Putting the New Lumix GH3 to the Test

I’m at Photokina in Cologne, Germany where today, Panasonic rolled out its Lumix GH3 camera. In late spring the folks at Panasonic asked me to test this new professional grade camera. I immediately suggested shooting in southern Utah. Although my choice was a bit self serving because I love the American west, I knew that Utah with its canyons, mountains and unique culture was the perfect place for photography.

Panasonic worked around the clock to get the prototype ready and it arrived at my studio the day before I was scheduled to leave for Utah. I was pleasantly surprised to find two new zoom lenses, a 12-35mm and 35-100mm, both with a fixed f/2.8 aperture. These two new lenses were solidly built in addition to being small. Luckily I own a GH2 and was familiar with many of the new camera’s functions and most of the seven lenses that came with it. I was able to fit the camera body, all of the lenses including the compact 100-300mm zoom, a flash, food, first aid kit and lots of water into my medium Tenba backpack. The GH3 and I were ready to go and the five hour flight would give me a chance to study the instruction manual.

This camera is also designed with a lot of dials and buttons which make it easy to change settings – when I’m working fast I don’t like scrolling through menus. The viewfinder is very bright and doesn’t have the ‘electronic’ look that earlier Electronic Viewfinders had. And the swivel screen monitor on the back made it easy for me to shoot low and high angle photos, like the image below of the bronc coming out of the chute.

During the ten days I was shooting in Utah I took the GH3 hiking and camping, climbing bluffs and exploring canyons, and exposing it to water and temperatures as high as 112 degrees Fahrenheit. And as I only had one body and needed to change lenses frequently, the camera was also exposed to a lot of dust and sand. This rugged camera had no problems functioning in these extreme conditions. Shooting the spectacular landscapes was inspiring but it was important to test the camera in non-static situations as well. I knew a Native American Pow Wow and a Rodeo would offer numerous action activities.

The GH3 didn’t let me down. Its great autofocus system was responsive and fast and the six fps motor was invaluable in capturing the bull and bronc riders. The dynamic range of the sensor was beyond what I expected and produced images with detail in both the highlights and shadows. Of course everyone wants to know if a four thirds sensor can deliver enough quality to make really large prints. Here at Photokina some of my prints are almost four feet long. When I was photographing the action at the Pow Wow and rodeo I was working with ISOs of up to 800 and saw a negligible loss of image quality.

Camping out under Utah’s night sky afforded another unique photo opportunity. I had never seen so many stars. To capture these ‘extraterrestrial’ like images I set the camera’s ISO to 2500 and used an exposure of thirty seconds at f/2.8 with the 12-35mm zoom. While the shutter was open my assistant and I used small flashlights to illuminate the surrounding landscape. Although I expected some noise under these extreme exposure conditions the resulting images were remarkable.

From canyons to cowboys, Native American dancers to skies saturated with stars, the images I shot with the prototype GH3 were beyond my expectations. I can’t wait to shoot my next journey with the production model.

7-14mm at 7mm, f5, 1/500sec, ISO200

12-35mm at 26mm, f8, 1/25sec, ISO200

45mm macro, f4.5, 1/160sec, ISO320

12-35mm at 35mm, f5, 1/2000sec, ISO250

35-100mm at 100mm, f8, 1/200sec, ISO160

7-14mm at 8mm, f11, 1/5sec, ISO200

7-14mm at 10mm, f4, 1/1600sec, ISO400

35-100mm at 41mm, f2.8, 1/1000sec, ISO640

7-14mm at 12mm, f2.8, 30sec, ISO2500

You can click here to see a full gallery of my photos.

2012 Singapore Digital Photography Workshop

2012 Singapore Digital Photography Workshop: Mastering Your Flash and Outdoor Lighting for Travel and Street Photography

Flash often mystifies amateur photographers. It’s the one piece of equipment that most photographers have, but few use the correct way. However, mastering artificial light for travel shots and street portraiture is vital, and can take your photography to a new level. Flash can stop motion, or add light to a scene on a dark street, or enhance the sense of motion.

Ira Block is one of the world’s experts on flash photography, lighting outdoor scenes, using flash and powerful lights to tell a story. As a veteran National Geographic photographer, his assignments often involve remote flash and creative use of stage lights to bring subjects like mummies to dinosaur bones to caves to life.

This weekend Singapore workshop is designed to ‘demystify’ the flash, and give you concepts and tips on how to use artificial lighting ‘in the field’ for travel and street photography. This workshop will show you how to maximize your flash—on and off camera—so you can work better indoors, in low light situations and after dark. And make you a better technical photographer.

To enhance the creative atmosphere, this workshop will be held in a private Chinese Shophouse in Chinatown at 5 Blair Road.

Dates:
November 1st to November 4th 2012.

Workshop Costs:
US$950.00. This does not include hotel or airfare.

For more information, please go here.

Missed Flights are Nothing Compared to What Else Can Happen at the Airport


Preparing for an assignment is always stressful. Research, logistics, contacts, equipment, gear and the proper clothing are just some of the areas I need to get under control. Finally arriving at the airport was always a time for me to relax and regroup before beginning to work. But lately, airport security and delays, coupled with jet lag have created a new kind of stress.

Recently, my friend Mike Yamashita called me from his hotel room in Mexico. He was frantic because his Mac computer, the one he needed for the lecture he was going to give, had been picked up by someone else going through security. Mike had retrieved a Mac identical to his own, as had another passenger.
Luckily, the person with Mike’s computer made contact and both computers were able to be exchanged within a few days.

Another colleague, while going through security in Doha, Qatar in the middle of the night, was so exhausted that he simply forgot to retrieve his computer. He didn’t realize it was missing until he arrived at Dulles International Airport. Again, he was lucky in that security in Doha was able to find his computer and send it to him.

Of course, I thought these were random incidents. There was no way that I would ever forget or lose any equipment, especially in an airport. But jet lag, airport confusion, and distractions can happen to anyone, even me.

I was hit hard with the potentially disastrous consequences of airport stress when I arrived in the Kathmandu airport, after traveling for over 30 hours. I was shooting a last minute assignment for the National Geographic magazine on Lumbini, Nepal, the birth place of The Buddha. The baggage area was total chaos; three planes had arrived at this small airport around the same time. I had changed planes in Doha, Qatar and of course I was concerned whether my baggage would arrive with me in Kathmandu. I was tired, jetlagged and generally out of it, but was ecstatic to see my bags of lights, stands and cold weather gear on the conveyer belt. A colleague from the National Geographic was traveling with me. A local customs fixer from Kathmandu met us with the proper paperwork to get all of my equipment though Nepalese customs. I was carrying a bottle of duty free liquor in a plastic bag, a gift for one of the people I was going to be working with and I was concerned that in all of the confusion it might break. My shoulder bag held my laptop, books, a small camera and lens and reams of paperwork.

We slid through customs and headed out to the parking area which was even more chaotic than baggage claim and customs. My local helper and his assistants quickly loaded our bags into the back of the van and my colleague and I took a seat inside. As we proceeded through heavy traffic to our hotel, I was relieved to finally leave the airport. But my relief was short lived. When we got to the hotel, I stood at the back of the van and supervised the off loading of the equipment and luggage. Everything was there – except my Tenba rolling bag of cameras. It wasn’t in the van and it wasn’t with the hotel bellman. My first thought was that it must have been left at the airport. The last time I remembered seeing it was when I took it out of the overhead on the plane and wheeled it to the baggage area. I assumed one of my helpers had loaded it onto one of the carts and put it in the van with the other luggage.

Panic overtook my jetlag as we headed back to the airport, fighting our way through the traffic, knowing that every minute would be another opportunity for someone to walk off with the bag. I hoped that it was still in the baggage area, but if someone did take it they would be caught going through customs. As we raced through the back streets of Kathmandu, I asked the customs’ fixer to call someone, anyone at the airport to try to find my bag. I was in total shock as I came to grips with my stupidity in losing control of my cameras. Ten minutes from the airport one of the locals’ cell phones rang in the van and another Nepalese conversation ensued. When the call ended, my fixer looked at me and said the bag had been found. My next concern was whether someone might have grabbed something out of the bag, or that the black rolling bag that was found might not have been mine. Since I carried it on the plane, I had neglected to tag it with my identification.

When we arrived at the airport we were faced with another challenge – going backwards through customs into the secure bag area. We were denied permission. But my fixer called his friend inside customs who eventually came out and brought me into the luggage area. He took me to a small counter on the side of the baggage area where there were approximately fifty unclaimed bags. There, chained with a padlock was my Tenba. I showed the counter attendant my passport and boarding pass but since my name wasn’t on the outside of the bag there was nothing to connect me to it. The attendant asked me what was inside: “a lot of cameras and lenses, I hope”. We unzipped the bag and everything was there.

What would I have lost if the bag hadn’t been found?

2 Canon 5D Mark IIs
8 various Canon lenses
1 Canon Strobe
2 500 gb back up drives and cables
2 Battery charges
Many CF and SD cards
My sanity

I have no one to blame for this but myself. I have tried to make excuses in my head: jetlag, worrying about breaking the bottle of liquor and my local assistants taking charge of the luggage. But at the end of the day, it is my responsibility to ensure that I have all of my equipment to do the photos and to complete the assignment. This means making sure that everything I put through security, I retrieve. It means that every piece of luggage and equipment that I check is taken off the conveyor belt. The stress of preparation is for naught if you don’t have the gear to do the job. My colleagues and I were very lucky. These incidents could have ended differently.

Canon and The National Geographic Channel Photography Seminar – Malaysia and Singapore

Image

Ira will be conducting a series of lectures for Canon and The National Geographic Channel in Malaysia and Singapore at the beginning of May in conjunction with The National Geographic Channel Young Photographer Award. He will be talking about his career as a National Geographic photographer and about how his interaction with different cultures around the world have inspired his work.

For more information, please go here

India – Does Close Count?

Nepali Border Police Officer, me and Neil Gelinas. Photo by Suraj Shakya

As a National Geographic Photographer, one of the first questions I’m asked when I meet someone new is, what countries have you been to? For years, my standard answer has been that it would be easier for me to name the countries where I haven’t been. Everyone is surprised to hear that India is one of those places. I just have never had an assignment there. Currently I am in Lumbini, Nepal, about 13 kilometers from the Indian border. Today I decided that it would be a good time to at least step across the border and maybe even get an Indian stamp in my passport.

In preparation, I consulted some local Nepalese who told me that this particular border crossing was so small that I couldn’t get a visa. The closest crossing where I could apply for one was an hour away and it would take at least a day for the visa to be processed. Neither having the time nor the inclination to wait 24 hours for a visa, I decided to take my chances at crossing the border at New Buddha Nagar, Kalidaha, Nepal.

My local assistant Suraj Shakya and Neil Gelinas, the producer/camerman from National Geographic Television who is working on the same project with me in Nepal, were going to accompany me on crossing into India. As we got closer to the border, the villages began looking extremely poor. Trash in the street, skinny dogs and oxen, dirt roads and profound odors. When we finally arrived at the Nepali border, we could see Siddhartha Nagar, India fifty meters away. Neil, Suraj and I walked towards the border police. We were ordered to stop and since Neil and I were Americans who didn’t have Indian visas, we were forbidden to proceed towards the Indian border station. We were also admonished not to take photos in the direction of the Indian border. Suraj didn’t have this problem. As a Nepalese citizen, he doesn’t need a visa or a passport to travel between Nepal and India.

Although I tired my best to convince the police to let me cross, nothing worked. So when people ask to what countries I’ve been, I still have to answer that I’ve never been to India.

Focusing on Vision

Teaching a National Geographic NY Workshop on the High Line -- Photo by Louise Pedneault

Regardless of the type of camera and lens you are using, producing a good photograph requires creative vision and deliberate thought. These skills can be learned and enhanced by participating in a photo workshop. With the advent of digital photography, there are a plethora of workshops to choose from. Some focus on software programs like Photoshop and Lightroom, others deal with digital workflow, while advanced courses emphasize the intricacies of color management. Beginner workshops will teach the basics of how to operate and use your camera.

Learning basic photographic principles and how to operate your camera beyond the “program” setting will help you implement your vision. Most of these technical courses are offered through local camera clubs, colleges and community centers. The School of Visual Arts in New York City offers a Masters Program in Digital Photography. Hand books, on-line research and equipment reviews will also supply the basic information on how to operate your camera. The technical aspect of photography is a science; an f stop is a mathematical calculation which ties into the shutter speed and ISO. With patience and concentration, you can learn the technical basics.

I have been teaching a different type of photo workshop – one where the emphasis is on “vision”. Participants in my workshops learn how to “see” photos, how to think about photos, and how to conceptualize photo projects and stories. Whether we are shooting on the High Line in New York City, at a temple in Bangkok, or in a game preserve in Abu Dhabi, the objective is the same: tap into your creative vision to make a great image.

At times I will tell my students not to use a zoom lens (which can be difficult as most people don’t have fixed, focal length lenses) or in the alternative, require them to set their zoon on a specific length and not to change it. This forces you, as the photographer to make the image fit into your vision. I continually tell my students: “zoom with your feet, not the lens”. When you are forced to walk up to your subject and even walk around it, you may discover a better angle or better light than had you been just standing in one spot, twisting the zoom dial.

The creative use of light to enhance your vision cannot be understated. Photographers who do not take light into consideration are not really “seeing” their subject. I do a lot of lighting on my assignments and I often use non-traditional methods. In addition to large strobes, on camera flash units and reflectors I have found flashlights and car headlights useful to recreate light. Although lighting does require technical knowledge, I stress to my students that “seeing” the light and taking advantage of it will make interesting photos that help to tell a story.

After a day of shooting, my students are required to participate in critique sessions. Taking a lot of photos and discussing these images with other workshop members is invaluable. We all learn from each other. Explaining your image, approach and technique forces you to examine your thought process when you took the picture.

Digital photography is a great equalizer. Anyone can point their smart phone at a person, object or scene and take a picture. But thinking about your subject and learning how to “see” your image will make the difference between merely taking a picture and making a great image.

Maine Photographic Workshop 2011

September 4-10, 2011

Learn to effectively see and use light to turn the ordinary image into exceptional. As digital cameras now have the capabilities to capture files with seemingly limitless possibilities in terms of tonal adjustments and layering, it becomes easy to lose oneself in the processing of images as opposed to the act of capturing images. Light can visually shape a story, enhancing the ability for the viewer to “read” a series of photographs. For more information please go here.

Fourth of July in New York

Fireworks in NYC. Panasonic GH2, 14-140mm lens at 17mm. ISO 160 f/13 at 45 seconds.

Here is my image from last night’s Macy’s fireworks’ display. I positioned myself on the sundeck at my gym, Chelsea Piers and shot north and west up the Hudson River. This fireworks display was incredible and very bright. I stopped down to f/14 and left the shutter open a little longer between the bursts so the adjacent pier would show detail. For this image the shutter was open for 45 seconds using the black card technique I described in my previous blog.. I included the pier because it gives the fireworks size perspective and a sense of location.

Alaska through the lens of Panasonic’s Compact System Cameras

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I have been editing and processing the photos I shot two weeks ago on my ‘workshop/cruise’ through Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage. On that trip I took no Canon equipment; I only had the Lumix cameras that were loaned to me by Panasonic. Although I was impressed by their autofocus and the lack of shutter delay, it took me awhile to get used to viewing through the Electronic Viewfinder because the highlights appear to look blown out. I also needed to adjust to the ergonomics of the Panasonic bodies which differ from Canons. Eventually however the cameras started to feel good in my hands and I was able to have fun shooting photos from the ship and in the bouncing, Zodiac boats.

I had three Panasonic cameras with me: the GF2 which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, the GH2 and a prototype of the recently announced G3. One thing is certain – these cameras and their lenses are all very small, light and compact. I use the GF2 as a walk around camera with the 20mm f1.7 pancake lens. Many of the images I shot on this trip were with the longer zoom lenses, the 14-140, 45-200 and 100-300. Since the sensor on these cameras is half the size of a ‘full sized’ sensor, the focal lengths of the lenses can effectively be doubled. Consequently, I’m working with varied length optics that are much smaller than what I’m used to carrying. The downside is that the lenses are a bit slow, usually varying between f4-5.6, but still usable by boosting the ISO and keeping the stabilizers on.

The experience of working with any new cameras, whether going large to medium format ( as I did a couple of months ago) or going small with the Panasonics is like being a kid with new toys!. It’s exhilarating. Although the G3 is slightly larger than my “GF2 walk around camera” it acts like a grownup camera. It has the same sensor as the GH2 and is just as responsive and as fast. Panasonic addressed some of the issues I’ve had with the GH2 in the G3, specifically the inability to turn off the focus point on the LED screen so that it cannot change position if you accidentally touch it. The battery life in the G3 is much improved over the battery life in the GH2, even though it’s using the smaller battery found in the GF2.

The quality of the raw files from the GH2 and the GF2 cameras was beyond what I expected. I processed the files using Lightroom and used its fabulous noise reduction when I was working at above ISO 800. The raw files were running slightly red which was easily fixed. Unfortunately I can’t address the G3 raw files at this time. The camera is so new that neither my Adobe nor Capture 1 products will process them. I did get a disk with a new version of Panasonic’s raw processor but it currently only works on a windows platform, which is not in my Mac workflow. I shot full size JPEGS+ Raw on the G3 with the intention of processing the raw files in the immediate future. However the G3 jpegs looked very good, once I added some sharpening and clarity to them. As this was a prototype and I rarely shoot jpegs, I was at the whim of the camera’s processing algorithm.

Many of the photo enthusiasts on the ship were working with much larger Nikons and Canons and were intrigued by my new set of equipment and my initial fumbling through various buttons. They wanted to play with my “new toys”. By the second day I was handling the equipment like a pro.

A Cooler Full of Strobes

Pack and spare battery in the hotel

Keeping warm in the snow

In an earlier blog, I mentioned a trip to the Arctic that ultimately had to be postponed due to adverse weather conditions. I needed snow but in November and December it rained. In January I was traveling to the bottom of the globe in Antarctica but now in April, I am finally shooting outside of Iqaluit, Nunavut in the northernmost reaches of Canada. The temperature has been hovering around -22C with winds blowing at 20-30 kph. Although keeping personally warm is paramount, my bigger concern is keeping my battery operated gear from freezing. Fortunately my Canon 5D Mark IIs have been operating really well, although I do warm a few extra batteries with my body heat inside of my coat, in the event I need to change them. My biggest concern however has been my battery operated strobes, essential pieces of equipment that I need for the photo I am here to shoot.

I am using the Profoto Acute Bs, a six hundred watt second pack that has always been reliable. But in this extreme climate I worry that the cold may quickly drain the batteries. Fortunately I brought along Alex Stricker, my friend and fellow photographer to lend a hand. Dragging Alex from the warmth of Phoenix to the cold of the Arctic took some creative coaxing and it was well worth it. Besides his photographic abilities Alex is incredibly talented when it comes to building and prepping anything needed for a complicated shot. In this case, we needed to find a way to keep the Profoto batteries warm and Alex as usually came up with a creative solution.

We bought a midsized, styrofoam cooler (rather ironic for our geographical location) and lined the insides with the eight hour, hand warmer packets I had brought from New York. We placed the strobe unit and two spare batteries inside of the cooler, notched out a hole on the lid, and ran the cable through it to the strobe head. To provide additional insulation, we lined the bottom of the cooler with a silver, space blanket. Before I took the cooler into the cold I walked fifty feet down my hotel corridor with my pocket wizard radio tripper to ensure the strobe would fire. It did.

We felt like we were setting up for a tailgate party when we finally brought the cooler outside only instead of fall football weather, it was -23 C, dog sledging weather. But our heated cooler worked great. We were able to get approximately 150 full power shots off each battery and when we finished shooting, the inside of the cooler was still nice and warm; a lot warmer in fact than either Alex or I.