the sideline was pushing the hell out of tri-x, it didn’t really matter too much if you were still shooting an F2, and the guy next to you was shooting an F3. But now, shooting ones and zeroes, the machinery used to shoot that same game has an impact on the quality of the pictures produced, for sure.

That night in Preservation Hall, I got to test high ISO response at 12,800, which is an ISO territory that is completely alien to me. And the results, relative to that speed, were terrific. Now, if you’re always shooting in that realm, you’re probably working a tough gig, photographically. Being at that ISO a lot might mean you’ve got a badge and a gun, and you’re up very late at night. And you might be sitting in a non-descript car that’s filled with candy wrappers and crumpled fast food bags, sipping bad coffee, and trying to sight a lens through a rain pocked windshield as Tommy Two Toes passes yesterday’s New York Post with an envelope in it to Mikey Gaga on a street corner somewhere in the Bronx. I mean, maybe.

Or you could be shooting sports at night under bad light. Or you might be a music shooter, or perhaps theater and dance is a specialty. Or, you’re a news shooter whose job it is to observe and record, despite the adversity of the conditions. The mission at hand is, at least partially, the driver for the choice of gear.

For me, I’m looking down the pipe of a six week job, starting pretty soon, and, given the parameters of that job, this tech evolution known as D4, is, I feel, another one of those fortuitous bends on this long road, and it arrives just in time for a task at hand. High ISO capability is yet another one of gifts placed on our doorstep as shooters. I honestly hope to not have to use it too much, but it sure is nice to know it’s there.

More tk….

Shooting the D4!

Jan 6

In Equipment at 1:15am

It’s here, officially. Which I’m sure is bringing a smile to the face of many just as wide as Little Joe Lastie’s here in this picture. Shot in Preservation Hall, with the Nikon D4, 24-70mm lens, ISO 200, and several speed lights. We’ve been involved with the prep for this camera for several months, and been shooting with it for the last few weeks. And, man are we happy to be able to finally talk about it.

Whew! Done. It’s out. We can officially say that letter and numeral together. Out in the field, as a team, we just referred to our cameras as the Millennium Falcons, One and Two. It’s come through rain, wind, weather and all manner of natural calamities to be real, and here, on our doorstep. Here’s one of my first questions. What are those wonderful fellas over at Nikon Rumors gonna do now? I mean, how to fill up the time? They’ve been bulldogging this camera now for months. I suggest they all go out, have a nice meal, and get hammered. Their work is done. At least until the D5. Which is a helluva camera, by the way. I’ve been shooting the prototype.

Kidding.

I have no need of a D5. When the D3 came out, honestly, I thought I was done. Okay, I thought, this is the camera they gently fold my lifeless fingers around when they dress me in a nice suit and send me away for a long nap. There were plenty of pixels in that camera to keep me company, and they all seemed to behave quite well. I was raised on transparency film, and the D3 settled forever any nostalgic issues about going back to slides. But this camera makes the reverential memories of Kodachrome 25 fade like an old color print.

The D4 is an entirely new chapter in the history of the pixels. It arrived in a nondescript box. We all stared at it, like it was something that got sent from a sci-fi movie, and if we opened it, we would find the still beating heart of an alien life form.

We were, of course, expecting the box, having been involved in the discussion of the camera for over six months. We knew it was on the way. We knew it was gonna be cool. We just didn’t know how cool.

We hammered our prototypes, honestly. Showed them no reverence whatsoever. First stop was the swamps of Florida. About a day into that adventure, I told Drew that if I ever mentioned working in the swamps again, he could just go ahead and shoot me—with a gun. First location we showed up at was highly desirable from a photo point of view. Less so after we noticed the large water moccasin curled up right about where I would have put a tripod. The ranger commented, “They’re pretty territorial, and aggressive. He probably thinks this is his location.”

I thought about giving the snake the camera and having him shoot the job, but, seeing as I’m the one with the opposable thumbs, and (theoretically) a larger brain, we continued our search.

We found our way to a picture, through the muck and the mud. And, right off the bat, I was impressed with the file. It was, in a word, smooth. I know that’s not a techy description, and there’s some folks out there right now counting every pixel, but I was impressed by the detail and the creaminess of the pictures. No sharpness of contrast, and harshly defined lines of demarcation between highlights and shadows. Smooth, in a word, and great skin tone.

We had a ball, quite frankly. We took the camera from the swamps of Jacksonville to the studios of New York, and back down again to a circus in Florida, and then to the music scene in New Orleans. Through it all, I was continuously impressed with:

Skin tone, for one thing.

File detail and forgiveness in the shadows.

Responsiveness of the camera in terms of intuitively good exposures and autofocus.

Video quality and new features.  Wow.  We’re in the final stages of post right now for what we shot.  Check back sometime next week for the full scoop.  It’s a game changer.

New rocker buttons for moving the auto-focus cursor.

Ease of shifting the auto-focus modes.

Size and clarity of the lcd.

The fact that I dropped one and it kept working.

Plus, none of us had tried to light an elephant with an SB-910 and a Lastolite tri-grip before.

Cora, our wonderful elephant, is 9600 pounds. Mike Grippi is back there trying to put a catch light in her eye. Awesome!

For the next couple of weeks, we’ll be reporting on field adventures with the D4. Stay tuned for stills, video and BTS stuff. For now, I think I’m going to get some sleep. More tk….

Starting Off, Looking Back

Jan 2

In history at 8:39am

2012. Twenty years ago, at this time I was headlong into shooting my first cover story for the National Geographic. Lots of clicks downstream from that now, to be sure. (Most of them, blessedly and appropriately, remain unseen. So many bad frames in pursuit of the few worth spending time with.)  And changes. Man, is that an understatement. High res digital cameras have replaced film cameras. Hard drives store pictures, not little yellow boxes. Kodak’s stopped making carousel projectors. Photographers go to the magazine far less often, given digital transmission. Ties and jackets are seen less frequently.

But, the main mission, over time, has remained. Tell a good story in pictures. The major components–photographer, picture editor, designer, magazine editor–are all still in place, and the interplay among them is ongoing and largely unchanged.

This video looped on a continuous basis in Explorer’s Hall at the headquarters of Geographic for many years, and was seen by lots school groups, tourists and visitors. Geographic graciously gave us permission to put it on the blog. It’s a fun interior look at how the magazine puts a story together, if you can stand the time warp and the truly embarrassing haircut I had back then.

Here’s the funny thing about persistence. Bill Douthitt and I are still at it. We start another story in a couple of weeks. Like unruly children, we refuse to pipe down or go away. Bill continues to shape coverages as only he can, and his warped brilliance remains a lifeline when things don’t go well in the field, as is often the case. (He won a Picture Editor of the Year award for his efforts on the sight story. And in the video, he actually appears rational.)  The upper echelon of magazine management is all different now, of course. Bill Marr art directs the look of the book. And the shop is run by a photographer, Chris Johns, which is appropriate, given the pictorial bent of the magazine. As a shooter, in the field, he turned a two lane strip of pavement into one my favorite stories ever published in the magazine–The Hard Ride of Route 93.

The people change, but the pictures remain. I look forward to shooting some more of them in 2012.

More tk….