(Phillip Stark’s) Photos of the Day: Workshop Review

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Studio picture by Phillip Stark

Given that this is a blog devoted to my photography, generally I’m going to feature … my photography. But today I have a good excuse. Phillip Stark, owner of 2 Stop Brighter Studios where I conduct my NYC workshops, sent over some great shots of last time. He has a great space over there, and I thank him for all his help!

I am extremely excited for the workshop on Friday and Saturday. We were full to the level I wanted, but there are a couple spaces open now due to two last-minute personal emergencies, so contact me if you’re interested! We’ll be spending a lot of time talking about advanced techniques that can pull off good shots no matter the ambient lighting you have to work with. In addition to all the great things that we did in the February workshop, it will be a bit more intimate, and I promise the weather will be warmer this time. The reviews show happy attendees despite the freezing weather.

There’s a huge hoopla going on right now in the wedding industry about which workshops are rip-offs — 95 percent of you will have never heard of this debate, and you are lucky, as it’s pretty ugly. I don’t have anything to say of consequence, since the alleged scammers are people I’ve never heard of before. But someone exclaimed I was “giving it away!” by offering workshops at $350. Maybe. But I also know how much 10-week courses at the International Center for Photography cost, and they aren’t $30,000. I simply bring the same philosophy to my workshops that I do for my weddings: Price as low as supply and demand will allow me*, and hustle like crazy to do good work. As a long-term strategy of someone who wants to stay in this business for the next 40 or 50 years, and who wants to make sure as many people as possible have great wedding photos, it’s working pretty well.

I’m not alone in this idea. I don’t know any wedding photographer who knows lighting as well as Joe McNally — I mean, really, the guy has evenly lit up coliseum-sized telescopes while standing in a crane — and you might be amazed at the low prices of his workshops. I’m not a rock star, I just know some neat tricks and like to share them. Information wants to be free, I just don’t have quite that much time.

There is also some extremely exciting news to come on the workshop and lecture front, but I can’t tell you yet.

Onto the pictures:

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*I should probably point out that this only works well if, by working hard, you are continually raising demand.

Review: Nikon 24mm f/1.4

100411-131055-135.0-mm-f_3.2.jpgI have been on Nikon’s case to release fast, wide primes since about 30 seconds after they discontinued the 28mm f/1.4, sending the price of existing copies into the stratosphere. It has been the biggest gaping hole in Nikon’s lens line-up, and as zooms got better and better, and each new camera pushed the ISO boundaries — 6400, then 25,600, now the D3s’s 102,400 — I worried Nikon might think professional fast primes were a thing of the past.

Thankfully not. With the new 24mm f/1.4, Nikon shooters have the option for extreme low-light shooting or depth-of-field separation at wide angles, but it comes at a steep price — 2,199.95, almost enough to buy five Sigma 24mm f/1.8’s. So the question is, is it good enough to be worth it?

Let’s face it, for most people the answer is going to be no. Most people are never going to buy a two thousand dollar lens, and if they do, they might pick more of a general-use workhorse like a 70-200 VRII or the (bit cheaper) 24-70 f/2.8. The price and specialized nature puts it squarely in the market of rich amateurs, primes addicts, and that now-rare class of photojournalists who somehow make money. My documentary wedding style in dark, dark New York City venues puts me in the market, but most people may be better served with another lens due to price alone.

But if you like fancy toys, or can simply justify that it’s still more than $4,000 cheaper than Leica’s 24mm f/1.4, read on. Lots of pictures to follow, so I’m sticking it behind a cut. These are commissioned pictures, so I can’t release full-size images, but you can see full-size snapshots and RAW samples from my quick impressions here.

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Build Quality:

Way more solid than the Sigma 24mm, it feels like a solid hunk of polycarbonate. It’s small enough to feel well-balanced on mid-sized bodies like the D700, but it’s large for a wide-angle prime, so the smallest SLR bodies could be hard to shoot one-handed or lay flat. Operation is simple; there is only one switch, for manual focus, and the focusing ring turns smoothly with an even throw. The hood is slightly flimsy like most wide-angle hoods, but fits tightly and can rest on a flat surface so you can rest the lens on it, unlike the hood for the new 70-200 VR II.

Autofocus:

It’s not as fast racking through the whole focus range as some of the professional zoom lenses, but the autofocus is accurate so you usually won’t have to. it locks focus fairly quickly even in moderate darkness, but fast wide-angle lenses require you to be absolutely certain you are locked on to the the focal point you want. Because it is wide, the camera’s AF sensor might cover areas of very different distances, because it has a wide aperture, you will actually see that effect. New users might get some misfocused shots until they get used to that, but that is a problem not with the lens, but with physics. With AF assist, it has no problem locking onto fast motion in the dark, such as the groom spinning his bride around on the dance floor:

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Close focus:

THe Sigma wins handily here, with a reproduction ratio of 0.5. The Nikon is only 0.179x, meaning you’re not going to use this as a macro. But that’s just due to the wide-angle — you can still shoot less than 10 inches from your subjects, meaning you will never be limited by the lens when you’re shooting people. Here’s a shot very near close-focus distance.

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Optical quality:

Really, really good. Really. The 24 has the same excellent color transmission as most other recent Nikon professional lenses and starts out quite sharp. If you’re trying to get maximum resolution out of a D3X you’ll want to stop down a few notches, but otherwise you could leave this on f/1.4 all day and the images will be sharp and contrasty. Here’s a shot of a gorgeous bride getting ready. At f/1.4, even though it is a wide angle shot, there is enough separation to make her pop:

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Here is a 100 percent crop:

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You are usually not going to get extreme bokeh because it is a wide-angle lens — at 24mm, any separation from the background is an achievement — but if you are close to the main subject you will. So here is the bokeh of the busiest subject imaginable:

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And an example of foreground separation:

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Smooth, but not quite up there with the smoothest lenses. Still,I like the look of it much better than the old 28mm f/1.4.

And, of course, being an f/1.4 lens allows you to shoot in extremely dark situations without grain. Here is the bride walking down a dark aisle, ISO 2000:

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Is there any downside? Well, being a low-light specialist leaves it limited to f/16 on the low end. I know that most fast prime shooters don’t like to spend a lot of time at f/22, but I like as varied a portfolio as possible, and have litle choice over clients’ schedules, so I often have to work in bright days close to noon. f/16 and the base 200 ISO of Nikon cameras will not fully kill bright sunlight. For this shot I had to resort to Auto-FP trickery, at 1/8000th, f/9. Anyone who’s worked with Auto-FP a lot know that, because it decimates flash power, f/9 isn’t a easy target to hit:

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So, do I like this lens? No. I absolutely adore it. I haven’t been as excited about a new lens since many years ago when I first got the 85mm f/1.4. But it’s extremely specialized. 24mm is wide for a prime. You’re either going to feel like you’re getting too close to your subjects, or you’re going to often have things in your shots you don’t want. If Nikon releases a 35mm f/1.4, that may have a bigger usage base. No one can say what’s right for your style, but given the size of the investment I would make sure that you really like shooting at 24mm before you buy this one. But if you do, you’re going to like it a whole lot more now.

Photo of the Day: Seclusion Amid the Streets

From Ellen and Jeff’s engagement shoot, taken with the new Nikon 24mm f/1.4. Now that I have a couple thousand images under my belt with it, the review is coming very soon! Clients’ needs before gearheads’, though.

Remember you can always see previews from my weddings and engagement shoots at my Facebook page!

Photo of the Day: Through the Woods

I’ve been digging into my panorama archives to really try out AutoPano Pro, and liking the efficiency and quality overall. This one was from an engagement shoot in October, 15 shots with the 85mm f/1.4. As the technological whiz kids among you may have guessed, strobes were used to give even lighting and good contrast to Maureen’s face. As if shooting panoramas of people wasn’t counter-intuitive enough, you can through flash usage into it, too. It’s a bit tricky, but the key is to figure out ways to fire your flashes at low power settings. I’ll be going over advaced applications of panoramas and “the Brenizer method” in my workshop on April 16-17. There are still a few slots open!

The extreme selective focus can make some interesting changes to perspective — if you shoot things that have no immediate frame of size reference, they tend to look much smaller. In this case, it’s almost hard to guess — is that a small branch in the foreground or a huge one in the background? I know, of course.

It Pays to be Creepy, Part II

I’ve already discussed how my job makes me feel creepy because it’s good to take interest in the way romance plays out in the real world. But there’s more. I have always had a strange sort of photographic memory (pun not intended). If I’ve taken your photo, ever, I remember your face. I remember that I’ve taken a photo looks. I remember what that photo looked like and the expression you were making. But I often will have no recollection of the context, when or where the event was taken. The problem comes from what happens when you’ve taken photos of literally tens of thousands of people — for years I couldn’t walk around the Columbia University area without constant bouts of deja vu as people walked by me.

And, of course, the creepiness. I was in a coffeeshop waiting for the couple for today’s engagement shoot, and I sat next to a young woman. My brow furrowed. Do I say it?

“There’s really no way for this not to sound terrible, but I’ve taken your picture somewhere. Did you go to Columbia?”

No, it turned out, but she was in Rebekah and Jonah’s Korean/Jewish extravaganza.

So how does it pay to be creepy, other than remembering a great day (that has an album coming up soon)? This sort of memory has always been a huge advantage for me as an event photographer. I like to try to get photos of as many guests as possible, and even in gigantic events I can always remember at a glance which guests I’ve gotten good photos of and which I haven’t, giving clients as robust coverage as possible. So I guess I’ll have to live with the deja vu.

It also says something interesting about the profound cognitive effect the process of taking photos and reviewing them can have, at least for me, since I do not have a particularly good memory for your face if I haven’t taken your photo.

Photo of the Day: The iPad Makes All the Difference

I had an amazing time shooting Sameepa and Bareen’s over-the-top gorgeous wedding at espace on Saturday, and having what was (for me, Mr. Lone Wolf Photojournalist) just made it all the better. It’s a dramatic understatement to say that you tend not to get as much time to plan wedding portraits as, commercial portraits. Instead of meeting with art directors months in advance, you have to learn to handle “the schedule changed, and all we have available is three minutes and a parking lot.” But sometimes we do get a bit of time to prepare, and to take as little of the bride and groom’s time as possible, we do lighting tests before they even get there. These are generally an assistant standing emotionless on the mark, but given that it was iPad launch day, I got a bit creative with the lighting test to mark the occasion. Presenting “Dudes, With and Without iPad”

For the record, the iPad was a huge hit at the wedding. Since I had one of my assistants stand in line to get it first-thing, and since we already had a slideshow prepared for the bride from the Sangeet and Mehndi synced the minute she showed up with it, we may have pulled off the first iPad wedding slideshow, anywhere. Again, Mr. Jobs, I don’t frown at royalty checks.

Photo of the Day: Sameepa

I took this photo last night at Sameepa’s mehndi — the henna application party — and today I am photographing her wedding! I am very sneaky, so I scheduled this post to appear right when she and her soon-to-be husband see each other for the first time. Bareen probably has better things to do today than refresh my blog over and over, but it’s nice to be safe.

As Stevie said, “Isn’t She Lovely?”

I’m excited to shoot with my buddy Tim Herzog as a second-shooter again, and the awesome Isla as assistant — and a special surprise fourth team member. The ludicrously talented Kevin Shahinian of Pacific Pictures is heading the videography team. Should be a great day!

Photo of the Day: I Love Lamplight

I am clearly on an Ilana and Paul kick this week. I started thinking of them again when a new client discussed Russian Jewish weddings, and can’t believe I haven’t posted this. What an elegant, wild night it was!

(The lamp here is mostly for ambiance, video light did the heavy lifting).

New Camera!

On advice from my chirpractor and Ken Rockwell, I’m paring down and going smaller and lighter for the new season, taking it back to basics! Introducing my new flagship, the D70s!

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Hey, I heard that vintage cameras are in. Am I doing it right?

Or, the strobist angle: Who needs ISOs higher than 800 when you can sync at 1/1000th of a second?

OK, a paltry April Fool’s entry, but I thought you might want to see what a $2200 lens looks like on a $220 camera.

UPDATE: D70s owners shouldn’t take offense to this … after all, there’s a reason I had one in my studio. The flash sync is an incredible tool, and I shot gallery shows and Nobel prize-winners with one of these. But technology marches on quickly, and there’s a reason I keep re-investing in equipment, since I want the best for my clients. The D3s with a 24mm f/1.4 shoots with about 40 times the light sensitivity as a D70s and the f/2.8 lenses that are the fastest you can use for that frame-of-view on DX. Awfully handy in cavernous NYC venues.

Photo of the Day: Love, Uncloaked

Ilana and Paul‘s dramatic first kiss.

I suppose I should be talking about the secret camera I’m testing that adds the important sense of smell to your digital images, but I think that’s been played out.

Photo of the Day: Panorama Revisited

On a tip, I’ve tried reworking some old “Brenizer method” panoramas with AutoPano Pro. It’s not perfect, but it’s very good, and gets right some panoramas that Photoshop did not. But what I most like is that I can set up a batch to do a bunch of panoramas at once, and then go take a nap or answer e-mails or something. Anything that makes the stitching process easier will make me want to shoot these more and more, and one of my goals for 2010 is to really see what sorts of ways I can push the envelope on this ball I got rolling. Also, I want to mix new and exciting metaphors.

Original shoot here.

Photo of the Day: Sunset Lounging

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Here’s another shot from the Rockhouse Hotel in Jamaica. What’s special about this shot? It was taken with my iPhone and minimally edited in Photoshop. Not a bad little camera on the 3Gs if you get the most you can out of it. More on this soon.

Nikon 24mm f/1.4: Initial impressions and RAW samples

Who loves ya, baby? I was supposed to be one of the first people in the world with the new Nikon 24mm f/1.4, but it came while I was on a work holiday in Jamaica. I’m still one of the first to sample its goodness, but instead of a sunny week in Jamaica, you get a rainy day in New York. Thanks to the people at Adorama for being so great, again and again.

I’m a nice guy, so to anyone who’s really curious about this new lens, I’m including some RAW samples. These are D3s RAW files, so make sure your RAW converter is updated so it can open them.

Initial impressions (full review after this weekend’s wedding): Sharper and more contrasty than it has any right to be. AF is not world-class in speed, like the 24-70 and 70-200, but still speedy and very accurate. If Nikon makes a 35mm like this, there will be nothing left in the Canon camp that makes my skin crawl with envy.

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Nikon has some new, hyper-shock resistant packaging, which I really appreciated given how pricey this darned lens is.

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Sharp, colorful, love it. RAW sample.

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f/1.4 isolation makes the buildings pop through the foreground in this puddle reflection.

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Can you say flare resistant? Heavily backlit statue. Still contrasty. RAW sample.

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Mmmmm isolation. Not generally a tight portrait lens, but this guy doesn’t mind. RAW sample.

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Water droplets in a cab window show the quality of foreground and background bokeh.

Also, you can see those qualities here, in a quick video. Also shows the focus throw and the sound of the manual focus, for video geeks. 720p version here. 1/50th, f/1.4 ISO 1600 on the D3s:

UPDATE: One from night-time:

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