Monday, 26 January 2009

How to eat a thali

Another good day. That being said I haven't yet written much about what happened yesterday, or on the taxi ride from Chennai airport the night before. Suffice it to say that it was the usual Indian traffic, although the excitement of oncoming traffic was denied me as we were on a dual carriageway for the whole journey. In the context of a motorway at 2.30 in the morning, normal indian traffic means lorries with no rear lights going slow in the fast lane, flatbed trucks with men standing up in the back, lots of hooting of horns, flashing of lights and veering between lanes. It's like a kind of deadly ballet. I wasn't expecting to almost run someone over, though. As we were changing lanes to overtake a wobbling bus a man ran out from in front of the bus and across our lane. Sensibly he put his hands out to stop us, my taxi driver did some braking and veering and missed him by about an inch. It made my driver slow down for a couple of minutes.

Anyway, today I visited three more temples. It's too late to write about them in detail, but I hope to find the time to before I forget. In the meantime here a website of today's images. The group of men were taking part in a ritual at the Devarajaswami Temple to mark today's partial solar eclipse (a female deity is carried to a separate temple a couple of hundred metres away from the main temple), After a brief ceremony, prayers and chanting, she was carried back.

The thali of the title is the one I had for lunch in the AC room of the Saravana Bhavan vegetarian restaurant. It was delicious, but I did feel self-conscious single-handedly (right hand only) shoveling food into my mouth while being scrutinised by a large table of locals next to me. At least I didn't arrive in shorts, use my left hand or blow my nose - although the curry mean I really needed to. I was happy to provide the out of town entertainment. So I don't know how to eat a thali, but I've been watching the locals and hope to put what I've learnt into practice soon. I went back this evening for a huge, crisp masala dosa. There are 25 branches of Saravana Bhavan both in India and abroad , the U.K (Manor Park, Croydon and Wembey) and the U.S. (not just New York and New Jersey, but also Georgia and Cupertino, CA., the latter presumably to cater to homesick south Indian software engineers).

For about a year there was a fantastic South Indian restaurant about three minutes walk from my front door. It's ambiance would have worked in Chennai (bare tables, strip lighting or similar), but didn't in Westbourne Grove. Although takeaways had to be ordered an hour before you wanted to eat they were worth the wait. We only had takeaways, but I heard it took an hour to get served in the restaurant, too. I've forgotten it's name, but they've now moved to Harrow. If I can't make it to a U.K Saravan Bhavan, I'll certainly head to Ragam in Cleveland Street soon after I get back. Tomorrow I'll be meeting my contact from Hand in Hand International, which I'm really looking forward to.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Monkey Menace and other stories

It's the middle of the night. I've been watching monkey battles at close quarters; they live on my window, and all the other window sills of the hotel, the biggest in Kanchipuram, right in the town centre. There's plenty of screeching and jumping around, and at all times there is at least one monkey tail hanging down from the balcony above.

I've made a website from today's images, taken wandering around town. People here actually want to have their picture taken. This seems strange to me, but I'm not complaining. I'll expand this post when I've had some sleep. I'd hope to be up at dawn to go to a temple while the light is perfect, but jetlag's got the better of me.

Here's the first website. It's edited down from 300 shots, and can probably do with some more brutal editing. But not tonight.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Kander in Washington

I've always been a fan on Nadav Kander's work, so it was fantastic to discover that he'd been commissioned by the New York Times to shoot the main players in the Obama White House.

Here's the link to a very impressive slideshow with commentary from the photographer. It's amazing how much more humanity there is in these portraits than in Annie Leibovitz's Bush White House portraits. I was alerted to these by the Creative Review Blog

It's gratifyingly straightforward lighting. 2 shoot through umbrellas on either side and a mystery light on a boom, hidden behind a chandelier. My guess is a ring light or a beauty dish (since writing this I've seen another shot; it is a beauty dish). And then there's some Photoshop. I think I know roughly what, but I'd like to know exactly.

It's interesting that there's a shadow behind Hillary Clinton in spite of the fact that she's photographed far from the background. It's unlikely that the session lasted more than about three minutes, so that'd be a - shock - fake shadow!

This just in. Shot at Mount Pleasant Studio.

Here's a Viral Video for the upcoming Watchmen shot at Mount Pleasant Studio by PPC in December.

Another film shot in December is this commercial from 2AM films for The International Fund for Animal Welfare. It will look familiar. I always knew that Cadbury's ad could and should have been shot here.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Traveling light?

Only three days until I get on a plane. Inspired by this Strobist article and a fear of leaving something important in a cupboard when it should be in India, I decided to get out everything that I'm taking, and while I'm at it take a photo of the resulting pile of gear. As well as reportage style shots, I'm hoping to take more formal portraits, and landscapes, cityscapes and architectual shots. I'd hoped to bring my ProFoto 7B, but that's going to be too difficult to transport. Instead I'm either hiring a Quantum QFlash, which is less powerful but I think will do the job, or finding portable flash in Chennai.

I'm traveling alone but will have some help after I get there. My original plan was to fit everything expensive in the rolling Tamrac case and take that as carry on, but I might take the Lowepro Travel Trekker on the plane together with my laptop bag and put the Tamrac bag in the hold with accessories, chargers and other stuff that I won't be able to do without, but is less expensive that cameras and glass. Tripod and stands will go in a hard suitcase with less important things like clothes. BA only allow one bag per person, but hopefully I'll be traveling light enough to avoid excess baggage.

I have to bring the right equipment to cover any eventuality. I'll write more about the shoot as it happens (internet availability allowing), but I expect to be shooting outside from dawn till dusk, and also in unforgiving midday sun. I'll be in plenty of homes, businesses and small factories, so I'll need some subtle flash that doesn't look like flash, whether it's fill or the main light.

So what's in the photo at the top of this post? This where I have to issue an anorak alert.:


1Ds mklll
- this will be my main camera; it's ergonomically perfect, produces fantastic large files and is easy to control.
5D mkll - my backup camera that will come into its own in low light situations. It's got the same 21MP sensor as the other camera, but its low light/high ISO performance is even better. I shot tests at 2500ASA with are grainy in a good way, rather than noisy in a bad way which would have been the only alternative at that ISO only 9 months ago. The 5D mkll is less than half the price of the 1Ds mklll, even with a battery grip to make it more ergonomically similar to it's bigger brother. If it had been around last summer I would definitely have saved the money and bought one. Or maybe two.


24-70mm 2.8L
good all round general lens. I like it but don't love it. I shot the temple below with it.
85mm 1.2L my favourite lens. Amazingly sharp, which fantastic contrast and bokeh. The downside of the big aperture is a lot of glass. But it feels well balanced on the mklll. Even after a few hours. This is the lens that I'll be keeping on the camera most of the time. The children on the beach were shot with this at f1.2, 1/200th, 25oASA.
70-200mm 2.8L I've had it for ten years and it's still great. Image Stabilisation means handheld shots at 1/30th of a second are a possibility. The ballet dancers below were shot with it.
16-35mm 2.8L A good, but not hugely sharp wide zoom.
24mm TS-E 2.8L Not as sharp as the 45mm tilt and shift lens, but great for architecture, and making panoramas from two shots (like the beach below). And using the tilt can give interesting out of focus effects.
135mm f2.0L Fantastically sharp. Not sure if I'll have room for it, though.

I'll also be bringing a 77mm Tiffen polarising filter and a 77mm graduated 0.6ND filter (the latter isn't ideal but I haven't got round to getting the correct lens ring, or indeed filter, for my Lee filter holder)

I'll probably be shooting handheld most of the time. When you're shooting people you can't really be at less than 1/60th of a second, so why get stuck on a tripod? I will use it for long exposure exterior portraits in the evening (i.e. underexpose the background and light subject with flash) and for any architectural or landcape photography that presents itself. I've got a light Manfrotto Carbon Fibre tripod (190CXPRO3) with a relatively heavy, but strong, head. And I've got a remote shutter release for those long exposures.


The main light will the Quantum Qflash (not yet hired), but I might also use the Canon 580EX as an off camera fill light if I have not alternative than shooting when the sun's high. I'll also use it in interiors to bounce of white walls or ceilings - if there are any - or off the large reflector if not. This is preferable to using the Gary Fong Lightsphere, which I'll use if there are no white surfaces to bounce flash off, no-one to hold a big reflector, or just no time. The 550EX is a backup, but might have a secondary use (see below). If my bags don't get too heavy, these will be powered by 2 x Quantum Battery 1+ batteries.

I just bought a large Calumet translucent reflector that will fit in my suitcase. I can use it to reduce the sun when it's a backlight on a portrait, or even put direct sunlight through it. I bought a cover for it with the usual white, silver, gold and black sides. I'm also bringing a smaller 'chameleon' reflector with same choices of surfaces.

I've got a pair of Pocketwizards to fire the flashes wirelessly, and I may just pick up one more Pocketwizard transceiver before I leave to give me the ability to fire the 550EX, perhaps as a hairlight. Then there are the tricky little connectors and wires to rig up the flashes and pocketwizards. Too many small pieces for comfort.

I'm bringing just one lighting stand, a large shoot through umbrella (which optional silver side) and the Manfrotto bracket on which to put the 58oEX or QFlash. I hoping I'll have helpful people around to be human boom arms and lighting stands.

Other accessories include a tiny Kodak grey card, a small roll of gaffer tape, a large orange clip, a Visible Dust sensor brush (but no compressed air because of the flight), a dust removal system called Dust Wand, a rubber blower, some lens wipes and dusters (not pictured).

Then there are 5 fast 8GB compactflash cards, a fast card reader, 17" MacBook Pro with keyboard, mouse and Wacom Bamboo tablet, 3 x Western Digital 320GB Passport drives.

My plan is to download each day's shots into Lightroom, storing the files on one of the drives with a FW400 connection, delete images that are not worth keeping, backup onto both the other drives, and then leave one of them in another room during the day when I'm out shooting. I may also leave one of the drives with a friend in Chennai at the end of the shoot in case of any other airport/travel shenanigans. If there was room I'd bring a mains powered FW800 drive to prevent me tearing my hair out as the images are slowly rendered on screen, but I just don't think it will fit in my cases. Ditto a shooting case for the laptop with side shades to block the sun when shooting tethered which I would bring in an ideal world. I'll take a cable to shoot tethered, but I just doubt the pace of the shoot will allow it.

Finally, there are chargers for both cameras and a spare battery for the 1Ds mklll. There is not a single 5D mk ll battery available to buy anywhere in the U.K. I have been phoning round for a couple of weeks, and the latest I've heard from a semi-official source is that the first shipment isn't due until April, a somewhat scandalous situation. I've tried Canon Professional Services, but they have no loan stock. I've emailed someone at Canon who I'm told may be able to help, but I don't hold out much hope. The 5D's battery grip can hold AA batteries, so all is not lost, but I feel I should be charging Canon it I start getting through dozens of expensive, polluting batteries.

I'll be bringing lots of deet to deter mosquitoes, a first aid kit including needles, sutures, etc. (call me paranoid) , some anti-bacterial hand wash and, last but not least, a pack of wet wipes.

I've got a shoot in the morning, after which I'll find out if I can fit all this stuff into my bags and still carry it.

My first trip to India was over 10 years ago, before I'd even studied photography. I traveled with 2 Canon 500N film cameras (their cheapest), a 75mm-300mm f4.5 IS zoom, and a 24mm-105mm zoom, and a wide prime lens. That was it. and everything fitted in a small backpack. The resulting images are gathering digital dust on my first - self built - website that is still lurking in a dark recess of the internet. You'll work out from the size of the images that broadband wasn't an option back then. In the end I sold over a hundred of the images to HarperCollins to be used in an Indian Cookbook, and that paid for most of the three months in India. Perhaps that's when I worked out it was possible to mix business and pleausre.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Transparent laptop screens

What a brilliant idea. How long will it take for this idea to er, inspire, an ad campaign?

It's a step sideways from Sleeveface, already appropriated for a Magic FM bus poster campaign.

The RED One. Revolutionary or red herring?

I've followed the evolution of the RED One 4K movie camera since their website was first unveiled a couple of years ago. To my knowledge RED is the first new motion picture camera company for decades.  It was founded and funded by Oakley sunglasses guru and photography and film fanatic Jim Jannard. In spite of RED website containing nothing more than techical specs and computer renders of what the RED One would look like, there were hundreds of pre-orders; truly remarkable for a new product from a new company. The computer renders were beautiful, though. And so is the production model, which is bought as a central, and enticingly inexpensive, 'brain' to which a system accessories are added. The low cost of the RED One (the brain was around $18,000 when first introduced) blew similar resolution camera from Arri and Panavision/Sony out of the water and the RED camera has sold more units than all movie resolution cameras combined in the same period (by which I mean 35mm film cameras and hgher than HD res cameras). This is studio gossip, but has the ring of authenticity to it.

From what I hear there have been hiccups. One a music video shoot early last year, we heard that the camera would power down constantly and had to be abandoned.  On another a crew shot for a day and managed to end up with an empty hard disk. The latter is most likely the result of human error, but such early tales of early adopters were a bit scary. When the cameras first shipped, optical viewfinders weren't available, which meant composing on an LCD. Now RED cameras are available to hire all over London from as little as £350 a day. By contrast, ratecard for a Sony F900 HD camera is nearer £500. Our Arri 435ES (35mm film) body and IVS hired for around £550. That being said, RED technology is so new that for the moment specialist RED assistants go out with the cameras at a cost of £300.  Then there's a MacBook Pro to download to and external hard drives on which to store the files. My guess is that as crews learn the technology these specialist assistants will be dispensed with and clapper loaders will train themselves to run the cameras. There are other costs, of which more later.

The huge sensor gives fantatic 'bokeh' (out of focus effects) compared to regular HD cameras with smaller chips, either using RED's own lenses, or any PL mount movie lens. But such a large sensor has a cost. It produces a massive amount of data that has to be taken off the camera's hard disk and tranferred to onto exernal hard disks, before being imported into post-production houses' systems. I understand that the post-production workflow has become easier since the early days, but it all takes (machine) time, and time is money.  

I haven't yet been involved with the post-production of a RED shoot, but my understanding is that the workflow remains relatively complicated compared to a traditional film shoot. Again, the new workflow will become second nature as systems are worked out, but I get the impression that 4000 lines of resolution for £350 a day sounds so good that related costs both during and after the shoot aren't always factored in. Of course RED's all digital workflow lends itself to new colour correction systems like Rushes' Resolve non-linear grading suite (there are some RED grading examples on their website), but getting RED footage into Avid, unlike Final Cut Pro, is - I'm told - not as straightforward.  

And then there's the question of 4K resolution.  No television broadcasts go out in anything more than 1050 lines full HD.  So 2950 lines have to be thrown away to reduce the resolution to broadcast quality.  I have heard that although the look of RED footage is irreproachable after grading, according to a broadcaster, the sharpness of the RED image when downrezzed to HD isn't always as impressive as broadcasts originated on HD equipment or transferred from 35mm film. I've since heard that the programme was one of the first to be shot on the RED system and the downrezzing could now be done to give sharper results.

Even before I knew the programme was shot on RED it struck me that in spite of being undeniably cinematic, it didn't have the crispness and detail of a movie shot on 35mm and shown in HD or of a series like Little Dorrit which was originated using HD cameras.   I've certainly heard that the sharpness, quality and look of 35mm is, for the moment at least, superior to that from the RED camera.  Also, with 35mm, you don't get the 'wobble' that can appear in RED - and possibly other HD formats - footage when panning over a certain speed with a green or blue background.

In the interests of balance and full disclosure, I have to point out that we have an Arri 435ES film camera in the studio, and that we earn more from this per day than from hiring in RED systems.  I just wonder whether the use of RED cameras for straightforward studio commercials has more to do with fashion than a quest for improved image quality or reduced budgets.  

We are certainly discussing buying our own RED system, and the only delay is the wait to see how often the camera is used in the studio over the next six months.  I'm hoping that sterling's crash doesn't make the  RED unattainably expensive.  I suppose the credit crunch may even result in underused RED cameras becoming available on the secondhand market.  Despite of early teething troubles, the future will undoubtedly be RED.

One reason I'm very interested to use a red camera is to test its still image capabilities.  But this post has gone on long enough.  I'll write about RED's projected move into the stills market in another post.  In the meantime, you can see some of Jim Jannard's own photography on his website.